Sunday, August 28, 2011

"The Tapestry of the Kingdom" - Reflections on the Parable of the Friend at Midnight - Luke 1:1-13

Read the Parable here: Luke 11:1-13

Reflections on the Parable of the Friend at Midnight – Luke 11:1-13
We have come to a peculiar set of parables in Luke 11/12 which will be our focus for this week and next.  Up until now, for the most part, the parables have been fairly transparent in that it has been easy to see which character represents God, which character represents us and to see possible applications to daily life.  “The Good Samaritan” and the “Prodigal Son” are complex and multi-layered stories but they are engaging as stories and it is not too hard to see where Jesus is going with these stories.  But, there is a set of parables that are not so easy to interpret and the “Friend at Midnight” is one of these parables.  On a quick reading you might get the idea that Jesus is lifting up perseverance or persistence in prayer, and that is the traditional interpretation.  But there must be more to it than that.  Is the point of this parable only that God can be manipulated to answer our prayers and give us what we need/want because we get on God’s nerves through our constant prayer?  Kind of like a whining child at Walmart who wants his mom to give him a candy bar and keeps at it until she relents?  Well, I don’t think so.  There is more to this parable than that.
So first let us remember that these parables all give us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God – which is come into our lives now.  2nd, these parables all point to grace – God’s overwhelming grace which God showers upon us abundantly and generously in different ways.  So the traditional interpretation (which is essentially my Walmart example) really does not point us towards grace, rather it points us to works righteousness, so let us set that aside.  So, in order to interpret this parable I would want to turn to the context – both the textual context and the social context.  We’ll start with the latter.
Most peasants lived in small villages in Jesus’ day.  Cana and Nazareth were both villages and in village life people were very interdependent.  They had to count on each other to assist them with various tasks in order to live.  One simply could not survive on one’s own.  Our American “rugged individualism” would not have worked in this context.  For example, small villages would have had one communal oven in which to bake bread.  The women would have worked together, helped each other, and provided for each other in this important task.  Consequently there were expectations and even rules governing this interdependent community.  One of the important and essential rules (which actually goes back to the Pentateuch) was the treatment of strangers and visitors.  Hospitality was absolutely mandated.  A visitor was to be taken in, cared for and fed – even if it meant that the family or even the village would have less food for themselves.  In our parable a visitor has arrived in the village.  The host needs to provide food, but doesn’t have enough food to provide for him and so, as expected, goes to a neighbor for assistance.  The neighbor is not very receptive (which would be the shock element in this story) and comes up with all kinds of lame excuses.  But eventually he agrees.  Why?  The English text uses the word “persistence” – because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 
The choice of this English word is understandable, but incorrect.  The original Greek word actually means “Shamelessness.”  In other words – it is the threat of being shamed in the village for not fulfilling his obligations and the expected code of hospitality that finally induces the neighbor to do the right thing.  This story is not about personal persistence – it is about community and how we are interconnected and have responsibilities for each other.  In other words, the Kingdom of God is like a tapestry where all of God’s people are woven together into a complex tapestry and where they are all interdependent with each other.
Textual context:  This parable follows immediately upon Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.  “Teach us to prayer,” asks the disciples and Jesus launches into this version of the Lord’s Prayer which is much shorter and feels incomplete to those of us who pray the Matthean/Didache form each and every week.  But notice where Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer breaks off: Bring us not to the time of trial – do not bring us to temptation.  And then Jesus launches into this parable.  It is not an accident.  I believe that for Luke one of the greatest and most destructive temptations is the idea that we can do it on our own; that we are independent and don’t need any one else.  This is the temptation we ask God to keep us from being seduced by: we pray - Help us to recognize that we are interdependent – help us to accept and live that as citizens of the Kingdom of God we are also the tapestry of the Kingdom.
Finally, note the importance of “bread” in this text.  Give us the bread for today and the man then comes to ask the neighbor for three loaves of bread.  In Luke, references to bread are references to the Sacrament of Holy Communion – which is the ultimate Kingdom meal.  The Sacrament of the Eucharist is what weaves us together as the Kingdom Tapestry.  In the breaking of the bread we recognize Jesus present with us and we see our brothers and sisters in Christ as fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reflections from the Pastor - "The Parables"

