"There is an intellectual desire, an eros of the mind. Without it there would arise no questioning, no inquiry, no wonder." Bernard Lonergan

"It seems clear that humans cannot significantly reduce or mitigate the dangers inherent in their use of life by ccumulating more information or better theories or by achieving greater predictability or more caution in their scientific and industrial work. To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it." Wendell Berry

"Do not be afraid, my little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

For Men's Bible Study: Sermon Excursus on The Rich Ruler from Luke

“Lessons from Luke: The Rich Ruler” Luke 18: 18 – 30 Christopher H. Edmonston Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church, March 6, 2005 I. Four weeks ago we began a journey into Luke’s gospel to see what he meant by rich and poor. We began on an earnest search for the Lenten lessons that Luke had to teach us; we agreed in these sermons to do our best to give Luke an honest hearing about the pitfalls and pratfalls of wealth, and the easy seduction of money that tells us that it is the elixir of happiness and the antidote to emptiness; we said we would take the plunge as a wealthier congregation and offer ourselves unto the word to discover anew our sinfulness and Christ’s redemption. Thus far our train has stopped in some difficult places, and I am quite sure that there have been at least a few of us who’d rather not have gotten off the places that we have been – places where we have heard Jesus say things like: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation;” and, “One cannot serve two masters – You cannot serve God and money.” Today we arrive at a place where we have already been before, as several months ago, I preached around this text – meaning I read it but took a different direction than where I am going today (I preached it through the looking glass of ‘salvation’ instead of ‘wealth’). A few of you came up to me and wanted to know what Jesus meant by that statement about “a camel getting through a needle’s eye.” I asked those of you who said something to be patient (that I would get to it) and today I make good on that promise. II. Earlier this week I was in Chapel Hill speaking with Bob Dunham (the first summer intern here at Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church), the pastor at University Presbyterian Church. We were talking about this text and the writing of this sermon. One of the observations that we shared was that the stakes are so high here in Luke 18. This is not a parable; there is no metaphor or symbolism here. There are no abstractions to be found. One man, a ruler Luke calls him, and Jesus standing face to face – virtually no distance between them, between us (if we dare to put ourselves in the place of the man) and God. Jesus is as close as we can get him here. And this up close and personal Jesus is calling upon him (and us) to make a choice. Bob shared with me that old Jack Benny joke about the robber who approached the rich man with gun in hand. The robber mashes the gun in the ribs of the guy he is robbing and says, “Your money or your life.” Several, if not many, moments pass with the tension mounting with every tick of the watch. Impatient the robber presses the metal harder against his flesh and says, “Well?” The man replies, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” III. One of the films that gets a lot of play at my house is a movie that came out about 4 years ago called The Family Man. It is an update of It’s a Wonderful Life, and while not as good as the Jimmy Stewart film, it is still a film that powerfully questions modern life and modern assumptions about value, wealth, family, and the deepest meanings of life. Jack, the main character, is wealthy beyond all imagination. He has closets full of suits; a six-figure sports car; he lives in a Manhattan penthouse; dates supermodels; he is wealthy and powerful – a ruler on Wall Street because he is a buyer of main street. We meet Jack as he has just called a meeting for the pawns that do his bidding – a meeting on Christmas morning. As Jack leaves the office, he intercedes in a robbery of sorts – maybe best described as an urban confrontation. In this confrontation, Jack meets an angel. The angel at one point asks him coldly, “Well Jack, what do you need?” Without thinking Jack answers, “I don’t need anything.” Imagine that. Not needing anything? Well that would a lie, I think for anyone living today. It’s a lie for Jack in the movie as the next morning he awakens in suburban New Jersey, managing a tire store, with a wife and two kids and a stack of bills he’ll never pay. He trades his Italian leather for a mini-van and Sears. He changes diapers and argues with his wife. Strangely enough, he learns that this is somehow exactly what he needs: he has always thought that he needed money; but what he has needed all along was life. IV. “What do I need, good teacher, to inherit eternal life?” It is with such a question that this text begins with today. What the rich ruler is really asking is: “What does it take, what is required, how do you get it?” When you look at this text very closely you begin to see its importance and its challenge. To begin with, unlike our texts of the past weeks, this text is all three synoptic gospels –Matthew, Mark, and Luke (whereas the unjust manager and Lazarus and the rich man are only found in Luke). All three thought it was essential to the story of Jesus. All thought we should learn about this person, this man who is very sad because he is very rich. Luke calls him a “ruler,” using the Greek word archon to describe him (Matthew and Mark don’t describe him like this). In the New Testament, archon is a powerful word (wherever we find it, Luke is trying to tell us something) – we get words like archbishop and archangel from the word. In Luke he is not only very rich, but he is powerful (Luke seems to know the connection between power and money). Strangely enough, the ruler’s question is a contradiction of sorts: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” By definition one does nothing to inherit – inheritance comes by the grace of the progenitor; the generosity of one with the power to give. Perhaps that is why Jesus answers his question a little differently than he asks it. For Jesus, in responding to the man’s question, the answer is not eternal life (which is the ruler’s question), but participating in the kingdom. There is a difference here in Luke between kingdom and eternal life (the words are even different in the Greek), and for Christians then and now. What Jesus is doing here is setting up an understanding of faith and life in which both heaven and earth are of crucial concern and divine importance. Notice Jesus’ phrase: “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than one who is rich to enter the kingdom.” Notice that the phrase was not “easier for a camel to pass than for a rich one to have eternal life.” Notice also that in the final verse of our selection, Luke 18:30, Jesus wonderfully joins the two together – “There is no one who sacrificially gives for my sake that will not receive much more in this age, AND in the life to come” – the issue for Jesus is both the earthly kingdom that he has come to construct and the heavenly life that he is assuring for those he calls his own. We want to make it one or the other – Jesus thinks that discipleship is about both. V. The