“You lack one thing.” Ouch. I fear I lack much more than one thing, do you?
But what does this fellow lack, exactly? Of course, there’s all kinds of irony here, because in the end, by material standards, by society’s standards, by the measures of the world that have determined the criteria for abundance and blessing, he lacks nothing — nothing at all.
Does he lack an ability to care for the poor? Does he lack a consciousness of another’s scarcity? Does he lack the ability to appreciate his abundance?
The story is frustratingly ambiguous and rather ambivalent which make for an interpretive temptation to reduce this text to a message that is far too simplistic, but theologically easy. Let’s just take Jesus literally. We dohave too much. We need to give it away. We have not given out of our abundance. So we are eager to stand behind Jesus’ injunctions against rich people. We readily chide those who hoard their wealth. We are quick to say to another, “With all you have? Good luck getting through the eye of a needle, friend.” Yet all the while, we secretly wish we had wealth to hoard. Or at least more than we have. And then we have succeeded in wiggling out of Jesus’ charge. “I don’t have money like this guy, so Jesus isn’t talking to me.” And all of a sudden we’ve managed to escape Jesus’ words to us, “you lack one thing.”
I spent this past week in the mountains of North Carolina as the retreat leader for the Southern Province of the Moravian Church. The last worship service was an informal Lovefeast. The history and meaning of the Lovefeast is fascinating. If you are not familiar with its history and meaning, spend a little time this week looking it up. Over time, it has come to signify a “real means of grace.” And it was. It was an experience of abundance: much hymn singing, an invitation to partake of the traditional cup and bun, twice extending the right hand of fellowship, and Holy Communion. You left filled. Not just because the bun was DELICIOUS, but because you had so clearly known God’s abundant grace provided in and by the community of believers. And then, and then! — they sang this song to me, a sending hymn which is also used as a birthday hymn in the Moravian tradition:
With your presence, Lord, our Head and Savior,
Bless her now, we humbly pray;
Our dear heavenly Father’s love and favor
Be her comfort every day.
May God’s Spirit now in each proceeding
Favor her with his most gracious leading;
Thus shall she be truly blessed
Both in labor and in rest.
It is a rare thing in life to feel so cared for, to sense the gift of attention and abundance by even those with whom you are the closest let alone people you met just days before. I was deeply touched by the ways in which a community of believers so clearly and demonstratively knew God’s abundant grace. It was a feeling that will stay with me for quite some time — and it made me ask, what is it that I lack that an experience like this could provide so much meaning?
It is so easy for us to view the concept of lack in only material things, material categories, as if lack is only determined by an absence of wealth. This is not to say that this text is not about money, about wealth, and what you do with it. There is a clear message that wealth does something to us and that something is usually not viewed as having a positive effect. Riches seem to steer our glance inward, to stoke our individuality, to set our sights on our own abundance with nary a thought about securing someone else’s.
Beyond the fact that the rich man has too much, there’s another part to the rich man’s problem. He knows only to ask about safeguarding his eternal life without concern for that of others. “What must I do,” he asks. He is unable to see that the potential to experience eternal life might very well lie outside of his own doing. He is incapable of recognizing that abundance may very well be found outside of the wealth and riches he has stored up. He insists that what he has procured is irrelevant to who he is or who he thinks he wants to be.
Where do you locate your abundance? Where does your abundance come from? Do you trust only yourself to make it possible? Lack takes on many forms in our life. This story asks us to ponder how we might complete the sentence, “I lack _________.”
There is one thing you lack. And you need to figure that out.
But the issue of lack takes on a particular meaning in this story — it is that which prevents you from a full expression of faith. What is the one thing that is at the core of who you are, what keeps you from being the follower, the disciple, the believer, the witness God wants and needs you to be? This is a terribly hard question to answer, I know.
And so we ask it among the community of the faithful, hearing the truth from another so that perhaps we can then tell the truth to ourselves, with the sure hope that the places and spaces of lack might be filled once again.
This is one of those texts.
Call it difficult, challenging, or even a text of terror, there is simply no way you can read aloud Mark 10:2-16, or Genesis 2:18-24 for that matter, without preaching on either. And if you read the Gospel lesson and only preach about children, well, you can’t. Divorce knows too many to pass on this text as just another teaching from Jesus.
Yet, the difficulties surrounding divorce in the ancient world and those today are less than compatible. Ask any person who’s been divorced, ask any child of divorce, and you will hear a story that eschews any generalizations when it comes to divorce decrees. The specifics of each situation must always be recognized, regardless of your agreement or experience. Any blanket statement about the perils of divorce without sensitivity to the complexities will fall on resistant ears that will then, and once again, discern that the Bible has little to say about real life now.
