Yes, the title is correct. Not the immediacy but the immediately of Epiphany. Bear with me. I hope this will make sense at the end.
On my oldest son’s next birthday, he will be 15. If you are a parent, you know what I am about to say – how did this happen? How am I the mother of a 15-year-old? How did the years go by so fast? All true.
But what comes to mind each and every year – and I wonder what year will be different – is the fact that my son’s epiphany was terrifying.
He was born at 31 weeks, 3 pounds, 10 ounces and I had yet to take my childbirth classes or get to that chapter in the book. Within 12 hours I went from being six months and three weeks pregnant to being a parent. From woman to mother in twelve hours. No amount of Terbutaline, no going back over my “What to Expect When You are Expecting” notes, no review of the nursery design was going to postpone this baby. That’s immediately. That’s epiphany – like the transition from autonomy to motherhood. Epiphany is an immediate and meaningful understanding of something. Surprising. Sudden. Profound.
What I am struck by in the calling of the disciples according to Mark is not the “follow me,” not the calling, but the immediately. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” We can rationalize the “immediately” all we want – they saw something in Jesus. Or, that’s just Mark’s theme. Any preacher knows that Mark loves the word “immediately” and in repeating it creates an urgency unlike any other Gospel. But what if we eschew rationality and take our homiletical cue from Mark – that something about Epiphany demands immediately. It calls for urgency. Otherwise Epiphany is more like, well, “that’s interesting.”
I think that “immediately” can be less about marking time and more about describing action. Immediately does not only designate a when but a what. Not only a place in time, but an event that changes the meaning of life. Granted, the disciples have no clue at this point how life has been changed. But we know. And maybe immediately is all we can do, all we can manage. Because, preparation? Maybe it makes faith matters worse. Builds up anticipation, expectations. And then, when things do not go as planned?
Maybe a life of faith can only happen in immediately, in the surprising, sudden, profound epiphany of God at work, God revealed in our lives.
Because if we think we can adequately prepare for God’s epiphanies, that we can be fully ready for what we will see, well then, God might be less than epiphanous. Like taking childbirth classes will really prepare you for having a baby or being a mother. Let’s be honest.
We are called, perhaps not so much to follow, but to take Mark’s immediately seriously. This is not, “wait a few minutes. Let me pack my bag. I have a few more arrangements to make.” No – epiphanies just happen. No preparation. No packing list. No recommendations of what to take, what to do.
And so, Jesus just happens. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee. No time to think. No invitation to take your time. Just go. Here is truly epiphany according to Mark. Epiphanies are untamable and unpredictable. Unexpected and even undeserved.
But maybe we knew this already. We just needed to let it sink in. Mark reminds us that we shouldn’t get too far into Epiphany and get comfortable.
There is nothing comfortable about epiphanies. They rock your world.
We could spend a lot of time speculating why the disciples followed Jesus. At the end of the day, I am not sure I care. They did. Maybe there was no choice. I don’t know. When we place our emphasis on the immediately we are directed more toward the event and less on the how. I don’t know how. I just know that it happened.
In other words, maybe we tend to overthink Epiphany. Overanalyze the how. Overthink the what. And most certainly, overemphasize the need for our reaction. Epiphanies just happen. There you are – and what will you do? There’s not much time. You just go with it, and see what happens.
Epiphanies, especially of the divine nature, demand an immediate response. There’s no invitation for contemplation or reflection but instantaneous commitment and risk. Or, to put it another way, no real choice. Naming epiphanous moments, describing those times when your response is out of your control, that might be getting close to articulating what happened with the disciples in Mark. If the heavens are ripped apart, well then, get ready for a wild ride. This can be simultaneously freeing and terrifying. Free to respond in the moment. Terrified of what beyond the moment will unfold.
According to Mark, Epiphany is when your life is changed forever because Epiphany celebrates, in part, that God was forever changed.
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Look it up. What does epiphany actually mean? Of course there will be several possible definitions, but here’s one that caught my attention – an immediate and meaningful understanding of something. Surprising. Sudden. Profound.
Have we thought of Epiphany in this way? Or have our Epiphany anticipations been tilted more toward ecclesial and liturgical expectations? Not that these are bad. But here’s where the Gospel lesson from John that begins Epiphany in Lectionary Year B upsets the proverbial apple cart.
We tend to expect that Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus. About finding Jesus, witnessing Jesus in various epiphanic moments. It’s not supposed to be about being found ourselves.
