[2 Corinthinas] five15

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Way back when, for several years, TKT and I did an evening service called five15.  It started, conveniently enough, at 5:15 pm, and was something of an experiential service.  We followed the form of An Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist from our Book of Common Prayer (p 400-407). In the course of “[Sharing] the Gifts of God,” we had various prayer stations around the themes of thanksgiving, confession, adoration, and petition.  It was a lot of fun to imagine different ways of engaging prayer with all five senses.  As we prepared for five15, I looked through every 5:15 in the Bible, to find taglines we might use in advertising, and 2 Corinthians 5:15 was one of our favorites.

And [Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

We did not discover this verse.  It has long been a part of the Eucharistic canon, thanks to its placement in our Prayer D, which dates as far back as the mid-fourth century.  It has had its place in the Eucharist as a ongoing reminder of why we gather for worship at all.  The goal of the Christian life isn’t to have “your best life now,” or to achieve self-actualization, or to be protected from harm, or even to get to heaven when you die.  The telos of the Christian life is to live for Christ who died and was raised, for us.  As the New Living Translation puts it, “He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live to please themselves.  Instead, they will live to please Christ, who died and was raise for them.”

And how does one live “for Christ” or “to please Christ”?  Well, Jesus has summed that up elsewhere with the advice that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  That seems to be a good place to start.

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A Wal*Mart Theologian

One of the gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to attend continuing education events.  I’ve been to all sorts over the years, from emergent church events to Episcopal Church conferences to one United Methodist Conference sponsored gathering to a one-day social media bootcamp.  Even my four summers in the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee counts.  The broad spectrum of opportunities has helped me continue to grow in my ministry, but I’ve also started to notice some similarities.  Most, if not all, of these events end up in small group sessions.  Most, if not all, of these small group sessions require you to make an introduction.  I’ve introduced myself in a lot of different ways over the last decade, but perhaps my favorite is as a Wal*Mart Theologian.  That is, I am a firm believer that what I am preaching on Sunday morning has to also work in the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart. (1)

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This understanding of theology and preaching came back to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  This passage offers two fairly familiar parables from Jesus.  The first, maybe less commonly cited one, is about the sower who scatters seed, which grows, though he knows not how.  It is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how it is constantly in motion, coming ever closer to our experience, even if we can’t always see it or feel it.  The second parable is of the mustard seed, which, though small, will grow to be a large bush that offers shade to the birds.  It too is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how seemingly insignificant acts of love and grace can make a profound impact on a world desperate for redemption.

The particular nuanced understanding of what Jesus is saying isn’t what took me to the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart, however.   Instead, it is Mark’s narrative reflection on the way Jesus taught that caught my attention.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…

Jesus shared the Kingdom of God with the crowds by way of commonly understood images.  He didn’t sit in the Synagogue and pontificate academically about a systematic theology of soteriology, but rather, he told the people stories, using the world they knew, to try to explain the unexplainable love of God.  Jesus was a first-century Wal*Mart Theologian, and by way of parables, which we often scratch our heads over, dig too deep to understand, and make super complicated, he taught the people of God’s saving love.

While you are working hard, dear reader, to prepare a sermon for Sunday on the content of these two parables, remember the example of our Lord and simply tell your people of God’s mercy, grace, and love in a language all can understand.


(1) Wal*Mart made me angry several years ago, so I rarely shop there anymore.  I guess I’m a Kroger Theologian now, but regional grocery store brands don’t carry the same weight.

What Motivates You?

Yesterday morning on Sportscenter, there was an interview with Lebron James after he carried the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back to a game 3 victory and a 2-1 series lead.  He was asked a question about whether playing against the leave MVP, Steph Curry, was added motivation for him.  Lebron said that his goal every time he steps on the basketball court is to the be MVP for his team, which in his mind means making the players around him better, and while it did sting to come in third in this year’s MVP voting, he didn’t need the added motivation because he’s got enough motivation from within. It was a good interview, and I’m not apt to say that because, well

Lebron’s words come back to mind for me, however, as I read the lesson from 2 Corinthians for Sunday, noting Paul’s words about motivation.  “The love of Christ urges us on…” is how the NRSV puts it, which is a fairly odd translation in the tradition. Perhaps the translators stumbled upon a previously unknown Greek idiom, but more often, the Greek is translated as “The love of Christ controls us…” (RSV) or “The love of Christ compels us…” (NIV).  My particular favorite, the Contemporary English Version (CEV) translates it as “We are ruled by Christ’s love for us.”

I find this particularly helpful as I think about what motivates my actions.  In those moments when I fail to live into God’s dream for his Kingdom, it is because I’m ruled by my love for myself, my comfort, and my control.  In those moments when my eyes are fixed upon the dram of God, it is by God’s grace that I’m able to be ruled by Christ’s love for me, which spills out in love for my neighbor.

Sin, it would seem, is a failure to be ruled by the love of God.  Sin comes from being ruled by anything else.  Sin comes when our motivations aren’t the kingdom of God, but the devices and desires of our own hearts.  As I kneel to confess my sins at noon today, I’ll spend an extra moment pondering my motivations, what or who rules my heart, and pray that it might be the love of Christ alone that urges me on.

That Pesky Mustard Seed

Get your Googles ready, everybody, because it is once again time to fill your favorite search engine with image searches of mustard seeds and plants.  Every year, I get the question from a farmer in our congregation about what sort of mustard plants Jesus was talking about because in LA (Lower Alabama) they just don’t grow into “the greatest of all shrubs.”  As the internet is ever expanding, I found a new image this year, that perhaps will help allay some of Mr. L’s concerns.

