Posts Tagged ‘parable’

Living faithful

August 6, 2017

I want you to imagine that day.  Just another day, or so it seemed.  Nothing to set it apart, until the news begins to make the rounds.  Dead.  John the baptizer was dead – horribly dead at the hands of that murderous maniac Herod.  John in prison was one thing – a sign that the authorities were worried, maybe, but the news of John’s death is serious and confusing and horrifying, and fills people with questions…and grief.  With John dead, they turn to Jesus for advice.  Jesus, who had inherited John’s disciples and John’s mission; but Jesus was gone too.  Heading for the hills (they said).  Off in a boat to pray, or hide, or weep – who knew – but the people wanted to know…needed to know what to do next.

Sudden, tragic events bring thoughts of upheaval and revolution to people living in captivity – even to people whose hope is found in the promises of people like John and Jesus.  So what was next?  Was this the sign that Jesus would finally have to take up the role that they imagined was his?  Is the kingdom finally coming?  Was he off plotting the rebellion; ready to lead the nation to victory?

Jesus went, and they followed.  Out to the middle of nowhere and turn left, that’s where they find him.  His friends were there too – they never left his side – and the crowds…the crowds kept coming.  Some hopeful and cheering – some crying – others complaining and all of them imposing on Jesus privacy; pushing and shoving and making a general nuisance.   And God bless him, Jesus cried and listened and made time for them.  In moments like this Jesus shows us what he is made of – he hears the hope in their questions, shares their grief, honours their presence and offers them compassion – that’s what the text calls it.  A word; a touch; a prayer – and each one found peace and help and healing.

And naturally, it wasn’t long until the discussions turned from fright to freedom to food; especially as the day turned to dusk.  It had been a long difficult day, and there is now a vast multitude; families, former pupils, curious faithful and devious doubters – a small city with no infrastructure.  Surely they’ll be made to fend for themselves.  Surely Jesus has done enough.

His disciples have had enough.  There’s an earnest huddle on the hill; plenty of hand-waving, shoulder-shrugging and pointing (vaguely) toward town.  Then a the sudden, uncomfortable silence that follows Jesus’ words “you give them something…”

Think of it; you’re somewhere in the midst of the crowd and you see movement.  Hands raised to heaven – bread offered and taken and offered again.  A slow, determined wave of activity, with Jesus at its centre, making its way through the crowd, and from hand to hand – from one to another – a word, a prayer, a bit of bread and fish.  “And all ate and were filled…”, says the gospel record – an image of unparalleled satisfaction.  Not such a common thing in the wasteland of first century Palestine – out ‘back of beyond’ as they were.  What would it mean to know that feeling – to experience that miracle?

We have inherited this miracle story, and we always make it about the food – Five loaves, two fish, 5000+ people and still twelve baskets to spare.  We can claim God’s limitless providence, or we can imagine folks shamed into sharing what they had once tried to keep safe for themselves; either way, it’s a miracle.  But when we limit the story to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (just as we casually gloss over the people who weren’t officially counted because they were women and children), I think we miss the point.

Whatever we think of miracles – then or now – the main component of any miracle story is compassion.  Nothing on that day was possible without Jesus compassion, and any miracles in our lives will have the same ingredients:

Jesus ability to see the needs of others even in the midst of his own questions and confusion – his willingness to see to the needs of others, and his insistence that his disciples do likewise – these are the ingredients of a miracle.  And it occurs to me that this miracle story may be a parable too.

The organization of Matthew’s gospel is important to my argument.  A chapter full of parables (and the explanation of parables), followed by a living parable.  The kingdom of God is like a crowd in a field.  The crowd is hurting and hungry and needy in all the ways that humanity is hurting and hungry.  The teacher in their midst has been generous with his time, and at the climax of the story, he suggests to his students that they might be equally generous.  In spite of the overwhelming odds against success,  they should follow his example; they should feed the crowd.  And all ate and were satisfied.  Simple and complicated, just like a parable.

What we want to see in this miracle is an easy way out.  The need is not overwhelming, no matter how large the crowd.  The impossible becomes ordinary, against our expectations.  God is for us, against all odds – that’s what we want to hear in this story.  When our expectations overwhelm us, Jesus steps in, gives thanks, and all is made miraculously well.  Because life is rather like a crowd in a deserted field, and we imagine ourselves at the centre of the story.  We expect to be asked to solve the whole problem – at once, and by ourselves.  We expect to be held responsible in case of failure.

We expect any help to be a long way off.  But this is not a parable of life – it is yet another glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven is not about our abilities or our expectations.

There is a miracle at the centre of every kingdom story.  Miracle is the word we use when the result cannot be explained by our experience.  And Jesus invites us to facilitate the miracle: “you give them something…”, he says, without bothering to tell us how it might be possible.   Instead, he shows us how; producing food from scarcity – hope from despair – life from death.  Jesus stands as a living parable, urging us toward something more – something of God.

It’s simple enough: Take what you have – your time; your food; your friendship; your life – and share it in faith.  By such acts of compassion, miracles are made.  By our imitation of Christ the kingdom is brought slowly and surely into view.

Risky business

November 16, 2014

There is no real justice in this parable. Those who have much are given more – those who have little wind up with nothing; not to mention the dismissal into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”1, and too often, this parable is explained to us as an example of stewardship. Take the gifts you are given and use them to advantage (and to the glory of God, of course) – this is how the kingdom comes; this is what the king of kings wants. But there is no justice in that expanation, either – and God’s kingdom is not a kingdom without justice.

So what do you make of this story? Lots of good suggestions have come from the idea that we must be pro-active with the bounty entrusted to us; it is a reasonable way to live – even a faithful way to live – but is that enough?

If there is someone willing to trust us with a treasure, what would that mean? It says as much about the slaves as it does about the master. It suggests that the slave has earned the master’s trust. It suggests that the master is either exceedingly generous, or so wealthy that he is indifferent to great loss. There is an element of risk here that is not always our first way into the story, and it is the risk that makes it interesting.

We don’t often think of faith as a risky business. We advertise faith as the great comfort; religion has ben described as ‘the opiate of the people’, and whether or not you accept Marx’s premise, we understand religion as something that offers safety, security and some measure of certainty. Risk is for something else, not for faith – not for us…

The problem is that the things that we long for – the things that faith in Christ demand of us – these are not safe, comfortable things. We want peace – we wait for the peace that passes understanding – and we are called to work for that peace; loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Risky business that, because it means speaking up when reason tells us that silence would be safer. Risk is for teenagers and rebels – for people who would test the boundaries of authority and possibility – and that is what Jesus does; eating with the outcast, marching on the spiritual capital and challenging the order of the day. The risk was incalculable; the punishment was execution…but the reward for his faithful risk-taking was resurrection – and a lasting legacy among those who call themselves faithful.

Put aside the notion that those who work hardest or those who are most obedient will receive greatest reward in the heavenly kingdom – and those who fail to “grow the kingdom” will be shunned – that is a misreading of this parable. Instead, consider the idea that those who were brave enough (or foolish enough) to risk what was not theirs are “welcomed into the joy of their master.” And the one who wanted only to keep what he had been given – taking no chances and treating the gift as a threat (or a curse) – that slave is shown the door. It’s not that the master expected a doubling of his investment – the rate of return is what we usually remember in this story. The master took a chance – putting power / wealth / his “fortune” (whatever it may be) in the hands of his slaves. Those who took the same risk as the master – the two who sent those gifts out (and as a result, multiplied them) – they were welcomed as equals; they joined the company as partners (to extend the metaphor). The risk brings the reward.

So when was the last time we took a risk in faith? I’ll be honest, my list is fairly long – having left one occupation to start on a new path – following the call into ordained ministry – risky business. But what does risk look like for you? For this congregation? For the People of God?

