Tagged: Rob Bell

Your place at the table

A sermon preached on the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 17 Year C, RCL)
at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, University City, San Diego


Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

(Link to Sermon audio here)

Sermon Outline

  • Baseball game – Somerset Patriots vs. Lancaster Barnstormers
  • Whenever I had been to a baseball game before I thought I had got the gist of what was happening, plus I have always enjoyed the atmosphere.
  • Sat with Director of Sales and Director of Marketing – both from Boston and Red Sox fans.
  • As the game progressed, listening to these very extroverted and loud Red Sox fans it was clear I had no clue what was really going on.
  • Before my eyes there was a completely different story unfolding, one that involved coaches waving their hands, team tactics, pitcher and catcher interaction.
  • If I left the ballpark with just the headline final score I would have missed the completeness of the whole event.
  • It was like being the Captain of the Titanic. The part of the Iceberg that I could see above the water was just a small part, the much larger real danger was unseen below the water.
  • Many of the teaching stories of Jesus are like this.
  • Not least the gospel reading of today.
  • If we take the reading at face value we get a great lesson in how we should be humble and it is from the position of humbleness that we are truly open to receive God’s gifts, gifts that will exalt us, and make us eternally rich in blessings.
  • We can unpack the lesson a little further and see that this is not really about who sits where in a meal, or about not doing things in order to receive something back. We can see that Jesus was painting an eschatological picture of what God’s eternal kingdom is like, how things will be when God’s kingdom is fulfilled.   How the meal that Jesus is invited to is in fact the heavenly banquet that feeds each and every one of us not only at that end time but also today, and every day of our lives.
  • But I want us to dig a little deeper. I invite you to wrestle with the text.
  • Rob Bell – Velvet Elvis. Bible is a living document that must be reinterpreted each and every time that we read it.
  • If we take it as a historical document and it becomes static in time then it becomes more and more irrelevant with each and every day that passes.
  • What is the bible? It is a collection of different books, books recording history, books of poetry, books of law, books of prophesy and so much more.
  • But it was written in a specific time and times change.
  • That does not mean the bible becomes irrelevant.
  • It means we need to reinterpret the lessons of the bible for our lives today.
  • This is not new.
  • Unless you are the author of a particular bible text you are an interpreter and all you can do is interpret the text.
  • Example Love thy neighbor (Mark 12:31) – what is love, who is thy neighbor, who decides what an exception is. We are interpreting all of the time.
  • We need to wrestle with the text.
  • Each and every story in the bible has a lesson plan and we need to discern what the lesson plans are and then apply those lesson plans to our lives today.
  • This does not limit the bible – it expands it, it causes an explosion of possibilities because each time that we read a text it can tell us something new because each time we read the bible we bring a new situation to the reading.
  • When we say that we teach the bible – that really means that we wrestle with the text and reinterpret it for today.
  • So where does that leave us with today’s gospel reading? Lets do a little bit of wrestling.
  • Let’s try and put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. What would have been important, what would have been significant.
  • On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.
  • We miss the fact that Jesus went for a meal at the leader of the Pharisees. That group of people who were constantly trying he trip him up – and they were watching him closely.
  • Why did Jesus do this? Why did he go there and teach his lesson.  Couldn’t he have done it in a safer place?
  • Why did he choose to go and interact with the very people who were trying to trip him up. Who were constantly arguing with him?
  • Because that is where his message needed to be heard.
  • So when we interpret that bible reading today, for us, what does it say to us.
  • We need to be at the table. Both in the world, in the community and in our own lives.
  • We must engage those who do not always agree with us.
  • That table is our relationships, it is the things that effect our lives, it is issues of social justice.
  • There are those who say that as Christians we should keep ourselves to ourselves.
  • Not be active in the world around us.
  • But that is not the model of Jesus.
  • Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath.
  • If we wrestle with this text then it becomes just as much an instruction to engage in the world and with the world with all that is good and bad than it is about humility, the banquet of God’s heavenly kingdom or anything else.
  • Where and what is your table? Are you scared to go there?
  • May be it is a family situation that you would prefer to avoid, maybe it is speaking out for the vulnerable of our society, maybe it is speaking the truth that we know people do not want to hear.
  • But Jesus calls us, he invites us to take our place at that table.
  • In our epistle, the letter to the Hebrews, which really is more of a sermon than it is a letter we are reminded that God will never leave or forsake us, and with confidence we can say “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”.
  • Jesus this morning is teaching us that we need to take our place at the table, not matter how uncomfortable that may be.
  • The bible is alive, it is speaking afresh new to us today.
  • Will we go with Jesus to the house of the leader of the Pharisees, share in a meal with them, and do the work of sharing Christ’s gospel. Jesus warns us that there may be no earthly reward, for a true invitation is given with no expectation of repayment.  The reward comes from God, who invites us to His table, and always as the guest of honor.

Discerning God’s lesson plan

A sermon preached on the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16 Year C, RCL)
at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Palm Desert


Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

It is great to be here this morning.  Thank you to Fr. Lane for the invitation and thank you to you all for allowing me to share in this time of fellowship and worship together.   I value the chance to visit with friends and make new friends to build and to strengthen relationships, because building relationships and sharing the gospel of love is what we do.  So thank you.

