Friday, December 8, 2017

Living Between Advents


This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 12/3/17 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text is 1 Corinthians 1:3-9.  

Imagine that you spent a year and a half getting a new church up and running. When you left to work with other churches, the church was growing. Leaders were emerging and the congregation seemed healthy. All was well.

Then a delegation from the young church arrives. They bring word—via a letter—and that letter carries bad news. The church is fighting. There are visible factions. Some are in danger of returning to their old lives to serve their former gods and to resume life as they once knew it. Others are lording their so-called knowledge over those whom they deem weaker in the faith. The weaker members are being intimidated by some of the stronger, more experienced believers. This resulted in some being anxious about their own status before God and they were apparently confused about the second coming of Christ. Class divisions are even evident at the Lord’s Table.

But that’s not the end of the problems. You hear secret reports that involve church members visiting prostitutes and a man sleeping with his stepmother. Some are questioning the very heart of the gospel—the resurrection. The problems are overwhelming and relentless. You can’t drop everything and go visit these people now. The delegation awaits your response. You must respond. Volumes are writing themselves in your head of all the things you would like to say, but there are limits to what you can include in a letter—even a long one? Where do you begin? How did things go so terribly wrong? (Carla Works)

Welcome to Paul’s world. It is because of these various issues that Paul is writing in the first place. Instead of criticizing the Corinthians right from the start, he encourages the Corinthian church. Here Paul sets the tone and prepares us for what is to come.

As we look at Paul’s responses to the Corinthians’ issues, through the lens of Advent, we see that our present life is lived between Advents. How many of you have ever experienced a trip in a car with children? I know that numerous times you heard the words, “Are we there yet?” You are in-between home and your destination. Paul understood Christian existence as a tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—living between the times of Christ’s first coming and Christ’s triumphant return. The word “wait” carries the connotation of eager expectation. So, we can think of it in this way, “as you wait with eager expectation for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). But we are not there yet.

Our world, communities, churches and lives are not perfect. We have not arrived. How are we then to manage? How do we get there and what do we do in the meantime?

For one thing, God’s gifts are more than sufficient for the in-between times, v. 7. Can’t you just hear the Corinthians saying, “That’s all well and good. But we have real problems, right here in Corinth. Our church is falling apart!” Of the myriad issues the Corinthian believers were experiencing in their broken church, they all have their solution in this first paragraph of Paul’s letter.

Paul mentions two things in this introduction and prayer for the Corinthians: knowledge and spiritual gifts.
God has enriched the Corinthians in “speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5). The Corinthian culture especially exalted, and even competed in, skills of speech and knowledge, including extemporaneous speeches on various topics. Corinthian believers especially valued the spiritual gifts that were valued, in a secular form, in their culture.

The knowledge Paul wrote of is not some hidden, mystical knowledge the Corinthians possessed. Without the cross they were no more able to reach God and be saved than we are. Paul is speaking of concrete knowledge based on the reality of Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross. This is something that happened in real time and real history. It is reality.

Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the Corinthians sharply for their many problems, but here emphasizes that they are not due to a lack of gifts. Paul tells the Corinthian community that they have more than enough—enough grace, knowledge and spiritual gifts. Grace is everywhere: “Grace to you and peace,” “because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” Grace “summarizes Paul’s understanding of God’s full generosity in dealing with humanity” (Marion Soards).

In the last verse we see the hinge upon which the door of encouragement swings. “God is faithful…” (v. 9). This is the key statement as we think about the in-between time, as we live our everyday lives. The knowledge of God’s faithfulness may be the only thing that gets us through various situations we encounter.

God has called the readers of this letter into a unique participatory [not passive] community with Jesus Christ and with that calling, comes the promise that “he will strengthen you to the end” (v. 8). We are not left in weakness in our personal or corporate struggles.

In the in-between time, the believers’ community should demonstrate a genuine unity. God calls us to a unity of mind and purpose. We are not so different today than the Corinthian church of Paul’s time. We too are torn by many issues as Christians in our country; each with a multitude of answers. Each side cites scripture, claiming that God is on their side, whether the issue is immigration, taxes, LGBTQ rights, drug addiction or any other problem of our time. We wonder if those who think differently than we do are even Christians.

This is neither the time for passivity or selfish pursuits. It is the time for exercising our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the larger community and for the glory of God. This is something I see this happening in our community of faith. If you’re not sure of what your spiritual gifts are, call me or come see me.

