Friday, July 25, 2008

Everybody's Called to Be a Scribe in the Kingdom of Heaven (To Help You Prepare for This Sunday's Worship)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday.]

The Bible Lessons:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Prayer of the Day:
Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

A Few Thoughts:
1. My intention is to preach on the text from Romans, which incorporates my absolute favorite passages in the Bible. Here, though, I want to speak a little bit about the Gospel lesson from Matthew.

2. The lesson from Matthew has the conclusion of an extensive section from Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 13, in which Jesus tells parables.

As you know, the New Testament was written during the first century and was written in Greek, the world's second language in those days, occupying a place like that of English today. The word parabola, from which we have the transliterated word parable, is a compound made up of the Greek preposition para, meaning alongside, and bola, based on the word for throw. In His parables, Jesus told a story alongside of which were other meanings.

Parables were a common way of teaching in Jesus' day and before. When you think about it, they still are. In fact, I have a theory that parables and metaphors are the most common and inevitable ways of teaching. Stories have a way of lodging themselves in your memory and teaching you something. Metaphors, like the best parables, use things we already know and through the use of analogy, convey new information. Parables and metaphors are related, especially with Jesus. In fact, some of the mini-parables He tells here create metaphors.

3. Jesus tells six parables in our Gospel lesson. But I believe that there is a single prism through which all six should be viewed, Jesus' words at the end of the lesson:
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
Through much of the gospels of Matthew and the other three evangelists (Mark, Luke, and John), scribes get a somewhat bad name. A scribe was anyone who had mastered the writings of a discipline. (The word in the original Greek is grammateus. From our English word, grammar, you can see that a scribe is an expert on words or writings.)

The religious scribes of Jesus' day were among His most ardent opponents. They were so mired in the Old Testament Scriptures as a document of the past that they were unable to live with God in the present. They didn't allow themselves to see that the Old Testament Scripture they rightly valued and respected, also pointed to a God Who would send a Savior and do new things.

But Jesus said that being a scribe doesn't have to be a bad thing. After excoriating "blind guides" like the scribes (Matthew 23:24), Jesus tells His own followers, "Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes..." (Matthew 23:34).

4. My professor and mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to talk about this passage, referring to it as one of the keys by which one can understand the particular themes of the entire Gospel of Matthew. He said that all Christians are called to be scribes of the kingdom of heaven, steeped in God's Word, through it not constrained to traditions that may or may not have outlives their usefulness, but free to operate in God's kingdom. God's people have a firm and inviolable foundation in Jesus Christ, but they are flexible in their practice.

Let me give a practical examples of what that might mean.

A woman is committed to her marriage. She knows that Jesus hates divorce. In fact, she hates divorce, too. But her husband, a basically decent guy caught in the clutches of alcohol and drug abuse, physically and mentally abuses her and their children. He's squandered all of their savings on drugs and alcohol. He can't keep a job. He refuses to seek help. For her own health and safety, for the health and safety of her children, and in order to give her husband a wake-up call that might bring positive change, that woman has no choice to get out of the house or get her husband out of the house and, barring the husband's enrollment in a program of detoxification and counseling, to begin the first steps toward divorce. This is precisely the kind of advice I have given to several women (and men) in the past twenty-four years of pastoral ministry. Several times, it has resulted in marriages being saved. In all instances, the harmed parties emerged healed and able to live.

A scribe of the kingdom must take the old, inviolable Word of God and apply it to the imperfect world in which we presently live. This application is not and cannot be done arbitrarily, it cannot be done based on one's feelings or personal thoughts, but based on what we know about God from God's Word.

In the case of this woman, we must know that besides hating divorce, God also hates to see the powerful abuse the less powerful. We must know that God cares about what happens to and in every person. We must know that God cares about children. We must know that God hates idolatry, which is what all addictions are, because all addictions destroy bodies, minds, and relationships. We must also know that there are times when fellowship must be severed in order for it to have a chance of being healthfully restored (Matthew 18).

A scribe steeped in God's Word--and every believer in Jesus Christ should strive to be a scribe--must not be a "johnny-one-note" in their theology. God has revealed many things about His character and will. God is still revealing things about His character and will.*

The Scriptures are the treasure of the Church. They are also the canon against which we measure our current actions. They aren't a straitjacket, but a life preserver and a rocket ship propelling us into the future, empowering us to faithfully and flexibly negotiate through the present.

4. The parables of Matthew 13 then, are prisms through which scribes steeped in Christ and His Word are enabled to negotiate the business of living, not just in giving advice, but in living their own day-to-day lives.

