Friday, November 04, 2016

Is Luke 20:27-38 the most difficult New Testament passage to preach from?

dontworrybesexy1-205x300 It was a question asked by a colleague this week. Here’s my attempt from 2013. I was guest preacher and was asked to preach from Lectionary. The more I wrestled with the text, the more I was glad of the power and freshness.

From the cowardice that dare not face new truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
God of Truth, deliver us.

I currently serve as the Principal of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology. My sense of call to be Principal of the Uniting College owes a lot to Exodus 3, God’s call to Moses at the burning bush.

Back in 2012, I was aware that the College were looking for a Principal and applications were closing. I was attending Church on Sunday morning and as you sometimes do in a sermon – not here I’m sure – I found myself mentally going through all the reasons why I wouldn’t be a suitable Principal of a theological college

Younger than most Principal’s I know
Come from another country.
More comfortable at the edge of the church than at the center

As I was going through this mental checklist, I realised that I was missing the childrens talk. Which was Exodus 3.

The part where Moses gives all these excuses why he wouldn’t be a very good leader. What if they don’t listen? What if I can’t communicate clearly?

And I suddenly realised, I was just like Moses. Giving excuses. God simply asks Moses “What’s in your hand?” (Ch 4:5) For Moses it was a staff. For me it was my gifts and passions.

So we learn something about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. We learn that God calls people. Asks them “What’s in your hand?” Asks them to give their gifts and passions. We learn that call to mission begins in God’s compassion. God tells Moses (Ch 3:7-8) “I have heard their cry. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

A mission that begins with a God who hears people’s cry. Which makes me want to stop. It makes me want to ask what you hear. What is the cry of your community? What is making people in this community suffer?

Indeed, I know their sufferings, v. 8 and I have to deliver them.

I tell you this story because it introduces me. I tell you this story because it also introduces the Lectionary text, Luke 20:27-38.

37 -38 – But in the account of the burning bush, Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.

God who calls.
God who listens
God who listens deeply enough to know about sufferings.

So says Jesus, This God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’

The Lectionary story from Luke 20 is set in the temple. Jesus is teaching and as he teaches he’s asked three questions. One of the commentaries call these “testing stories.” Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he’s asked questions. So many questions that they get a title – “testing stories.”

So that tells us something else about this “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. This God doesn’t mind questions. Not in the burning bush story of Moses, where three times Moses get’s to ask God questions, to say to God but what about.

I find that such a helpful image for understanding God – a relationship strong enough to hear our questions.

In this particular story, the “testing question” is asked by a person from a group called the Sadducees. A religious group within Judaism. Who have a unique set of beliefs, including a disbelief in resurrection, in life beyond death.

Hence their “testing question.” They offer Jesus a case study. Well if there was a family of 7 boys and one by one they all died, and one by one the next brother married the widow – then, if there is a heaven, what happens to the wife?

The case study is based on historical cultural practice – what was in Ancient Israel called levirate marriage. It’s explained in Dueteronomy 25:5-10. If a married man dies childless, the man’s brother must marry the widow. It has a purpose – to perpetuate the name and hand down property from one generation of men to the next.

My teenage daughters, in the flash of an eye, would tell me how sexist this is. How much it assumes an oldfashioned patriarchal view of family and marriage and gender.

Jesus responds to the “testing question” in two parts.

First in verses 34-36.

This age, with a concern for marriage – that is the existing hierarchical, patriarchal view of family and marriage and gender

And “that age” the resurrection. When children of God, who are children of the resurrection.”

Those words, “children of God”, used in verse 36, have history. They’ve been used already by Jesus in Luke 6:35-36: love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High … 3Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Which sets up two very different understanding of marriage.

For the Sadduccees, in verses 28, 29, 31, “the man takes a wife.” A very traditional, very patriarchal, way of understanding marriage. Sexist, as my daughters would tell me.

In contrast – For the children of God – those who are living out these values of love of enemies, being merciful – the verbs about marriage are passive.