In the midst of all of our messes, God is present and at work. Paul wrote that “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son…” v. 9. Elsewhere, “fellowship” is translated “sharing,” “participation,” and “communion.” It is both vertical and horizontal—with God and with each other in unity. The horizontal can only exist as it emerges from the vertical relationship with God. Such participation is not optional, but is part of God’s original call to each of us.

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of forgoing rights, attending to the weaker, of a worship that builds up the entire congregation, and of love that “does not insist on its own way” (13:5). These are the ingredients that cause unity and that characterize those “called into the fellowship of … Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

God is the actor throughout the Christian drama of life. It is God who calls the Christian community into being and God who sustains it to the end.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always live the kind of Christian life that most pleases the Lord. I am not always faithful. I am encouraged by the fact that the Corinthians had problems. They were not perfect Christians, as we like to think those of the first century were. Paul teaches and corrects their errors, but not before beginning with encouragement of God’s faithfulness in the time we live in—the in-between time of the 2 advents—Christ’s first coming and his return.

God had given the Corinthians all they needed, to do what God wanted them to do. God has given us all we need to do what God wants us to do. God is the One who does the work through his people. Grace and gifts abound from God’s generosity.

God comes to us in the past, in the history of Israel and in the incarnation of Jesus, in the present, in word and sacrament and in the sufferings of our time, and in the future, at the end of all things. God shows up whether we are ready or not—no matter what kind of stipulations or conditions or provisions we make to persuade God of our timeliness. God entered into our time, forever changing it. Divinity took on mortality, eternity entered temporality, and love eliminated death (Lewis).

We may not be there yet, but as Paul wrote, 8”He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen

Resources

Christian Coon, christiancentury.org

Fred B. Craddock & M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary, Kindle Edition.

Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org

Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): New Testament

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible


Linda Works, sundaysandseasons.com

Friday, December 1, 2017

Living a Fearless Faith

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. The text is Matthew 25:14-30. 
 
Last week when the church council met, one of the topics we discussed was stewardship, since it is that time of year. Upon reading todays gospel, my reaction was, Oh good! This is about stewardship!Well, the more I studied, the more I realized that stewardship, as we envision it, is not the thrust of what Matthew is saying to us.  

Looking at the cultural context, lets see if we can get a handle on what this parable is about. First of all, what is a talent? Doesnt talent mean that someone can sing or dance or do stand-up comedy well? Isnt that why we have shows like Americas Got Talent?In Jesustime, a talent was not an ability, but rather a very large sum of moneybetween 75-96 pounds of silver. One talent was equal to 15 years of a laborers wages. Five talents would be more than a lifetimes wages. 

Not all disciples have the same amount of responsibility as we see in this parable of the slaves. They were all given talents according to their ability(v. 15). As Gods children, we are obligated to participate in Gods mission according to to [our] ability(v. 15). 

The master called his slaves and delivered overor gave overhis possessions to them. Thats the meaning in Greek of the word translated as entrusted.It seems to imply giving up control of.The talents were not simply on loan to the slaves to look after in the masters absence, but became truly theirs. 

One slave was given five talents and the other two. Each of these slaves went and made more talents, so that when the master returned after a long time(v. 19), they were eager to show him what they had done with the talents given them. They had taken the risk of obedience and faithfulness and were successful. The master praised them as good and faithful.This is not a stance of theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk(Boring). The master rewards the faithful slaves with his joy, changing the relationship with them to one of equals.  

What does it mean for us to enter into your masters joy(vv. 21, 23)? Joy comes as the result of what God has done in sending Jesus: speaking the Word, the coming of the kingdom, saving the lost and the resurrectionin other words, the gospelthe good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. We may understand the talentsas the gospelthe great treasure God has given the church. If, like the third slave, we try to protect it, or save it only for ourselves, we risk losing it (Stoffregen). 

Two verses each are devoted to the masters conversation with each of the first two slaves. When we come to the third slave, four verses are spent on that conversation alone. The first two slaves arent so much characters in the story as foils against which to compare the third servant, whose actions are unique, whose speech is unique, and whose condemnation by the master serves as the climax of the story(Mark Douglas). 

The third slave accused the master of being harsh and of reaping where he didnt sow seed and gathering where he hadnt scattered seed, in other words, harvesting from someone elses field, which sounds scandalous, doesnt it? The slave had no basis for his description of the actions of the master. In insulting his master, this slave blamed the masters perceived harsh character for his own failure to increase his talent. If anything, the master was very generous. He placed great wealth at the disposal of all the slaves, including this one. 