But John’s Gospel invites us to imagine that these can be one and the same. That is, finding Jesus in those revelatory moments, those unexpected moments, or even in those transfigural (I made that word up) moments, is also when you find yourself – who you are, who you are called to be. When you realize your identity as a follower, a disciple, and get a glimpse, perhaps a new glimpse – and here is the epiphany – of something you have not seen before when it comes to your own faith story, your own discipleship, your own concept of what it means to believe.
The Gospel lesson from John for the second Sunday after Epiphany (John 1:43-51) helps us maintain a connection between Christmas and Epiphany, between incarnation and revelation. Otherwise, Jesus’ humanity runs the risk of fading into the background in favor of Jesus’ divinity.
What is revealed is what it means that God became human. That God entered into our world, no longer satisfied just to be with us but now has to be one of us. I think when that happens, we change too. Our humanity changes. Suddenly, who we see ourselves to be can be no longer remain the same because we have seen God in who we are. That just has to change the perception of ourselves.
Sometimes, a lot of the time, we don’t want to be found. Let’s face it, being found is not always a good or comfortable thing. Nor, if we are honest, are epiphanies.
What about you do you not want found? Or, what about Jesus do you not want to find out?
Maybe this epiphany season might take on a mirror effect. That is, when you hear these texts, when you look for Jesus, when you experience these revelatory moments of Jesus, you simultaneously see something about yourself.
That’s relationship. Epiphany cannot be all one sided. It can’t just be “oh look, Jesus, cool. Wow.” You then have to ask, so what? Not only for the sake of your theological and Christological commitments but also for the sake of who you are as one who answers the call, “follow me.”
Earlier in John we discover that Jesus does not do the finding first, Andrew does. He finds Simon Peter. Yes, Jesus finds Philip. He will find the man born blind whom Jesus healed after he had been thrown out for his confession about Jesus (9:35). When the blind man is found, he is changed. He is a disciple. He is a sheep. He recognizes who Jesus is. He worships him. Jesus will find the disciples locked behind closed doors and then, and only then, are they sent out. Jesus will find the disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee and Peter’s expectations of discipleship will be radically altered when Jesus says to Peter, “you are the Good Shepherd now.”
This is the reluctance to being found. Let’s admit it. Because to be found is not only to be known – it will change your life.
Epiphany is a short season. Not much time to reflect what you want to find out about yourself and what you don’t. Expect to discover many things about Jesus. But in the process, anticipate learning something about yourself. We can’t dare assume that we are unchanged by what we witness. Sometimes the change is monumental. Sometimes incremental. Either way, something will happen. Something epiphanous!
Embarking on such a self-reflective journey may mean keeping a few journal notes, whatever of how you are changed when Jesus reveals himself to you. I am not a big journal keeper and was never good at diaries. I had all kinds of intentions that quickly faded away after the newness of the first few days. We are very good at Lenten disciplines, maybe so as to appease our lack of success at New Year’s resolutions. What would happen if Epiphany is the new Lent?
Of course “finding yourself” or being found takes on numerous forms, too many to articulate in this column. But you know what I am talking about. And you know what it feels like to be found – a simultaneity of fear but also a profound sense of peace.
Maybe that’s even what this season is all about. If we do indeed stake our theology on the incarnation, well then, Jesus, God has something at stake as well. God has chosen to be found, to be known, in the most intimate way possible. If God truly became human then we should not expect that God is immune to our same fears. When God chooses to reveal God’s self in Jesus this season of Epiphany, well, God is also on the line with the same realities of rejection, of questioning, of being exposed, of being known – fully.
Jesus first says to his followers, “come and see.” This Epiphany season, see Jesus. See God. But also, see yourself. All of which might truly be epiphanies. And, I am guessing, nothing you expected.
I have said this before and I will say it again – preaching on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday can quickly and despairingly devolve into bland, benign, boring, and banal descriptions of baptism, why it’s important, and why we should do it. Please don’t preach this kind of sermon.
This is the proverbial danger of festival Sundays. You have heard me and my Sermon Brainwave colleagues, Matt Skinner and Rolf Jacobson, articulate time and time again – preach the text, not the festival. This is ever so important when it comes to baptism. Why? Because people actually care about baptism. More so than Trinity Sunday, that’s for sure. They make plans to get their kids baptized. They go to classes. They invite family. And preachers, you know the times you have been called to perform, or have heard of, emergency baptisms. Baptism matters. For all sorts of reasons.
At the same time, baptism elicits all kinds of so-called theological issues for those who don’t seem to have anything better to do than make up ecclesiological rules.
And so, baptism has also been a cause for exclusion. As an ordained clergyperson in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there are evidently certain practices to which I am supposed to abide. It seems that over the course of my ministry I have been less than compliant.
- I have baptized outside of the assembly, outside of a church service.