At the same time, this text, the following story about children, and the lesson from Genesis point to some subterranean themes when it comes to relationships. The commentary on the website noted the theme of vulnerability. This is certainly something to address, in that divorce exposes vulnerability — on many levels. Case in point, children have no life or livelihood, no means of survival, without relying on a parent or adult. Yet this week, this time around, I am struck by the theme of dependence. Another aspect of divorce is how it brings to the surface our dependence — or lack there of, or radical need of — when it comes to relationships. This is not to dodge the issue of divorce, but to suggest that the relational issues raised by divorce are a way to preach about it –- and in a meaningful way.
The loss of dependence is one of the heartaches of divorce. The one on whom you thought you could depend you no longer can, whether that be on a spouse or that of children on parents, even on the in-law and friend relationships. A critical aspect of how relational life has been structured has fallen apart so that one measure of grief is to think about on whom dependence can be found again.
Putting the Mark texts (divorce and children) and the Genesis text side by side reveals how essential dependence really is. One reason for divorce, for the separation of relationships, is when that dependence has crumbled and is beyond repair. The fundamental need for dependence is met with resistance by the other so that the lack of dependence turns into a breakdown of trust. If the one on whom you could depend now rejects that essential human instinct, the erosion of trust is just around the corner.
While we would, and our culture does, like to assert that independence is the highest form of individuality, autonomy, and a pinnacled mark of leadership, God tells us it’s the opposite. We think that we are capable of a kind of independence that presupposes a selective dependence. We pretend that we don’t really “need” anyone, we can do this on our own. Dear preachers isn’t this true? Come one, be honest. Tell the truth to yourself — and start there. We convince ourselves of the need for dependency, but only if absolutely necessary, and if we can pick and choose the situations in which it really matters.
At stake in the Mark text is not only dependence but the mutuality of dependence. What Jesus points out is that dependence is a two way street, as does Genesis. We are dependent on the other, but in part, that dependence depends on the knowledge that the other needs us too. When the reciprocity of dependence is askew, therein enters all kinds of dysfunction, of which we are fully aware.
This is an opportunity to preach the absolute necessity of dependence, which the Genesis text suggests is a fundamental characteristic of God. Relationships need it, long for it when it is absent, and break up when it seems beyond the imagination of return. Divorce doesn’t always occur because of major issues. The fracturing of relationships happens when dependence is taken for granted, when dependence cannot be counted on, when dependence is abandoned for the sake of a misconceived autonomy or an idealized picture of self.
God exists in and on dependence. Ministry demands and is determined by dependence. But it is so easy to assure ourselves that dependence is weakness; that dependence assumes an absence of assuredness. It is also tempting to misuse dependence, to ask for it when it’s not returned, to think you are owed it when you yourself have let it go, to manipulate it for your own gain. That’s what Jesus is, in part, naming — the ways in which the expectation of dependence is supposed, taken for granted, or not appreciated — and that the Kingdom of God expects it to be different.
Therein lies the promise. The in-breaking of the Kingdom of God signaled by the presence of Jesus in our midst insists on something different, something more. God imagines for us that our relationships have dependence at their core. Why? So that you might know that dependence on another is but only a foretaste of the promise of the dependence you can entrust to God. God asks you to be dependent, needs you to be dependent, on God. Why? So that you can be you and so that God can be God.
“We saw someone….” That’s how a lot of judgment starts, doesn’t it? “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” As Micah Kiel noted in the Preaching This Week commentary this sounds a lot like tattle-taling. I have two boys, 13 and 15, and it still happens. And I remember all too well the same scenario with my sisters. “I saw!”
But Jesus says, “Umm, no. That’s not how this works. That’s not how discipleship works.” And then he says further, “And, I know what you want to do next! Now you want to put a stumbling block in their way. Not only do you want to call them out, you want to make sure they fall. Seal the deal.” Yep. That’s exactly what we want to do.
It seems that when preachers get started with the new program year, that’s a lot of what it’s about rather than Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” No one is against you. We are all in this together. And we rely on the radical individuality of our congregations to know that this is true. What works for one will not work for another.
We forget that we are all in the same proverbial boat, or pond, depending on your preferred metaphor. And we need to stick together, not for the sake of an affront against, a battle lodged, or a fight for, but for the sake of camaraderie and collegiality. As soon as our denominations, our church, our faith, becomes that which we need to defend, we’ve given up on true dialogue and openness to conversation. We’ve shut the doors and decided that our confessions are better than others. As I said last week, faith is not about competition. Faith is about conversation. It is about support and community. We need a lot of reminders about that. Which is why this story again from Mark, and these words again from Jesus.
At my church, I lead a Bible Study called “Women at the Well.” For various reasons, we will not meet in September but this past weekend, I had so many women come up to me and say, “when are we meeting?” What is that question all about? It’s about a deep sense of how critical it is that we experience Christian life with each other.
