Jesus and the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31)

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS
Pentecost 20 (Proper 23B)
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
14 October 2012

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This Gospel story is filled with temptations for the preacher.
On the one hand, it has been used as a stewardship sermon text.
Simply unburden yourself of some excess wealth by giving it to the church,
and you will be saved.
On another, preachers are tempted to immediately engage the question,
‘Are we being asked to give away all of our money?’
and to explain how the answer is, miraculously, ‘No’
when by all accounts it ought to be ‘Yes.’
Very few preachers will simply answer ‘Yes.’
Very few employed preachers, that is.

The pressure that this Word of God exerts on us,
especially upon us of the twenty-first century Western world,
can be simply fantastic, if we do not keep it at arm’s length,
If we actually allow it into our souls and spirits,
who knows what it might do.
No wonder the preacher is tempted
to relieve the pressure,
to refuse to allow this story about Jesus
to either engage him or his hearers,
but to concoct an immediate application,
something that we can do to get around Jesus’ words,
to save ourselves from the seemingly implications.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem,
presumably to the people, he is headed there to try and become king.
The disciples know, but do not accept or understand,
that he is headed there to his death.
But as he is setting out on his day’s journey,
there comes a man, presumably in a great rush,
who needs to ask the great Teacher a very important question before he leaves.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’

It is an honest question.
If it were a dishonest question,
Jesus would not speak with him in love,
as our text says,
but give him a ‘Get behind me, Satan,’
and be on his way.
But he does not.

Jesus questions him about the commandments of God.
Again, we need not trouble ourselves
with accusing the man of secret sin,
but must take at face value his confession,
‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’
Leave aside for the moment our understanding,
which is true, that we cannot save ourselves by keeping the Law.
This man earnestly strives to know and keep God’s commandments.

What does Jesus do next?
He says, ‘You lack one thing.’
After hearing this story so many times,
we ought to know what that one thing is, don’t we?
This man is too rich.
He has been trampling on the poor all his life.
He has lied to himself, he has told himself that he has kept the law, \
that he has been good,
but in reality he is evil – sitting fat and happy amidst so much wealth
that he can’t see beyond the money
to those are in desperate need.
He’s just like those people that the Prophet Amos rails on about;
those who turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground.
The one thing he has to do is give the money away and he will truly be good, and be blessed.
He has to give up his sin in order to be saved.
Am I right?

That’s very interesting.
Where does it say that in the text?
I think that the editors of the lectionary were wrong
to pair the reading from the prophet Amos with this Gospel text.
Perhaps it would go better with the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus does not chastise this man for being too rich.
He does not bring out an accusation that he has dishonored the poor,
he does not point out how evil he has been,
how he has been living a lie all of his life
What Jesus says for the man to do is this: ‘Come, follow me.’

‘But wait, Pastor, you forgot about the part where he says about selling all that he has,
and giving it to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven.’
Oh, yes, that is there.
If Jesus had just said,
‘Come, follow me,’
it wouldn’t make sense, would it?
So he has to make clear what has to occur before the man can follow him,
before he can be with Jesus,
the one thing he lacks.
He has to get rid of what is keeping him away from the one thing needful.
To whom better should he give the proceeds of this moving sale
than the poor, who truly do need them?
It’s a win-win.

It’s quite easy for us to assume that the one thing that the man lacked
was charity, was humility, was a sense of balance in his life.
Instead, we come face-to-face with the idea that what he lacked was Jesus.
Jesus wanted this man with him,
not to be one of the twelve apostles
but to join the great throng of disciples.
Because Jesus loved him,
Jesus was calling him to follow him,
and the thing that was in his way of this particular man was this man’s possessions.

‘But, Pastor, what about his wife and children?
Should he have just left them behind?’
we protest in vain.
Funny. I don’t see in the text
that says anything about him having a wife and children.
Perhaps if he had brought his wife and children,
Jesus would have said something different to him.
I’m not in a position to know.

Jesus does not call this man evil,
but neither does he pronounce him ‘good.’
‘No one is good but God alone,’ he says.
We come to this story saying, ‘How can we be good,’
and expect an answer of what we need to do in order to be good.
Instead, we hear that what we need is not to be good or to do good,
but to be with God, revealed in his Son Jesus.

If I were to end the sermon here,
some of you might go home thinking,
‘Pastor said that it doesn’t matter what we do with our money.’
God forbid!
It matters because our money does not belong to us, but to God,
who entrusted it to us for our sustenance and for the doing of his will.
It matters because Jesus said to his disciples,
‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’
Again, not because those who have money
are more evil than others,
but because money so quickly becomes our god,
our good without which we cannot do,
it becomes our snare, our stumbling block,
our touchstone for whatever we do.
We’re constantly thinking about it and worrying about it
– do we have enough? Will we have enough?
Can I spare this or that?
Money prevented the man of the story, who sought to love God, from following Jesus.
It kept him from the one thing he lacked.
What could it do to us?
How hard it is for us who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
We are called to be with Jesus,
and so however much or little we have,
Jesus calls us to orient our lives so that our wealth
becomes the tool for serving God
instead of the thing that keeps us away from God.
This is made harder by the fact
that the way we follow Jesus is usually a stationary following –
we don’t follow a man on the move.
We gather in the presence of the community,
in the presence of the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments administered,
and here we encounter Jesus.
Maybe that’s a good place to start.
What is keeping us from weekly Sunday worship with the community?
What is keeping us from delving into the Word,
from time in prayer, from fellowship with our fellow sinners called to be saints?
What keeps us from being with Jesus in the place where he calls us to be?
Are we willing to give that up in order to be with Jesus?

