Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Terror of Prophecy

Most Sundays, I cannot wait to preach.  While not the best preacher in the world by a long shot, I manage to hold my own--at least I have been told.  There is something neat that goes on within me when I take my stand in front of the congregation to begin proclaiming God's Law and Gospel; sharing the things God has done, is doing, and will do; and helping others see how God is moving in their lives.  I can be having an awful week.  I can be feeling down in the dumps.  I can be physically ill, but when it comes time to preach, I feel the Spirit moving, and I am lifted up.  I'm at home doing what I know I am called to do, and I absolutely love it.

Yet, there are those weeks when I am in terror as I prepare to preach.  This week is one of those weeks.  The text appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary begins with Jesus' teaching in Luke 14.  It's realtively easy to handle, and I wouldn't have any problems coming up with a sermon that I know would be well received.

25Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

As I said, easy enough.  It's easy to talk about being prepared to be a follower of Jesus.  It's easy to craft words that help a congregation think through their commitment to following Christ.  It's easy to step on toes lightly here and leave a congregation satisfied that they are indeed preparing enough to take on the yoke of discipleship.  I could work through this without any problem and get several, "Nice sermon, Pastor," comments.  It would be easy, except for the last verse that is appointed.

33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

OUCH!  (Which, coincidentally is my sermon title this week.)

Give up all your possessions?  Are you kidding me?  Yes, I have heard this teaching over and over again, and I have heard all the excuses and reasonings around it.  I have even used them myself, "It's not that you can't have possessions.  You just have to use them for the right reasons."

Sorry, that ain't what Jesus is saying here.  He's blatant.  He's in your (and my) face.  He's not giving any leeway.  And, frankly, I don't like it.  I don't like it one bit! 

And there are a couple of reasons why.  First, there is no way I can do it.  I can't give up my possessions.  I am required by law to take my children to school.  I can't make my kids walk to the bus stop which is a mile away.  I need a car.  I can't go visit my members in their homes or in the hospital without transportation.  (I am sure them hearing me tell them "I had to give up my truck because Jesus says I can't follow him with possessions." will go over very well. sarcasm off.)  How in the world does one raise a family without some possessions?  I'd really like to ask Jesus this question right about now.  But, honestly, I'm not too worried about my state as a disciple.  I know we live by grace and not by the works of the law--more on that later.

But the second reason I don't like this text is that I must stand in front of my congregation this weekend and tell them what Jesus expects.  I must convey this snippet to them and step on their toes.  I have to tell them that none of them measure up here.  I have to tell them that they don't meet even one of the basic demands of discipleship.  And while I am at it, I'll have to tell them that I am not fit to be their pastor because I don't meet that demand either.  It's not a fun place to be. 

I guess I wouldn't have as much of an issue with it if it hadn't been for several conversations with church members in the past year regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decision to begin ordaining practing gays and lesbians.  I serve in this church, and I am against the decision, but for reasons that may be articulated later.

One of the arguments that I have heard time and time again follows this logic:

1. The Bible says such behavior is a sin.
2. They are living in sin.

(At this point, I say that I am living in sin as well.)

3. They are not even trying to repent.  (Meaning that somehow I am sorry for my sins and am doing so.)
4. Since they are unrepentant, they should not be allowed to serve.

Well, now that is all well and good if you want to follow such an argument, but let's apply this logic to Jesus' statement in Luke 14.  "You cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions."

1. The Bible says you cannot follow Jesus unless you give up ALL your possessions.
2. If you do not give up ALL your possessions, you are not a Christian.

(No one can fully give up all their possessions.)

3. You are not even trying to give up your possessions; therefore, you are unrepentant.
4. Since you are unrepentant, you are not allowed to be a Christian, pastor, etc.

Honestly, is this a good argument?  Do you really want to go there? 

Now, while I certainly do not agree with the ELCA's decision in August 2009, I do not agree with the logic or train of thought brought forth in this argument.  If we are going to talk about the law in this fashion, we might as well close up all the churches because none of us have a right to be in one.  None of us measure up.  That's why we live by God's grace.

I understand this all too well as a sinner who is forgiven.  My Lutheran roots run deep.  Yet, I know once I begin showing the fallacy in this argument in my sermon, I will get some very nasty looks from some who believe that this is how one must interpret the Bible.  The fear is that not only will I get those looks, I will receive a verbal tongue lashing or worse from some of these folks.

That is the terror of prophecy.  I know what must be said, but I am aware of the possible consequences as well.  I know I must throw myself into the arms of the Lord and believe He will deliver me.  Such is the calling of a pastor/prophet.

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