It’s not, the man takes a wife.

Instead it’s literally, “to allow oneself to be married.”

So Jesus is actually offering a radical critique of current understandings of how women relate to men in marriage.

You can choose to be aligned with the this age, these present cultural understandings.

No resurrection because death is the end. Until death, you get to participate in a very legal, very strict hierarchical pattern. Women are to be given and taken by men, women are simply objects to preserve a male family line, women are useful only if they can produce children. That’s choice.

The other choice, the Jesus choice, is to align yourself with the age to come. With resurrection. On which death is dead. In which women, as equally as men, find value not in producing children, but because of how they live their lives, because of how they love their enemies, because of of how they practise justice and live merciful.

So that’s first response to the testing question. Resurrection. Which impacts on how women and men relate.

The second response by Jesus is to turn to another place in the Old Testament. Not to the Levirate Law in Dueteronomy but to Moses, the burning bush and “the God of Abraham, and Isaac, Jacob”.

As I’ve already said,
the God who calls. What’s in your hand.
God who listens, to the cry of people.
God who listens deeply enough to know about sufferings.
God who offers deliverance. Into a covenant, a set of living relationships, Q and A with God, which give us our identity and guides behaviour.

That’s the God of Abraham, and Isaac, Jacob”. For to God, all are alive.

And of course, this story in Luke 20, is placed between the resurrection story of Lazarus in Chapter 16, and resurrection story of Jesus in Chapter 24.

So what we learn about resurrection here is made possible because of God, who raised Jesus from the dead. In order to offer a covenant, a set of living relationships, not just to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but to any who want to be children of God, to any who will live of life of justice and mercy.

We live a world that’s never heard of Sadducees and burning bushes and Levirate marriages. So how does our world understand marriage? How does our world value women?

I was walking through mall yesterday and saw this T-shirt. “Dont’ worry. Be sexy.” So that’s one way our world values women. Not as children of God, of value because of a life of justice and mercy.

Another way our world values women is as consumers. Shop till you drop. So there’s something strangely appealing about what Jesus is offering. To be defined, not by our bodies, our booty or our budget. But by relationship. A living covenant, a Q and A with God, expressed in a life of justice and mercy?

I have to be honest. I approached today’s Lectionary text going – this is tough. This is an obscure argument about an obscure part of the Bible.

Over the week, I’ve gained fresh insight into the radical nature of God’s Kingdom. We’re invited to be children of God. Our relationships with each other, our relationships with God are not defined not by historic cultural patterns. Nor by how sexy we are. Nor by how much bling we have. We’re children of God. Called by a God who listens to the cry of people’s suffering. Invited to live lives of mercy and justice. That’s good news. For us. For our church. For our wider community.

Posted by steve at 02:18 PM

Sunday, September 11, 2011

mission as creation care in preaching Cain and Abel

I preached at Scots Uniting Church today. The lectionary focus was the season of creation, the lectionary texts included Genesis 4. So an encouragement to explore the relationship between God’s mission and the environment, especially give that in 1984, the Anglican church developed the Five Marks of Mission, one of which includes creation care.

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

My application was a reflection on what it means to listen to local landmarks – Victoria Park (Tarndanyangga) and River Torrens (Karra Wirra Parri). A bit too localised to be of interest to blog readers, so I will simply place the first half of the sermon here, in which I begin with some Maori culture, specifically a Maori “mihi”/welcome as a way to understand the Genesis text.

(There wasn’t a single comment on the sermon. Not one! Perhaps you as blog readers might have some). (more…)

Posted by steve at 02:41 PM

Saturday, August 06, 2011

I did not begin a storyteller: learning a craft

I didn’t begin as one.

I hated public speaking at school.

Then I had kids. Kids love stories. Love “Once upon a time …” So I made up some bedtime stories. And when they began to squirm, I quickly realised some things hold attention and other things don’t.

And I watched tellers. In Edinburgh at the Good Craik Club. In New Zealand, Simon Brown with his Parables and poems.