Then, as the man in the story would have undoubtedly found,
we will find that those who would follow Jesus
are soon sent in Jesus’ name to others who need him.
Are we willing – and able – to be sent in Jesus’ name?
To our co-workers? To our neighbors? To our family members?
To those in need of the Gospel?
For one day, for three days, for a year?
What gets in the way of being sent in Jesus’ name?
Are there others that we could send in our stead,
those who we could support to preach the Gospel that saves us?
Will it cost too much? What would we have to risk, or give up?
I have a feeling that when we as individuals and when we as a congregation
start asking this question –
Are we willing and able to be sent to others in Jesus’ name
and send others in Jesus’ name? –
our life together as a congregation will change.
It might be a little less comfortable, but it certainly will be even more exciting.

In a way what Jesus asks us to do – be with him and depend upon him –
is just as difficult as what he asked the man in the story to do.
It would be much more clear-cut should he ask us to sell all that we have and give to the poor.
And yet we have his help.
We have his word that nothing shall be impossible with him,
even our own salvation.
We have his word that we will never lack for what is important,
that we will have in this life the things we need,
and even joys we never thought we’d have,
with the persecutions that come with being a follower of Jesus.
Finally, in the age to come we will have eternal life in him.
He is all that we need and in the end he is all that we will have.

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October 14, 2012 at 7:53 am Leave a comment

Joseph Forgives his Brothers

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS
Narrative Lectionary Week 3 – Joseph Forgives His Brothers
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh PA
22 September 2012
 
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
 
The story of the Bible is a story of a God who calls and promises.
In Genesis 12, God called Abraham to go to the land which he would show him,
and promised him the land, a family that would outnumber the very stars of heaven,
and through him all the nations of the world would be blessed.
Abraham trusted that God would keep his promises.
And Abraham and Sarah did have a son, and that son Isaac had two twin sons, Jacob and Esau,
and those sons didn’t get along too well.
Jacob was the one who inherited his father Isaac’s blessing,
even though he had to do some pretty shady stuff
in order to get it.
(It was all his mom Rebekah’s idea.)
 
Ever notice that the heroes in the Bible really aren’t all that heroic?
In Sunday School we were taught to be like Jacob –
except for the lying to his dad part.
We were taught to be like King David –
except for the murder and adultery part.
We were taught to be wise like King Solomon –
except for the worshiping other gods part.
We were taught to be like the apostle Peter –
except for the denying our Lord when it came to crunch time part.
We were taught to be like St Paul –
except for the persecuting Christians part.
 
In fact, there is only one hero of the Bible.
That hero is God –
God who keeps calling his lost people
and promising them rescue from their enemies,
and in the end comes among them in Jesus Christ
to accomplish his every Word.
 
But if there are no heroes in the Bible,
Joseph comes close.
Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob,
the one whose multi-colored coat got the other boys so jealous,
and the one whose dreams of greatness just drove them over the edge.
 
Now all the very modern commentaries on this passage rightly point out
that Jacob’s family was a dysfunctional family.
Jacob loved Joseph’s mother Rachel much more than his other wife Leah
or either of their handmaids whom he also took as sexual partners.
(Ever notice how not only are there no heroes in the Bible,
there’s more sex than you’d expect there to be?)
Anyhow, the first son born to Rachel was loved more than the other mother’s sons,
and lavished with all sorts of attention,
and so of course it was perfectly natural that the other boys
would became so enraged with jealousy
that they would plan to get rid of him completely.
 
Here’s where the commentaries begin to break down.
So what?
It doesn’t matter how much favoritism Jacob showed to Joseph.
It doesn’t justify first thinking of murder and then selling Joseph into slavery,
which amounts to about the same thing,
since who knows what’s going to happen to Joseph once he’s gone.
In fact, it doesn’t even matter that Reuben plots to save him
because he fears his father’s wrath more than he hates Joseph.
 
What matters is that the God-called response to injustice is not hatred.
It is not ‘natural’ for jealousy to result in blind rage and murder.
Jealousy itself is not ‘natural.’
It is was not ‘natural’ for Adam and Eve to be jealous of God.
That is part of the unnatural nature of our sin.
The fact that we live against our nature, that we live in sin,
is the only reason we say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see how a couple of dreams
justify throwing your younger brother into a pit.’
 
I don’t care how dysfunctional Jacob was as a parent.
I’m not blaming Jacob for the actions of the sons,
which were treacherous and murderous and full of hatred.
When you are wronged, as you most certainly will be in this life,
you have no God-given right to hate the person who wronged you.
That is a deeper slavery than any that the brothers had planned for Joseph.
 
We human beings are called by God to a life of bearing each other’s burdens.
You cannot bear the burden of someone else while you hate them.
The call to forgiveness is the call to love – to love the one whom ordinarily you would hate –
because God’s call and promise is community.
God intends for human community to be restored through Jesus Christ,
and those who live in Jesus Christ are called to be restorers of community
by bearing the burdens of those who wrong them.
 
Ten sons of Jacob break the community of Abraham’s family in their hatred.
The community of the family whom God had chosen to bring light to the world
is now divided, as so many families and communities are
because of jealousy, because of hatred, because of the desire to be first.
The reading for tomorrow morning will talk of our unnatural desire to be first in everything –
most important, most respected, most well-known,
and Jesus will speak of greatness as being last and servant of all.
It doesn’t happen here.
 