They need each other, not to prove themselves right to but realize the right in so many others.
How we nurture that as preachers is so important. But how we remember that about ourselves is also critical. This is a competitive world, the church. I know it. I know it very well. “So and so has written more books than I. This person gets more speaking gigs than I.” At the end of the day, I am a preaching professor yet there are so many better preachers than I. My take on the text is “less than” compared to others. It is so very hard to resist saying, “I saw someone.”
This weekend, I will attend my 30th high school reunion. Long, long, ago, back in a former life, when I thought that being a professional violinist was my future, I had a rather difficult violin lesson with my teacher. I was trying to play like those around me, those who were getting accolades, who were moving ahead, or so I thought, who sounded better than I, or so it seemed. Mr. Meacham, my violin teacher, said, “What’s going on?” I told him I want to sound like, play like…. He said to me, “Karoline, never compare yourself to anyone but yourself.” At the time? To be honest? I didn’t get it. It didn’t make sense. Now it does. Or a little more, anyway. He was trying to say, “Karoline, you are you. There is no one else like you. Let go of all judgment, competition, and expectation.”
So now, put that to your preaching. But more so, put it to your parishioners. They need to know that the goal of faith is not winning, unlike our culture. They need to know that the goal of believing is not who can be better, whatever that means. They need to know that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation. Good grief, if we all believed the same way, how boring would that be? Not even our Scriptures propose that. The reassurance of particularity is grace itself, so says God’s commitment to the incarnation. Our penchant for “we saw someone” needs to be replaced by faith’s “we see Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see God. Our God is here.
And therein lies the irony of the statement, “We saw someone” because the point is, do you see God? Do you see God in the acts you saw? Do you see God in the persons who do deeds in God’s name? Often we don’t. And why is that? That is the question we need to ask. Why do we reject or accept God in the acts of some and not others? We might have justification, Kim Davis points to this, but you at least have to know why you say no to her or yes to another. When we say, “we saw someone” it’s a simultaneous judgment — on the other and also on ourselves.
If you are getting weary of being called out these past weeks, well, that’s Mark. That’s Jesus. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. But getting called out is not always a bad thing. It gets you to see something aboutyourself and in doing so, maybe you can then see beyond yourself. And what will you see? So says Mark, God is truly here. And that is something to see.
What is the nature of faith? That’s kind of what Jesus is asking the disciples with his unassuming question, “soooooo, what were you chatting about back there?” The NRSV translates the verb “argue” but it can also be translated, “discuss, consider, reason, ponder.” In this simple question, Jesus points out to his disciples, albeit with significant subtlety, the truth of faith — that faith is not about certainty but wonder. Not about answers but questions. Not about compulsion but conversation. What a great way to start a new church year.
A new program year, a re-gathering of the faithful, perhaps calls for a re-examination of what faith can be. A reminder, a remembrance, a rejoinder that the first question of faith should be that which Jesus asks the disciples, “so, what are you talking about?”
What are you talking about? What have you been talking about? What should we be talking about when it comes to faith? Let’s begin the new church year, everyone gathering back to together again, with a spirit of inquisitiveness and imagination; dialogue and discovery; a community willing to ask one another, what do you think? Okay, granted, the subject matter that the disciples decide to discuss could be a sermon all its own. “Who’s the greatest?” “Who is greater?” as if faith is a competition — and a lot of people think that’s true. Maybe that’s why Jesus asks a question rather than making a statement. Maybe that’s the point. He says, “what were you discussing?” not “I know what you were talking about.” There’s a lot of “I know what you are thinking” when it comes to faith conversations these days rather than, “tell me, what are you thinking?” and really coming from a place of true interest. How do you communicate what faith is to your parishioners?
People assume from you and about you a knowledge of faith, on many levels, that they themselves do not have. You went to seminary or divinity school. You took Bible classes. You have skills in the area of biblical interpretation. You are, by the very nature of your role, an authority when it comes to doctrine. People will look to you for a range of possibilities when it comes to their own understanding of faith. They will want the answers toward which you can point, although it will be up to you to note that when faith is about answers, then you have already defined what faith is. They want help in making sense of what faith is all about.
A significant aspect of what it means to preach is to realize that you are entrusted with helping your parishioners have an imagination for faith. How you engage the Bible, talk about God, teach your denominational confessions, will communicate not only what your faith means to you, but also what faith is and what it could mean for them. None of your statements about, or references to, faith is a throw away line. Your language about faith is critical to your effectiveness in ministry and to the influence of your preaching.
