Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poured Out -- A Lectionary Meditation

Joel 2:23-32

2 Timothy 4:6-18

Luke 8:9-14



Poured Out

Each week, as I sit down to write this lectionary meditation, I look at the text to see if there is something that connects them in one way or another. After all, the creators of the lectionary have tried to some extent to bring some thematic unity to their choices. It doesn’t always work, but often something sticks out, something catches the imagination. As I looked at these three texts, which in some ways are quite distinct, a phrase stood out in two of the passages – the words “pour[ed] out.” In the Joel passage, the Spirit is poured out on the whole people, empowering and equipping them to bear witness to the things of God. In the passage from 2 Timothy, the author (assumed to be Paul in the text) claims to have been “poured out as a libation.” That is, he is being offered up as an offering to God. The words don’t appear in the Lukan parable, but consider the cry of the tax collector, he pours out his heart before God, seeking forgiveness. It could be that the Spirit is being poured out upon us, or it may be that the calling of God has led to our being poured out as an offering, or perhaps it is the need to pour out the heart to God so as to receive God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Whatever is the case, we are being called upon to rest our lives in the hands of God.

If there is this common word usage, the passages themselves take us in different directions. Each is well known to many people of faith. The Joel passage has long been familiar to me as it has been used as a basis of Pentecostal theology. The second half of the passage serves as a foundation for Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, where he interprets the events of the Pentecost experience in light of this very text. In Peter’s mind (as presented by Luke), Joel’s promises of the coming of the Spirit upon the people of God so that young and old, male and female, slave and free might bear witness to God’s grace is being fulfilled. The first half has been used by Pentecostal preachers to suggest that the renewed Pentecostal experience of the 20th century is itself a fulfillment of Joel, and thus is a sign that God is winding things down. What had been lost, as Aimee Semple McPherson, declared in a famous sermon, has now been restored. Now is the time of the Latter Rain. Whatever our sense of the Pentecostal interpretation, there is a strong promise here that God is at work restoring that which is broken.

In the letter to Timothy, the author (named here as Paul) is reflecting on his own life, and acknowledging that the end is near. He has fought the good fight and has finished the race. He did what God had called upon him to do. He has no regrets, for he now awaits the “crown of righteousness,” which awaits all those who long for the appearing of Christ Jesus. Yes, it has been difficult at times – witness the report of the opposition and even abandonment by friends and supporters. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because even if his human friends abandoned him – I picture the author identifying himself with Jesus on the night of his betrayal – the Lord has stood with him. Yes, the Lord has stood with him so that the message of God might be proclaimed to the Gentiles. He has been rescued from attacks by those who would do him evil, but now the heavenly realm awaits him, he is content, and so he can stop and offer praise to God for his glory.

The Lukan Parable is brief, powerful, and requiring a bit of caution as we approach it. The point of the parable is to address those who put their trust in their own righteousness, and not only that but treat others with contempt. Yes, this is a parable that challenges our tendency toward self-righteousness. “But, by the grace of God, goes me,” we might like to say. We think of this sentiment as giving praise to God, but does it really? Are we not suggesting that God somehow loves us more than the other, which is why we’re not down on our luck?

The person in this passage who goes home forgiven, after going to the Temple to pray, is a Tax Collector. As we all know, tax collectors have been despised since the beginning of time. For a tax collector to refer to the self as a “miserable sinner” would be deemed appropriate by most of us. This man, who has gone to the Temple, acts in a manner appropriate to one who has sinned. He dare not look up into the heavens, for that would be the height of arrogance. No, he bowed his head low, as a sign of his contrition for his misdeeds. He beats his breast as a sign of his grief at his actions in life, and asks that God would be merciful to him for he is a mere sinner.

The moral of the story is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Or as Jesus says elsewhere, the last shall be first, and the first last. So, where is the problem?

Ah, yes, the problem with this text is that Luke contrasts the unrighteous, but forgiven Tax Collector with the self-righteous, but unforgiven, Pharisee. How often do we use the Pharisee as the example of the self-righteous, stuffed shirt, sort? Even with the best of intentions, we can slip into such usage, when in fact, despite the animus seemingly present in the gospels, the Pharisees were devout, broadminded, faithful, tithers even (who wouldn’t want a few of those in a church?). But, by focusing our attention on the “Pharisee,” as a member of a religious party, we might miss something much more important. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note in their lectionary commentary, this passage uncovers an attitude that is potentially present in all of us, “the ease with which we turn the love of God into self-adulation, the pride we take in our humility” (Williamson and Allen, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, WJK, 2004, p. 243). The parable then confronts us with an attitude that marks many of us, in which we turn God’s unconditional love into “a condition apart from which God is not free to love, a condition that, presumably, we have met but others have not.” The Tax-Collector, on the other hand, had no such allusions that he was the beneficiary of God’s unconditional love, and therefore he didn’t take it for granted or assume that he was on the inside already. Jesus commends him for his willingness to honestly pour out his heart before God, making himself more receptive to God’s unconditional love. May such be true for each of us.

Republished from [D]mergent

18 comments:

Colby Cheese said...

At that time in that place, being a Roman tax collector was more than despicable, it was sinful. The job of Roman tax collector was not a salaried position. To earn a living, the tax collector had the authority to demand (extort) payment larger than the taxes owed. The tax collector could keep the extra as long as Rome got its taxes.

What is disturbing about the Pharisee is his smug arrogance. The Pharisee, if his words are to be believed, is living in full accordance with the laws and rituals of his faith. However, his way of living is not loving or compassionate, is not generous or hospitable, is not just, is not righteous, is not right.

The tax collector is trapped by his own choices. He probably became a tax collector because he could not see any other options. (Isn’t that how we usually get trapped?) He is aware of his sins and sinful life. He sees no way out and no way to change. There is no transformation in this story. His only possible response is to confess his sins with humility and remorse, then return to the same sinful life with no hope of escape or redemption other than the forgiveness and love and grace of God.

For me, the message of the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is contained in the realization that the story has no transformation of the tax collector. The tax collector does not talk about leaving behind his life of extoration. He does not stop working for the empire that occupies and oppresses his country and people. Still, he is justified – he is right with God, and the message is: by extension, so are we. Because our justification is not in the rituals we keep or the words we say or the beliefs we hold, it is strictly in the love and grace of God. Neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector are living the Good News message, neither are living as citizens of the kindgom of God, and both will continue their sinful hurtful ways, but both are accepted and loved and cherished by God and both have the grace of God.

Brian said...

Colby -

You're right. Tax collectors were not like our IRS agents. They were hired goons.

I also think you are right that it is proper to consider how the tax collector got there. When I preached this during mid-week services, I used the example of prostitutes and strippers.

Nobody wants that for their daughters (or sons). That said, some of the prostitutes and strippers I've known have felt no option. They had children and no marketable skills.

Recent Example:
In Missouri we have a representative who opposed health care reform, but spearheaded a new law making strippers keep some clothes on. He did this "as a Christian". The "values voters" applaud this silliness, not giving a damn about how this will impact the families of these women.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

John said...

So, can I assume you championed their right to take ALL their clothes off?

Interesting posture for a pastor.

John

Brian said...

John,

I didn't speak out about this issue, but I felt it was wrong. It was a decision that will hurt some of the most vulnerable people's income in an already bad economy.

I observed an elected official deciding to take away a vulnerable group's only source of real income. I observed this elected official make the choice to do this publicly and in the name of Jesus Christ. I also saw this same elected official make a choice not to provde a better alternative. What kind of a person would I be if I supported such a thing?

I don't care about what consenting adults do sexually. I do care about economic justice, especially for those with no voice.

As a pastor I believe I'm called to stand up for those most picked on; gays, strippers, drug addicts, etc. I do it in the name of Jesus Christ.

I reckon lots of folks may see this as funny behavior for a pastor. That's their choice. I'll love them anyway. That's my choice.

Peace,
Brian

John said...

Brian,

When taken out of context often we find ourselves in funny, if not compromising postures.

On a mre focused note, how do you square your position with respect to the strippers with Paul's actions in Acts 16 and the slavegirl from Thyatira. He eventually called the demon out of her that provided her income (admittedly income controlled by her slave masters - but her only income source none the less). He did so because he believed the divination to be evil and/or rooted in the presence and work of an evil demon. It mattered not that this was her only means of economically supporting herself (and her slave-masters).

I think the fact that she was a slave is irrelevant, as slavery was an unquestioned aspect of that society. Her skill as one who could divine the future was a valuable commodity, as valuable as a stripper's ability to generate income from disrobing.

I am not suggesting that you are necessarily wrong, I am just interested in how you come to terms with this story.

John

Brian said...

John: "I am just interested in how you come to terms with this story."
Brian: I don't! :-)

I'll be serious now.

First of all I'm assuming that this is not "true" in the sense that this event actually happened. The writer of Luke/Acts tells us all kinds of great stories to make theological claims that made sense to people in that world.

This story would make a lot of sense to our ancient relatives.

Secondly, I don't see the text commenting on the rightness or wrongness of Paul's behavior. vs 18 reads, "She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, 'I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.' And it came out that very hour".

Paul is acting out of negative emotion. He's "very much annoyed".

Theologically I believe the writer is showing that the spiritual power in Jesus' name is more powerful than any pagan power.

If I were preaching this today, I'd probably find ways to help people think through the power of Christ for their lives. Most of my congregants are nursing home or in-patient psychiatric patients. Therefore I'd probably do something along the lines of the life-giving power of Christ is bigger than addictions, poverty, loneliness, etc.

That's off the top of my head. If I were actually preaching on it, I'd give it more thought than this! (Frankly, I don't think I've ever chosen this text for preaching.)

John said...

I think the validity of the story does not depend on whether it happened. And if it happened yet did not appear in scripture I would discount it's validity entirely.

What do you see as the underlying truth conveyed through the story? That even "good Christians" like Paul can get annoyed and abuse their authority? Or, as you suggest, that the power of Christ is available to each of us to be used ageist the forces of darkness which threaten our efforts at kingdom living?

I don't know that one can ignore the "negative" component to the story - Paul is annoyed- at a demon who keeps announcing, honestly, just who Paul is. Annoyed that he keeps getting 'outted' Paul destroys the demon, and the woman's economic harm is acceltable collateral damage as far as Paul is concerned.

Of course, the fact that Paul is so long in calling out the demon is suggestive that Paul is loathe to cause the collateral damage for no siginificant reason. But he is human after all, and humans are prone to corruption, and thus often use their powers for their own convenience.

As for your concern for the strippers' lost income; while I concede that their income from stripping is not likely to be matched outside of the sex trade, I am troubled by the implications of your logic because your reason for supporting their chosen professional vocation, 'everybody has to earn a living,' leads to your supporting virtually every illegal enterprise.

I applaud your compassion and your courage, but I am not sure I can support you in this cause.

John

David said...

Oh John, 1. Disagree with the idea, not the person.

You have to admit, nude dancing seems sort of quaint in this internet age.

I think a normal man would have loved the sin and the sinner, even though he should see it was damaging to the woman's self worth as well as his own.

The IRS agents were goons not long ago. Look out for tax collecting to get viscous again. Their ploys will make stripping seem wholesome.

Back to the point, If we don't pour ourselves out to God, where can His grace and mercy reside?

Brian said...

John - Lot's of people would disagree with me about that issue. I'm OK with that.

