Biblical Text: Galatians 1:11-24
Full Draft of Sermon
We continue our reading and preaching from Galatians this week.
I can be fairly accused of being a grammar geek, at least with the Scriptures. For most writers, or speakers, the syntax of how they write gives you insight and information into how they are thinking. Now some texts don’t deserve such parsing because they are just stream of consciousness. But other texts, texts that border on art whatever their genre, scream for a close read. The author wants to get something across and has taken care to write it in the way thought best. Great authors are famous for being fastidious over words. In a 1000 page novel they will argue with an editor about a single word on page 251 as if the entire work depended on it. The scriptures might be written by the most fastidious of authors ever – the Spirit.
What stood out to me about Paul’s autobiographical section of Galatians was the pronouns and the switch of pronouns. When Paul describes his life before the Damascus Road, the pronouns are all I and my. They are all first person. Even though on the surface his was zealous for Judaism, the way he expresses it tells the truth. He was zealous for himself expressed through Judaism. Like we can be zealous for ourselves expressed through owning an Apple or a Samsung cell phone. But when he turns to his current life, the pronouns are now mostly third person – he or him. The primary focus of Paul’s life shifted from me to Christ. Put in different terms which this sermon explores, Paul puts the Kingdom first.
He still has his place. Paul has a vocation, a calling. He is an apostle. But the living of that vocation is not about expressing my will, but about glorifying God. With a side trip through George Martin’s Game of Thrones, art can help us see truth that we don’t want to see, the Realm comes first and then all these things (our vocations) are added.
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That title is a reference to Wendell Berry. A rough translation: Boomers = people who go where ever the opportunity is greatest regardless of the mess they leave behind. Stickers = people who stay in one place because the community is greater than the individual. As with all dualities it is immediately true and false at the same time. Berry’s deeper point I have taken to be that the rules of American society have become too tilted toward Boomers. Even if you were a sticker, the price is individually too high. But a society of all boomers lacks the social capital and cohesion to exist for any length of time.
There are a lot of Christians who have resonated with Wendell Berry. My guess is that many have read him on “place” and sticking and heard echoes of “running the race” and seen his virtues of “place” in the community called the church, which in most Americans experience is a local thing. Yes, in episcopal churches there are far away hierarchies, but even in the Roman Catholic Church in America, the religion of daily life is played out in the local parish. Nobody fears the coming of the inquisition. Coming from a Lutheran standpoint, and I would say Confessional Lutheran based on the Treatise of the Power and Primacy of the Pope (TPPP), that local nature of the church is a correct understanding. The church is found where the word is preached and the sacraments administered correctly. The entire church is present in that local congregation, or maybe said better that congregation is the church in that place. Anything “above” or outside of the congregation is not church although we might call it that. The church above or outside of the congregation is fine, but we should recognize it for what it is – de jure humano – a human construct. The reformers where fine with the Pope so long as he would admit his office was by human law.
Alan Jacobs questions if this resonance is misplaced or even reconcilable with Christianity. His primary evidence is Jesus and Paul who were clearly not “stickers” but in Paul’s case traveled “to the ends of the earth”. To make place a primary commitment is as Berry does is a form of idolatry.
I’d agree with Jacobs in so far as I think Berry’s place is a secularized form of the church. Christians who read Berry and make an equation of church and place are making a jump that Berry doesn’t. But Christians who make that jump are reading the deeper truth that Berry can’t or won’t make. The church is a place. The church is the proleptic or out of time appearance of the Kingdom of God in this dying age. In so far as the Christian is a sticker to the place of the Kingdom, the virtues of place in Berry are applicable. The deepest of those virtues in my understanding is simple the ability to stop coveting the greener grass on the other side of the fence and to recognize our vocations where we are. Some are called to be apostles which would mean a bunch of travel. But wherever they go they are still in the place of the Kingdom living out their vocation. They did not leave because of covetousness but because of call. And to do so is not to leave at all. Likewise the pastor called to the same place for a lifetime, or the layman who works quietly in the vineyard where they have been placed, are also living out their vocations. The world would say to them -“Boom, you are not getting the most out of life, you must go elsewhere.” The church and God instead would say no. There is honor and fulfillment in living your life in place, “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)” Berry’s form of place is idolatry because his place is literally a physical place in this dying world. But Berry, unlike many other forms of secularism, is sanctifiable with a better understanding of place. The Christian’s home is not here, but the Kingdom. And that Kingdom is in every place. One can go and never leave. Likewise one can never leave, but have everywhere in the communion of saints.
Text: Luke 18:1-17
Most things have a normal curve outcome – i.e. lots of “c’s”, a few “A’s” and a few failures. As I was writing and practicing delivery, I knew this sermon was inverted – all or nothing.
Here is why it could strike out: 1) reference to child sexual abuse, 2) talking about how to be a disciple/holiness, 3) the major image being a secular motion picture, 4) continuing or heavily referencing the previous week’s gospel (the context is critical), 5) a heavy theological concept at the end (absolution coming ‘extra nos’ or outside of ourselves), 6) an analogy that if I took it out of the context of the image would be gross work’s righteousness, 7) a different outline or format than I typically use and 8) a general high level of emotional pitch throughout.
It was risk piled on risk. (Ok Holy Spirit, better show up for this one.) I was pondering right up until Sunday Morning if I had the guts to deliver it.
Test for this sermon was Mark 4:26-34, a pair of parables about seeds.
This is an exerpt…
The Reign of God comes as an offense to the ways of the world. It comes small, when the world likes its rulers to come in pomp and circumstance. The reign of God grows silently and where God wants it, when the world likes things known and planned and controlled. The reign of God grows like a shrub, the mustard, something organic, where the world prefers things mechanical and controlled. That plant grows untended, where the world wants its order. And most offensively, the reign of God invites all the birds into the garden, where the world wants to keep the garden for a special and chosen few. The world cannot stop the reign of God. It has and will continue to grow large. The reign of God will mature and reach a harvest, a judgement. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. But in that harvest, some will have chosen to weed their garden. The offense of how the reign of God presents itself – in a crucified savior, in a factious and often hypocritical church, in the foolishness of preaching and the mysticism of sacraments – those offenses to the world will cause some to dig out that mustard seed. They will reject the reign of God for that of the world – a world that is even now passing away.
Mark’s Palm Sunday Text (Mark 11:1-11) ends oddly. “Jesus looked around and it being late went back out to Bethay with his disciples.” The donkey, the cloaks and the palms, the hosannas and the shouts, all end with a quick look around and a walk back out. The question to ask is who are we welcoming – The Kingdom/Son of David or the Kingdom/Son of God. The Kingdom of David restores and refreshes all the stuff that we like. To those hailing Jesus that day that meant kicking out the Romans, making all the nations bow to Israel, restoring the proper temple worship and priesthood. The Kingdom of David says “have it your way.” The Kingdom of God says “pick up your cross and follow me.” Welcoming the Kingdom of David is easy, but there is no life. The presence of the Lord has left the temple and razed it. The Kingdom of David is like a showy tree full of leaves or palm branches, but that never produces any fruit or coconuts. Are there any areas in your life where you are shouting hosanna for the coming kingdom of David – and you are missing the life, the drawing near of the Kingdom of God?