            Since the beginning of July we have focused on the Parables which Jesus tells in the course of his teaching.  These Parables are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, primarily.  And these Parables are all focused on the Kingdom of God – or, if you prefer, the Realm of God.  God’s Realm has come into this world and into our lives through Jesus, the Word made flesh.  The Parables then present different angles or views of God’s Realm.  As we study, ponder and pray about the Parables we begin to see different dimensions of what God’s Realm is and different aspects of who God is.
There are a couple important themes which link the Parables with each other and which most of the Parables share.  1.) The parables that Jesus tells are about what God is doing; how the Kingdom of God or the God’s Realm has come into the world through Jesus and how this Realm of God is abundantly present to all the world. 2.) The parables and the Realm of God are not primarily about us.  Try as we might to read ourselves into the parables in various ways ultimately Jesus is telling stories about what God is doing – showering us with grace, love and forgiveness – and not what we need to do in order to earn our way into the kingdom.  3.) When we do appear or when Jesus references his listeners he does so in order to try to help his disciples of every age open themselves up to the realm of God which is here; he does so in order to help his listeners to see, to perceive, to recognize that God is here working among us and loving us; he does so in order to invite us to join him in the work of loving the world and reaching out with grace, love and forgiveness to the world – which we cannot do without the Spirit working in us.
And how does Jesus fashion stories that do accomplish these things?  Well by creating situations and characters that shock or jolt us out of our comfort zone and suggest a world that is very different than the world we know.  And so, Jesus portrays God in some very unusual, surprising and even offensive ways.  God is the incompetent judge who is not interested in judging; God is the really bad sower who doesn’t know how to properly sow a field with seed and instead of carefully sowing the seed on good soil (so as not to waste any) God tosses the seed (which is the Realm of God made manifest in the Word/Jesus) every where so that it lands in all kinds of places and it takes root and grows – everywhere; God is the employer who doesn’t know how to manage employees and is way too generous; God is the Father of the prodigal sons who is so anxious to love and forgive that he humiliates himself.  And who are we?  We are the good soil, the weedy soil, the rocky soil, the hardened soil upon which the seed of the Word is sown and which begins to grow but may not provide a climate where it might flourish; we are the workers who complain and grumble about how generous the employer is, who feel that such generosity is just not fair; we are the prodigals who want the father dead so we can have everything that doesn’t really belong to us and who are so rigid and self-righteous we refuse to attend the feast of celebration.
And then there is the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus is the man in the ditch, and which calls on us to look beyond our prejudices and pre-conceptions and self-interest to recognize that the man in the ditch is our brother/sister who needs our help.  Or the parable of the Friend at Midnight which points out that God’s Realm is a place of community, and in this community we are all interdependent and our physical and spiritual health is interwoven with other believers like a huge tapestry. 
We are a part of the Kingdom of God – the Realm of God and we have a God who loves us madly and passionately which goes against our human logic.  In God’s Realm forgiveness and love and grace are showered upon all of God’s people – with no consideration of the human categories which we use to separate people.  Can we accept this?  Can we see that through the Holy Spirit, God calls us to love each other in this way, to reach out to others and to be an open vessel of this crazy love? 
These are Jesus’ Parables and while we will be returning to the lectionary readings in September – guess what?  We will not be leaving the Parables behind.  Almost every week between now and the end of November feature a Matthean Parable.  So, we are not through with the Parables yet.  Which is a good thing!  Thanks be to God!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Recognizing the Neighbor" - Reflections on the Parables - Luke 10:25-37

