Friday, September 27, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year C, Proper 21 (26), 2013 & St. Michael and All Angels

The Preacher’s Study
Thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(19th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 29, 2013 and
St. Michael and All Angels, Sept 29, 2013)

D. Jay Koyle

Depending on which side of the North American border you will be preaching this week, you will be observing the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. I will do my best to speak to both below…

When I crack my Bible open to the lectionary texts of Proper 21 (26), I find myself thinking of a man in a small group considering the text from Luke 16. A simple person of few words, he listens carefully, as usual, to many well-reasoned reflections offered by others in the group. They muse about various metaphors and scriptural allusions they recognize in the text. They ponder what the parable might reveal about anything from notions of the afterlife to the socio-political conditions of Jesus’ day. Finally, when there is a noticeable pause in the conversation, he chimes in. “It seems to me,” he says, “that the great chasm was there long before the two of them died. We have Moses and the prophets. Someone has come back from the dead, too. Perhaps we’d best pay attention to any chasms we’ve got going on around us right now.”

The topsy-turvy Kingdom of God and its implications for the here and now are painted with vivid brushstrokes in the third Gospel. When it comes to the reversal of norms and status in God’s Reign – like that between rich and poor – and what that means for the order, witness and ethic of the Christian community – Luke doesn’t let up for a moment, especially the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, to his rendezvous with the cross.

According to Luke, while it might not be apparent, God “…has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1.52-53)

According to Luke, Jesus’ mission is to herald the coming Kingdom and announce good news to its chosen ones. (Luke 4.14-21)

According to Luke, the Kingdom belongs not to those with influence and resources and prestige in this world, but to those who are without means and power and place now. (6:20-25).

According to Luke, when people throw parties at which those unable to repay are the guests of honor, they reflect and even experience life in the Kingdom of God. (14:7-14).

According to Luke, the days of the current system are numbered. Thus, it is shrewd to invest in the emerging Kingdom established by the raised-up, crucified Messiah. (12.13-33; 16.9; 18.18-30)

According to Luke, those who answer Jesus’ call and are baptized into the community he founded, witness to the Kingdom by giving to the poor and providing out of their means for those in need (19:1-10; Acts 2:45; Acts 4:32-34).

If I was partnering with this text in my preaching this weekend, I would proclaim the God whose Christ eliminates such chasms of injustice and, echoing the passages we have heard over the past number of weeks, identify how the congregation can bear witness to this God through its ministry in the world.

The pulpit in which I find myself on Sunday will be looking for a word sparked by the readings for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Therefore, I intend to take seriously something we often either scoff at or else buy into – the lingering angel craze.  
I'm not nearly as cynical about this phenomenon as I once was. In fact, I believe it's related to a healthy human instinct, one that perhaps was suppressed in modern society for far too long.

We humans possess a yearning for that which our senses do not readily perceive, a need for the discovery of something transcendent. It’s hard-wired into us as much as our need to eat and breathe.

The problem, however, is the manifest link between today’s popular search for transcendence and the self-help craze. This self-concerned spin on angels only results in a form of spiritual malnutrition, leaving us craving for more.

The lectionary texts for St. Mike’s Day serve as something of a corrective for us. In the Bible, when angels show up, they're never the focus. They signal that God is about to show up. God is about to pronounce or fulfill a promise. God is acting to set people free.

When Isaac dispatches him to find a wife for himself in Haran, Jacob has only one eye on the lookout for a mate. The other is cast back over his shoulder for fear that big brother was still ballistic about being burned of his birthright.

On the way, Jacob stops in an unlikely place to bunk down for the night. There, he dreams of angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven.

The scene is reminiscent of a ziggurat, on which there was a stairway or "ladder" to the top, where the deity was believed to live. The angels "ascending and descending" suggest contact with God. Jacob unexpectedly receives the promises for which he surely longed: that God is present with him, watching over him wherever he is. Implicit, too, is the promise of a people whom Jacob will father, a rich heritage that will bear witness to this God. In short, the angels signal the presence and promise and action of God.

In John, Jesus invites Phillip to follow him, and in an overflow of evangelistic excitement, Phillip announces to Nathanael, "We have found the Promised One."

Nathanael comes to check out Jesus. Jesus says to Nathanael: here's a true Israelite; that is to say – here is one who sees God! Nathanael is astounded enough to name Jesus as the Messiah. “Stick around,” says Jesus. “You ain't seen nothin' yet; you'll see angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man.”