And I practised in community. I invited folk at my first church (Graceway) to be part of a 6 week storytelling workshop. Together we practised. Worked on our craft.

Over the last two days I have been leading worship at the “Church &” conference here in Adelaide. The request was to model all-age worship with an unchurched awareness in a tradition church setting. Rather than come up with something new, for an audience I do not know, I went back to my archives. What had I done, on the ground, in community, in the past? The closest thing I could find where the Brigade services (Boys and Girls) that we used to run at Opawa Baptist.

Two services in which I found myself telling stories – Bill and Ben and their goat called Raisins (Mark 2:1-12); Jane and her rabbit called “Stu” (Mark 1:40-45).

I remembered that it was Friday and Sunday was coming. And with Sunday looming, sitting in my office, I found myself intrigued by the phrase “Son, your sins are forgiven.” What if the Paralysed person in Mark 2:1-12, was a son – not an adult, but a young boy? If so, what does sins forgiven look like for a young boy? And then in Mark 1 – what if the leper was an adult? A father? Who had a daughter? What might a healing from leprosy mean for that daughter? And so I found myself pushed – by the Biblical text, by a looming deadline, by the context of all-age worship, by having an audience that included kids – to tell a story.

At Opawa people seemed to really appreciate them. Both the community kid in the front row who kept being drawn back in. And the faithful over many years, who commented how much they learned from the sermon. (To which I couldn’t resist replying, Don’t you mean a story not a sermon?) Appreciation, at those two services.

And as I continue to tell them. And now at “Church &” people tell me I’m a great storyteller.

All I know is that I did not begin a storyteller.

So does this make storytelling a craft? Which anyone can learn? If they will simply practise with some kids. And watch other tellers. And practise in community. And then push themselves into a creative space.

Posted by steve at 12:28 PM

Monday, July 25, 2011

smelling the Bible: parables of mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl, net

On Sunday I was guest preaching. The lectionary texts were the parables of mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl and net in Matthew 13. As part of the sermon, I decided to explore a more multi-sensory approach to the Bible and deliberately tried to engage the senses, especially the sense of smell. (For more on smelling the Bible, see here). For those interested in how the senses might be engaged in a sermon (more…)

Posted by steve at 05:12 PM

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What does the Spirit smell like?

Yesterday in class we began by smelling the Bible. I realise this is not a standard approach to Christianity, the Bible or to tertiary study. So before we began, as a group we needed to take quite some time to make sure we were connecting with our noses.

So I began with a quick quiz. People were asked to rank favourite smells – sunday roast, coffee, bbq, gingerbread, popcorn, cut grass. The buzz of conversation confirmed that people were starting to think through their noses.

Second, we read an excerpt from Sense Making Faith, reminding us of how important smell is – our unique smell, smell in creation, the changing smells of life.

Third, we took some quiet time to reflect on the familiar scent of a person we love, followed by the smell of our church. How would we recognise people and place by smell alone?

Fourthly, we prayed

Lord God,
You walk in all our memories
You know where we have been
What we have said, known and felt
Come to us in the scent we remember
The time when we walked with you
And know that we walk with you still
Amen. Prayer from Sense Making Faith.

Fifthly, we considered not just good smells, but also bad spells. We asked ourselves where are the bad smells in our community? And we prayed, together again. We started and ended the prayer together, with space in the middle for us to name individually the smells we have been reflecting upon.

Lord God,
In the stink of rubbish tips where people make a living
In the stench of grave where people search for their dead
In the foul odour of disease where people are suffering
You are there. (space for individuals to name the smells). You are the fresh air.
Help us to make lives for the scavengers of rubbish
Help us to bring justice for the unknown dead
Help us to nurse and heal the diseased.
Help us to bring your fresh new life to the world. Amen (Prayer from Sense Making Faith).

We were now ready to smell the Bible. We were aware of the importance of smell and the fact that smell can work both positively and negatively. And so we smelt our Biblical text for the week (Luke 1:39-45). I read it slowly, pausing often.