- I support any baptism done by any person with the confidence and trust in the efficacy of God’s word and the truth of God’s abundant grace.
- I welcome anyone to the Lord’s Table because, well, last time I checked, it’s the Lord’s Table. Are we going to require Baptismal ID Cards to be presented so as to share in communion? Are we going to say to those not baptized or not sure they are baptized, “Say, you. You in that pew wondering if you have been baptized or not. You just sit in that pew while everyone else comes up to share in the bread and wine. Why? Better to hedge your bets on the side of human reason than God’s grace. Better to think you are not worthy. Better to assume that you do not have the seal of approval. Why, you ask? Because Galatianism is alive and operating well in our so-called contemporary churches and you are our justification for the maintenance of boundaries accorded to the body of Christ.
Perhaps this is all a part of being in a denomination. Yet, I think these kinds of Sundays offer opportunities to reflect on with what we resonate or not, about what we have questions, and to consider where we might still be committed to being a reforming church.
I worry when we take a ritual executed in the wilderness, with God’s ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s son, to get to God’s people God loves, and create every possible restriction. As soon as we make baptism legalistic we have domesticated Mark 1:1-11.
A few years ago my husband and I repeated a dialogue sermon in our new church in Minneapolis that I had written for our congregation in Georgia. Originally, the sermon was, in part, meant to communicate the essential tenets of baptism according to Lutheran theology because the church in Georgia had few “lifelong” Lutherans as members. I essentially rewrote Luther’s Small Catechism, emphasizing that baptism is God’s doing, not ours. The Sunday we redid the sermon in Minneapolis one of the members approached me after worship. She was 90 at the time. I will call her Hazel. “Karoline,” she said, “is that really true?” “What?” I answered. Hazel responded, “That God baptizes you.” “Yes, it’s true. This is what we believe. Why?” Hazel then told me about her sister who was born several years before she was. Her sister was born very ill, in the home, and never left the house because she was so sick. We are talking at least 95 years ago. The family knew she would not live long, she lived about two months as it turned out, and was baptized by her grandmother somewhere in that two month period. When Hazel’s parents went to the pastor of the Lutheran church where they had been lifelong members to plan the funeral, the pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.
Hazel then said to me, “Does this mean my sister is OK? Is she really OK?” “Yes,” I said. “Your sister is OK.”
These are the pastoral results of practices for the sake of practices alone. Here was Hazel in front of me, 90 years old, weeping for the sister she never knew, crying tears of relief and grace. This is what happens when we tame God. Like translations do of Mark 1:9. The heavens are not “opened.” There is a perfectly good Greek word for “open” and it’s not there. The heavens are “torn apart,” a passive verb, because God cannot stand the separation any longer. Yet, look at what we do? Create systems and structures that mediate God’s presence. Insist on rituals and formalities to regulate God’s grace. Control the means of God’s love, not for the sake of good order, but for the sake of our own power.
Baptism of our Lord Sunday according to Mark? Well, get ready and hold on. There is nothing tame or complacent or orderly about baptism at all. There are no rules, no ecclesial documents, no constitutions or bylaws. Rather, we are plopped in the middle of the wilderness with Elijah and the heavens ripping apart before our very eyes. I wonder what a baptism service would look like if we actually had Mark in mind. I have a feeling it would be less comfortable, less controlled, and by that I don’t just mean a crying baby in response to some cold water on the forehead.
I realize that all of you preachers out there reading this are committed and beholden to certain baptismal practices, either established by your denomination, your particular church, even your own beliefs. This is not a plea to eschew structures for the sake of some sort of shock value.
My invitation to you is to let Mark spark your baptismal imagination. Is there one thing, one aspect, one particularity according to Mark that might change, albeit even momentarily, how you, or your congregation, have always imagined baptism to be? Because then you will give witness to God’s determination to deter all of our attempts at God’s domestication. For Mark, God’s entry into our humanity started at Jesus’ baptism and was then confirmed at Jesus’ crucifixion.
When baptism is a wilderness experience, an unexpected entrance of God, and a little terrifying, well then, we will know the meaning of baptism according to Mark.
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I have to be honest. I have never cared much for the whole “take up your cross and follow me” thing (see Matthew 16:24). I always get hung up on the “take up your cross” part, because most of the time I really do not know what that means. Or maybe it’s because theologically, if I am honest, I have a rather negative reaction to cross language. It’s not simply that I have issues with gruesome deaths. Or that I am one to eschew the meaningfulness of the crucifixion. But the ubiquity of the cross and our rather bland and rote statements about it have tamed the rather complex nature of its significance.
I have a feeling that there are people in our pews who might have some similar thoughts. How does Jesus’ cross have anything to do with life today? Sure, there are necklaces, rings, pendants, bracelets, but when asked “what does the cross, Jesus’ cross, mean to you?” how will we respond? What we confess about Jesus and his cross better really matter and make a difference for our lives, for how we think about God, and for how we live. If it does none of this, then I wonder if we take Jesus seriously at this point. I’m quite sure that Jesus’ statement here is not theoretical or rhetorical but that Jesus actually wanted the disciples to live it and be it.
Too much of our biblical interpretation and preaching hides behind theologically accepted tenets. Acceptable to whom? And in what circumstances? Atonement theories are a case in point. There are certain things that we think we should say when it comes to the cross that if we don’t, we are not a true “fill in the blank.” What does the cross really mean to you? I mean really? Not what you think it should mean because you’ve been told what it should mean, because you are a Christian, because you go to church, because you are a preacher, because you are worried about what others will think, or because you fear that you might be discovered as some sort of imposter believer.
So, I am going to answer my own question. The cross doesn’t do much for me. Call me a heretic. That’s fine. I’ve been called one before and survived, quite well, in fact. Say that I have a problematic atonement theory. That’s also fine. My pneumatology has already been questioned and I survived that, too.
Here’s what I mean.
When it comes to what matters to me theologically the life of Jesus means more than his death, in part because of scholarly interests in the past few years that have caused some serious personal theological reflection. At the same time, I resist “take up your cross” as a justification for suffering. I reject “take up your cross” as some sort of victimization or martyrdom for its own sake. I renounce any claim where I could imagine coming anywhere close to Jesus’ sacrifice.
Yet, if the cross is a symbol for defiance of empire? If the cross is representative of the absolute certainty of the incarnation? If the cross is a model for resistance to the status quo? If the cross is a reflection of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, for mercy, for compassion, for love? Well then, I am all for the cross. And I will readily take up that cross, any day.
Just what cross are you willing to take up? And which one are you not?
I find it interesting that Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.”
Taking up your cross is not an individual act that validates your faith or demonstrates your willingness to go the distance or a statement of self-sacrifice or self-denial. The cross has everything to do with community. Take up your cross and follow. To follow, by definition, demands something or someone to be followed. Follow me – how do you answer that? Literally following Jesus to the cross, following the person? Isn’t it also following those things that Jesus preached and taught? When Jesus says follow me, what Jesus do you follow? What parts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings do you follow?
One of the things preachers don’t get many opportunities to do is to engage some theological self-reflection. Give yourself some time this week, block it out in your calendar. Take yourself to a coffee shop, to a wine bar, a brewery, out for lunch. Or just be in a place that is comfortable for you. If someone asks to meet with you during that time, say, sorry I have an appointment – you have an appointment with yourself, and with God, trusting that God, Immanuel, is going to be present in your honest exploration of your theological thoughts. Our preaching needs theology time. We are better preachers when we have occasions for assessment and reassessment of where we are theologically. Then we not only know what we bring to the text, but also what we are willing to take up and follow ourselves.
A “cross and follow” kind of life is not a one-time decision but demands and deserves ongoing discernment and deliberation. Note Matthew’s slight change from Mark’s version, “for my sake will find it” (16:26) rather than “for my sake will save it” (Mk 8:35). Thinking about your “cross and follow” life, you never know what you might discover.
Those of you who listen regularly to Sermon Brainwave, the weekly podcast text study that I co-host at http://www.workingpreacher.org with my colleagues at Luther Seminary, Rolf Jacobson and Matt Skinner — and if you don’t, why not? You should. We are the Car Talk of the preaching world! — know that in January of 2013 I led a group of students on a trip to the Holy Land. For a number of weeks after that trip, more weeks than my colleagues likely appreciated, my “go to” response for virtually every text was, “Well, when I was in the Holy Land … ”
My references to that trip have tapered off considerably over the last year, but with this week’s passage from Matthew, I just can’t help myself.
“When I was in the Holy Land … ” we stayed at a kibbutz on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. We could see Tiberius from the shore. From that location we traveled to various places where Jesus “could have” fed the 5,000, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes; where Jesus “possibly” preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of Beatitudes; where Jesus “could have” hosted breakfast for his disciples, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. These sites were certainly significant. I will never forget listening to the Beatitudes on that mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
But the moment during that leg of the trip where a biblical story literally came to life was our last day at the kibbutz. In the morning, the winds started up; trees bending from the force, lawn chairs scattered on the shore, and whitecaps on the sea. Suddenly, there I was, in the boat with the disciples. So this is what it would have been like? Our guide, Johnny, said wind storms like this were sudden and frequent, a characteristic feature of the weather pattern for that region.
In reading the story for this week, however, I realized that the disciples don’t seem to be too afraid of the storm, that this is not the same story as Matthew 8:23-27, and if Johnny is right, and I am sure he was, that these fishermen should be used to these kinds of storms. I also noticed that Jesus doesn’t actually rebuke the winds in this passage. He just shows up.
So, of what, then, are the disciples actually afraid? They think Jesus is a ghost, some sort of phantom, and that would probably scare me, too.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” (14:27) are Jesus’ words to the disciples. Jesus will say the same thing in Mark (6:50), also the boat scene. In John, “take heart” appears in Jesus’ last words to his disciples before turning in prayer to the Father (16:33), “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (16:33 NIV). Why “take heart”? What is Jesus saying to the disciples with these particular words? Only Matthew’s version includes the dialogue between Peter and Jesus and Peter’s attempt to walk on water.
Peter thinks he can walk on water. What will that prove, anyway? How is Peter being able to walk on water going to help him believe that it’s really Jesus? Maybe Peter hopes that by stepping out on the sea, that will be the act of courage he needs for faith. Maybe Peter wonders if he will be convinced of Jesus’ promises if he thinks big. Maybe Peter will believe in himself if he is able to do what Jesus does.
“‘Lord, if it is you … Is it really you, Jesus? We need to know. How can we really trust that you will be with us always, to the end of the age?”
And I have in mind that Jesus’ answer would be something like, “Well, it’s certainly not because you will be able to walk on water, if that’s what you are thinking, Peter.”
Another way to translate Jesus’ words to the disciples is, “have courage” and it’s also in the present tense. Jesus is not saying “buck up, be brave, Peter. Have some fortitude, for crying out loud. Where’s your gallantry?”
Is courage the same as bravery? Courage seems to be connected to faith in this passage. Unlike Mark’s version, Jesus follows Peter’s less than successful try at walking on water with, “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?” How is courage connected to faith?
The root meaning of the English word “courage” is the Latin cor and the French coeur — “heart,” which may explain English translations that vary between “take heart” and “take courage.”
What is Jesus saying to Peter, to his disciples? I wonder if Jesus is saying to them, to us, faith means living out of your heart. You are going to have to lead, live, and love with your heart, Peter. You know who I am. Deep down in your heart, you know me and you know I will be there. Trust yourself. Trust your heart. Jesus’ words call Peter back to himself — to his truth, to his heart, to his faith. And no valiant feat is necessary to verify what Jesus wants Peter to see that is already true about who Peter is.
I have a feeling that this is something preachers need to hear as well. It seems that only impressive statistics substantiate Jesus’ presence these days — that you are successful in your ministry if attendance numbers look good, you have a large staff, a nice, big church building, an impressive budget, or some other outside acknowledgement of your worth. Trust yourself. Trust your innermost space, your heart, that what you are doing matters, that what you preach makes a difference, and that truly, Jesus is with you and trusts you. Sure, there will be times when you feel like you are walking on water, or at least think you could, no problem, and that is a great feeling. But in the end, only Jesus can manage such a miracle. The daily life of ministry is not extraordinary acts of faith, but hoping for a little more than “little faith.” Take courage.
Think about it. How many of Jesus’ miracles are recorded in all four Gospels? Let’s count. It shouldn’t take long because the feeding of the five thousand is the only one that made the cut (cf. Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). That fact alone should encourage pause and reflection when it comes to preaching this miracle that most certainly put Jesus on the map. Why this story? What is so important about it? What does it reveal about God, about Jesus, about who we are called to be in the world that each of the evangelists said, “Hey. Now that story is definitely worth remembering.”
Spend some time this week pondering these questions. For yourself. For your congregation. For real.
Of course, there’s the obvious answer: this is a pretty awesome miracle, after all. It is an encapsulation of provision and the poignancy of need. Sometimes we forget that to be provided for and to have our needs met are indeed miraculous moments themselves.
Taking away the reality of miracles does no one any good. We need them.
At the same time that it is Jesus’ provision for the crowds, to what extent is it also miraculous provision for Jesus’ disciples? There is a sense that this story sums up discipleship. An invitation to action and involvement. That discipleship is not just about following but participating. In this provision of food for many, the disciples witness that the promise of provision is their future.
And Jesus signals this promise with one pointed phrase, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
In other words, you do it.
Of course, Jesus then miraculously expands the rations. That is certainly a miracle. And I am not suggesting that the miracle is better understood in the disciples sharing so as to explain how the miracle happened. Taking away the reality of miracles does no one any good. They exist. We need them. And Jesus gets that.
But I do think that the meaning of the miracle is more than the miracle itself.