5. Eugene Peterson renders Matthew 13:52 in this way (note that Peterson renders the grammateus as student...not bad. That word connects to the word disciple, mathetes in the original Greek of the New Testament, a word meaning student or follower):
[Jesus] said, "Then you see how every student well-trained in God's kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it."
Jesus does not intend for Christians to be paralyzed by a religious hierarchy based on human rules. As followers of Christ, members of Christ's Church, we have accountability to God and to one another, for sure. But, through God's Word, the Sacraments, the preaching of God's Word, and the fellowship of the Church, we have direct access to God. Those well-trained in God's kingdom know precisely where to go as they move through the maze of life's challenges, excitement, and uncertainties...to the God we meet in Christ alone!

*But never, it should be pointed out, do the new things we "learn" about God violate what God has already revealed about Himself. God, for example, is not going to reveal to people that it's now okay to steal our neighbor's belongings or engage in sex outside of marriage. God may expand our knowledge of His character and will. And God can certainly forgive the repentant who violate God's will. But, God never changes His character and will. All that changes is our understanding of God. Such changes in understanding come to those who are scribes steeped in God's Word, committed to living the Christian life, and who are practitioners of prayer. This is important to remember the next time someone claims that God told them you should give them all their money or whatever the evil imbecility might be.


[This is an icon of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. It's in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.]

"Be Still and Know That I AM God"

[Regular readers of this blog will know about the daily emailed inspirations sent out by my colleague and friend, Pastoro Glen VanderKloot of Springfield, Illinois. In today's edition, Glen shares a quote from Lutheran pastor and author William Vaswig. It contains great advice!]

OnLine with Faith

July 25, 2008 Issue 457e
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

WELCOME to the daily issue of ONLINE WITH FAITH.
ONLINE WITH FAITH is a ministry of Faith Lutheran Church,
2313 Whittier Avenue, Springfield, IL, 62704, Glen VanderKloot,
Pastor.

We encourage you to worship and be involved in a local congregation.

If you have any questions, comments, or prayer
requests please be in touch with us at
pastor@faithlutheran.com
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Thought for the Day

Carl Jung, the psychologist, said that silence or being
still is in itself healing. Jung would insist that
his patients sit wtill alone at home bewtween appointments.
No radios, phonographs, music or people to talk to.
Today we would add televisions and computers and M3P
players. He could tell when his patients returned to
his office a week or two after their appointment
whether or not they had done what he had assigned them.
Those who sat in silence one hour a day were always
improved when he saw them again.

It dawned on me if a well known psychologist like
Carl Jung knew the great healing value of silence,
how much more God knows what silence does for his own
children. When God says...

"Be still and know that I am God" Psalm 46:10

his instruction is given in order that we might be
constantly healed. It turns out that it is one of the
most healthful things you can do.

God wants to speak to us becasue he knows we can't hear
him while we are talking.

The best thing I have learned in my Christian walk is
the importance of being absolutely quiet.

William Vaswig

Bible verse
Psalm 62:1-2

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him
comes my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.


Prayer

Lord, help me to regularly dedicate time to wait
in silence and listen for you. Amen

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

[If you'd like to receive Glen's free daily emailed inspirations, send an email to olwf1@gliq.net, putting SUBSCRIBE on the subject line. Believe me, you'll love receiving them.]

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Gentle Reminder: Obama is Not God

[UPDATE, added 9:39pm, 7/26/08: Not all and not most, but a few Obama supporters are engaging in the kind of talk and Obamalatry this post references. The few involved are mentioned in the linked post below.]

Barack Obama may become the next President. He may even be qualified for the job.

I don't do endorsements, as regular readers of my blogging will know. But the Obamamessiah stuff, well-documented here, is outrageous. (TY: Pastor Jeff)

He's a politician, folks, not some special otherworldly life form.

I don't use the term "politician" disdainfully, either. I'm one who believes that politics can be and often is an honorable calling, a calling pursued as are all other callings by finite, imperfect, human beings, a category that includes us all. Barack Obama is no different from anybody else.

Barack Obama is not God. That job has already been filled and will remain filled, no matter who is elected President this fall.

Spencer and Jeff have more pointed things to say on the subject.

Will Portman or Kasich Be McCain's Thursday Surprise?

John McCain's abrupt decision to scrub events on Wednesday and Thursday and instead, fly to Columbus, has Taegan Goddard speculating that the presumptive GOP nominee is going to try upstaging Barack Obama's Berlin speech to announce that an Ohioan will be his running mate. Goddard speculates that it could be Rob Portman or John Kasich.