We relinquish a considerable amount of our power in preaching and in our ministry if we keep silent about the nature of faith, because what happens is that we then allow other sources to shape the faith imagination of those we accompany in ministry. There is certainly no dearth of opinions about faith — which faith is greater, whose is greater, what’s the right faith — nor is there a lack of very vocal presenters about the Christian faith who know how to get heard. If you do not talk about your faith and what it means to you; if you do not help those to whom you minister to think about it, discuss it, wonder about it, ask each other questions, then they will listen to others who do. They will go elsewhere for resources to assist them in understanding what faith is all about, and you might not like where they end up. Where you could have been offering ways of imagining the Christian faith that are generative and creative, instead you end up having to offer correctives…and even bringing some back from despair.
As a result, one of the issues for preaching these days is to present a posture about faith that may run counter to what your people are witnessing in their lives. In the end, your goal is not to convince or coerce but to invite conversation. It is to help people trust the uncertainty of conversation rather than bank on the self-assurance of solutions. It is to affirm that questions and dialogue are essential to faith. It is to insist that agreement is not a necessary ingredient to live in community. It is to encourage their own abilities and intuitions as interpreters of the faith and as ones empowered to express the meaning of faith — on their own terms and yet aware of the other.
And speaking of faith, who are your conversation partners? Do you have any when it comes to sharing what your faith means to you? Yes, I know you get together with colleagues about the biblical texts for preaching. But, when was the last time you sat around and talked about faith? Maybe something to put on the fall calendar along with committee meetings, text studies, confirmation…because you need opportunities to talk about your faith as well.
Jesus’ question is easily overlooked. A rather simple inquiry. But therein lies the depths of faith we have yet to plumb.
Something different, Working Preachers. I want to begin the column this week with a reading that I think captures some of the spirit we see and hear in the Syrophonecian woman’s response to Jesus.
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
Sweetcakes, God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
(Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes to Me,” from The Palm of Your Hand, 1995)
The Syrophoenician woman tells Jesus, “Guess, what? Jesus. God said yes to me. God said yes to me when God tore open the heavens. God said yes to me when God decided to show up in the wilderness rather than in the temple. God said yes to me when you came here instead of spending all your time in Jerusalem. It’s okay to be me, so get over yourself, Jesus.”
There is really no story like this in the Bible. Well, the one exception might be Moses getting God to change God’s mind. But this woman does more than get Jesus to change his mind — she rocks Jesus’ world. She gets Jesus to admit for what and whom his ministry is all about. She gets Jesus to see God for what and who God truly is.
The woman tells the truth. And when the truth gets told? Worlds change. Her world changed. Same for Jesus. He tried to escape it, tried to escape notice (Mark 7:24). No wonder. The rest of his ministry cannot be the same because of her. We think we want our world to change, but do we really? Because when your world is about to change, that takes some preparation, getting your head around, getting used to. Life, obviously, will never be the same again. You won’t be able to go back to the way it was before. So we choose to remain where we are because we convince ourselves that it takes a lot less effort to live lives of falsehood than to muster the energy to move from lies to honesty. Telling the truth takes risk. It takes courage, so much courage. So, we don’t speak the truth. We stay silent. Bite our lips. Wait for the right moment, which, by the way, never, ever comes. We remain in our illusions, in the made-up worlds we’ve created that are carefully and strategically segmented from the truth we desperately want to live. This is true in our personal lives and it is true in our pastoral lives. You do not need me to tell you just how true this this. Just stop and think about this for a minute. Please. The lies you live. The truths you are afraid to tell. Tell yourself the truth. Because that’s the first step in uttering the truth to others. And an authentic preacher, a preacher who is believable, the kind of preaching we need these days, needs to speak about the difficulty of truth-telling and the difficult truths.
If Jesus needs to be told the truth of the Gospel, God knows (literally) we do as well. All too often truth is side-lined so as to make the church, or the call to proclaim the Gospel, look better than it is. Truth-telling is absolutely essential, in part because the church itself cannot live into the fullness of the Gospel when exclusionary power structures continue to exist, says the woman from Tyre. When the truth is suppressed, when your truth is suppressed, it is then and there that assumptions take over. It is critical to name the truth, to put it out on the table for all to deal with rather than to maintain our current practices of ignorance or pretension. Because when you are accustomed to hiding the truth, overlooking it, it then becomes almost impossible to discern truth from falsehood.
Truth-telling is hard to do and hard to hear — and will be resisted, sometimes only at first, sometimes perpetually and even exponentially. But that is when the truth has to be heard for the sake of empowering the other. I think this is one of the most powerful promises of this text. She tells the truth so that others can then say, so that I can say, “You have just told my story! Thank you!” The truth, in part, has to be told and has to be heard so that you know and others know that you are not alone.
