Monday, July 24, 2017

Imaging the Mystery of God’s Reign – 30 July 2017 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 17

Images build up not only our perspective on what it is to have faith but also build hope that allows us to maintain when hardship comes. The Reign of God proclaimed by Christ Jesus to be at hand is sometimes obscured by events in our world. Matthew assures us through several images that the Reign is at work in small things: a seed, yeast, a pearl.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The general purpose of these parables is to assure the dispirited Matthean community that the realm is coming and to help guide them in responding to it. The parable of the mustard seed. . . suggests that Jesus and the Matthean community who witness to the realm are to the world like the tiny mustard seed going into the soil: Compared to other peoples and movements, Jesus and his community are almost invisible. However, just as the mustard seed becomes the greatest shrub, so the realm will overtake the present evil age. The birds represent gentiles having a place in the realm (e.g., Ezek 17:22–23; Ps 104:12; Dan 4:10–12, 20–27).

These parables in 13:44–45 compare the experience of discovery in the parable to the experience of discovering and responding to the realm of God. In verse 13:44, the discovery of the treasure is accidental. In 13:45, the discovery of the pearl results from an intentional search. In both cases, the. . . finders respond by making a complete commitment to the treasure and the pearl.

According to Matthew 13:47–50, when God ends the present age, every person (fish of every kind) will be gathered for the last judgment. . . Matthew thus urges the listeners to recognize the realm growing like a mustard seed among them and to respond like those who found the treasure and the pearl. – Ronald J. Allen

1 Kings 3:5-12

In the Deuteronomic theology, the monarch has a special responsibility for leading the community in obedience (Deut. 17:14–20). At the beginning of his reign, Solomon dreams that he prays for God to give him the qualities of the ideal deuteronomic ruler. . . .

God promises to give Solomon an understanding heart as well as riches and honor. However, these promises are contingent upon Solomon being obedient in the deuteronomic way. Before this dream, Solomon has already set in motion behavior that will undermine his faithfulness by making a marriage alliance with Pharaoh and bringing his new wife into Jerusalem where she will worship her Egyptian deities. In his dream, Solomon may have fueled his prayer with the best intentions. But for the deuteronomist, actions count. The reader is not surprised when the monarchy breaks into two nations that both fall to the Babylonians. This passage is thus both inspiration and warning. – Ronald J. Allen

Romans 8:26-39

Paul . . . assures the community that when they are confused by the suffering accompanying the coming of the new world (Rom. 8:18–25), the Spirit will pray aright for them. . . . The community should not be dismayed by the difficulties of the tribulation but can recognize that God long ago predestined these things to eventuate in good, that is, in the coming of the eschatological world.

The notion of predestination here affirms for the community that history is under God's control. Romans 8:31–36 (cited so often at funerals) is the climactic assurance. . . . No matter how difficult the situation of the community, they can remain faithful in the confidence that beyond the suffering lies life indescribable. – Ronald J. Allen

Ronald J. Allen is professor of preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Homily Service 41, no. 3 (2008): 118-127.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pharaoh Among Us: Preaching Hope

Kenyatta Gilbert draws connections between today’s musicians and hip-hop artists and activists of the past. Offered here is an excerpt from his full essay in Liturgy 32, no. 3. The entire issue of Liturgy is on Pilgrimage, with this essay exploring the journey of African American experience and the language describing it as a traceable lineage particular especially to black preachers.
New Testament scholar Rev. Dr. Raquel Lettsome was the first woman to serve as the executive minister at the historic St. James A.M.E. Church in Newark, New Jersey. According to Lettsome, “God not only calls preachers to have a prepared Word, God calls for prepared preachers.” She contends that the preparation of the preacher can be summarized in one word: discipline. 
 Raquel Lettsome’s sermon Hidden Hope launches from Exodus 2:10, tracking the daring women (Hebrew midwives, mother Jochebed, sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter) who rose up at pivotal moments to secure the future of an endangered man-child, the prophet Moses.
 Lettsome sets the sermonic stage for drama and suspense, asking the question: Can hope be destroyed? Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months (Exodus 2:1–4).
 She assumes her listeners are well-acquainted with the story line and cast of characters. The sermon unfolds with an artfully sophisticated blending of sociolinguistic biblical criticism, theo-symbolic coding, and pastoral care. The sermon’s alliterated title and first segment signal to listeners that the preaching moment will be an exercise in aesthetical creativity. 
We are not paranoid. There really is a plot to destroy us, a plot that requires us to reckon with powers and principalities, rulers of darkness and spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12) … . Truth is, just about all of us have already gone through, know about, and/or survived some assassination attempts in which people or circumstances seem to have conspired against us to kill our joy, peace, sanity, self-esteem, educational aspirations … . character. Because ultimately the thing on the hit list is our hope.
Because of its inductive movement and narrative outline, Lettsome leaves no useful detail unmanaged to set the stage. One might see this sermon distilled in three simple propositions: Hope is important. Faith is futile without it. Hope must be protected.
 Lettsome calls persons and principalities that plot our demise “hope assassins.” They “destroy dreams and vanquish hopes … [and] can fire at point blank range––a word of doubt here, some discouragement there, a roll of the eyes, a carefully placed sigh, or just be close enough to stab us in the back …. They fear us even though we have done nothing to them.” She continues that “the way we make it through these plots is God hides us. This was the case of Moses.” 
. . . Pharoah’s strategic plan to annihilate the oppressed Hebrews’ hope, she outlines, was to box them, limit their employment prospects, and conscript them into forced labor; confine them to slave status with no rank or respect; and if plan one and two fail, then assassinate them. The sermon’s message is unmistakably working on multiple levels, biblically and contextually. Lettsome follows the biblical narrative, but the beauty of her composition is in the sermon’s relation to the occasioned event.