If McCain is coming to Columbus to announce a Veep, it's likelier that the person will be John Kasich. Portman is from the Cincinnati area and, believe me I know, having lived in his congressional district for seventeen years, viewed in something like heroic terms there. It's unlikely that McCain would pass up the adulation with which a Portman vice presidential run would be greeted in Cincinnati.

Both Kasich and Portman have been preparing for a gubernatorial run in 2010. I talked about that here last March.

Each candidate would bring a major asset to the McCain campaign: an infusion of campaign cash. Portman's Cincy friends have played a major part in bankrolling Bush family campaigns, particularly Bush the Younger's '00 and '04 runs. Kasich could undoubtedly attract Gingrich-related campaign monies and lots of rank-and-file conservatives' contributions from his Fox News Network affiliation.

Politically, neither of these potential Veeps do much for McCain. I don't even think that they help him appreciably in Ohio because neither of them are known well statewide, except among party activists. Kasich is undoubtedly slightly more well known by virtue of his regular appearances on Fox.

Gubernatorial ambitions may be the prime motivation for either potential candidate to team up with McCain at this point. One still must count the GOP candidate's prospects of winning as dim, although better than one might have projected earlier in the year. Portman and Kasich stand to gain strong name recognition in Ohio even from a November loss.

On the stump, you can expect Portman to be the more polished of the two. But Kasich's aw shucks appeal, combined with his grasp of budgets and taxes, have proven politically potent through the years. Both men can be fairly described as policy wonks.

It'll be interesting to see what, if anything, McCain has up his sleeve today.

[UPDATE: See here. The report was filed six minutes after I posted this piece. I'm inclined to agree with those who have commented on the cross-post of this piece over at The Moderate Voice, that from a PR standpoint, McCain would be better off to wait to announce his Veep pick to a later date. I expect that he'll choose former Governor Romney of Massachusetts. Nonetheless, I think the candidates who can bring the greatest fund raising potential are getting extremely close looks by the McCain camp.]

[THANKS TO: Ontario Emperor for linking to this post. Speaking of local color, which is what OE references in his link here, John McCain ate his lunch today at Schmidt's Sausage Haus, one of my favorite restaurants in Columbus, my hometown. I ate there just a few Fridays ago with my dad. Below is a video taken by my son last summer when he and I went there with dad before a Columbus Clippers baseball game. At the beginning, we're driving away from the Schmidt's parking lot.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Happiness Project, the Happiness Project, and the Happiness Project

Three years ago, I did a series of sermons based on Jesus' Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew. The series was titled The Happiness Project. (You can find links to the entire series here, as well as in the right sidebar of this blog.)

Now, Gretchen Rubin, a wonderful author who has written interestingly on Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, is working on a book called The Happiness Project. Along the way, she's blogging on happiness under the same title. I don't always agree with the things Rubin says about happiness, but she's engaged in an interesting project.

Jan Poses Important Questions

See here. There is an awful lot of testosterone in the Christian blogging world and sometimes it's a lot more testosterone than it is Christian, I think.

Rock Drummers are "Top Athletes"

Unless they have the life style of a Keith Moon, of course. (Click on the headline above to see what this is about.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Weeds or Wheat? It's God's Call

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
A few years ago, a woman approached me with a concern. She told me that her father, by then in his seventies, was suing a woman whose car had brushed his in a mall parking lot, where he sat waiting for his wife. Even though both he and his car were fine, he claimed to have suffered physically. The daughter said to me, “This is the last straw for me! My dad has always gone to church, been on the church council, gone to Sunday School. But he’s also always tried to shaft other people in order to get some advantage. He even pushes people out of the way in order to be first in a check-out line. But I hadn’t realized how horrible he was until he sued this poor young woman who nicked his car. How can he call himself a Christian?” When she asked me that, I remembered an old saying: Just because the mouse lives in the cookie jar doesn’t mean it’s a cookie.

That, in a way, is one of Jesus’ points in today’s Gospel lesson. He’s had another run-in with the Pharisees, those holier-than-thou religionists who may have secretly doubted that God was good enough for them. As you know, the Pharisees didn’t like it that Jesus hung out with notorious sinners or that He said that prostitutes, thieves, extortionists, and even Gentiles could have places in His kingdom when they renounced their sins and followed Him. The Pharisees would have preferred for Jesus to renounce sinners and left it at that.

Instead, Jesus tells a story--a parable or, an allegory, really--to explain His actions and to guide all who follow Him and who might, like the Pharisees, sometimes feel tempted to look down their noses at others. The weeds planted by the farmer’s enemy in Jesus’ story, called darnel, are poisonous plants that look like wheat.