The process of truth-telling is essential in ministry, regardless of any issue we use to divert the promises of God. Those persons called to and entrusted with the privilege of giving voice to God’s love must be held accountable to that which the Gospel in its fullness proclaims. When voices are sidelined, when particular presences are questioned, when presentations of the Gospel are called into question because the source is an outsider, like from Tyre, it is never, ever just about us, but also about God. When our imagination for God’s hope for the church is undermined by our lack of imagination, that is when God becomes less than God. The Syrophoenician woman tells the truth about God and in doing so helps us imagine that truth for ourselves.
P.S. The courage necessary for truth-telling is some of what I will be presenting at the Celebration of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, October 5-7, 2015. Join me, Barbara Lundblad, Otis Moss III, Luke Powery, and Michael Brown in thinking about the courage to preach! Register online. See you there!
“Nepal, Baltimore, school shootings, cancer, suicide, poverty, discrimination, apathy, violence, ignorance, spite, abuse, injustice. Some days it’s just too much for my little heart.”
This was a Facebook post this week by a working preacher I know.
I would add to the list sexism, anxiety, broken relationships, and sorrow. I would add disillusionment, distrust, depression, and disregard. I would add questions of where and how and why a sermon will matter.
It’s been that kind of week. It’s been that kind of time. It’s been that kind of world.
Which makes Jesus’ words of joy seem out of place. Out of sync. Out of touch with reality. “Seriously, Jesus. Are you ………… kidding me?”
What is joy doing here and now in a time and place like this?
I have a feeling the disciples asked the same questions. After all, here they are in the middle of the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ parting words to his disciples, and it’s here and now in Jesus’ ministry that Jesus offers statements of joy. There’s already been the acknowledgement of troubled hearts. And the next chapters will be words about rejection and hatred and abandonment, yet even more joy, “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (16:24); And later “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13).
Joy appears misplaced in passages that deal primarily with Jesus’ departure and impending death. Joy seems inappropriate when you are told that the one on whom you have relied for intimacy and belonging will no longer be around. Joy is a marked juxtaposition to the realities that the disciples face – that we face. And maybe that’s the point. Because where is joy in the midst of the hardship Jesus described and in the peril that is sure to come? Where is joy when a primary source of your joy is leaving you? Where is joy when you need it the most? Jesus knows that the presence of joy needs to be heard, needs to be felt, when you face things that assume and anticipate a profound absence of joy.
Full disclosure. When writing my book on preaching the Gospel of John for Fortress Press, I really struggled with how to make sense of these passages – for all of the reasons mentioned above. Joy is not abstract happiness. Joy is elusive. True joy is hard to come by and seems simply impossible when one starts down the road of real life. I’ve had some personal struggles with joy. It escaped me for a while. A long while, to be exact. Why? Well, many reasons, I suppose. So at one point I decided that its pursuit was essential for who I was, who I was called to be, who I wanted to be in the world. But, paradoxically, joy is hard. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes intention. Hanging in my office is a plaque with the following definitions of joy: “1. The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. 2. The expression or exhibition of such emotion. 3. A state of felicity. 4. A source or cause of delight.” I read these definitions every day. What do you need to remind you that joy can be present? Who do you need around you to tell you that joy is here? Especially in the face of those who seek to steal your joy away? Those who seem quite determined to make sure that your joy is but a dream? That which tries to quell your joy?
This Sunday, the church may be that place for your people – that place where true joy is experienced. This Sunday, you may be that person for your congregation – that person who speaks the assurance of joy in the midst of palpable pain. We preachers would do well to recall that the Greek words for “grace” and “joy” share the same root. Joy may very well be a feeling of grace, the emotion of grace, even the response to grace. Joy is that indescribable sense when you find yourself experiencing abundant grace. In other words, joy amidst all that was named above, all that you can certainly name in your own life, in the life of your congregation, both communally and individually, is not an answer. It’s an affirmation. It’s the guarantee of God’s grace when all that is good seems so far away. It’s the security of God’s love when it appears that love is nowhere to be felt, especially from those you thought would love you. It’s the hope that even in the darkest places of separation, God’s abiding and our abiding in God (1:18; 13:23) is promised and present.
“Christians still read the Bible strangely. We read the Bible as if we were the point, as though we are not, or never were, the Gentiles” (Willie Jennings).
Is that ever the truth.
The more-often-than-not meaning of 15:6 is one of those strange readings, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” You don’t abide in me? Well, then, you are cut off, discarded. And if that were not enough, let’s be sure to throw you into the furnace of hell for good measure.
As if Jesus’ words are a rationale for judgment. As if Jesus’ words justify that we’ve always been a part of the “in” crowd. As if Jesus had only us in mind. We are quite accomplished when it comes to judgment – so quick to determine who’s in and who’s out. And we seem to get better at it all the time.
We are not the point. The fact is, the community for which John was written was indeed thrown away, thrown out – like the man born blind (9:34). Verse 6 is not a verse of condemnation because that is not what Jesus came to do (3:17). Rather, it is a statement of life. Without connection to a life source, abundant life is not possible.