However, the master deemed this slave to be wicked and lazy (v. 26). The unfaithful slaves sin is not merely that he fails to use his gifts faithfully, but his failure to see the gifts as precious and, most importantly, his failure to know his master(Douglas Hare). The motivation of the good slaves was to do the work of their master. The motivation of the bad slave was fear. His problem wasnt as much his actions as his fear. Because he saw the master as an immoral taskmaster to be feared; the master became exactly what the slave imagined him to be. This parable warns us against fear that the God we face is the one we imagine(Douglas). If we imagine fear, we will receive fear. If we imagine grace, then grace is what we will receive. 

What made the difference in the masters pleasure or anger with the three slaves? Was it because of overall output? That cant be it because the master said the exact same thing to the slave who had been given five talents and to the one who had been given two. He was equally pleased and told them to enter into the joy of [their] master(vv. 21, 23).  

Did you hear what was different about the slavesresponse to his masters return? The first two slaves were confident, showing the master what they had done, while before showing the master anything, the third slave declared the master to be harsh. Therefore, he was afraid, burying his one talent.  

Now the fact that he hid the talent wasnt that big a deal. In that day people did bury their money for safe keeping. The real issue which drove his behavior and caused the masters anger was his view and image of the master. The slave saw him as a harsh man that should be feared. Fear had paralyzed this slave from stepping out and taking some risk.  

The master does not judge on the basis of outward appearances, but on the basis of their relationship to or their perception of him. He gave no clear instructions of what to do during  his long absence, so faithfulness was not merely obedience to directions.  

With whom do you and I identify with in this gospel passage? We are the slaves, but in which one do we recognize ourselves? It is up to us. How will we use our time and Gods generosity while waiting for Christs return? We might ask ourselves about the attitude that characterizes my relationship with God. Do I dread Gods wrath or do I have confidence in Gods mercy? Am I able to follow Luthers advice to Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly still? 

Rather than thinking of today's gospel as primarily a stewardship parable, we should consider it a parable of the graciousness and generosity of the master and our response to that. Even the slave that received only one talent received a whole lot of money.  

This parable is also a disturbing story about what Christians do or dont do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven (Long). What would life be like if we were as concerned about increasing the spread of the gospel of Gods grace, as we are about increasing the return on our financial investments? In recent weeks, when investments werent doing so well, people were very concerned about themmore than most people have been about growing the gospel for the sake of the Lord.  

Jesus is a completely different kind of master and lord, offering hope to those who fail. 
Being a follower of Jesus is all about relationship-our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with our community. Fear paralyzes Gods children and warps their view of who God is. One who is not a child of God should be afraid because a day of judgment is coming. As negative and depressing as that may sound, it means justice will be meted out.  

We often feel like bad things keep on happening and the perpetrators are not punished. God pays attention to consequences of evil, injustice, greed and other personal and corporate sins. Many live in the outer darknessof extreme poverty, terrorism, racism and prejudice. 

What good news can we offer those on the margins of society and those who are oppressed? What global and local ministries demonstrate our faithful living as children of God who embrace others out of our abundance, offering tangible signs of God's grace and salvation? Locally, we have St. Susans Center, UCAN, the United Christian Advocacy Network, the Addiction Response Ministry, the GA Home and many other agencies. Nationally and internationally we see the work of Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Advocacy, ELCA world hunger outreach and many others.  

Those of us in relationship with Jesus, can fearlessly work for Gods kingdom. Living a fearless faith, we can take off to various places to help victims of natural disasters. Living a fearless faith, we can work to fight the drug epidemic in our country and city. Living a fearless faith, we can better share our stories of what God has done in our lives. Living a fearless faith in the Lord Jesus, it just might make a difference in the life and growth of our congregation. We dare not be like the respectablepeople of whom Bonhoeffer said, The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility(Dietrich Bonhoeffer). 

Advent will soon be upon us. Emanuel, God with us, is one of Matthews main metaphors and names for Jesus. He came in the flesh to always be with us and for us. This Advent and Christmas season, let us check our assumptions of Jesus against the image and promise of the Christ child. It may take time and may be difficult, but let us allow our images of God to be reshaped and reformed. May we realize that God meant it when God called us. Then we can fearlessly proclaim to all the world that God is a God of love, who entrusts us with great gifts and riches, who is eager for us to make the most of them and is always inviting us to enter the joy of our Lord (Lose).  

Amen. 

Resources 
Eugene Boring, Matthew, New Interpreter Bible). 
Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2. 
Douglas Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, p. 287. 
Steven C. Kuhl, Text Teaser, Nov. 14, 2017. 
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion. 
John Petty, progressiveinvolvement.com. 
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com/brian. 
sundaysandseasons.com.