and teachers are really missing those summer days when we got to preach on
wonderful parables about mustard seeds and loaves of yeast bread. Now it's
judgment-parable season, and many of us wish we were on vacation.
If you wrestle with this Matthean parable through the night, it'll leave
you limping by morning. Martin Luther didn't like preaching on it, and
worshipers in early October won't be in the mood for its judgment.
What the widow in the Luke parable wants from the judge is vengeance or vindication. True, some have translated the original into something more polite such as “give the verdict to my side” or “give me justice.” Well, it is true the widow wanted justice done, and to her benefit. But it seems she wanted more.
On the night before Thanksgiving, a clergy friend and I went to hear maverick preacher Rob Bell, who is touring the country on his “The Gods Aren’t Angry Tour.” Most folks were home dressing their turkeys, but an interesting crowd of baby boomers, Generation X pastors like me, punk “throw back to the ’80s”–looking young adults, and high school–age
One of the lectionary texts on the Sunday after 9/11 was Psalm 51, which traditionally has been understood as King David’s plea to God to have mercy on his sins. One pastor that Sunday used the psalm to ask whether the events of 9/11 were a judgment on the United States: Was the U.S. in some way culpable for the evil actions of the terrorists? His congregation would have none of it.
It is tempting to sit in judgment on others. Sometimes we do it in jest, as Mark Twain did when commenting on Adam. “Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” But sometimes the serpent eats us, and then we judge in earnest.
God will forgive my sins,” quipped Heinrich Heine on his deathbed. “It’s his job.” How different are the viewpoints of Isaiah, Paul and Luke! They note an ongoing theological tension between the assurance of God’s kindness and the call to immediate repentance. Yes, God is merciful, not punishing as we deserve, not automatically correlating our misdeeds with disasters. But there is no room for complacency: if we think we’re standing, we should watch that we do not fall.
Those of us who have been trained to make rhetorical peace with the congregation marvel at the freedom of Jesus to preach over their heads, to wound in order to heal, to use their own beloved texts against them. How sly of the common lectionary to pair this linguistic assault by Jesus at Nazareth with Paul’s pretty words on love. Poor preachers. Sometimes we love our people in the name of Christ, enduring just about everything with them, and sometimes we love them by throwing the Book at them.
Children’s sermons can be times for cuteness or for expressions of theological realism. Here is a story of such realism. Our parish’s intern was reinforcing the theme of the day’s lectionary lesson. He held up one sign that read WELCOME and another that said KEEP OUT, and let the children spell out the significance of both.