Read the Parable of the "Man who Feel Among Robbers" Here: Luke !0:25-37
Recognizing the Neighbor – Reflections on Luke 10

We have come in our parable sermon series to one of the most well known parables in the Gospels – The Parable of the Good Samaritan – which is found in Luke 10.  Throughout our series several themes have arisen which all of the parables share to one degree or another: 1. The parables that Jesus tells are about what God is doing; how the Kingdom or the Realm of God has come into the world through Jesus and how this Realm of God is abundantly present to all the world. 2. The parables and the Realm of God are not about us.  Try as we might to read ourselves into the parables in various ways ultimately Jesus is telling stories about what God is doing – showering us with grace, love and forgiveness – and not what we need to do in order to earn our way into the kingdom.  3. When we do appear or when Jesus references his listeners he does so in order to try to help his disciples of every age open themselves up to the realm of God which is here; he does so in order to help his listeners to see, to perceive, to recognize that God is here working among us and loving us; he does so in order to invite us to join him in the work of loving the world and reaching out with grace, love and forgiveness to the world – which we cannot do without the Spirit working in us.

This brings us then to this very well known parable about a Jewish man who is beaten, robbed, rejected, thrown into a ditch and left for dead.  Three fellow travelers come upon him – two hurry by without offering help, but the third person (a hated Samaritan) offers abundant assistance.  Now, I know we have all heard countless sermons on this parable and on the face of it, the parable calls to us to reach out like the Samaritan.  What makes this story particularly profound – and probably very offensive to Jesus’ first listeners – is the casting of the Samaritan as the hero.  Samaritans and Judeans hated each other and they were disinclined for a variety of reasons to offer any assistance of any kind to each other.  Jesus final words to his questioner, “Go and do likewise” is thus a difficult lesson to hear.  And in this it is very much like last week’s parable of the weeds among the wheat:  It is not up to us to judge, it is not up to us to categorize people – God loves all and we are called to love others as well, especially those who are most unlike us and those who we are inclined to classify as “the other.”

But of course, it is difficult – if not impossible – for us to do this, right?  We can’t will ourselves to put aside our prejudices and our attitudes and opinions about others over night.  The ability to take baby steps in this direction is as much a gift of God’s grace and is itself a sign of the Realm of God come into our midst.  It seems to me, however, that one of the first steps we can take is first to work on recognition; on seeing.  This is a difficult first step.  And it is often a step we don’t want to take and thus we may be inclined to resist the Spirit’s guidance in this.  But, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we have to try to recognize this group of people or that person, who is a different race, who holds different religious views, who is of a different religion, or has a different background, or is from a different culture, or has different opinions, or who holds different values than I – we have to try to recognize this group or individual as a neighbor whom God loves as much as God loves me and those who are like me.  This means not being so absolutely certain of my own “rightness” or even righteousness; it means recognizing that I can learn from others and that the needs to others need to be important to me as well.  And it is a call to then do everything in my power to care for those in need; to see that the real needs of my neighbor are taken into consideration – and this is not just a call to charity it is a call to do everything possible.

I have over the years heard various candidates for public office during political campaigns appeal to people’s self-centeredness by asking folks to ask themselves – “am I better off since so and so has been in office?”  This parable says to us in no uncertain terms that “That is the wrong question – the right question is this: is my neighbor better off? Are those less fortunate than I getting the food and clothing and shelter and access to health care that they need? Is this country, state, county a place where all that can be done to alleviate suffering is undertaken?”  And if not then what can I do about it?  What can my church do about it?