That’s not me in my cassock-alb.

What are we to do with this wildly contextualized image for the kingdom of God?  It is like a mustard seed, which if Wikipedia is to be believed, is awfully small.

Yet it grows into “the greatest of shrubs” according to Jesus, of the Middle Eastern equivalent of Kudzu, as some scholars have described it.  Either way, this tiny seed is a force to be reckoned with.  In the genre of parables, it seems that the details are only important insofar as they point you to the underlying meaning.  So, whether great bush or annoying weed, the truth that Jesus is sharing is that even when it seems that the influence of the kingdom of God is nearly imperceptibly small, there are big things brewing.

This makes sense, of course, here near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.  Over the course of three years there will be great crowds and utter isolation; there will be cheers of joy and mocking jeers; there will be moments of profound influence and times when it seems as though the whole world is rebelling against Jesus and his message.  In the long-run, the kingdom of God will have its influence, will make a difference, will flourish beyond imagination, but in those moments of doubt, we can recall the mustard seed and know that God’s plan is larger than our momentary frustrations.

Kingdom Tasks

Proper 6, Year B brings us back to everybody’s favorite season: it’s Kingdom Parable Time!!!!!!  All the contextualized fun of Jesus’ regular parables, with the added bonus that they are describing something we can’t even imagine! Yay!

I’m being facetious, of course, but there is some truth in the thought that the Kingdom Parables are about the toughest genre a preach will have to deal with.  They are often short, dense, and full of things that made perfect sense to first century Jews, but an awful lot gets lost in translation.  Take everyone’s favorite Kingdom Parable as an example.  The Parable of the Sower is clearly not to be taken literally.  Nobody will waste that much seed, and nobody would expect returns of 30, 60, or 100-fold.  In our current context, where farming is almost entirely mechanized, family farms are nearly non-existent, and, quite frankly, barely anyone gives any real thought about where their food comes from, this parable just seems odd, and yet there are lessons to be learned about the extravagance of God and the call to discipleship.

The same is true in Sunday’s double-header of Kingdom Parables from Mark 4.  We’ll deal with the mustard seed tomorrow, but today I want to look at the pithy harvest parable.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Science has helped us to understand how seeds mature into grain, but even in Jesus’ time they knew of using minerals and manure to grow better crops, and as I said before, these parables aren’t meant to be lessons in agriculture, they are meant to describe the Kingdom of God.  Putting aside the naivete’ of the farmer in Jesus’ parable for a moment, we see Jesus highlighting two discipleship tasks in the Kingdom of God.  The farmer scatters seed and the farmer engages the harvest.

Plant and harvest, plant and harvest, plant and harvest.  Like all parables, the lessons is not explicit, and the first meaning is usually the wrong one.  My initial thought is that this is a parable about evangelism.  We are to tell the Good News and then help those who believe it to live the kingdom life.  That’s probably not wrong, but there are probably other ways to interpret this parable.  Maybe we plant seeds simply by loving our neighbor and the harvest comes when love abides.  Maybe we plant seeds by caring for the poor and the harvest comes when justice rolls down like a mighty river.  Maybe we plant seeds through prayer and Bible study and the harvest comes by way of a deep and rich relationship with God.  Maybe we plant seeds by giving sacrificially to the Kingdom and the harvest comes by way of blessings unimaginable.  There are lots of ways to interpret planting and harvesting, but the underlying truth remains, God blesses what is planted with an abundant harvest.

Our Aim is to Please

Back in March, The Acts 8 Moment did a BLOGFORCE series on the mission of the Church beginning at the congregational level and moving upward through the diocese to the church-wide structure.  In her final post in the series, my friend and co-conspirator, Susan Brown Snook pointed out a distinct difference in understanding when it comes to the telos of Christianity. On the one hand was The Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, COO of The Episcopal Church, who said that the mission of the Church was “to serve the poor and create servants of the poor.”  On the other hands was the Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested this as the mission of the Church: “First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”

It seems to me that these two definitions show the crux of the problem with the Church today.  Bishop Sauls has a good and noble mission, but it is merely a small part of the much larger Gospel of Jesus to which Archbishop Welby seems to be calling us.

This conversation comes to mind for several reasons.  First, I heard Bishop Sauls speak over the weekend and was reminded of his somewhat myopic view of the Gospel.  More importantly, I read the lesson from 2 Corinthians appointed for Sunday and was immediately drawn to Paul’s understanding of the goal of the Christian life.

“We make it our aim to please [God].”

Caring for the poor certainly pleases God.  There can be no doubt about that, but there is much more that we can do to please God in this life.  The authors of “A Memorial to the Church,” a list on which I’m proud to be listed, gave us several suggestions including daily prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, giving to the Kingdom, evangelism, discipleship, and, of course, service to the least and the lost.

This too is not an exhaustive list.  If our aim is to please God, then everything we do is a means to that end.  Pleasing God is a lot about the religious life, but it is also a lot about everyday life.  Pleasing God means treating the cashier at the Piggly Wiggly or the server at Big Daddy’s or the service tech at Bebo’s with the respect due every human being.  Pleasing God means keeping your word and refusing to engage in improper business practices.  Pleasing God means forgiving that jackass that cut you off on the interstate.  Pleasing God is a full-time job, as you well know, but the rewards are most certainly worth it.  As the Psalmist writes:

“The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.”