And we were moved, by the fresh insights that emerged, by the growing awareness of the humanity of the text. And we were stumped by verse 41 “filled with the Holy Spirit.” What does the Spirit smell like? Are we “smelling” too much into the text? Or is that the Spirit does have an aroma, and we’ve simply never yet been aware of it, never paid attention?

A note: Much of this material comes from Sense Making Faith which is a wonderful resource. For more on how it can be used, not just in a class, but in church and in mission, go here.

Posted by steve at 04:06 PM

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Because all books need pictures: Seeing the Word with the St John’s Bible

I’m preparing for the Living the text intensive, which starts Monday. Part of our time will look at imagination (along with community, space and spirituality2go). I love the St Johns Bible, the first handwritten, illuminated Bible of the modern era. For me, reading such a text, a coloured and creative text, changes the way I engage, live and communicate.

“linking the human imagination and the human hand with the Word of God”

“not looking to create a 12th century Bible in the 21st century but rather we are looking to create a 21st century Bible in the 21st century.”

The process, artistic and communal is interesting. For the artist “The illuminations are not illustrations. They are spiritual meditations on a text. It is a very Benedictine approach to Scriptures.” And in the communal:

At Saint John’s University, a committee of artists, medievalists, theologians, biblical scholars and art historians called the Committee on Illumination and Text reflect on each of the volumes before they are written. This team provides the background material and plan that guide the illuminations and text treatments in The Saint John’s Bible.

And the motivation? … “so that when people open it they are not impressed by the cleverness of it, or the detail or even the shining gold” but so they can enter the Scriptures more deeply, more humanly, more spiritually. As in here …

Posted by steve at 01:25 PM

Saturday, March 26, 2011

colour my feelings: how the feelings of Jesus shape the mission of God

Updated: This post continues to grow. The relationship between feelings, colour and the mission of God are being developed further at a talk I am giving, May 13, Friday evening, at Grow and Go 2011.

What colour is

  • sorrow?
  • crying?
  • radical love?
  • anger?
  • compassion?

According to Matthew Elliott

“The theologies of the New Testament, as we have seen, do not do a good job in incorporating emotion into their framework. As it is in secular ethics, in New Testament ethics and theology emotion is often belittled, trivialized or ignored.” (Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament 256).

According to adolescent psychologists, Haviland-Jones, Gebelt and Stapley

“We usually think of learning how not to be emotional rather than whether or not emotions are being refined and transformed to mature forms.”

In the last month my home town of Christchurch has been trashed by an earthquake, while Japan has gone radioactive and Libya has become a warzone. In response, I’ve been reading the Gospels, looking for the feelings of Jesus, wondering what I might learn from God who experienced sorrow, crying, radical love, anger, compassion.

And I’ve become more and more intrigued by how the feelings of Jesus shaped his mission, and the implications for how the 21st century church needs to feel, think and act.

Faithful feelings: how the feelings of Jesus shape the mission of God.

Which I will be preaching on tomorrow, Sunday March 27, 6 pm at Adelaide West Uniting. And exploring in more depth a keynote address at Grow and Go weekend, May 13-15, at Uniting College.

Hence my question, what colour is

  • sorrow?
  • crying?
  • radical love?
  • anger?
  • compassion?
Posted by steve at 05:23 PM

Friday, January 14, 2011

President Obama’s speech

A friend wrote asking if I could comment theologically on Obama’s speech. I’m just about to head off for a camping weekend, but here are some thoughts.

Overall, the thing that strikes me is what a work of art it is. Consider some of the structural parrallelism at work.

One – He starts with hope into the future, drawing on Scripture. And he ends with hope, into the future, drawing on the life of child.

Two – Following the opening and just before the closing, is an structural parrallelism, opening and closing personalisations – the short vignettes of each person’s life, then setting up his conclusion with another personal vignette.

Three – he quotes Scripture twice, once from the New Testament, another from the Old Testament.

