Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”

Ouch.

What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

Learning How to Give

You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give. Just reach into your pocket and give, right?

franpitre-boysfightovertoy2Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing. Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally. Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.

I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure. They modeled giving. As a young adult I strived to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.

But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry. Larry hired me to work in the development office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I was young, about to get married, and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day. I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.

My pledge?

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Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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It ain’t about us

Lectionary 3 (Third Sunday after Epiphany)
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Matthew 4:12-23
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Sermon manuscript as PDF: Download Lectionary 3 – Year A 2011

Lectionary 3 – Year A 2011

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Why did they do it?
Why did they drop everything and follow Jesus?
    And more than why … how?
In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus calling the first four of his disciples,
    Simon and Andrew, James and John.
These guys drop their nets, leave their boats and even their loved ones,
    and follow Jesus.
I’ll be honest … on the surface this can seem like a scene out of a bad zombie movie,
    or like something out of an old Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie episode,
    in which someone watching a pocket watch swing
        back and forth, in front of their eyes
    falls into a trance and does whatever the holder of the pocket watch says.

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When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.