Monday, August 29, 2016

The Cost of Love – 4 September 2016 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 23/ Proper 18

The last words we hear in the Gospel reading today are stern: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Gulp. These stark terms can drive us to fear that our relationship with God sits entirely on our weak and unfaithful shoulders.

Here is some perspective from thoughtful writers whose words from Homily Service 2007 still speak to the preaching challenges presented by these readings.

The Old Testament readings for today derive from a cause and effect worldview that was part of the wisdom tradition. . . Put simply, where there is obedience there is blessing.

Later biblical tradition challenged this notion, suggesting in Job and Ecclesiastes that obedience and righteous behavior were not guarantees of material prosperity and blessing. . .  

These passages are a wonderful opportunity to remind our congregations of God's richest desire for our heart's transformation and the blessing we have as Christ-followers! – Thomas Boone

Luke 14:25-33

Jesus is traveling again with large crowds following. Jesus speaks tremendously challenging words about priorities in life, using the Semitic idiom of “hating A and loving B,” an expression of preference. Jesus requires that those who would be his disciples must devote themselves first of all to him and his way of suffering love.

The preacher must take care not to equate devotion to Jesus with participation in church activities. One might, in fact, add church to the list of things one must hate.

Jesus calls for followers who will take on his way of embodying the reign of God, with forgiveness, compassion and generosity. In two brief parables, Jesus emphasizes that responding to such a costly calling must be well considered. The costly calling is described in three ways: as preferring Jesus to the supportive kinship network; as carrying the cross; and as giving up possessions.

These are not requirements for being admitted to heaven. Rather, they are descriptions of how one lives with Jesus in the reign of God instead of remaining captive to one's culture. Jesus' words are less warning than statement of fact. – Aaron J. Couch

I take Jesus' words as a kindly invitation given to the “great multitudes” that accompanied him: Look where this is going and how one gets there. It is not just a matter of “counting the cost” but of realizing that how one gets there is part of the character and nature of the trip and where you are going. No tricks, no bait and switch, no softening of the realities, Christ asks us to see what this is at the beginning. We, the church, should be as honest in our invitations. – John E. Smith

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses presents a stark choice to the people of Israel as they prepare to leave the wilderness and enter the land of Canaan. There is no middle ground to be found between life and death. No third choice is offered. To choose life and prosperity is to obey God and live according to the commandments. To choose death and adversity is to turn toward other gods. It is God's great desire for the people to choose life.

The twenty-first-century reader of this text must not hear this choice of life or death as presented to individuals. The promise of blessing and the warning of adversity are offered to the people collectively. – Aaron J. Couch

Philemon 1-21

Traditionally it has been inferred that Onesimus had run away and that Paul was appealing to Philemon to refrain from punishing his former slave. Recent scholarship has raised questions about that traditional interpretation. Because of Paul's diplomatic appeal, close attention to the text seems to raise more questions than it answers. – Aaron J. Couch

Aaron Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.

John E. Smith has served as a Methodist pastor for many years.

Homily Service 40, no. 10 (2007): 15-25.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Seat at the Table – 28 August 2016 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 22/ Proper 17

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jesus' words were not merely practical advice about humility, but a parable providing insight into the great differences between divine and human values.

It is unsurprising to see people scrambling and competing for honor, wealth and power. . . Jesus rejected such jockeying for position then and does so again in this story. It is important to note that Jesus is not offering an alternative means of competition for his followers. Competing to be the most humble would still be focusing on self. Instead, Jesus invites the listener to recognize that the character of God is self-giving love.

The one who follows Jesus in his way of revealing the divine will not be concerned about how he or she is regarded by others. The follower of Jesus will be concerned instead with the needs of the neighbor and how those needs can be served. A life of loving service grows from the ground of humility, not self-promotion or pride. Jesus emphasizes this teaching concerning humility with a pronouncement of reversal. Although in human relations those who put themselves forward are usually rewarded, it is not so in relation to God.