The references and the complete text of this essay is available at

Kenyatta R. Gilbert, associate professor of homiletics and founder of The Preaching Project (, Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC., is the author most recently of A Pursued Justice: Great Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights (Baylor Univ. Press, 2016).
Kenyatta R. Gilbert, “The Trek from King to Common: Exodus Imagery and Sermonic Lyricism in the Age of Hip-Hop,” Liturgy 32, no. 3 (2017): 38-46.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Weeds Among the Wheat – 23 July 2017 – 7th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 16

Who are the weeds and who, the wheat? This parable invites us to ask that question so that the parable can remind us to avoid judgment or too facile assumptions.

One of the contributors to Homily Service saw the weeds and wheat together by noticing what happened at daily eucharist in her work place, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility.

One day after receiving communion, I sat back in my seat and began to watch people receiving communion. . . . I became overwhelmed at the richness of the Eucharist in this setting. Those who are able to walk up to receive communion do so while those who are in wheelchairs have communion brought to them. How profound to see people who can approach Christ in the sacrament and to see how Christ comes to those who cannot approach. Clearly, the weed and the wheat are alongside each other and will be until the end. 

Based on my observations and experiences, good and bad things happen in life and through it all God is present with us. Good things happen because good things happen, bad things happen because bad things happen. God is with us in the good and the bad. 
– Virginia S. Wendel

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Like the gospel lesson last week, the parable of the wheat and the weeds is an allegory whose . . . explanation speaks to a complex situation in the Matthean congregation. Some folk presumed to know fully and finally whom God would condemn. Others were uncertain as to whether their interpretation of God's purposes was really adequate. Members disagreed with one another regarding how to respond to others who were drifting away.

Allegorically, the field is the world. Jesus (the Son of Man) has sown the good seed of alerting the world to the realm, and some have embraced it. The devil however, has sown bad seed in the world (evil) and some have allied themselves with it.

In the early stages of growth, it is almost impossible to distinguish tender wheat from young weeds. The farmer (congregation) should let them grow together, trusting that at the apocalypse, God will send angels to gather the evil ones and destroy them, while the righteous “will shine like the sun.”

The parable cautions the followers of Jesus not to assume the role of judge, but to be patient in the confidence that God will make the final determination especially with regard to ambiguous situations. – Ronald J. Allen

Isaiah 44:6-8
The prophet echoes the Gospel’s admonition against judging what we see before us. The Lord asks through Isaiah (as in the book of Job), “Who is like me?” The rhetorical question is answered with a loud voice: “No one is like you, O Lord. You alone are the rock.”

We do not know the ways of God. We do not recognize the wheat and weeds even within ourselves, let alone having the wisdom to know the strengths and failings of others.

Romans 8:12-25

Paul aims the Epistle at gentiles in the congregation in Rome who look down upon the Jewish members of the community. What happens to gentiles when they embrace the eschatological plan of the God of Israel revealed through Jesus Christ? They not only enter into the Spirit but are also adopted as children into God's eschatological family, the Jewish community. The proof is that they ecstatically cry “Abba” at high-voltage moments in worship: a sign that they have a full place in the coming eschaton.

The image of a pregnant woman in labor describes the situation of the world as the old age dies and the new realm is born. . .. The self groans in miniature in the same way that the world is groaning cosmically. Believers are not only to remain steadfast during the travail but also to see such suffering as a sign that the end is near. In such difficult times, they can be patient and live in hope. – Ronald J. Allen

Virginia S. Wendel is the Health Care Coodinator for the Cenacle Sisters, Chicago, Illinois.  

Ronald J. Allen is professor of preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Homily Service 41, no. 3 (2008): 108-117.