In that one simple statement, Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Live already. You can’t sit back and watch me do all this awesome stuff. Live it. Live life. I am counting on you. I need you.”
This past week, a colleague and friend, Deanna Thompson, shared on her Facebook page a recently published article. Deanna was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer five years ago and yet, here she is, living. And living life fully and extraordinarily, called to new places of teaching and witness and vocation and discipleship because her illness. She writes, “For too many who live in the aftermath of traumatic events, a tidy, linear cross-to-resurrection narrative simply doesn’t map the reality of their undone lives.”
This made me consider Jesus’ directive to his disciples in a different way. I wonder if Jesus is trying to disrupt our tidiness, our penchant for cause and effect. The disciples are thinking linearly. Practically. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” A deserted place? Where will the food come from? Late? Time to go home. We are done here. What more do you want? And come on, Jesus. These people need to fend for themselves.
This is a major lesson in discipleship, Discipleship 101, to be exact. This is what I love about Matthew. OK, I know last week I said he’d be my dead last choice if I had to rank the four. But here’s where I get it. Discipleship is from the get-go. For Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the “no going back moment” as far as I can tell.
Discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What you will be asked to live — and when — may just be a miracle itself.
As Deanna writes later in her post, “If communities of faith are to help make it possible to ‘live like we’re dying’ for those of us haunted by the lingering, unpredictable effects of traumatic events, attention must be given to the space between death and resurrection. That space where we might experience healing and redemption, but sometimes only faintly. Where people go on even when they can’t.”
I suppose our particular Christological commitments will determine whether or not Jesus knew he was going to die. At the same time, one can’t go around being Jesus and think that no one will notice. In fact, if you do, you can expect to be targeted for arrest and elimination. The lives of the disciples became undone the moment Jesus showed up on that mountain. Experiences of “undoneness” make up what it means to be a disciple.
Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the feeding of the five thousand gives witness to what the space between death and resurrection looks like. For the crowd. For the disciples. Maybe even for Jesus. Where there is the knowing of profound lack, but experience of provision. Where we exist in the meantime of life, but can see, albeit dimly, solutions. Where and why and when we think we can’t go on, but then we do.
Therein, perhaps, is the miraculous.
Anyone out there tired of parables yet?
To be honest, Matthew’s plethora of parables is perhaps my biggest problem when it comes to the first Gospel. Some of you know that were I to play the “stranded on a desert island” game, my Gospel of choice would be John. Matthew would come in dead last. It does make you stop and think why we are drawn to particular stories of Jesus — our theology? Our Christology? Our soteriology?
Or, maybe I just have a problem with parables.
It’s not that I need Jesus to be more direct. After all, the Jesus of John can be equally perplexing. I also worry that with so many parables told in a row, we tend to want to find their consistency, some shared theme, a nugget of truth, connect the dots, the primary point that they are all trying to make about the kingdom of heaven. But then to what extent do we end up smoothing out their specificity, ignoring the details that themselves are worth preaching? Or, maybe when there’s parable after parable I tend to lose my bearing. Which one is it, Jesus? I have to admit, I am a little jealous, or maybe suspicious, of the disciples’ certainty in 13:51. Really, they understand “all of this”? Way to go, disciples! I sure don’t.
Yet perhaps that is exactly Jesus’ purpose in telling parables — and a lot of them. You never know what might click for you, when the connection will happen, for your faith, for what you believe. What illustration, what analogy will resonate? Each day is different when it comes to being a disciple, isn’t it?
Maybe there’s a logic in Matthew, or better, a logic about Jesus.
After all, how does one depict the kingdom of heaven? The possible pictures of the kingdom of heaven are certainly not exhausted by Matthew, not even by Jesus. No one impression will suffice.
The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.
Several years ago, Starbucks Coffee launched a campaign called “The Way I See It.” Various quotes from different sources were printed on the coffee cups. I am not sure of the exact marketing strategy behind the promotion or if it was successful, but I do recall remembering and writing down “The Way I See It” #230:
“Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell.” — Joel Stein, columnist for the LA Times
How we imagine what the kingdom of heaven is like depends a lot on what we need the kingdom of heaven to be, which frequently hinges on factors we’d rather ignore. Our penchant for certain visualizations of the kingdom of heaven have less to do with what the Bible says and more about what’s at stake for us theologically. Our language about the kingdom of heaven tends to be attached to how we think God should act and not how God has already acted. Our assumptions about the kingdom of heaven rely heavily on our system of rewards and not on God’s choice to bless.