Except in one person.
The person who the story leaves thrown into the pit, begging for mercy,
and then is sold into slavery.
Joseph rises, and falls, and rises again and falls again,
and ends up number two-man in the kingdom of Egypt,
guiding them through a famine with Solomon-like wisdom.
When his brothers come, begging for bread,
Joseph gives it to them, even before he knows that his father lives.
But when his father dies,
the consciences of the ten brothers afflict them.
Or is it their conscience?
Is it not fear that Joseph only spared them
because he loved his father more than he loved them?
Now that Jacob is no more,
what is to stop him from showing no mercy,
as they showed no mercy to him?
 
The call and promise of God is to community –
community with God and with others in God.
And so when Joseph’s brothers come and ask, beyond hope, for his mercy,
Joseph himself restores the community that has been broken.
The debtors, the brothers, cannot restore it,
because no action could ever undo what they had done to Joseph.
It is Joseph himself, the one who was wronged, that must restore the community,
and restore it he can, and restore it he does,
because he trusts that the goodness of God is greater than any evil done to him
and that the God who made promises to Abraham
can bring even good out of evil.
 
Do the brothers have a part to play?
Absolutely!
In recognizing and confessing the wrong they have done
and receiving the forgiveness offered.
That is our role as well,
for we too have been jealous that we must have a Lord,
one greater than us who will rule over us.
And we have cast him into the pit, sentenced him to death,
but beyond our greatest fear – and our greatest hope –
he is risen and lives with his Father in heaven.
What can we do but recognize what we do,
when we hate those of whom we are jealous,
when we return evil for evil
and do not live in the community God offers?
What else can we do but turn to God-in-Christ,
our brother, our reconciler,
and ask for mercy, for forgiveness?
What else can we do but live in the forgiveness which is offered,
the forgiveness which comes from God’s own hand?
 
There is one hero in the Bible,
and that is God,
the God who enfleshes himself in Jesus Christ.
But in Joseph, the Old Testament
gives us perhaps the clearest type, or pattern,
of the one who was to come
to fulfill all the promises made to Abraham.
In Joseph, who was dead and was raised to life,
and who himself wiped away the wrongs done by his brothers,
we see an image of the one who wipes away our wrongs.
 
Let us then go forward in imitation of the One, who like Joseph of old,
pleaded for mercy for his despisers
and despised no one.
Let us live in Christ’s love.
It is a love which ‘keeps no record of wrongs,’
as the words of 1st Corinthians, read to so many couples
beginning their marriages, reminds us.
Let us be the ones to offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
When we ourselves are in the wrong, let us ask for forgiveness,
from God and from others.
Let us not shrink from examining our own hearts.
And when there are people who refuse to live in relationship,
who will not accept forgiveness because they will not admit their part,
when we are caught in desperate circumstances
and cannot see the possibility of restoration,
let us pray to the God who can bring good from evil
and for whom all things are possible.
 
But most of all let us trust in him who will accomplish all things through us
by the power of his Holy Spirit –
who wipes away our wrongdoing
and welcomes us back into full community with him:
Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
 
Amen
 
The peace of God, that passes all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

September 24, 2012 at 10:14 am Leave a comment

Getting in the Way of Greatness

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

Pentecost 18 (Proper 23)

St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh PA

September 23, 2012

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

 

We live in a society that has a very deeply schizophrenic attitude towards children.

On the one hand,

children are to be protected.

We no longer live in a society where child labor is legal.

Every child should and must be protected from abuse of any kind.

And billions of dollars are spent each year on the education, health, and welfare of children.

 

On the other hand, from the moment they are born,

children are treated as consumers by business and targeted for advertising.

They will recognize the symbol for McDonalds

by the time they are two years old,

and know the brands of clothes and food that are sold to them

better than they know the history of their country.

A whole market has sprung up around the buying habits and attitudes of teenagers,

a demographic virtually unknown just sixty years ago,

and they are told in advance by the media in which they are immersed

what is real and what is not,

what faded clothes and prematurely jaded attitudes are ‘in’ and which are ‘out.’

They will be taught that people will pay attention to them

in proportion to what they can offer to them,

whether entertainment or work-value or intelligence.

 

While we have severe penalties for those who are caught abusing children,

they are fast initiated into a world

where explicitly violent and explicitly sexual entertainment is the norm,

and they somehow are to differentiate between what is ‘appropriate’ and what is ‘inappropriate.’

And there is of course the vast worldwide illegal traffic in children,

taking children across national borders as slaves.

These are things we don’t hear about every day.

 

Children are often treated as political footballs,

as sources of profit,

and as substitutes for the failed dreams of their legal guardians

for stardom, for accomplishment, for success.

We haven’t come so far in our treatment of children

that we can say we have listened to what Jesus says about them.

 

Of course, Jesus is not addressing society.

He is addressing his disciples.

And what he says goes beyond children.

The disciples are arguing amongst themselves

as to who is the greatest.

A childish pursuit, as opposed to an child-like pursuit,

but one in which we often engage

as a way to justify our own belonging to the group we’re part of

or even our existence on the planet.

This is of course after Jesus has told the disciples for the second time

that he is headed to his death.

One wonders at the tone-deafness of the disciples.

But of course they are no different from us.

 

From childhood on, we are taught to differentiate ourselves one from another,

to grade ourselves and others based on a certain set of criteria.