In verse 12 Luke prepares the reader to recognize that what follows is a new but related teaching. Jesus speaks to the host concerning expectations of reciprocity. Just as he criticized the behavior of guests scrambling for the most honored place, he also rejects every sort of social arrangement that is driven by concern for self. Instead of seeking relationships that are mutually beneficial, the one who is in tune with God's way of self-giving love will serve those in need. . . It is better to use one's wealth to serve those in need than it is to serve one's own ambitions, social or otherwise. These temporal relationships offer only a temporal good; compassion for those in need yields an eternal benefit. – Aaron J. Couch

Proverbs 25:6-7

Chapters 25 through 29 of Proverbs are identified as “other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied.” It is not difficult to imagine how these sayings might have given practical guidance for young men in the royal court. Verses 6–7 encourage a circumspect demeanor in the presence of the very powerful. This advice anticipates the theme of humility in the gospel text. It is misleading, though, insofar as it prepares the listener to hear Jesus' teaching as a similar sort of helpful counsel. – Aaron J. Couch

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Chapter 13 begins with a series of exhortations concerning faithful living. To follow this way of life (mutual love, hospitality, marital fidelity, contentment) is to attain the holiness that is pleasing to God (12:14). The author appeals to memory of leaders and to Jesus' reliability, perhaps using a creedal statement known by the letter's recipients. The purpose of this appeal (to resist strange innovative teachings) is obscured by the lectionary's selection of verses. The reading concludes with the author's summary exhortation. A believer's faithful conduct, both in word and deed, is a sacrifice of praise and is pleasing to God. – Aaron J. Couch

Aaron Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.

Homily Service 40, no. 10 (2007): 5-14.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Praying for the Stranger in Need

Ruth Meyers’s essay “Mission and Worship: Making the Connection” in the fall issue of Liturgy, explores the ways in which the church enacts its responsibility toward “the least among us” through worship. Here, she deals with the role of intercessory prayer.

Drawing from the well of tradition, missional worship attends to the context, incorporating elements of the local culture that reflect the gospel. Missional worship is counter-cultural when necessary, challenging injustice and oppression, critiquing and transforming cultural patterns in light of the gospel. Missional worship is also cross-cultural, celebrating the diversity of the body of Christ in many different contexts and uniting worshipers with Christians in other places.

Perhaps the most obvious place that worship is missional is in intercessory prayer, in which the assembly gives voice to the needs and hopes of the world, for example, for immigrants seeking refuge. This is liturgy as public work for the common good. By praying in, with, and through Christ, the assembly expresses its confidence that God does love the world, that God is at work healing the broken-hearted and restoring all creation to wholeness. The clearest scriptural command for Christians to intercede says: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone. . .” (1 Tim 2:1–2). Christians are to be concerned with the whole world, to pray “for everyone,” because, the letter-writer explains, God “desires everyone to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). Clement, bishop of Rome in the late first century, in contrast, shows particular concern for those who are poor or weak or in need. [Lucien Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy (Liturgical Press, 1979), 82-85]

Save the afflicted among us, have mercy on the lowly.

Raise up the fallen, show yourself to those in need.

Heal the sick, and bring back those who have strayed.

Fill the hungry, give freedom to our prisoners.

Raise up the weak, console the fainthearted.

These ancient examples suggest that the prayers of the assembly are wide in scope. They address not only the needs of those gathered and those near and dear to members of the assembly, but the needs of the entire world.

Several years ago, I visited Franklin Reformed Church in Nutley, New Jersey. The pastor had been teaching the congregation to ask, when they heard about specific needs in their community, “Can I pray about that for you?” The congregation was beginning to get a reputation for this ministry, and strangers, not all of them Christian, began to call and ask for prayer. During the Sunday assembly, members of this small congregation would speak aloud a particular concern, and the pastor would then repeat that need and broaden it. For example, a prayer for a seventh-grader struggling in school would be extended to prayer for all school children in the community. Intercessory prayer such as this is missional, joining God’s concern for those in need, turning the hearts and minds of the assembly to God’s call to work for justice.

. . . In the public service that is liturgy, the assembly responds to God’s self-giving for the life of the world. Gathered by the Spirit, the assembly is drawn into Christ’s liturgy, the paschal mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. In this public service, the assembly enacts and signifies God’s reconciling love for all creation.

Ruth Meyers is dean of Academic Affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, and author of Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission (Eerdmans, 2014).

Ruth Meyers, “Mission and Worship: Making the Connection,” Liturgy 31, no. 4 (2016), 3-10.