Several strategies for preaching these parables come to mind that suggest preaching this week might be less descriptive and more dynamic. That is, a sermon will model curiosity and creativity around the kingdom of heaven and not simply state facts about it. Preaching could invite a kingdom imagination. Not explanatory sermons that say this is what kingdom is, but exploratory sermons that suggest this is what it could be today, here and now.
Encourage your parishioners to make up their own parable about the kingdom of heaven, later that day, maybe later that week, and affirm that in doing so, they are making a critical connection between a perceived theological need and the immediate contexts of their lives. In other words, talk about the fact that they are not just making something up, something that sounds kind of nice, but that they are giving witness in that moment to a specific expression of faith. They are offering testimony to what the kingdom of heaven needs to be in light of their individual reality. Or perhaps, they are acknowledging a communal, national, or global situation that necessitates the articulation of the presence and promise of the kingdom of heaven.
You could preach on just one parable and really work it for all of the facets it reveals about God and about our human condition, both personally and corporately. Based on your description, you could then model what you invited your parishioners to do. Re-language the particularities of the parable for the purpose of today. Act out an exercise of imagination and in doing so, you are demonstrating that interpreting the Bible is not simply accepting its truths, but is about embodying the way in which truth can be revealed — in conversation, in inquiry, in creativity. And isn’t that the nature of a parable? The parables don’t argue for truth itself but show that what is true about God and about ourselves might be disclosed in the act of our wrestling with, resisting, and being pulled into truth.
In the end, be assured that the reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent. The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near. That’s a promise even a preacher, and sometimes especially a preacher, needs to hear.
You can also find this blog at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3285
Good and evil side by side, co-existing without set checks and balances, without resolute criteria for adjudicating which is which, without a sense of qualifications and quantifications that might provide certain conclusions to ease our moral consciences? Perhaps one of the most challenging and problematic issues in the history of theological thought. Where does evil come from? Is it as simple as assigning it to an alternate being? Is it as easily determinable as we tend to think? Is it so readily recognized as we want to believe?
These are the theological questions that Matthew’s parable seems to raise. A first step in preaching this week is to acknowledge these difficulties, to dwell in the discomfort, and to resist any definitive test to secure answers that surely demand far more deliberation than a twelve minute sermon can give justice.
We are really good at assessing what is good and what is not with the effortless phrase, “the Bible says.” But, the problem with evil? With sin? Is that it looks pretty darn good. So close to what seems right and virtuous. So close to our vision of what we imagine good should be.
Matthew’s parable this week is in one sense a warning. Lest we think we have it all figured out how to judge evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, virtuous from unvirtuous, think again. According to whom? When? In what contexts? By what standards? This is the time for some prophetic proclamation. Pointing out the places in our history, in our present, when evil was and is justified biblically, theologically, morally, socially. This alone is worth preaching.
Such is our human inclination, is it not? Our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming maleficence in another as if our own actions are above reproach.
This parable is one that should stop us up short. Really? Who do you think you are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot.
I recently shared a saying on my Facebook page that appeared in my news feed, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.”
When we start going down the road of making our lot in life electing what is good and evil we may very well discover that others will make similar conclusions about us.
Matthew’s parable invites some honest preaching about the existence of evil. When was the last time you listened, really listened, to how your parishioners talk about evil, about theodicy? Call attention to the ways in which these realities co-exist. How difficult it is to determine the difference until the point when it’s too late. That it is ok. Because in the end, the parable promises that God’s job is not ours. Exuberant efforts to eradicate evil may very well end up only in questioning our own eschatological actuality.
This parable is a description of a reality we’d rather not admit. Maybe even a description of a God in whom we’d rather not believe. Can’t God do something about the enemy, and now? What is God good for anyway if God can’t see to it that evil is eliminated? The parable of the wheat and the weeds is not told for the sake of action but for the sake of honesty. Our presence in the world as Christians is not about a full-blown plan to get rid of evil at every turn.
That our calling as disciples is to seek out and purge sin and evil? Frankly, I don’t want that job. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust God. Our presence in the world as Christians is to be the good. To live the Gospel. To be the light. To be the salt. Because we are, says Jesus to his disciples. This should be good news. This parable calls us simply to be. To be the good in the world with the full awareness of what the resistances will be. To be light when darkness will surely try to snuff us out. To be salt when blandness and conformity and acceptability are always the easier paths.
Maybe you are wondering, but aren’t we called to call out evil? To resist the forces that would deprive those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? To make sure that those who mourn are comforted? To uplift the poor in spirit? Yes. Absolutely. But perhaps not in this sermon. There will be other texts and other sermons that will have us lead a charge for this kind of action.