Do you know what he’s saying? Jesus is saying that he is the ladder between heaven and earth, and assures the young novice that he will witness nothing less than the meeting of God with people.

The meeting of God with people, with us – that is what angels signal and bear witness to.

I remember reading a newsmagazine a few years back that featured an article on angels. In it, a Catholic theologian was quoted as saying, "If people want to get in touch with their angels, they'd be a lot better off working at a soup kitchen."

That's very apt, and very Biblical. And it's a good clue as to how we might satiate that spiritual appetite of ours.

If we want to experience the holy, then we need to be where the angels “are at.” And where they are is where the Son of Man is.

That includes worship, to be sure. In so many ways, the Table is the place par excellence to encounter the presence of the Risen Christ. But not for long, though, because, as soon as we recognize him there, he slips from sight.

And so, where the Son of Man is also includes some places and people that might not occur to most folks as favourite hangouts for angels.

I will try to name some of those nearby places for the congregation I’ll be addressing this Sunday. Can you name such places for your folk, too?

If we want to get in touch with the holy, the spiritual, the presence of God in life, we need not get in touch with angels as if they were the source. We just need to turn up where angels turn up, and then simply do what angels do -- worship and witness to the God of life, and to the One who is our meeting place with God.

Who knows, it might come to pass that when we show up somewhere people will find us to be sure signals of God's presence too.

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year C, Proper 20 (25), 2013

Monday Morning in the Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(18th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 22, 2013)

D. Jay Koyle 

Every time this clip from the third Gospel pops up in the lectionary, a chorus of commentators names it as the most difficult parable in the New Testament. The character it features and the supposed moral of the tale sound so counter to anything we think Jesus stood/stands for. Thus they wring their hands and wonder how a preacher is to deal with the apparent scandal implicit in the parable.

I don’t want to suggest that it poses no challenge or offense. However, the passage doesn’t appear all that scandalous to me, at least not in the way many tend to portray. Any scandal it carries, to my reckoning, echoes what we’ve encountered over the previous three or four Sundays at least.

Part of the problem in grappling with this little gem is that, for the most part, today’s church and its preachers have misplaced their eschatological lenses.

There was a time when Christians commonly lived in tiptoe expectation of the Kingdom of God. They understood themselves to be a new creation through baptism, a people gathered as an alternative society shaped according to the coming and imminent Reign of God. Indeed, much of what we have in the New Testament was penned to restore this vision when the cataracts of despair clouded the eyes of faith and obscured the landscape of hope.

Therefore, just as we need to don special glasses for the blurry images of a 3D movie to jump from the screen with crisp resolve, so eschatological lenses provide definition for most of what is going on in chapter sixteen of Luke.

"Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth," says Jesus. It sounds like the rabbi from Nazareth says it’s ok for his followers to use questionable proceeds in the service of godly causes. Or maybe he is just echoing our ecclesial discomfort with matters monetary, the persistent dualism that differentiates between “spiritual” and “temporal” concerns in church life.

“Dishonest wealth," however, is a misleading translation of Luke’s text. A better rendering would be “the currency of this unrighteous age." In other words, it is not the cash that is corrupt, but rather the culture. Jesus isn’t pitting good money against bad. He is talking about all money, indeed, all of our resources. And Jesus is offering some rather counter-cultural, “off the wall” investment advice to boot.

As a gift when I was first ordained, I was enrolled in a fairly intense financial course. Navigating the tricky terrain of the stock market, managing personal assets, determining whether to sink money into bonds or real estate, deciding when to risk and when to “play it safe,” even knowing with whom I should associate and spend both time and money – all of these were covered in ways designed to shrewdly parlay a modest income into substantial, long-term gains. The underlying presumption of the course was that through the many social and political changes I would witness over the years, the market economy would be the one constant. Therefore, wisdom dictated that I handle my resources accordingly so there would be much to show for my many years of work by the close of my “career.”

Jesus, however, offers different advice because, as he sees it, the days of the current system are numbered. The empires and powers, the glamour and norms of the current age are passing away. Already God has “brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Thus, it is shrewd to invest in the emerging Kingdom established by the raised-up, crucified Messiah.

In another course, I heard Tom Long unpack this parable using the analogy of Confederate money in 1863. A savvy investor knowing the “Greyback” was the currency of a doomed sovereignty, he reasoned, would have invested it in something of lasting value; something that would still be an asset after the Confederate dollar became worthless.