The slaves who earned praise from the master did not – could not – expect reward of any kind; certaily not to be welcomed into the master’s inner circle. Neither can we operate on the expectation of “doubling our investment” every time we take a chance. Failure is much more likely than success (that’s what makes it risky) but risk is what made us who we are; risk built the Church of Christ; risk is at the heart of grace, forgiveness and the mercy of God.

Can we live faithful lives without taking a chance? I, for one, can’t imagine how. There is no certainty in tradition; the lessons of history teach us that risk is essential to progress; our sense of security (as an institution crucial to the well being of society) has been taken hostage, and there is no negotiations that will restore our position. It’s time to take a chance with the gifts God has given us.

There are no guarantees; no way of calculating the ‘rate of return’ – there is only the promise that those who take a chance for their faith will be welcomed into the joy of our Master.

Amen

1Matthew 25: 30

The problem with privilege

October 5, 2014

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone [the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone] will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They [the chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him [Jesus], but they[the chief priests and Pharisees] feared the crowds, because they [the crowds] regarded him as a prophet.”1

This is quite a problem. Jesus has directly accused the shepherds of Israel – the keepers of religious truth – of failing in their duty and abandoning their sacred call to serve. The parable accuses them of trying to ‘take over the farm’, and the judgement on them is expected to be harsh. These are God’s chosen, after all – they stand in the legacy of heroes who have been appointed by God to guide a chosen people on right paths. And Jesus stands to tell them that their failure will not be tolerated – that their places in the kingdom to come are no longer secure; others will have the pleasure and privilege of that particular promise. Not good news.

This is when we assure ourselves that the bible was written a long time ago, and that this particular parable of Jesus has already been played out in real life – a new movement sprung up from the wreckage of the old, and that the promise has been given to us anew, in Jesus…except that is not true. This is not an ‘us against them’ parable with Jesus followers as the “good guys’ and the religious authority of the day as the villains. This parable accuses all of God’s beloved – anyone who has, at any time, considered themselves a child of God, is warned by Jesus’ story here. Not good news.

Jesus has called on the memory of our text from Isaiah2 and made it real for the crowd of his day, but the metaphor of the vineyard – God’s pleasant planting – remains dear to us, and we also need to take notice. Jesus is speaking to people who believe that the system favours them, but he is also surrounded by (and is an encouragement to) people whom the religious system has utterly rejected. Over generations the religious system has come to resemble the world powers which it was intended to oppose. Leaders become comfortable; followers believe that they are privilaged. If you know the rites and observe them, you are somehow exempt from the ordinary courtesies that are at the foundation of the Mosaic commandments – summed up in the love of God and neighbour. Jesus recognizes a problem in his time, but the problem of privilege is a constant trap for those whom God has called.

Both Isaiah and Jesus would remind God’s people that the biggest danger to the fellowship of faith comes from within. Our complacency, our belief that we have done all that is necessary to please God – these are the things that bring the walls tumbling down. And every generation, someone sees the danger, and calls the church to take notice. The language changes, of course, but From Isaiah to Jesus to this very moment, we need to be reminded that the work we do is (first of all) at God’s request and for God’s glory, and (second) not the thing that will save us.

Our rituals and traditions feel eternal – they are supposed to remind us of the constancy of God’s promise and presence – but nothing we do is forever, and no particular tradition or ritual can protect us from our mortality or save us from our sin. The mystery of faith is this; what we cannot do, God has already done in Jesus Christ – not so we could stop working or praying or offering worship or seeking justice, rather, we are invited to use our efforts to help reveal the glory of what God has done. The point of the parable is that when our efforts fail to reflect God’s mighty acts of grace to the world, then our efforts will fail, and our labour will be in vain – we will find frustration and hopelessness, rather than freedom and joy.