point, Jesus is making is that for those who have much – much comfort, much money, much security, much control – entering the kingdom of grace, the community of loving discipleship is very difficult – almost impossible. To be sure the temptation is to water this down – to say that somehow Jesus means something different here than he really means – but that would be a mistake. It’s really a camel. It’s really a needle. It is meant to be impossible. Preacher and scholar alike have agreed that the hyperbole here is meant to get our attention. We are supposed to be shocked. Jesus’ point is that if we are holding onto anything save the grace and calling of God in our lives, then we are not going to make it into the kingdom – that kingdom, that entity that he has been proclaiming and preaching about for 18 chapters now in Luke’s narrative. What is the kingdom (it’s different than heaven after all)? The kingdom is that place of community where there is sharing; it is an end of loneliness; an end of comparison and ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’; it’s a place where everyone is heard and hears; where there is no weeping or mourning alone; where the hungry eat and the empty are filled; where the Spirit is real and the good gifts of God are abundantly shared; the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is the here and now place of grace; the place that we all long to live and the community that beckons us all. The seduction of money, Jesus says, gets us off track and makes us think that wealth, and not God’s Spirit of Grace and Life, can carve out a kingdom life for us. Jesus is saying that it is not possible for our wealth alone to make for us a kingdom life. I stand before you today as a student of Jesus, and as a man who struggles with this tension. I stand before you as a student of scripture and a disciple of Jesus to say humbly that I am convinced (even though I don’t always live like it) that the grace of Jesus Christ is more beautiful than any bank account, any lifestyle, or any luxury that we can imagine. VI. Where the ruler gets it wrong is that he thinks that this teaching of Jesus is yet another Torah-like demand, another requirement of the law; all the while Jesus is transcending the law itself – not supplanting it or replacing it – but offering grace abundant that goes beyond what the ruler can imagine. Jesus’ word to him is not so much judgment as it is bidding to a new life in this kingdom that he is proclaiming and demonstrating. The only sacrifice the man must make is the life that he has known. Only?!?! That seems like a great deal. It would scare me to great ends. But, one wonders (and here is where this text cuts, and it cuts more than one way), if the life that the man returns to by rejecting the invitation of the Lord, the life that his wealth had provided for him was so wonderful and satisfying in the first place, then why did he seek Jesus out and ask his question? If he was satisfied and justified, just as he was, then why look for something different or something new? When he walks away, the deception of wealth is complete. The sad truth is not that the man is lacking something – we all lack something in our lives – it is that in the very presence of God he cannot hold onto the one thing he lacks because of the grip that he holds upon something else. And, quite truthfully, because of the grip that wealth has upon him. VII. So, one wonders, what have we substituted for God? What have we dared to call the kingdom that is really and fully not the kingdom? Henri Nouwen, who is the writer of the Lenten devotional that you received last month, has taken his place since his death as one of the most important Christian-spiritual writers of our time. He writes in his book (at several places), Here and Now, that modern life instructs us repeatedly that we are our fame; that we are our wealth; that we are our power. Apart from these, he warns, culture convinces us that we have little or no identity and we are terrified to live without one or all of these things. And then he warns: as soon as we buy into this spiritual economy – fame, power, and wealth – the economy turns on us and tells us that we are not famous enough, not wealthy enough, or not powerful enough. And we are never satisfied. I think that is why the ruler seeks out Jesus, and it is why you and I are still seeking Him today. VIII. One final note on the text that we cannot overlook: the disciples’ consternation and Peter’s confusion. “Who then can be saved?,” they demand of Jesus – re-asking the initial question of the ruler. And the answer of Jesus is the answer of Luke, echoing the words of Gabriel to Mary all the way back in Luke chapter 1:37, “Nothing is impossible with God.” As one scholar has pointed out, this settles once and for all the question about salvation and how it happens, “Only God can save, whatever one’s condition.” The question then is not really about salvation – it is about fullness of life in Christ and the joy that only God can and does provide. To get this life, to receive the kingdom in our lives requires a much greater sacrifice than most of us are willing to make. It requires that we give up some control. For as long as we believe that we can control our lives, our worlds, our spheres of influence we are each in some form practicing an idolatry. That is really the sin of the ruler – the wealth he controls, he believes, is evidence of God and has for him become God. When we choose an idol over the God of heaven and earth we errantly believe that we control God. This ruler has not chosen to serve two masters -- he has chosen his master, his wealth, and he has chosen poorly. IX. Most ministers I know, and I am no different, can tell a tragic and terrible story about someone who has realized the error of this choice. Who has assumed that they could think, maneuver, force, or buy their way out of any situation and have years assuring that type of control and power – only to have all they have built slip through their fingers like water when confronted with the pain of life, or the reality of death. They realize too late the deception that has taken them, and they understand painfully that there really is no choice between money and life, between earthly wealth and heavenly grace, between riches and the kingdom of God. The writer Rudyard Kipling addressing a graduating class advised the graduates not to care too much for money, or power, or fame. He said, “Someday you will meet a [person] who cares for none of these things – then you will know how poor you are.” This is what happened to the ruler – he met that someone who cared for none of that stuff in the person of Jesus. One wonders how it will happen to us. Your money or your life? Which will it be?: wealth and idolatry or the infinite joys of the kingdom of grace, which is as close to heaven as we will get on earth? What do we really need? Dare we say we need nothing while falling at the feet of Jesus? Which one will it be – more of the stuff of this world, or more of the life of God in our lives? May God grant us the ability to see the call to kingdom as not just another requirement of the faith but as an opportunity to be freed from the captivity of this world and an invitation to begin living like we belong and are part of the next. Amen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Can We Boil it Down?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Calling All Y'all - All are Called