Four – he has an almost philosophical heart, (Tragedy demands explanations … Debate is essential in exercise of self-government … Scripture tells us there is evil.) This is set up by the intensely personal and emotional, the news he has visited the hospital. Thus he sets up the head by engaging the heart.

For me, the most outstanding feature is the way he has personalised loss. Prejudice is usually based on “they” statements – big bald generalisations. The speech is outstanding the way it lifts up ordinary, human people, and then asks us to consider how we treat every ordinary, human person we meet. (I might even use this as a case study in my July preaching and communication intensive – Living the text in a contemporary context)

He does this through a from of appreciative inquiry, in which he is looking through each person’s life for values and phrases that might sustain his argument. This is a theology of storytelling, in which he makes his argument through narrative. (Just hope his researchers got all the data right and that the “narratives” were authentic for those closest to the victims).

For those who don’t have time to listen to the whole speech (half of which is applause), here are my notes (of the more non-personal-narrative phrases) (more…)

Posted by steve at 09:40 AM

Thursday, October 21, 2010

too blunt? the mirror held by early church preaching

I have a column over on the kiwimadepreaching website. Here’s my introduction:

Is the phrase “Biblical preaching” simply too blunt? I began to wonder this as I gazed into the preaching mirror held by the early church.

With over forty years of missionary service in Africa, David Dunn-Wilson has made a study of the sermons of the early church. In his book, A Mirror for the Church (Eerdmans, 2005) David points out how sermon change – in style, in subject – as the needs of congregations and contexts change.

The chapter headings tell the story.

I then explore categories of missionary preachers, apologist preachers, mystic preachers, theological preachers, homiletical preachers. For the full article, or to make a comment, head on over

Posted by steve at 07:30 AM

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

rolling our story with God’s story: Biblical story cubes

Storycubes has got all sorts of church and worship possibilities. The instructions are simple:

Roll the Cubes. Begin with ‘Once upon a time’ and tell a story that links together all 9 face-up images and spark your imagination.

The possibilities are endless.

  • throw them and invite people to weave some of the symbols into their story.
  • throw them and invite people to weave some of the symbols into a Biblical story.
  • Play a what happened next, using the symbols to storytell an Acts 29, or a Mark 17 ie the chapters after the chapters that are written.
  • You could make your own cube, for example an angel for the gospel of Matthew, lion for Mark, the ox for Luke, the eagle for John. Then throw the gospel cube plus the nine and invite people to think of, and then share, a story from the gospel that uses that symbol.
  • Or your own cube that has an angel, a mountaintop, a forest. Use these to invite personal/group sharing – a mountain top moment ie when you were at your best, a dark forest moment ie when you were at your most scared, an angel moment ie when something happened you couldn’t explain.

Why? It invites creativity and imagination and humanity around the weave of God in our lives and the Biblical story.

I think I might just buy one for the upcoming National Biblical Storytelling gathering here in Adelaide (Sept 24-25). It would be a fun addition to my workshop, helping people tell their story and God’s story.

Posted by steve at 06:59 AM

Monday, August 09, 2010

rant on creativity, or lack, in preaching and proclamation

This post has been bubbling for a while and should not be read as a reflection on recent sermons I’ve heard and worship I’ve been part of.

Back in May, someone pointed me to a few lines from Uniting in Worship 2. (See a fascinating ABC introduction here). This book is like the official worship book of the Uniting Church in Australia. It’s meant to be important in shaping Uniting worship.

On page 134, in a section titled “The Service of the Word/Receiving God’s Word”

“People are shaped by story, by narrative … When we hear stories again and again, we are shaped and re-shaped as the stories are told and re-told. Christian people are shaped by the story of Jesus …. The story is told through proclamation – which may include reading the Scriptures, preaching, reflection on Scripture, drama/movement, symbolic action, art, multimedia resources, and silence … ”

When I read that, I began to scratch my head. Which may include … stories and art and multi-media and movement.

Here is clear and written encouragement to be creative. Yet my experience is that in 99% of churches (all churches, not just Baptist and not just Uniting), proclamation is only every the first two, “reading the Scriptures, preaching”? Words, words, words. And rarely, if ever … stories or art, multi-media or movement.

Or to quote from Jonny Baker’s new book, Curating Worship, which I reviewed over the weekend …

“In many church circles the only gifts that are valued for worship are musical ones or the ability to speak well. This attitude needs shattering, and opening up so that poets, photographers, ideas people, geeks, theologians, liturgists, designers, writers, cooks, politicians, architects, movie-makers, storytellers, parents, campaigners, children, bloggers, DJs, VJs, craft-makers, or just about anybody who comes and is willing to bounce ideas around, can get involved.” (Baker, Curating Worship, 12)

What a gorgeous list. So with such encouragement and such potentially creative people sitting in our churches, what is it that so limits the church’s proclamation to spoken words?

Posted by steve at 10:42 AM

Friday, June 25, 2010

fascinating resource for postmodern preaching: Blackwell Bible commentaries

In doing some research this week – indigenous responses to colonisation; how colonised people’s use the book of the coloniser (the Bible ) – I stumbled across a fascinating resource – the Blackwell Bible Commentaries.

To quote from the commentary on the book of Judges, these books focus on “what a text, especially a sacred text, can mean and what it can do, what it has meant and what it has done, in the many contexts in which it operates.”

In other words, while most commentaries focus on the Bible text, this commentary series explores how people have interpreted the Biblical text, from the church fathers through to current popular culture. It dips into literature, art, politics, comics, hymns and official church statements. It’s classically post-modern in focusing on reader-response, but it’s fascinating. It’s even got pictures! How cool is that in a Biblical commentary.

So in my research I am looking at the Samson story in Judges 14 and in particular how a Maori leader (Te Whiti O Rongomai of Parihaka) used that text to encourage non-violent resistance. Turning to Judges Through the Centuries I read how the text was interpreted over the last 2,000 years.

Which serves to underline how radical and innovative was the theological work of Te Whiti – some 100 years ahead of other Biblical interpreters of that text. There are commentaries on John, Revelation and Judges, Psalms, Exodus, with another 20 or so in process.

Posted by steve at 09:30 AM

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

stories, stories everywhere: 2010 storytelling conference

The 10th National Biblical Storytelling Gathering is happening on 24 – 26 September 2010, and for the first time ever, in South Australia. The gatherings have a reputation of being times of rich community, vibrant creativity; full of inspirational, renewal and fun.

I am one of the speakers and my task is to reflect on the place of storytelling as it relates to ministry in communities of faith. I will tell some gospel stories reimagined, and discuss the processes by which they emerged.

Each year participants are also invited to take part in an Epic Telling – a longer story is broken into smaller portions that each person prepares and then tells in order. It is a remarkable way to tell and to hear the biblical stories and this year will focus of the gospel of Matthew.

Workshops will also build up skills in telling the biblical story, including using different media and Godly Play; reflect on story and healing; explore story and music, story and worship and how to help people to shape and tell their own stories.

So, who among your communities tells the biblical story and would appreciate the opportunity to gather with others who tell the story, the opportunity to build up their skills? Who among your communities is passionate about the role that story plays in the wholeness of our humanity? Pass on to them the registration form … application form

Posted by steve at 04:02 AM

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kiwi made preaching: stories can be a sermon’s best friend

There’s a new blog, focused on preaching, which has been quietly growing over the last months, steadily adding some great content. It’s focused on preaching;

  • a team of 25 contributors posting short weekly articles
  • a range of resources
  • an ‘images that speak’ feature with photos that speak

Yep, it’s “Kiwi-made”, but perhaps even little Kiwi’s might have something to contribute to discussion around preaching today. I’m one of the weekly contributors and my recent contribution: Stories can be a sermon’s best friend has just gone up. So click on over, or simply click here to read what I wrote: (more…)

Posted by steve at 08:15 AM