In his explanation of the allegory, Jesus designates what each character or element represents. He is the farmer. The good seeds are those who follow Him. The enemy is the devil. The bad seeds are those who follow evil. The harvest is the end of this world when Jesus will pronounce final judgment on us all and the place where the bundles are burned is hell.

In today’s post-modern world, we may feel squeamish in asserting the reality of hell. Jesus feels no such reticence. Nor does He shy away from speaking of a final judgment, one which all people will face. According to Jesus, those who repent and believe in Him will be with Him in His kingdom. Those who spurn Him will live with the separation from God they daily choose.

But Jesus today reminds us that only He will judge people’s fitness for His kingdom, not you and me.

There may be mice in the cookie jar of Christ’s Church. Those imprisoned by things like selfishness, egotism, materialism, and greed may look no different from those set free by the grace, goodness, and love of Jesus Christ. But until the day of judgment, the God we know in Christ is intent on letting His enemies and His friends live side-by-side, affording each equal opportunities to know and follow the Savior Who died and rose for us.

A man once asked me if the real point of Jesus’ words for us today isn’t, “Live and let live.” But that isn't the way of life to which we're called as Christians.

Jesus, for example, gives explicit instructions on what you and I are to do if we feel that a fellow Christian has sinned against us. Ultimately, if the whole church affirms that we have been sinned against and the one who has harmed us refuses to repent, the Church is obligated to bar such a person from the fellowship of the Church until they do repent.

Live and let live isn’t what Jesus commends. As every Lutheran Catechism student knows, Jesus has given to the Church “the keys of the kingdom.” That the means that the Church has the responsibility to declare Christ’s forgiveness to the repentant and Christ’s condemnation to the unrepentant.

But we are to exercise care in our judgments about others, especially toward those who aren't part of the fellowship of the Church.

Christ didn’t call the Church into being to act as God’s vigilantes, pointing out everyone’s else’ faults. We have different tasks.

Pastor Leith Anderson tells of calling ChemLawn to take care of his suburban lawn, infested with weeds. It was so bad that they rejected working for him. One member of his church said that he would completely remove his old sod and start a new lawn. It was an offer Anderson was almost ready to accept when a one-time farmer offered some advice: Don't worry so much about getting rid of the weeds. Just grow the grass, and the grass will take care of the weeds.
The Andersons took his advice. After a couple of years, the lawn looked just as good as anyone else's in the neighborhood.

As I see it, the Church and we Christians are called by Christ to be about two main tasks: Growing in our own faith in Christ and helping others to experience Christ’s love through our words, actions, and lives.

We grow in our faith when we seek each day to consciously thank Jesus Christ for dying and rising for us by loving and serving in His Name.

We motivate others to want to follow Christ when they see us doing our best to loving and serving in His Name.

A friend of mine once invited some neighbors to attend worship with him. He was excited when, after several invitations, these neighbors, who had never been part of a church, showed up one Sunday morning. He was even more excited when they kept attending. He thought that his heart would pound out of his chest the day the neighbors made public affirmation of their faith, the kids were baptized, and they joined the congregation.

Two of the children were members of my friend’s Sunday School class and he was amazed to see how they took hold of faith in Christ for themselves. The family were part of that church for several years and then, for no apparent reason, left. They weren’t in worship or Sunday School. They stopped being involved in service projects.

My friend never felt that he could discuss things with this family. He would see them in the neighborhood and they would pleasantly say, “Hello.” But that was it.

Then, a few years later, a pastor ran into my friend and said, “The Smith kids have started coming to our church. They both mention what an impact you had on them. You can tell that you imparted a real love for Christ to them!”

Not long ago, my friend received an email from the youngest of his neighbor’s children. He affirmed what that pastor had told him and went on to say, “By the way, I’m starting seminary in the fall. Thank you for introducing my family to Jesus. He is everything to me!”

For years, whenever my friend considered his neighbors, he may have been tempted to feel like a failure and to see his neighbors lost to God forever. But he didn’t have to wait until the judgment day to have Jesus’ message for us today boldly underscored: Keep sharing the Good News of Jesus with others. All those people you see as weeds may, because you prayed for them, served them in Christ’s Name, and shared Christ with them, turn out to be wheat that will be gathered into God’s kingdom for all eternity.

Judge not: Christ can use your faithfulness to turn weeds into wheat and mice into cookies. After all, if God can do that with you and me--especially me, God can do it with anybody! Amen