The image of the vine introduces the last “I AM” statement with a predicate nominative in the Gospel of John. Why? Why this image here and now, at this point in the narrative? Preaching this text should ask this question. Twice Jesus will identify himself as the vine, first, as the true vine (15:1) and then as “I AM the vine” (15:5). The image follows on the heels of “do as the Father commanded me” (14:31) so the disciples may very well be wondering what might that be and how do we do it? The image of the vine offers a picture by which the disciples may see themselves as able to do as commanded because of their connection to the vine. To do the commandments means to bear fruit. Jesus first unpacks this image as it describes his relationship with his Father before he moves to how the image might portray his relationship with the disciples. This is key for the mutual abiding at stake between Jesus, the Father, and the disciples. Jesus is the vine, “my Father” is the vine grower. Like any good vine grower, the Father tends the vine with care, pruning where necessary so that it bears as much fruit as possible (15:16). At the forefront of this image is the theme of dependence. The vine needs the vine grower as much as the vine grower needs the vine. The vine needs the vine grower for its optimal growth and production, even its abundance. It will produce more fruit, fruit in abundance, if cared for. The vine grower needs the vine to produce, to make abundance possible for sustenance and life. The mutuality assumed in this image is essential especially at this point in the story. Jesus knows what’s next. The Farewell Discourse is all about leaving his disciples with words of comfort and hope in the midst of troubled hearts and worried souls. Why this image here and now?
Why? Because it is an image that intimates profound dependence. Profound reliance. Because life is nothing without belonging, without intimacy, without relationship.
How can you bear fruit? How can you imagine being beyond yourself? How can you realize your potential if you have no grounding, no sense of origin, no affirmation of possibility outside yourself?
The bearing of fruit depends on dependence. It depends on connection. It depends on origin. It depends on belonging. As soon as you think you can produce anything from the basis of your own sovereignty, from your own efforts, from your own sense of independence, think about it. What kind of fruit will that be?
Because bearing fruit has everything to do with who you are in relationship. I wonder if this is what we tend to forget or ignore. That the manifestations of our faith are not individual expressions of our theological commitments and convictions but are deeply lodged in and arise from the communities of our lives. That there is truncated potential for faith embodied if we are not fully on board with, realize, that the bearing fruit of our faith is premised on dependence.
I fear there is a fear of bearing fruit. And that fear has many levels. Because once we bear fruit, we lose control. We chance exposure. Others will be able to see on what or whom rely; in what and in whom we locate and lodge our strength.
And once we’re out there? Well, it’s awfully hard to take it back. Impossible, actually. And others are then free to pick and choose the fruit they preference, like perusing the options at a farmer’s market or in the produce section in the grocery store.
Bearing fruit is risky business. It will reveal who you are and on whom and what you depend. It will expose your lack of self-sufficiency. It will show others that there is no other way to be but to be dependent. Many will think it’s weakness. Many will think the ties should be broken. Many will think that being cut off is beneficial because it will result in some sort of self-actualized and admirable autonomy.
But you know different. And that’s what needs to be preached.
“Good sermon, Pastor!” Don’t you then want to respond, “What does that actually mean? What was good about it?” Isn’t that the anticipated adjective to describe your sermon as you shake hands at the back of the church at the end of worship? It is a rather vague and unsatisfactory adjective and yet uniform and ubiquitous. Does it really mean anything? What does it communicate anyway? It is a rather useless adjective, and if we are honest, means nothing.
Furthermore, what makes for a good sermon for some is not the same for another. I avoid using this adjective altogether in my teaching of preaching. I tell my students that their goal is not to come up with a good sermon, but a faithful sermon. A colleague in preaching, Clay Schmit, Provost of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, puts it this way, “Rather than try to be a good preacher, be a faithful preacher. The goodness is always in God’s hands.”
A faithful sermon will tend the following aspects with rigor: the biblical text, the multiple contexts into which a text comes alive, the human condition and God’s response, theological imagination, the mind of the listener, the heart of the listener, and orientation to living a life of faith in God’s world. I think this is what our parishioners mean by “that was a good sermon, Pastor.”
But the problem with good is its expected antithesis – bad. And dichotomies are often not helpful when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a sermon. Preaching necessitates more nuance – so does life. Unfortunately that seems to be the world in which we live – where assessment, adjudication, even identity is construed by contrast and opposition. You know what I mean: Democrat or Republican, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, gay or straight, black or white. If we are honest, it’s a rather safe move. Contrasts are easier. They require less dialogue, less listening, less thinking.
Which is, in part, what has happened to Jesus as the good shepherd.
