by whitneyrice

Actually, It Is a Laughing Matter

We have a very serious set of scriptures today, and I assure you I am going to take them very seriously.

Really. I promise.

But first I just have to share with you the verses from our Hebrews text that make me laugh.

The author is talking about the sacrifices our forebears in faith made for the sake of God, and he says, “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I mean, that sounds pretty bad.

But look at that first sentence: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…”

Being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword—I get why those three are grouped together as terrible fates.

But that last one—“they went about in skins of sheep and goats.”

I understand he’s probably alluding to poverty.

But it makes me think that the people of God counted fashion faux pas right up there with swords and saws and stones as a fate worse than death.

I mean, with everything else we have to deal with, now God is forcing us to wear sheep and goatskins? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!

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Saying Yes to Judgment

“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus…”

Someone in the crowd. That’s our first indication that things are not off to a great start in our passage from Luke today.

Throughout the gospels, “the crowd” is often a code word that stands for “people who don’t get it.”

(I would love to teach a class that traces the experience of “the crowd” through the entire gospel narrative, right up to Palm Sunday and beyond.)

But anyway, we know from the beginning that this person who is questioning Jesus is probably going to be off track. And he is.

Following up on our sibling rivalry conversation from a couple of weeks ago, we have a person angry with his brother. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

But Jesus is not having it.

“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Now this is one of the most fascinating of the Questions of Jesus, another really interesting way to trace our way through the gospels. Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3. It’s worth wondering what he’s asking you, today.

But this question in particular, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” puts a major chunk of Christian orthodoxy in a bit of a pickle.

It is a foundation stone of orthodox theology all the way back to Nicaea and beyond that Christ is our Eternal Judge.

At the Last Day we will stand before him and be divided as sheep and goats if the Church Fathers are to be believed.

And to be fair, there is ample scriptural evidence for Christ as Judge.

But here Jesus tells us directly that he is not here to judge us.

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Siblings: Fighting With Them, Fighting For Them

Everyone loves a good dose of sibling rivalry.

Mary and Martha are among the most famous sibling rivals in the Bible, and Christians for generations have wondered what to do with them.

Many of us identify more strongly with one or the other of them, and then feel slightly guilty about it.

Team Martha feels like she gets a raw deal, being gently corrected by Jesus when she complains about Mary not helping her. “Where’s the love for Martha?” we ask. “Marthas make the world go around, especially at church!”

Others of us know we’re Mary. We love being spiritual and contemplative, thinking deep thoughts and feeling very religious, but sometimes we’re hard to be found when it’s time to get down to real work. Oops.

As often as I’ve wrestled with this text and its clear call away from busywork and into the peace of God’s presence, I heard it differently this time as I thought about it in the context of the whole Bible.

And what I realized is the Bible is all about sibling relationships, and most of those relationships are troubled at best.

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Jesus, A Lawyer, And Who Is Real

There’s someone missing in most of our discussions of the Good Samaritan, which is possibly Jesus’ most well-known parable.

This story is such a part of our cultural DNA that even those who do not consider themselves people of faith know what “a Good Samaritan” is and agree it is admirable.

And the modern definition of “a Good Samaritan” hews fairly close to the original story: someone who stops to help a stranger in trouble.

But of course for those of us who call ourselves Christians, there is a deeper and harder call within this story.

It’s not just about extending goodwill and literal help when happenstance provides the circumstances of someone in need right in front of us.

Jesus calls us to notice that the priest and the Levite, the religious authorities and supposedly models of ethical rectitude, leave the beaten man in the ditch and pass by.

It was the Samaritan, the outsider, reviled and excluded and considered unholy, who stopped and helped and ensured the continuing care of a man who possibly would never have spoken to him in other circumstances.

It is all the more remarkable, as a clergy friend pointed out to me this week, that just a few verses ago, Jesus got rejected by a Samaritan village and the disciples wanted to call down fire upon them. Now the Samaritan is the hero!

These are all familiar interpretations that many of us who have been around the church for a few years have heard and taken to heart.

We hear and understand the call to love and care across boundaries and borders of prejudice, receiving Jesus’ teaching that our enemy is our neighbor whether we like it or not.

Now, living into that call is something else entirely, which is why it is so helpful that the story of the Good Samaritan returns to us year after year in the lectionary, pricking our conscience as we think about those we discount and discard.

The crisis of migrants at our borders and how our government is treating them in our name makes this story all the more painful and galvanizing.

But what struck me this time around is the person that most of our Good Samaritan sermons and reflections leave out.

Who are we not talking about?

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I Guess Laborers and Lambs Don’t Wear Lipstick

Last week we talked about how the author of Luke’s gospel escalated the story of Elisha in 1 Kings. Elisha is called to follow Elijah, and he goes back to cook one last meal with his community before he sets out.

Jesus said in our gospel last week that the call was so urgent that no one could turn back for any reason, not even to say goodbye.

Today we get what seems like even more intimidating news.