Having had enough of snow, I delved into my library to uncover a very “personal” classic. Though not a book I read all the time, a book I revisit every few years is Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life. It is equal parts wisdom for clerical life and instruction on how (and how not) to preach. Written by one of the most gifted preachers of this or any age, it is Taylor’s humble prose and stunning insight which move and guide me.

As she writes about a young man who longs to be ordained, to be a pastor, but not necessarily serve in a church, she shares this story (page 25): “Then why do you want to be ordained?” I asked him. He thought a while and finally said, “For the identity, I guess. So I could sit down next to someone on a bus who looked troubled and ask them how they were without them thinking I’m trying to hustle them. So I could walk up to someone on the street and do the same thing. So I could be up front about what I believe, in public as well as in private. So I would have the credentials to be the kind of Christian I want to be.” His honesty was both disarming and disheartening. God help the church if clergy are the only Christians with “credentials,” and God help all those troubled people on the bus if they have to wait for an ordained person to come along before anyone speaks to them. 

Each of us is called. That may seem like more work as you read it. But with God, nothing is ever passive. With God, call is ever active. It is not just pastors who are to reach the troubled, the lost, or the sad. Every person who seeks to follow God as a disciple of Jesus is called to help, to share, and to offer gifts of worship and service where they are needed.

This understanding has layers and layers and layers of implication for church life. But what I think it implies most especially is the idea that we be participants. When you are listening to a sermon, praying a prayer, singing a hymn, you are as much a part of that activity of faith as the preacher, the prayer leader or the organist. Listening and worship are active! We are all called to contribute through purposeful thought and song.

In other words, all y’all are called. We are called to be ambassadors of grace in the world. We are called to actively worship and praise. We are called to serve as we seek to impact the community around us. As we respond to Christ’s call, our eyes and souls are refocused upon the world which God has made and the faith we are entrusted to proclaim.

“There is even a chance,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “that the Christian vocation is above all a vocation to imagine – to see what God sees when God looks at the world, and to believe that God’s dreams can come true” (page 37).

Who wouldn’t want to see or imagine as much?