We are supposed to ‘make the grade,’ somehow,

to be above and below others.

Such an attitude inserts itself deeply into our vision of reality.

Those below are to serve those above.

Those above are the ‘haves,’ those below are the ‘have-nots.’

 

If Jesus were of this world,

he would have intervened to judge once and for all

who was the greatest among the disciples.

He would have chosen based on criteria –

who is the most religious, who has the most gifts to share,

who could do the most for the Church when he dies and rises and ascends to heaven.

Jesus is not of this world,

this world that evaluates constantly what is worthy and what is not

and who gets to be top dog and who gets to be underdog.

For his is not a mission to ‘have,’

but ‘not to have.’

 

Why does he choose to use a child as an object lesson?

Not because children are cute.

Children better be cute – it’s a survival tool.

If I had a nickel for every time Annette said to one of our children,

‘It’s a good thing you’re cute.’

It’s not because children are innocent, either.

It’s because they’re needy.

They are the neediest creatures around,

and they remind us of who we are.

 

From the moment they are born, a child is dependent.

This grates on Americans, who would prefer that children be independent

at least by the third trimester.

A child is dependent on its mother for nourishment,

upon adults for love,

upon the society for protection.

The child cannot survive without us.

A child can be given food, but if no one talks to the child,

no one interacts with the child, no one loves the child,

the child will ‘fail to thrive,’

the child will never learn to speak, to laugh, to love,

the child will die just as surely as if starved to death.

In orphanages, there are people who volunteer

simply to touch unwanted babies,

to hold them, to speak to them,

for this very fact –

that a child is hungry for this touch and this love.

It goes on from there.

 

Why is this relevant?

Because children and those like them –

the unborn, sick, the aged,

those unable to care for themselves,

those with physical and mental challenges,

those who have never outgrown some childish ways –

these get in the way of the supposed great achieving their great desires.

If people are constantly meeting the needs of others,

how can they be great?

How can they accomplish all the great things they’re destined for?

How can they have all the great things they were born to have?

To care for a have-not, a disciple of Jesus must become a have-not.

They must renounce what they can be.

in order to become what they are called to be.

 

We are called to become like our Lord,

who became a have-not for us.

He gave away all that he had for us, poor and needy as we are,

and became last of all and servant of all.

We Christians sometimes act as if Jesus’ death

was just Good Friday,

as if walking to the cross was some sort of picnic journey,

going from Galilee to Jerusalem was a pleasure tour.

We forget that Jesus had to take his resurrection on faith, just as we do.

For him, as for us, death was the only certainty and his daily companion.

And he chose to spend his life on such people as the disciples.

He chose to spend his life on such people as us.

 

The early Christians did crazy things.

They found people that the ancient world had discarded,

orphans and widows,

people who were in desperate need,

and provided for them.

They would go into the woods and the hillsides

and find the aborted children of the ancient world –

the infants who after they were born were simply left out to die

by desperate people or those who didn’t want to be bothered.

As time went on, the members of the Christian Church

founded hospitals, schools,

so that the needy would not be forgotten,

nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

They did so because they worshiped a living Lord who said,

‘Whoever welcomes such a one in my name welcomes me.’

 

We too have our role to play in this drama.

It is before you.

You need not go far to find your calling.

This is where our imagination kicks in.

For even the one who thinks he or she is the greatest

is at bottom that needy child he or she was at the beginning.

We are not so self-sufficient as we think we are.

 

The one who needs welcome to our neighborhood or fellowship,

the one who thinks he has everything,

the one who has lost a spouse or a parent,

the one who has lost a job,

the one who has hit bottom,

the one who has not heard the Gospel of Jesus

is Jesus in disguise,

is the one to whom you are sent.

You may do so because Jesus has come for you.

Jesus has died for you and lives for you

and gave you witnesses and servants to welcome you into the world and the Church

so that you might find your calling as least of all and servant of all,

to welcome others in his name.

 

Amen

September 23, 2012 at 7:48 am Leave a comment

The God Who Seeks Us

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

2:4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that theLord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

 

Today marks the beginning of our nine-month chronological journey through the Bible.

As with any journey, we begin at the beginning.

And yet, Christians are those who live from the end of the story.

God’s ending of the story is this:

we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ,

‘who died for our sins and was raised for our justification,’

we are being made holy by his Holy Spirit,

we will be perfectly holy when his kingdom is fully revealed at the end of all things.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his lectures on Genesis:

‘The church of Holy Scripture lives from the end.

Therefore it reads the whole of Holy Scripture as the book of the end,

of the new, of Christ…’

‘In the church, therefore, the story of creation must be read in a way that begins with Christ

and moves on toward him as its goal;

indeed one can read it as a book that moves toward Christ

only when one knows that Christ is the beginning, the new, the end of our own world.’1

 

The first human beings were created for the purpose of relationship with God.

God created human beings to be in communion with him.

We are part of God’s creation – adam is taken from the dust, adamah.

We are dust, but dust into which has been breathed spirit –

we may address God and be addressed by God.

We are in relationship with the rest of God’s creation.

St Francis of Assisi speaks of ‘brother sun, sister moon and our sister mother earth,’

addressing with reverence the whole creation as that marked with the stamp of God.2

 

The Bible talks about ‘creation.’

But according to a purely philosophical theory of evolution, there is no ‘creation.’

Creation implies intent and purpose,

but for the person totally committed to a theory of philosophical evolution,

our ancestors had no original purpose.