Perhaps in this instance we believe in the text and take our cue from Matthew’s vision of God. Immanuel. “I am with you to the end of the age.” We are called to just to be. And in order to be we trust that God is with us.
Indeed, God is.
Birds, Thorns, and Other Surprising Responses to God’s Word
(this blog can also be found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx)
The “Word of God” is an elusive and complicated topic, isn’t it? What comes to mind for people in the pews when they hear “Word of God”? What do they picture? What do they envision? A big, dusty Bible on a shelf in the family room that they never read? A worn and tattered-paged confirmation Bible on their bedside table that they read every night? The lessons that are printed in the bulletin every week that they then toss in the garbage or the recycling bin if there is one? Just what is the Word of God anyway? Do not be afraid. I am certainly not recommending that you preach a sermon on the doctrine of the Word of God. I suspect that would be incredibly boring. And God forgive us when we make the Word of God boring.
But I do speculate whether an answer to that question would be anything other what seems obvious – the Word of God is a book or words from the Bible printed somewhere, whether in a bulletin, an insert or on a projection screen. The Word of God is words.
I wonder if anyone might conjecture that the Word of God could be an experience. After all, the Word of God did become flesh. Those who met Jesus in his ministry did not just think, “Wow, he’s got some good stuff to say.” No, somehow the words and the encounter were inseparable. The words could not be understood without the particular experience in which they were heard.
The biblical passages for the week of July 13, 2014, particularly from Isaiah and Matthew, suggest that the Word of God is an experience. And listening is the key to that experience.
Remember, the Bible was written to be heard. It’s full of rhetorical devices from which preachers could learn a lot about how to communicate effectively. Walter Ong describes the biblical writings as “textualized orality” or “residually oral.” Sometimes we forget that the Bible was first and foremost an oral experience until translations started showing up in earnest in the 15th century. No one got a copy of Galatians in the church newsletter. When Paul’s messenger, perhaps the scribe that dictated Paul’s thoughts, arrived at the church in Galatia, there was a full church meeting, maybe even with a potluck to get more people to come. Knowing Paul, I’m quite certain this was not his only correspondence with the Galatians. But this particular letter included in the New Testament somehow stood out and said something important about believing in Jesus that reached beyond the Galatian church. It was not a systematic treatise on the justification by faith. It was a real letter to a real church with something really critical at stake. No one gets to ponder Paul’s words in the privacy of their home. No one is afforded the opportunity to say, “interesting, Paul. I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” They have to deal with it then and now and together and then answer the questions, “what did you hear?” and “now what?”
What I am suggesting is that maybe you craft a sermon where Matthew’s parable might actually work. Create a real experience of the parable. That means asking people to close their bulletins. No peeking in the pew Bibles. Have them sit down. And just listen.
Start your sermon with Matthew 13:9, “Let anyone with ears listen.” The verb “to listen” is in present tense. To hear God’s Word is not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing characteristic of discipleship. Listening is essential to discipleship. And then ask – what did you hear? Where are you in this parable? Or better yet, when and how have you felt all of these responses to God’s Word? And why? And what do you experience in this listening today? Invite them to imagine that hearing God’s word has had different effects on them at different times. And in this sermon you are providing them with an imagination that what they hear on Sunday morning is not static but dynamic. Not fixed but ever meaningful. That their response to what they hear is just as important as what they hear. That what the Word of God does is just as important as what it says.
Unpack each element of the parable that Jesus later explains not with the goal to determine a set reaction to the Word, something like “you better be this” but to create space to reflect on when and how and why we might respond differently to what we hear God saying.
Play with the parable before you move immediately to Jesus’ explanation. In fact, don’t read out loud Jesus’ explanation at all. Just let it inform your sermon. Let the parable do what it wants to do. Then the Word of God will really be experienced. Ask in your sermon – when have you sensed that you heard God’s Word, only to have it make no sense at all? When have you realized that while you think you have heard God speaking, you question what you know, what you have learned, and if any doubt or discrepancy or discord arises because of what you have heard, either with others or within your own embedded theology, you question that which God’s word can do (Isaiah 55:11)?
When have you felt that as much as you try to listen to and abide in God’s Word there is just too much around you that makes more sense? There is too much circumspection about whether this really matters? And you intuit that any hold you had on some sort of foundational truth has been obstructed by that which offers fleeting yet more logical satisfaction?
In the end, preach the promise that in those grace-filled times when everything seems to come together, when what you have heard from and about God, what your life tells you, what your community affirms, then the fruit you bear is indeed as unique as your hearing (Matt 13:23). It’s not about how much fruit is produced. It’s about the way in which God’s Word has taken a hold in you. This is not a competition about who hears God’s Word better. It’s about what the hearing creates in you.