If Jesus is the good shepherd, our first response seems to be, “in opposition to bad shepherds” and then we immediately embark on all kinds of allegorical fancy to determine the identity of these bad shepherds so as to avoid them, pit Jesus against them, or make sure we aren’t one of them. Lest we forget, the audience of Jesus’ discourse in response to his healing of the man born blind includes the Pharisees and the disciples, not to mention the original audience and those of us who authorize John’s Gospel as Scripture. So before we quickly assert simplistic designations that determine the “bad” shepherds as the Pharisees, we would do well to remember that listening to Jesus is Judas as well.
As a result, we spend a good deal of interpretive energy sifting out those that appear to oppose Jesus, those that seem counter to Jesus, those who are not Jesus. And it’s in that kind of interpretive space that we get into trouble – that Jesus is the only way. That without Jesus, hell is the future. That Christianity is good and every other expression of faith is bad. As a result, little interpretive imagination is located in just what makes Jesus a “good” shepherd. We need to think more about what makes Jesus the “good” shepherd before our answer is, “he’s good because he’s not bad.”
Can you answer that? What makes Jesus the good shepherd? Without collapsing into dichotomy? Without acquiescing to all that which is opposite? And without your answer only being “well, at least he’s not this….” It means that you have to give specificity to an imprecise adjective. It means that you have to be willing to enter into gradation. It means that you can’t jump immediately to the cross, because Jesus is going to ask you be the shepherd (21:15-19). It means that all of a sudden “good” is not a generic or ubiquitous claim but that which takes on a breadth and depth of meaning as vast as the incarnation itself.
As a result, a sermon on Jesus as the “good” shepherd could focus on any of the following truths because all of these definitions of “good” are possible if you tend to John. Pick one and preach it for all it’s worth. If you try to preach on all of which makes Jesus the “good” shepherd, you have just made the adjective “good” as bland as before.
Jesus is the good shepherd because he the source of abundant life, first to the man born blind, giving him a new existence, new life – he is a new creation, a child of God (1:1; 12-13). Jesus is the good shepherd because he finds the man born blind after the blind man has been thrown out (9:35) which the disciples need to hear because they too will be thrown out (12:42; 16:1-2) and which they need to remember because Jesus found them (1:43). Jesus is the good shepherd because he knows his sheep and he calls them by name (Lazarus, 11:43; Mary Magdalene, 20:16). Jesus is the good shepherd because before he goes to the cross, he lays down his life by coming out of the garden, the fold, leaving his sheep protected and safe in the garden, giving himself up (no kiss from Judas) for the sake of his disciples, his sheep (18:4). Jesus is the good shepherd because he will take up his life again in the resurrection AND the ascension, the resurrection being our promise of life here and now (11:25) and the promise of life in our future; the ascension being the abiding place that Jesus prepares for the ones he loves (1:18; 13:23; 14:2).
That is what’s good about a shepherd.
“You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48; Acts 3:15).
We certainly are. Thanks for the reminder, Jesus.
Because we need reminders of the resurrection – and often. Left to our own devices, left to the way in which life returns to normal after Easter, left to planning the last big worship push before summer, left to looking toward the end of the program year, left to confirmations and graduations, it’s all too easy to forget the resurrection.
Easter Sunday, only two weeks past, seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it? And in many ways, it is. Because that’s how ministry works. The church goes on. Life goes on. Since Christ has been raised from the dead, all kinds of ministry acts have likely taken place: weddings, funerals, confirmation classes, bible studies, hospital visits, commendations of the dying. Sure, we can see the resurrection promise in each of these experiences, but it does take some effort, and a reminder.
As a result, resurrection has the tendency to be a less than present reality, more likely a claim about a past event or a future assurance. Why is the presence of resurrection often overlooked? Understated? Even denied? Why do we seem to be more comfortable keeping resurrection in the past or postponing its promises for the future? Why is it so difficult? What are we afraid of?
Why is life, here and now, so hard to see?
I suspect there are a lot of reasons why. There is the simple truth that life is lived in the consciousness of death. And it seems that we have all too many reminders of death and not enough reminders of life. Globally, nationally, communally, personally, the presence of death is more palpable than the promise of life. I had one of those weeks last week: a dear friend, once vibrant and alive, now in the throws of chemo; aging parents facing heart surgery and recurrent ailments; a friend whose nine-year-old son was diagnosed with depression; my sister’s struggle in learning that their church secretary’s back pain was actually a body filled with cancer; listening to stories of broken relationships and then realizing some of your own. You know these weeks. You have lived these weeks. And so have your parishioners.