Instead, we create ourselves, based on what is best for our species’ survival and advancement.

There is no qualitative difference between us and any other species;

we simply happen to have evolved to a certain point.

The relationship between human beings and other animals,

or indeed between human beings and other human beings,

must of necessity be a competition for scarce resources.

According to this theory, we are simply another animal –

with only ourselves to thank or curse

for our ability to accomplish and destroy.

And we must create our own purpose and our own destiny.

 

But Genesis speaks a different reality,

not a reality that we create but a given reality.

The uniqueness of Genesis

is not that things happened in a certain order or time-frame,

but that humankind was put on earth for a certain purpose and with a certain destiny –

to be in relationship with God and with the creation.

God gives the human being a task,

and God speaks with the human being,

addressing him with his Word.

 

The Word speaks of the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Simply as information, the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

has no effect on the human being.

The prohibition is not the cause of the fall of the human being

until desire for that which is denied can be awakened.

That is the story of the serpent,

who engages the woman in the first theological conversation.

Before this, human beings had only spoken with God –

now, the serpent and the woman speak about God,

as if he is not present, as if God is not the subjective reality of all existence

but simply another object in the creation,

on a par with the serpent and the woman and the man.

 

The serpent casts doubt upon God’s Word,

sows mistrust between the human beings and God,

and awakens desire in the human beings –

desire to be like the serpent, who takes and does not merely receive,

desire to be like God, who apparently has more knowledge than they,

desire to be like each other in asserting their own will.

If to live by faith is to believe and to trust in the Word that God has spoken,

then to live without faith is to put the trust in the word of another or in one’s own imagination.

‘We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things;’

that is how Martin Luther explains the first commandment –

‘You shall have no other gods.’

And yet here are the man and the woman,

casting aside fear of God’s warning,

trading love of God as subjects for the desire to be like God as an equal,

and losing their trust in the promises that God has given.

 

The result?

They no longer live in ‘filial fear,’ the confident awe and respect for God

that a child has for a parent,

but live in ‘servile fear,’ the fear of a servant who has trangressed

and must now face the master’s just judgment.

‘You shall not die,’ the serpent promised,

and indeed they live, but they live knowing that they shall die,

knowing themselves under a death sentence –

and trying to wrest life from death they hide themselves from each other

and they hide from God.

 

Now it is important for us to realize that this story is not given us

as a primer on what to avoid, so that we might make a better choice than Adam and Eve.

These stories in Genesis, and the rest of the stories of the Bible,

tell us who we are, and whose we are.

‘We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves;’

these are not merely pious words, but the truth of our situation.

Sin, having entered the world, has ensnared all in its net.

The choice of Adam and Eve is not a choice for us,

but without God’s grace, it is now the destiny of every human being,

to live life under the death sentence,

to live in servile fear of just judgment of transgression,

to desire what we cannot have and seek to wrest life from the jaws of death,

to hide who we truly are from ourselves, from others, and from God.

This state of being, this constantly needing to hide, is our state of being as well.

 

This is true in a particularly nefarious way for the young generation,

blessed and cursed at the same time with the technological capability

to extend our words and images worldwide.

In our world, drenched with social media,

we always want to put our best face forward to the world –

on Facebook, on Twitter, on our blogs.

We have to hold the right opinions, the right attitudes,

we have to be noticed, to be ‘liked.’

And yet the same technology that allows us to put our best face forward

is technology that allows us to control what image we present to the world.

‘Virtual reality’ is just that; virtually real: we are constantly hiding our true selves

and creating a public persona which is designed to win us the coveted ‘thumbs-up.’

In this world, to go unnoticed is simply not to exist.

So people become what they are not in order to be.

Is this not ‘living toward death?’

 

Of course, this is nothing new.

One thinks of the fictional character Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman,

hiding his true lonely, angry, bitter, lost self

behind self-righteous bluster, platitudes, wishful thinking, and outright lies.

One thinks of the real-life tragedy of Jerry Sandusky,

who created himself as a hero and a savior

while preying upon those he was supposed to be helping,

hiding his needy, desiring self behind the self-sufficient, serving self.

One thinks of countless ways ordinary people hide big and little truth,

even from themselves.

An evolutionary scientist might say we hide the truth because it helps us to survive,

to live with ourselves.

On that score that Bible and the evolutionary scientist are not so far apart;

we hide because to be found and and to be found out is to die.

 

And yet God seeks us.

The last verse we are given today seems to be anticlimactic,

but it speaks to our greatest fear

and our greatest hope.

God seeks us out and we are moved to hide,

but after the human beings hide, God calls out to them,

because God created us for relationship and God is satisfied with nothing but.

God seeks us out and we cannot hide from him,

no subterfuge or camouflage can keep us from his gaze.

Our only hope is that he seeks us out not as enemies to be annihilated

but as lost children to be rescued.

 

‘The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost,’

Jesus says after finding Zacchaeus hiding in the tree,

and calling him into the light (Luke 19:1-10).

This same Jesus tells us to ask his Father with confidence to ‘forgive us our debts,

as we forgive those who are indebted to us.’

As Adam and Eve were called out of hiding, they were called back to trust –

trust that though everything had changed, nothing had changed,

that God was still for them,

that he would still work with them,

that they were still made for relationship,

for community with God, with the creation, and with each other.

 

1Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, 23.

2Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/wosf/wosf22.htm

September 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm Leave a comment

The Power and Wisdom of God

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

Holy Cross Sunday (transferred from Sept. 14)

Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

St Stephen Lutheran Church

9 September 2012

 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

Poor St Paul!

Of course, we know the story –

This guy, who used to be named Saul,

thought Christians were a threat to true religion and had to be stopped.

At the stoning of Stephen, for whom our little parish church is named,

those who murdered Stephen laid their coats at his feet.

All this was before the risen Jesus had a little chit-chat with him on the road to Damascus.

From then on, you couldn’t get Paul to stop talking about Jesus.

He would talk to Jews.

He would talk to Gentiles.

He would go from city to city in the Roman Empire,

making tents during the weekdays and preaching at night and in the synagogues.

Whenever he’d get a few people to listen to him,

they’d form a group, he’d teach them everything he knew about Christ,

and then he’d be off to wherever God was calling him next.

It’s not the settled life to which most of us aspire.

Even we pastors prefer a little bit more permanence.

 

The problem was that once Paul had left,

the people would naturally start looking for another leader.

Some groups would get a guy who thought that what Paul said was fine,

he just left out the part about the Gentile males becoming circumcised

and observing the Torah, the law of Moses.

Some groups would get a guy who thought that what Paul said was fine,

he just left out the part about Jesus coming to teach people

how to obtain secret, spiritual, divine wisdom and knowledge.

And so Paul had to write back to these congregations he had founded,

reminding them in no uncertain terms that, no, he had not left anything out.

Had the Spirit not come upon them when he preached Christ crucified for them?

Had they not been baptized in the name of Christ,

and not in the name of Paul, or Peter, or anyone else?

Wasn’t Jesus enough for them anymore?

 

In Corinth, a group of wisdom-preachers had followed Paul,

trumpeting their superior spiritual knowledge.

According to them, Paul’s message about the cross was foolish.

But ‘foolish’ really doesn’t capture what these people had to say.

In Greek, the word that is used is moria,

from which we get our word ‘moron.’

You see, said these wisdom-preachers,

Paul is an earnest enough guy,

but he’s a little bit of a moron,

going on and on about the cross.

God’s a little bit more sophisticated than that.

We will tell you what’s really going on, what God has planned for you.

 

Now Paul is a pretty smart guy.

He learned at the feet of Gamaliel,

one of the top rabbis around,

and he was a rising star

before God decided there were more important things for him to be doing.

But according to these people, Paul is a moron.

He’s not going to take this lying down.

But it’s not because his reputation’s at stake –

what God has done is at stake.

 

The message about the cross, writes Paul, is indeed moronic –

to those who are perishing, that is.

To us who are being saved, it is dynamite –

dunamis Theou, the power of God.

 

A religion that seeks after a special, secret knowledge to elevate the self

will necessarily find the message that God gave himself on the cross for all people

to be a stumbling block, a scandal, something that must be moved past

in order for religion to really work.

The cross puts all people on the same level before God.

The cross puts to death every human striving, every secret wisdom,

every attempt of the human to elevate themselves to a spiritual superiority.

 

The cross tells it how it is with us –

this is what we do to each other and to God.

It also tells us how it is with God.

this is what God does for us, what he endures for us, how much he loves us –

here, on the cross, is the God in whom we may put our trust.

This is why this cross is called ‘holy’ –

on the cross, God himself in Jesus Christ bears the weight of our folly and our pride.

He takes what is ours and gives us what is his.

 

Now one might wonder what this has to do with our world.

Ever since Christ walked the earth,

the cross has been under attack,

because it is the enemy’s destruction.

It is under attack because it spells doom to the self.

And that is what the enemy wants us to focus on, ourselves.

 

Last night, the Saturday service read from chapters two and three of Genesis.

We heard how God created humankind for relationship with him,

and how the serpent awakened desire in Adam and Eve.

Desire to be God’s equal rather than his creation.

Desire to ‘make something of themselves,’

desire to be wise in the eyes of the serpent and of each other.

Down to today and tomorrow,

the hallmarks of a religion that is about the self

are seeking after miraculous signs to prove God’s faithfulness

and the desire for a wisdom that will elevate us above others to God’s presence.

 

This religion can be as outlandish as Scientology,

which prescribes a technological cleansing of the evil spirits

so that one can finally be at peace with oneself and be oneself,

ascending the ladder to true wisdom.

Of course, this technological cleansing costs a fortune,

and only the very-rich among the Hollywood set can attain to it.

Which only makes it more desirable.

 

Or this religion can live hidden as a parasite upon Christianity itself,

as a religion that would go beyond the cross.

It gathers the faithful in churches that are built upon the cross

and tells those faithful that St Paul was kind of a moron.

That in order to be truly spiritual

we must cast aside the dusty old religion of the past.

That the most important thing is not what Jesus did for you

but what you can do for Jesus.

Some good news!

 

Some people promise that if you just believe (and send money)

God will show you great signs

and give you your best life now.

This year is going to be the year!

Many of the big churches that bring in thousands of people a Sunday

are built without the cross – it is too depressing.

We want to make people feel good when they come to church, it is said,

We don’t want them to feel like they’ve been to church at all.

Truly, that’s what some people have said.

 

And then there is the constant drumbeat that the young people hear.

It is what your children and my children will hear non-stop from their teachers

and from actors and from musicians and from comedians

and from anyone who doesn’t want to look like a moron

from the time they enter high school through college and beyond.

They will be told and shown, in ways spoken and unspoken,

that anyone who says anything definitive about God is a moron.