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” the Lukan Jesus counsels, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

He has offered this investment advice before. “When you give a banquet,” he said, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You will be blessed…repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14.13-14) Your investment will prove wise because it is to these that the Kingdom of God belongs. (Luke 6.20)

So, this Sunday, name the ways your congregation does or can invest in this way.

Do you feed the hungry? Offer hospitality to strangers? Provide shelter to those without a roof? Are there opportunities to do so?

Too many congregations invest in nothing more than their survival, simply serving themselves, squandering the riches of the gospel.

The shrewd, hope-filled church invests in the world that, even now, is emerging by the grace and power of God. 

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves on the Primate's Task Force on Hospitality, Christian Initiation and Discipleship Formation (Anglican Church of Canada).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year C, Proper 19 (24), 2013

Monday Morning in the Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(17th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 15, 2013)

D. Jay Koyle

Nearly twenty years ago, I went on a retreat during a time that I needed to be reminded of God’s mercy. The text that animated my reflections throughout those days of solitude was Henri Nouwen’s The Return of Prodigal Son.

Until that point in my life, various experiences had prompted me to identify readily with both the younger and elder sons in the famed Lukan parable. I reasoned that prayerfully calling to mind those times would quicken my memory, directing me to the mercy I needed to recall. 

However, something strange and disturbing and wonderful happened as I read and reflected and prayed. Nouwen’s book both challenged and welcomed me to identify not only with the two boys, but also with the Father, to allow God’s prodigality to find embodiment in me. The insight and the experience it engendered have exerted their influence on my life as a disciple and church leader ever since.

When Jesus preaches a parable, he is painting a vivid picture of God: who God is, how God acts, what God's Kingdom is like. These pictures are offered in the hope that we might step into them – that we might be shaped to resemble something of the One they present, that our life together might display the reality to which they point.

This is true of the parables found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Confronted on his unusual choice of dinner companions, Jesus answers his critics by pulling out his sketchbook and drawing a frantic shepherd who wanders off in worry, leaving his flock to find one little, lost sheep. When he finds it, he throws it over his shoulder, calls together his friends and says, “Let’s have a party!” 

Then Jesus flips the page and produces another sketch, a poor woman sweeping obsessively to find a misplaced coin. When she finds it, she throws a big bash that I suspect cost at least the value of the recovered coin, if not more. "That's what God is like," claims Jesus. "This is what life is like in God's Reign!"

Then he turns and asks, "Which one of you would not do the same?"

Well, to tell the truth, few of us would, at least not without being touched and transformed by the One who acts in such a prodigious manner.

The picture of Paul we see in the First Letter to Timothy is of someone who has been touched and transformed by the prodigiously merciful God. (I know, I know – but we will avoid the question of authorship for now and take the epistle at face value.)

From what we can tell, Paul enjoyed a reputation as an upstanding, model Pharisee: persistent in prayer, generous in giving, strong in faith, loyal to God’s law. In short, this was someone who would make a solid pillar in any one of our congregations. Yet here Paul designates himself as head honcho in the company of sinners.

Despite his apparent excellence of life, Paul’s encounter with radical mercy reveals his radical need. What is more, this encounter transforms the apostle so that, through him, God might “display the utmost patience,” making Paul an example to those who would come to believe in Christ.

Make no mistake! The writer of this epistle is not focusing on his sinfulness. This is no mournful dirge. Rather, this is doxology. Here is a preacher standing as sign and witness, extolling the gracious initiative of God and the infinite dimensions of God’s mercy. 

This Sunday, it would be a worthwhile aspiration for today’s preacher to do the same. I am not suggesting that you should deliver a personal testimony in place of a sermon. I am, however, encouraging you to echo the epistle's doxological tone and present “evidence” you recognize because of your deep encounter with a living tradition, and a living Lord!

So keep an eye out as you move among your congregation, survey the headlines, and take in the world around you. What displays of God and God’s Kingdom do you see there? Where do you spot evidence of people and situations touched and transformed by the prodigiously merciful God? Where do you discern “parables” that reveal who God is, how God acts, what God’s Kingdom is like? How can your observations encourage and empower your listeners to allow God’s prodigality to find more profound embodiment in them?

Jesus Christ is the living parable of God’s radical mercy, the picture of the promised and imminent Kingdom. I pray our preaching this week will inspire the baptized to reaffirm their place in that picture so they, too, become living parables.

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.