I also suspect that life, here and now, is hard to see because of fear: a fear of rejection; a fear that it could really be true. Seriously, what if the testimony of the women at the tomb was true? We are in good company when it comes to these fears. The women in Luke’s Gospel return from the tomb, go to the disciples and testify to what they themselves heard and witnessed, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5-7). And how do the disciples respond? They conclude that what the woman have to say is “an idle tale,” which, as many of you know, is the G-rated version of the Greek word better translated as “crap, garbage” or, yes, you guessed it, “bull….”. Like the response to Jesus’ first sermon when the hometown folk want to through him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-30), good news is rarely accepted at the first hearing. Why? Because rejection is easier than resurrection. If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?” (Preaching Moment #10)
Life, here and now, is very hard to see. In the end, I think being resurrection people takes some effort, in fact, a lot of effort. And some weeks will demand more effort than others. Jesus knows this reality, our reality. And knows that we need a reminder. In fact, we probably need a lot of them, daily perhaps. Notice the tense of Jesus’ assertion – not “you were”, not “you will be”, but “you are”. I have a feeling Jesus takes that seriously. You are witnesses, here and now, in this moment. In this life. In your daily life. For the sake of life. Jesus reminds us of who we really are – resurrection people, resurrection witnesses. And it is also important to note that Jesus does not stop talking at verse 48 where the lectionary pericope ends. In verse 49, Jesus witnesses to what makes it possible to be witnesses – the promise of the Spirit.
We do not witness alone, as the first resurrection witness tells us, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 24:10).
We do not witness alone, as we sit amongst a community of fellow believers.
We do not witness alone, as the Spirit is indeed coming, and coming soon.
Our lives, on every level, need resurrection witnesses. Remind your congregation. Remind yourself.
A letter to Thomas, the disciple, based on John 20:19-31.
Ah Thomas. Every first Sunday after Easter. Forever called “the Doubter”.
And even when we recall that the word “doubt” never appears in your story, that Jesus says to you “do not be unbelieving but believing,” that believing in the Gospel of John has nothing to do with an ascent to claims and creeds of faith but is rather a synonym for relationship with Jesus, you are still given a name you didn’t deserve. That happens a lot with name-calling, doesn’t it?
And I wonder if anyone remembers that this is not the first time you’ve requested something of Jesus. I imagine most of us don’t.
Why? I suspect that it’s because we are so captivated by your disbelief in that it validates our own. So thankful for your so-called need for proof because it justifies our deepest desires for evidence of an empty tomb. So admiring of your willingness to speak up for what you need for belief because, if we are honest, for the most part we are all too comfortable in our allegiance to and acceptance of doctrine and dogma and determined faith that, in the end, means nothing to us.
So many of us don’t speak up. We don’t speak up for the things we need, the things owed us, the things that matter, the things promised to us, the things about which we think we can’t or won’t speak up because who will listen? Will anything change? So we stay silent. For ourselves. For others. In shame. In guilt. Someone else will say something, right? Surely someone else will speak up. Someone else will stand up for injustice, for discrimination, for false claims about religious freedom. For those abused. For those who have no voice. Someone else will give voice to what I feel and know and want. Someone else will speak up for me.
No wonder we can hardly remember, or try not to anyway, your first request of Jesus.
This is what I like about you, what I admire about you, Thomas. You ask for what you need. For what’s owed to you, yes. For what you deserve, yes. But more so, for what Jesus had already promised you. For what Jesus promises every believer. You have a good memory, Thomas.
Back in John 14 to be exact: “‘And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”
Show us the way! We don’t know the way! I wonder what you thought after that. Maybe you took Jesus seriously. Maybe you thought you could.
So when the disciples say to you, Thomas, “Guess what? We saw the Lord!!” (the same thing that Mary Magdalene says to the disciples, by the way) you had to be thinking, “Well, that’s just great! Jesus did say he was the way. I remember that. And when we were talking about the way, well, that meant Jesus was preparing an abiding place for me. And how can I know an abiding place with him without being with him? I mean, wait a minute. Mary saw the Lord. The other disciples saw the Lord. It’s not that I need proof. I just need to be with him. Because that’s what it means that he’s the way, right? Jesus’ way is not that which discriminates. Jesus’ way is not that which disregards. Jesus’ way is not that which discards. Jesus’ way does not mean I’m left out. That’s not how I heard it anyway. I didn’t know where he was going and I didn’t know the way. And then, he said he was the way. I need to feel that abiding place again. Because that’s what the way is. I just need to be with you Jesus. To touch you, feel you, see you, hear you, taste you. One more time. I need to feel that abiding place again, I need to feel the way, again. One more time.”
It seems you found the way, Thomas, but really, you knew it all along.
You knew the way was not a roadmap.
You knew the way was not a claim meant to exclude others.
You knew the way was not that which you could use to reject others.
Instead you knew the way was being in the presence of your Lord and God – and that’s all you wanted. You wanted what Jesus said you know. You asked for what Jesus said you should. You needed what Jesus said is yours – always.
And in that moment you saw Jesus as your Lord and as your God. Thank you, Thomas, for your courage to ask.