You cannot know anything for sure about God, if there is a God.

Sin is not the problem, blind faith is the problem.

Intolerance and religion is the cause of all the war and discrimination in history.

If you insist that God has more in mind for us than to just be ourselves

and become what we want to be

then you are narrow-minded, a hypocrite, someone to be attacked and vilified.

You’re kind of a moron.

 

To this we cannot and must not say anything but,

“We preach Christ crucified!”

It is a stumbling block to those who demand God prove himself to us.

It is moronic to those who believe that true religion, or a true philosophy,

demands an elevation above the common herd.

To us who are being saved,

it is the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

 

By grace this will continue to be

the message we heed and the message we proclaim

in this vain world that God so loves.

For God indeed does love this vain world.

He created us for relationship with him,

for communion with him.

And when we rebelled against him,

he loved us so much that he gave us himself;

the Son was lifted high upon the cross

so that we could indeed look upon him and live at peace with God.

This is true holiness, true wisdom, the sign of God’s glory and power.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

September 9, 2012 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Of Grumbling and Grace

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS
Proper 14 (Pentecost 11) Year B
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
12 August 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The word ‘complain’ in our Gospel today
can also be translated as ‘grumble.’
I like that translation a lot better.
That’s an onomatopaeia,
a word that sounds like what it’s trying to describe.
Grumble – you can almost hear the rumbling noise a group of grumblers make
when they hear something they don’t like.
‘Murmur’ is another onomatopaeia and might be another way to translate that word.
Complain, murmur, grumble –
it is never a good thing when you hear that word in Scripture.
Last week we heard about the Israelites grumbling in the desert
about the lack of meat in the desert –
Apparently it was not enough for God to bring them out of slavery in Egypt –
God had to become a short-order cook as well.
Jesus’ opponents often murmur or grumble against him
when he does something that defies their expectation of him.
And here Jesus’ opponents grumble about his saying,
‘I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven.’

One would think that after seeing what they had seen,
thousands of people fed in the wilderness,
they might be a little bit more likely to take Jesus’ words at face value.
But seeing a miracle very rarely creates faith.
Even in the cases where a seemingly miraculous occurrence sparks a person’s faith,
the well of unexplainable occurrences quickly runs dry,
because a faith that sails on the sea on the miraculous
must quickly run aground on the shoals of cold, hard reality.
A hunger goes unsatiated,
an evil spirit goes unexorcised,
a child dies and stays dead,
and faith must be based upon more than what can be seen with the eyes
or understood with the mind.

The story of Elijah is instructive in this regard.
In the first lesson, set hundreds of years before Jesus’ time,
the prophet Elijah accomplishes a great victory over the prophets of Ba’al,
a rival god to the God of Israel.
However, in doing so, he runs afoul of Queen Jezebel,
who is a worshiper of Ba’al,
who threatens to do to him what he did to her god’s prophets.
When we meet him, in the middle of this story, Elijah is on the run for his life.
Perhaps (and this is only a perhaps)
Elijah thought that his great victory, his miraculous victory,
would convert the entire people of Israel,
King Ahab would stop listening to the wife that did not worship the true God,
and finally pure religion would be restored.
But instead his victory seemingly has served only to stir the ire of the Queen,
and his support melts away like the morning dew.
Despondent, he asks God, the God who has brought him this far,
the God who made the water-soaked altar burst into flame,
to take away his life.
His faith, based upon what can be seen, runs aground
upon the shoals of the hard, cold reality of sin, death, and evil.
And yet God is not done with him.
God draws him, God calls him, God sustains him on a journey to God’s holy mountain,
where he will encounter God and receive a new mission.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus says, ‘I am the bread that comes down from heaven,’
and Jesus’ opponents’ faith runs aground on the stone-cold shores of reality.
They respond in a literal fashion –
‘We know this person’s parents, we understand who this person is,
and he cannot be who he says he is.’
Sounds an awful lot like what we heard earlier this summer,
about Jesus’ reception in Nazareth.
There he could do no miracles because of their unbelief.
Here their limited understanding of reality
becomes the stumbling block to an understanding of who Jesus is.

This question, ‘Who is Jesus?’
is the question throughout the sixth chapter of John,
indeed throughout the Gospel of John and the other Gospels.
Is he the son of Mary and Joseph,
who has brothers and sisters,
and lived and died long ago,
or is he that and more;
the one who came from God his Father
to show us God his Father?
No miraculous sign will convince us one way or the other;
even if thousands today were to be fed with a few loaves and fishes,
a hundred different interpretations would instantly arise,
and we’d soon get tired of loaves and fishes anyhow
and begin to grumble,
and ask Jesus to prove himself to us yet again.
After all, imagine what anyone who could do such things with loaves and fishes
might be able to provide in the way of a great cut of beef and good wine.
And why would he hold out on us, if that’s what we really really wanted?

No, God the Father himself must lead us to this understanding of Jesus,
that he is living water, light of the world, and bread of life.
If this seems to be a cop-out,
that there is no certain proof of Jesus’ divinity and meaning for our lives,
we must take into account our predilection to grumble.
If Elijah would or could not accept the sign of the fire from heaven,
if Jesus’ contemporaries would or could not accept the sign of the bread that fed multitudes,
what sign would we accept?
Jesus gives us the one great sign,
his flesh given on the cross for our sake,
and in the resurrection gives us a glimpse of our future,
when he will raise us to fully share his divine life.