Not only are we to set off immediately without worrying about loose ends, we also don’t get to pack anything. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” Jesus says.

I don’t know about you, but I never leave home without my phone, wallet, and keys at the very least, and frankly I don’t like to leave home without a lipstick and a prayerbook.

(FYI, that’s a tried and true clergywoman slogan: “Lipstick and prayerbook: don’t leave home without them.”)

But according to Luke, Jesus is having none of it.

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Homebodies On The Move

Who loves a Bible text they know they can’t live up to?  I know I do! 

Not really, obviously. 

Grappling with scriptures that detail and point out my greatest roadblocks in discipleship tends to make me depressed. 

But I have learned over the years that those are exactly the texts that I need to pay the most attention to. 

So if you’ve ever had the same problem, come along with me and we’ll try to drill down into how to hear our scriptures today.

We’ve got our lesson from 1 Kings, and our lesson from Luke’s gospel.  Both are all about what it takes to sign up for the journey of discipleship. 

At first it’s a bit confusing, because Jesus tells his disciples not go back even to bury their parents, much less go back and say goodbye to the folks at home, but Elisha does exactly that and it seems to be no problem. 

Hold that thought, we’ll come back and untangle that in a minute.

But regardless of the methodology, the basic elements of the stories are the same. 

When God’s call comes, you drop everything to say yes. 

You get on the road and follow your spiritual teacher, whether it’s Elijah or Jesus. 

These stories are about travel, more specifically travel for the sake of ministry.

And here’s my painful confession: I hate to travel. 

I am a total homebody. 

In fact, I think I may be the only millennial in North America for whom world travel is not a number one bucket list dream.

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The Comforter Is Not All That Comforting When You Get Down To It

You know, I wish I could translate the Gospel the wrong way.

Or rather, I wish the Bible translation we read in church used the word that I like and makes me feel comfortable to describe the Holy Spirit.

But it doesn’t, and I think I’m finally beginning to understand why.

Today is the great Feast of Pentecost. In the Book of Acts, we read of the tongues of fire lighting on the disciples and enabling them to proclaim the Good News in many languages simultaneously, just like we had in worship here this morning.

And it felt as unexpected to them as it might have to you. That’s precisely why we didn’t warn you that was going to happen.

If it caught you off guard and you wondered what was happening, you had a very authentic apostolic experience of Pentecost.

And that ties into what I wish our translation says, but doesn’t.

The word Jesus uses in John for the Holy Spirit is paraclete, which can be translated as it is in the NRSV that we read in church, as Advocate.

That is by far the most accurate translation. It comes from Greek roots meaning “to call alongside,” and it meant having a friend show up with you in court to help you defend yourself against charges, like having a lawyer only with a closer relationship.

Paraclete has been translated as Intercessor, and also the word I want to use: Comforter.

(Side note: my seminary had a soccer team that played against the other professional schools at Yale—the Div School vs. the Law School vs. the Med School, etc.—and they were called the Paracleats. Get it? Like soccer cleats? The Paracleats? That will never not be funny to me.)

So anyway, I like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, because frankly, I really am in need of some comfort every now and then.

I know I’m not the only one.

And while I certainly believe the Holy Spirit does bring us comfort and solace, I really don’t see that happening in our texts this morning.

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Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God

Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.

We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.

We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.

She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.

We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This woman was being doubly exploited.

First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.

She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.

But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.

“She would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”

Why was he annoyed?

Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.

It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.  Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.

But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance. Continue reading

Do You Want to Be Healed?

Thirty-eight years.

Trapped just on the edge of healing for thirty-eight years.

It would be like living next door to a pharmacy but every time you go to it to try and get your life-saving cancer medication, it’s closed.

You are condemned to a painful and debilitating physical condition that may eventually kill you, because the means of getting treatment lies just beyond your reach.

This is the unenviable situation of the man in our gospel story today.

For thirty-eight years he has lived in the porticoes surrounding the Pool of Beth-zatha, and every time he tries to reach the pool and receive its healing waters, someone else beats him to it.

Can you imagine the frustration? The despair?

We get so little detail about this man that we have to speculate and use our imaginations to try and understand his incomprehensible situation.

First of all, what kind of medical condition did he have?

We don’t know, but we know that the other people at the pool were described as invalids and named as blind, lame, and/or paralyzed.

These are people who are limited in their mobility.

We know he can move at least a bit, because he keeps trying to get down to the pool, but he can’t ever make it fast enough. He may have only been able to crawl.

Thirty-eight years?

We’re immediately tempted to question how hard he really was trying to get down there and be healed.

That temptation is reinforced by Jesus’ own question to the man: “Do you want to be healed?”

We don’t know, because this man never answers directly, yes or no.

He basically says, “Well, I’ve been trying.”

Is that an excuse? Or is it a legitimate description of his disability? We don’t know.

But either way, we need to stop our judgement in its tracks and realize how very much we are like this man ourselves. Continue reading

This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading