KOH2RVA: Day 257

feral-cat-1Someone was asking me about First Baptist’s year-long, every-member mission trip recently, and wondering how we organized it. “How did you find something for everybody to do?” she asked.

The answer: we didn’t.

I told her what I’ve said again and again since coming to First Baptist, that there must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth and that our responsibility is to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and get to work. I’m convinced that if we look at the world through our own eyes, we will see the things that break our own hearts and call us to action.

That’s so much easier than trying to come up with one, big mission project that everyone can embrace, and so much better than giving someone an assignment and saying, “Here, go do this.”

It also leads to some interesting results.

For example: I heard from one of our members recently who said she was bringing heaven to earth by feeding the feral cats in her neighborhood. And she said she’s using the premium cat food, not the cheap stuff.

That’s pretty much all she said, but I can fill in the blanks. She’s telling me that when she sees those skinny, half-starved cats it breaks her heart, she feels moved to do something about it. And she is moved because she believes those cats are part of God’s creation, and that God has it in his heart to redeem not only his human creatures, but everything he has made and called good, including cats (Rom. 8:18-21). And so she has taken on this ministry to the homeless, and she dishes out the premium cat food because she thinks of cats as something God made and loves, and not as a nuisance.

Chances are good that if she had submitted this idea to the church it would have never been approved. Someone would have said, “We don’t want to encourage this kind of thing,” and someone else would have said, “Are we supposed to pay for the cat food?” But she heard me say, “There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth,” and she looked around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and saw this—skinny, half-starved cats—and it broke her heart, and she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.

That sounds like a parable to me. I can almost hear Jesus say, “What is the Kingdom of Heaven like, and to what shall I compare it? The Kingdom is like a woman whose heart was broken by what she saw in her own neighborhood, and who had the gumption to get up off the couch and do something about it.”

Sloppy Scholarship

Maybe it’s because I’m a lectionary preacher, but when I start to work on a sermon I start not with an idea or a theme, but with the Bible.  That’s what I did when I was getting ready to preach at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia recently.  The theme was “A time for extravagance” but the text was Luke 7:36-38, so instead of pulling from the files my sermon on John 12:1-8 (which was all about extravagance) I started fresh with the text from Luke 7.

I’m glad I did.  I learned things I would have never learned if I had simply preached that other sermon.  But one of the things I learned is that this story from Luke 7 is different from all the other stories in the Gospels about women anointing Jesus.  That story from John 12:1-8 for example is a story about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure nard—a very precious perfume.  There’s a similar story in Mark 14:3-9 about a woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper, breaks open an alabaster jar of nard, and pours it on Jesus’ head (not his feet).  Matthew uses this same story in 26:6-13 with very little elaboration on Mark’s version.  Again it is an unnamed woman who pours “costly ointment” on Jesus’ head.

The stories in John, Mark, and Matthew are all stories about women anointing Jesus with costly perfume or ointment as a way of preparing his body for burial.  The story in Luke 7, however, is about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus while he is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  She bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, covers them with kisses, and massages them with ointment.  It is a scene of shocking intimacy.  There is no mention of expensive perfume, no reference to preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  This woman does what she does to express her gratitude for the forgiveness she has received from Jesus.  It is a completely different story, about a completely different woman.

But you wouldn’t have known that if you had been at the BGAV meeting.  Almost everyone who stepped to the pulpit to preach or offer an interpretation on the theme talked about this woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  They tossed the details of these four stories together as if they were one, talking about how this woman named Mary, who was a sinner (probably a prostitute), poured out ointment or perfume or something expensive on Jesus’ feet (or maybe it was his head) and the fragrance filled the room. 

Did it?  And does it matter?

I think it does.  While the stories from Matthew, Mark, and John might be lumped together under a single heading—“A woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in preparation for his burial”—the story from Luke needs a different heading altogether, something like—“A sinful woman pours out her gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.”  The point of this story is different from the others.  The characters in the story are different.  The details don’t match up.  To treat it as if it were the same story as those others is to twist its meaning into a shape Luke would not recognize—it is to do violence to the text.

You can tell I feel strongly about this.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard too much “biblical preaching” that isn’t biblical at all.  It doesn’t begin or end with the Bible.  It is simply some preacher cloaking his thoughts and opinions in bibical language or using one verse of the Bible as a springboard into a sermon that never touches on that verse again.  Maybe the next time you listen to a sermon you could ask yourself some questions: “Is it faithful to the text?” “Does it communicate what the biblical writer was trying to say?” “How much of it is simply the preacher’s own opinion?”  And if you’re writing a sermon, of course, take the responsibility seriously.  Take the Bible seriously.

Do your homework.

Vending Machine Prayers

coke_machine_smallerI’ve been overwhelmed by the response to Sunday’s sermon from Mark 5:21-43, the passage where Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage and raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead.  It seems that everyone has prayed for someone who was sick or dying, and while some of them tell stories of miraculous healings—like the ones in Sunday’s Gospel reading—most of them do not.

And there’s the problem.

They want to know what it takes to get results from their prayers, the right kind of results.  How can they pray in a way that guarantees healing?  When their prayers don’t work  they tend to assume:

a. They didn’t have enough faith.
b. They didn’t pray the right prayer.
c. They didn’t say enough prayers.
d. They didn’t have the right people praying.

There is biblical support for each of those assumptions, but behind them all is the idea that if we could just learn how to do it correctly our prayers for healing would be answered. 

It reminds me of that commercial I saw years ago where a man is trying to get a vending machine to accept his wrinkled dollar bill.  He puts it in and the machine spits it out.  He puts it in again and it spits it out again, over and over, until right at the end of the commercial when the machine finally accepts the bill and he says, “YES!” and pumps his fists in the air.  And then, if I’m remembering correctly, he pushes a button only to find that his brand of soda is sold out.

That’s the way it is with some of us, isn’t it?  We bow our heads and clasp our hands and offer up prayers like wrinkled dollar bills, hoping that one of these days God will accept them, but worrying at the same time that if and when he does the answer we are looking for may be sold out. 

Is that really how it is?  Is that really how God works?  Like a vending machine in the sky from which we can get the answers to all our prayers if we can only figure out the secret? 

I’d like to think God is more than that, and prayer more than a way to get what we want.  I concluded Sunday’s sermon by saying that these healing stories in the Gospels are reminders that God loves the world, and that he loved it so much he sent his only son, who ladled out God’ s healing power on any who had need.  If God really does love us like that then we don’t have to “trick” him into hearing and answering our prayers.  And if God really is God then there is no way we can force him to do what we want.  Instead we can talk to him like a child might talk to loving parent, telling him exactly what we need or want and trusting him with the answer. 

For example, when I used to ask my dad to buy me a Coke he usually said no.  If I asked him why he might say that he didn’t have the money or it wasn’t good for me, or he might just repeat his answer: “No!”  But once a year, when we went on vacation, he would stop for gas and reach down into his pocket to bring out a fistful of quarters.  He would give one to each of his sons, and we would go over to the Coke machine, drop a quarter into the slot, pull out a frosty bottle and pop open the top.  Ahhhh.  Did my father love me?  Of course he did.  He showed it any number of ways.  And I came to trust his love so completely that even when he said no I could accept his answer.

Last Sunday night, after preaching that sermon, I had occasion to pray for someone who was very sick.  Sitting there beside his hospital bed I found myself saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I know you love this child of yours.  I know you have loved him all his life.   I ask you to do for him whatever is most loving, and I trust you with the answer to this prayer.”

It’s not easy, leaving things in God’s hands, but there are no better, stronger, or surer hands than those.