Finally, an image from a different parable: The Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25.  Ultimately who is the man beaten, robbed, stripped, thrown in a ditch and left for dead?  It is none other than Jesus himself.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it (that is reached out to care in neighborly love and grace) to one of the least of these (those who are poor, who are suffering, homeless, dirty, depressed, alcoholic, even hateful – those who are different than me in many ways) then you have done it to me.”  Go, thou and do likewise – in the grace and love of Christ.  For as we begin to see, as we begin to care, the Realm of God has truly come into our midst.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Parable Series - "The Parable of the Weeds growing Among the Wheat"" - Matthew 13:24-43

Read the Parable here: Matthew 13:24-43

Reflections on the Text – Weeds in The Field – St. Matthew 13:24-30
What do you do about weeds?  Anyone who does much gardening will have to confront this problem sooner or later.  This is the problem faced by our farmer in the parable for this morning.  He had dutifully sown wheat in his field but then his servants discovered that weeds were growing there along with the wheat.  And not just any weeds: Tares or Darnel.  This added a complication.  Darnel actually looks like wheat when it first comes up, so it is hard to tell the difference.  Only when the wheat ripens and then the stalks begin to bend over can you see the difference more clearly, for the Darnel has no grains so it remains straight.  So it is no wonder that the farmer was concerned that if his servants began to try to eradicate the Darnel they would certainly, accidently pull up some of the good wheat as well.   It is a very interesting story.  And there are a couple important points which need to be pointed out:
1.     1. When first told about the problem, the farmer responds that “an enemy has done this.”  Now, even though Jesus in his explanation of the parable a little later identifies the enemy as the devil, the Greek makes it clear that the enemy/devil is NOT an equal with the farmer/God.  The enemy has to sneak in to sow the weeds at night, he can’t do it in the daylight.  This is an important point as sometimes we may think of the power of evil as being equal to the power of God, as if the forces of light and the forces of darkness are of equal strength.  This is not the case.  God has the upper hand.  The power of God’s love and grace is stronger than the power of hate and evil.
2.     2. The servants are all very enthusiastic about weeding.  These servants have discovered the problem and, it appears that they have even worked out a plan of attack before they even come to the farmer with the news.  The servants in the parable, by the way, are the disciples of every age – they are us.  (By the way – we are the Wheat too).
3.     3. The farmer clearly instructs the servants NOT to do anything, but to leave it.  For he is afraid that in their enthusiasm they would most certainly pull up some of the wheat.  Perhaps the servants are thinking of this as unavoidable “collateral damage.”  But for God the Farmer the risk of loosing one – even one – of the good plants is a risk he is not willing to take.
4.     4. The NRSV translates the Farmers instructions to the servants like this: Let both of them grow up together until the harvest.  The word that is translated as “let” is very interesting.  In Greek it is the same word that appears in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  This word that Jesus uses can be rendered in English as “let,” as “leave,” as “permit” or as “forgive.”  What is Jesus saying here?  Are we really to forgive the evil which is done to us? (answer: YES – 70x7 = an uncountable, infinite number of times!)  ((Also – another note – to forgive, doesn’t mean that we are not to resist evil.))
5.     5. Finally, note that when the time comes – and it will come – the destruction of evil will be done by the reapers – not by the servants.  It is all up to God – not up to us!
All of this has some really important and profound things to say about our human tendency and desire for crusades and for “holy” revenge.  Open a news website, or even a newspaper and you will find at least one story of someone or some group somewhere taking it upon themselves to eradicate evil and to defend God – sometimes to bloody and horrifying results.  And sometimes these folks are, or call themselves Christian.  It is not new.  We can go back to the earliest days of the church to find all kinds of atrocities committed in the name of God and Jesus, in order to defend God and Jesus and to purify the body of believers.  Sometimes these actions take the form of “holy” revenge.  In every case they are destructive and create much pain and suffering.  And most important – to engage in this is directly contrary to the Gospel.
It is not up to us to defend God or Jesus.  God hardly needs defending, and certainly not by us.  Remember the farmer’s instructions to the servants: … for in gathering the weeds you might uproot some of the wheat along with them.  Rather, this parable calls for us to “let” it go, to “leave” it to God, and to “forgive” the evil and focus on the work God has given us to do – that is sowing the fruit of the Kingdom of God: which is love and grace.