The reason I brought it up was because I found it to be a contemporary example in my community of the Pharisee and the tax collector. One, a self-righteous public figure. The other a marginalized person.

When I preached it last week, I used the example of a preacher and a stripper because that was something that people in the congregation see in their day to day lives. I didn't use the political example because I didn't think it would be helpful.

Again, the entire reason I brought that example up was because I found it to be a real life illustration of the text. For preaching purposes, an example from my community.

Brian said...

Regarding the text in Acts:

You bring up great sermon ideas for the text. However, I always do my best to avoid eisegesis

(Eisegesis: The process of reading one's own meaning into a text (as opposed to exegesis). Usually perjorative.) pronounced kinda like ice-uh-jesus


The interesting ideas you have for sermon directions with that text send up red flags (to me). That does not mean it cannot be preached ethically with those ideas. It just means that those ideas can easily become reading something into the text that does not exist in the text itself. When this happens the preacher can easily abuse the pulpit. I have faith in you that you don’t do this. I’m just writing this for public discussion.

You asked my take. I gave you some thought on it. I did it in an extemporaneous style (Extemporaneous: Spoken or done without preparation.)
I’m not planning on preaching it this week, so I probably won’t spend any more time on it for now.

Clarification: The definitions are not intended to insult anyone’s intelligence. As I’ve shared before, my goals are writing and speaking for those who have not had the opportunities to learn the $5 words.

John said...

Brian,

I am not a preacher. But if I were to preach on the Lucan text (Luke 18:9-14, by the way) today I would take the core message as being that genuine righteousness is poured out by God on those open and humble enough to receive and accept it.

Genuine righteousness cannot be imposed on another, not by the holier than thou intimidations of the Christin Taliban, and not by legislation aimed at the universal imposition of a Christian Sharia. Finally, I would argue that feelings or expressions of competitive righteousness are sure indicators of the very opposite of the righteousness which God desires.

It is for each of us (including the Pharisees and tax collectors among us - in contemporary parlance that would be the strippers, the preachers and the lawyers among us) to work out our own salvation - praying for the aid of the Holy Spirit, and responding with humility and with compassion for our own failures and the failings of others along the way.

(Taking your lead, I just wanted to tie in my reflections with the original post.)

John

John said...

David

"Love the sinner AND the sin!" "Nude dancing as "quaint." You have such a way with words!

And I fear you are right about what we can expect from tax collectors in the near future. In fact I see government agents of all stripes as becoming more and more likely to engage in depredation than compassion - or merely doing their jobs.

John

Brian said...

That's basically what I preached. I think that's basically how I hear it preached by others as well. One will do their best to choose illustrations that have meaning in the community in which they have a covenant to be spiritual leader. It is an art rather than a science to be sure. It is, however, very rewarding.

I hope you do some preaching in your congo. You have a good head and heart.

John said...

Brian,

Thank you.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Brian,

John gets his opportunities, but right now I have to make room for his daughter, who is a gifted preacher!

David said...

John doesn't want to (probably can't) upstage her!

Comparing strippers to lawyers? Scandalous!

What is our wholesome/ wholesale entertainment today? Detroit murder show? Doctors playing god? Celebrity antics? pooh, I'm so sick of it. It's hard to criticize these ladies or their patrons.

Brian said...

Bob,

I didn't know John was in your congregation. I'm glad you have support for your internet writing. It is risky because you make yourself vulnerable with no real upside except for faithfulness to your calling. Also glad to hear about John's daughter.

I see the Revised Common Lectionary presents us with another tax collector story. (Unless you're going with the Reformation Sunday approach.)

Side Note: One year for Reformation Sunday a fellow Disciple pastor and I portrayed a conversation as Barton W Stone & Alexander Campbell. It was a script we bought through the General Ministry. It worked great!

David said...

Risky is right Brian. Bob makes our whole congregation appear to be thoughtful. That's why I show up- to help straighten such assumptions out.