The good news – the truly spectacular news – is that even when we find frustration; even when our efforts fail to reveal the goodness of God – when churches struggle and congregations despair – even when God seems to be tearing down walls and opening the vineyard to strangers – even then, in love God offers us the chance to start from scratch. The wild grapes are uprooted, the old vines pruned and burned so that new growth might come. That is the mystery and majesty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we come together in this most ancient and mysterious sacrament of the church – gathered around this table, may we remember that the planting continues – the vineyard is constantly being renewed in love, by faith. And thanks be to God, we have Good News to share.

Amen.

1Matthew 21: 43-46 (NRSV)

2Isaiah 5: 1-7

What cost, grace? Luke 14: 15-24

June 22, 2014

Grace – especially God’s grace – is a strange concept. No one deserves it; everyone has a different definition for it; and when God offers grace, the world is turned upside down. Disadvantage becomes desirable.

Jesus offers this insight while observing guests and their host interact over dinner. Entertaining, then and now, is a complicated business. Some guests are more important than others. Egos must be soothed, seating arrangements need to be carefully planned – and Jesus calls attention to the ridiculous, petty nature of it all. Don’t make a fuss, Jesus says – don’t claim importance for yourself – humility and hospitality are two sides of the same coin, and you host can only show you true hospitality if you are truly humble. When someone seems to suggest that those who share a table in the Kingdom of God will somehow be different, Jesus launches into his parable.

The first thing that strikes me about this ‘parable’ is the weak excuses offered by those who are first invited. I’ve got to see some new property; I’ve just been married; – I’m dying to try out my new oxen…Seriously? You have been invited – well in advance. You know the host is saving a place for you. Indifference is at work here, and that is what makes this parable so hard to hear this morning – for we know all about indifference.

(look around – you see real evidence of indifference – empty seats.)

But don’t mistake me – this is not a story about the importance of having a full church, nor is it all about dragging people to the party who don’t want to be at the party (Matthew tells the story differently, with consequences for those who come to the party ‘unprepared’) – no, Jesus tells this story at a dinner party (where grace is in short supply) to remind us that there is nothing in our experience that compares to God’s grace.

When we think about this parable and what it means for us as the church, too often, we see it as a sign of our failure. We have not kept the table full. We have failed to follow the instructions of the host, whom we serve We have heard excuses and believed them – we have not been so enthusiastic about the idea that the poor, the halt and the lame should be next on the guest list, because we have come to believe that the only good guest is one who can help us pick up the tab when the party is over. But this is not the parable of the full church – this is a parable of the kingdom of God – and the church is not always a good example of the Kingdom.

When offering his insight on the dinner party, Jesus lets the secret of this parable slip; Entertain those who can’t entertain you (Luke 14: 12-14) – don’t look to those who can repay you with an invitation, but try another way. “None of those invited will taste my dinner”, says the host of the parable – none who were considered ‘good enough’ will ever really know what hospitality is; none who think themselves righteous know what righteousness is; no one this thinks they are worthy of God’s grace will ever know what grace is, and this parable is all about grace.

The church is in a strange and dangerous position. We who call ourselves the body of Christ have met the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus; we say the right things, we worship and baptize and reach out to a broken world, but we do not always show signs of the grace that has touched us. We judge; we exclude; we offer (and accept) excuses for our behaviour that sound very much weaker than “I have got me a wife; I have bought me a cow”. We imagine that because we have commitments that cost us a pretty sum, that we are the hosts of this party, and somehow liable for its success – but we are not. We are urged to take advice from one who knows a thing or two about grace – Entertain those who can’t reciprocate, Jesus says – accept around your tables people who don’t appear to deserve an invitation – make your best efforts towards the least able in your communities and neighbourhoods. For the church, I think this means we must stop worrying about the supporters whom we have lost, and start to pay attention to those who desperately need our support. If it is grace we are asked to show, then lets reach out in faith without seeking reward, or reciprocation, or someone to share the cost with us.