Until then, we live as those being drawn, being called, by the Father,
who speaks to us in his Word,
through his Son calling us to believe in Him,
the One who we cannot see but whom Jesus sees.
He calls us to know the Son who knows him,
through him receiving the ability to believe.
For if seeing a miracle rarely creates faith,
being given faith and trust brings with it the ability to see miracles,
the ability to see on the horizon the day when all evil must give way
to the God who gives himself as bread from heaven
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

August 13, 2012 at 9:24 am Leave a comment

The Food that Endures for Eternal Life

I am the bread of life.

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;

and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

 

A couple of months ago I was back in Williamsport

listening to Michael’s seventh and eighth grade chorus sing

‘We are the World.’

Remember that one?

Now I never loved the song,

but I must admit that I was a little bit moved.

You see, I was twelve or thirteen when that song came out,

and here was my thirteen-year-old son up there singing it.

All was well with the world –

until the chorus sang the line

‘As God has shown us by turning stones to bread,

so we all must lend a helping hand…’

My first thought was –

‘Wow, they mentioned God.’

My second thought was

‘Now wait just a gosh-darn minute.’

That’s exactly what Jesus refused to do when the devil tempted him to do so.

He refused to turn stones into bread.

Those lyrics are all wrong!

I had a glare on my face for the rest of the song,

looking around to see if anyone else had noticed.

 

Later, after the concert, I found Michael.

He said, “I knew those lyrics would get you,

I was standing up there thinking ‘Oh, boy, here it comes.

‘I could see your face just go ‘what?’

I was trying so hard not to laugh for the rest of the song.’

I didn’t know whether to be more impressed that he knew the lyrics were bad

or amused that he had me set up.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson is the second of four selections

from the chapter when Jesus refers to himself as ‘the bread of life.’

As you may recall, last week, Jesus gave food to thousands of people in the wilderness,

an event attested by all four gospels.

Only John, however, records this interesting little tidbit:

‘When Jesus realized that they were about to come

and take him by force to make him king,

he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.’

 

Being made king by force would be a bad idea for two reasons.

First of all, there already is a person in the world he lives in who calls himself king,

Caesar in Rome,

and he does not take kindly to would-be rivals.

But secondly, and more importantly,

Jesus realizes that the people have misunderstood who he is

and what he is doing.

A gift from God – a man who supplies endless bread

and will supply victory over the hated Romans who occupy the land of God’s people.

What we always forget is that we value the gifts of God more than God himself,

and that the evil one can give us bread and victory just as easily as God can.

Perhaps more easily,

and more quickly.

After all, as I’ve mentioned, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke,

the thing Jesus refuses to do is turn stones into bread.

Once he’s turning stones into bread,

he’s never going to be able to stop.

And the moment he can’t turn stones into bread,

God help him.

 

We’re about to spend the next four months

hearing about whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama

can give us more bread.

We don’t really care about either of these two men.

If he can give us bread, we will praise him.

If there is no bread, we will blame him.

 

Jesus’ giving of bread in the wilderness is not a miracle.

It is a ‘sign.’

What is a sign?

It points us to something else.

The feeding with the loaves was not simply a lesson for us,

that we need to be generous with what we have.

There’s plenty of other times in the Bible

where Jesus or someone else talks about being generous with what we have,

and the necessity to feed and clothe and care for others.

This isn’t one of those times.

This is of an entirely different nature.

The giving of food is a sign of something else entirely.

 

Jesus says to those who have searched him out,

who perhaps were expecting another free feed,

‘Do not work for the food that perishes,

but for the food that endures for eternal life,

which the Son of Man will give you.

For it is on him that the Father has set his seal.’

They at least then have the understanding

that Jesus is talking about something different now,

something that is from God.

But they still demand yet another sign.

They presume that God is going to give them something yet more wonderful

through this man.

Something tangible, something miraculous, something like the manna

that once fell from heaven and fed the people of Israel in the wilderness.

 

And yet Jesus has nothing to give them.

The man who gave the crowds abundant food yesterday

has nothing to give them

except the abundance of himself.

I am the bread of life.

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry

and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

 

He still has nothing to give us today –

nothing except himself.

Above the din of conflict,

as people argue over how much bread they ought to have

and how much bread they ought to have –

they argue about rights to this and rights to that

and whose trampling on their rights,

and as people agonize on who will be made king,

we are called to peace with God, to be satisfied with Christ.

St Paul said somewhere

‘I have learned to be content with little and with much.’

When the Church is torn asunder

and the world seems more confusing everyday,

Jesus gives us himself as bread,

as the nourishment for our souls,

as the one who gives us eternal life.

Not just eternal life after death,

but the life that is eternal in the midst of the life that is temporal,

so whether we have much or little we have enough and more than enough.

 

Sisters and brothers,

we work for our families and for our communities,

so that we may have enough to eat and drink

so that our children and grandchildren may have opportunities,

so that our world may become a better place.

And yet Jesus reminds us ‘Do not work for the food that perishes.’

If we have everything of this world and do not reach for that which is eternal,

what good will the things of this world do us?

With Christ to nourish and satisfy us,

we may indeed draw water and bake bread and carry wood

in peace and gladness,

neither having too little nor reaching for too much.

If our lives are in him,

each morsel, each sip,

each blade of grass or opening flower

each healing, each forgiving,

each sunrise and sunset

is a sign that points to Jesus Christ,

the bread that comes down from heaven

and gives life to the world.

August 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm Leave a comment

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