(It is in that spirit that session in Thorburn has decided to organize (beginning in September) a monthly hot lunch, not as a fund raising enterprise, but as outreach. We do this, not so we can survive, but because we are the body of Christ, eager to show others what the Kingdom may be like. It is like a place where everyone gets what they don’t deserve – where invitations are offered and re-offered, not because the table (or the building) must be full, but because the Grace of God is not defeated by lame excuses or rampant indifference, or reluctant acceptance. God is generous beyond all imagination, and that generous grace is the example we are called to follow.

a parable re-told. (Luke 18: 1-8) The Kirk, New Glasgow

October 20, 2013

A parable: A judge who fears neither God nor had any respect for people meets a widow demanding justice, and the stage is set for a mammoth battle of wills.  The widow is persistent, perhaps she is entitled, but the evidence is scarce; the judge is stubborn – haughty, even – yet his word has the effect of law.

As the story goes, the widow prevails because of her persistence.  She wears down this fearless, egotistical manipulator of the justice.  The problem is, his ruling in the widow’s favour is a miscarriage of justice, even as justice was understood in the day.

Listen to what the unjust judge says:

“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because this woman is bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by coming continually to me.”

And we make the mistake of equating God’s justice with the pattern revealed in this parable.

We know a little bit about injustice – we share stories / anecdotes about “the way the system works” – and so we approach justice of all kinds with a siege mentality.  Persistence pays.  The plaintiff is warned that time and patience will be rewarded, and justice is not always served by such an approach – the playing field is tilted towards the loud, the powerful, and the persistent, and occasionally we are directed to this ‘biblical example’ – but Jesus parable is, according to Luke, about the need to pray and NOT LOSE HEART…something is missing between our hearing and our application of this lesson.

This lesson in persistence comes at a critical point in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is answering questions about the coming Kingdom – people are frightened and eager for the oppression of the present to be replaced by God’s kingdom of justice and peace.  And without revealing anything about a timeline, Jesus counsels patience, warns of suffering still to be endured, and then suggests that the kingdom will come swiftly, without fanfare.  Those who point to the signs of its coming are trying to deceive you (Luke 17: 23).  When justice comes – when the kingdom comes – the speed of God’s acting will be instant; that’s how God is…

So this suggestion that we must be persistent in prayer, and ever hopeful in our anticipation of the promised reign of God has more to do with us.  Our calculating approach to justice, and all things of value, is called into question by this parable.

In our culture, persistence is usually valued.  We are often encouraged to solve our problems and satisfy our needs by simply “sticking with it” – when given the choice between “good things come to those who wait”, and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, it turns out we prefer grease to delayed gratification.

This appears to be the case in so many of our recently popular protest movements – all operating in a manner designed to overwhelm the target group, and bring about the desired change.  This may be an effective management/marketing strategy, but it rarely results in justice.  In many cases – as in our example from the gospel – the rights (so called) of the persistent are exchanged for the rights of the passive; the result is still out of balance.

++++

We are guilty of imagining this imbalance in God’s justice – the Psalms n general contribute to this in our minds – and so we rail at God for our case to be heard, and conclude that we are not nearly persistent enough when our prayers are not granted.  But when we approach Divine justice in this way, we fall short of the mark.

Jesus parable is a parable of “negative comparison” – the “unjust judge” does one thing – but God will surely grant justice to those who seek it.  We need be persistent, not because God will grow weary of listening, and grant justice for God’s own convenience…rather, our persistence should come from our desire to seek God in all things.  God’s preference is to grant justice, and justice will quickly come – our persistence is easily outdistanced by the speed of God’s acting

Our persistence should be a function of faith – we desire God’s mercy/justice because we believe in it!  The widow wants only to overwhelm the wicked judge, not for the sake of justice, but because it could be ‘negotiated’.  God’s attitudes toward justice are more gracious; more generous by far, and Jesus – in every circumstance – points us to those gracious features in the character of God.  Unlike that wicked judge, God requires neither manipulation, nor persuasion.   God is revealed by Jesus to be ready to serve – ready to usher in justice and do mercy – where ever faith may be found.