I started reading the texts for this morning a couple of weeks ago and a number of ideas about what we could explore together popped into my head but no one single thought seemed to peculate to the top of my mind.   By the time Monday of this week rolled around I had plenty of ideas but no narrative so I did what I always do in such situations.   I turned to God and started a conversation with him.   I prayed for guidance and that the Holy Spirit would help me discern what I would talk about.  

I have a confession to make.   Just after praying that prayer I was driving a hire car in Minnesota and got a speeding ticket.  I’ve never had a speeding ticket in my life and getting one, was most unnerving for me.   As I sat in my hotel room that night I kept asking myself ‘why me?’ and ‘if only I hadn’t have been travelling so fast’ but the conversation kept coming back to the same answer.   You broke the law.   Speeding laws are in place to protect people’s safety and no matter the excuse that I could come up with I broke the law, I put others in harm, I was wrong.     Reflecting and praying on the situation I heard God telling me that the readings this week are all about the role of law.  God had answered my prayers and gave me direction for this morning.   Never ignore anyone who says be careful what you pray for.

So often when we read scripture it is easy to take a negative view of the Jewish laws.  That negative view is so often projected onto the leaders of the temple or of the synagogues.  The  priests and the Pharisees.   I wonder if we stop often enough to consider why the laws that Jesus so often seemed to rebel against were in place.  If we did then maybe this would allow us to see the upholders of the law from a different perspective.

One of my favorite musicals of all time is Les Miserables.  I am sure that you know the story.   Jean Valjean, a convicted thief is released on parole from his work-camp prison but weighed down by the requirements of his parole ends up breaking his parole and escapes to a new life, with a new identity and becomes a model citizen.   The police chief, Inspector Javert however tracks him down and constantly tries to apply the law and re-imprison Jean Vajean.     It is the policeman who is seen by the audience in a negative light, ignoring the good works and reformed nature of Valjean’s character.  But when we stop and think, Inspector Javert was in reality only doing his job, applying the law as it stands, law which had been put in place for very good reasons.  But that is not how we remember him, we remember him as being obsessed with applying the law no matter how unfair the law was.

And so we come to our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus is in the synagogue and is questioning what appears to be the Sabbath laws again.   Please note that this is not some random story.   Three times in Luke we see a similar situation and similar stories are found in Matthew and Mark.  And when we hear themes repeated in scripture it is a good indication that the message is important.

The leader of the synagogue was upholding the law.   He was upholding one of the Ten Commandments.

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.   For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.   

Exodus 20:8-11 (also Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

You don’t get much clearer than that.  And for all eternity we have given this guy, the synagogue leader a hard time for obeying the word of God, the Ten Commandments.   To the reader today it seems like Jesus has wandered into the temple and questioned the basics of the Jewish faith.   It seems like Jesus was paying no attention to the law.  It seems like everything was on the table.  If that is the model of faith that we should use, then then surely everything is open for rewriting and the bible becomes no more than a historical document that is becoming more irrelevant with each and every passing day.

Well that would only be true if we take a simplistic understand of the events in our Gospel reading today.   Many of you may well be teachers and are used to writing lesson plans.  A document that lists learning goals.  Those learning goals can be the same from year to year but each time you teach to those goals in a classroom the lesson comes out differently.  Isn’t that what we should be doing with the bible?

What is the lesson plan behind the commandment to keep the Sabbath Holy?  The people of Israel had been slaves in captivity for many years and now they find themselves free.  For years they were told what to do, when to do it, with no rest and no time to worship their God.   So God orders them to set aside time to rest, to make time to worship.  Their lives had changed and they needed some structure.  The lesson plan was give yourself time to give thanks to your creator, your God and in giving thanks you will be blessed.   Somewhere down the line that gets molded, changed, adapted to be the Sabbath is Holy and you may do nothing on that day.   The lesson plan had been corrupted.

And so Jesus comes in to the Synagogue on the Sabbath.   He is not breaking the law, he has come to teach, he is obeying the law.  But he sees a woman bent double for eighteen years bound by an ailment.  She is also in the Synagogue obeying the law, she has come to worship.  She is obeying the law but she is unable to fulfill the lesson plan.   Her ailments keep her from resting, she is in constant pain.  Her bonds of pain keep her from standing tall and praising God on high.   

So Jesus takes the lesson plan and realigns the law with the lesson plan.   In order for this woman to experience the freedom of rest that will enable her to worship the Lord, to experience the Sabbath in her life, she needs to be freed from those bonds of her ailment.  She needs to be freed from the pain she needs to be cured.   The healing that Jesus offered on the Sabbath was not significant because it broke the Sabbath it was and is significant because it enabled that woman to experience the Sabbath in her life.   The original commandment was never really about taking rest on a specific day it was about making time for God.  Time and history had taken a specific application of a lesson plan and made it law, and the law itself had become more important than the goal it was meant to protect.

And so my friends, what does this mean in our lives today?   It means that the bible must be a living document.   Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elivis says that the bible must be alive and it must be re-interpreted each time that we read it.  It is full of lesson plans that are explained through the recording of history, through books of law and through the writings of prophets.  It is not the stories themselves that are important it is the lessons that they contain.

Reinterpreting those lessons will make us write new laws and tell new stories.  When we do that then we can truly do the work of living out and sharing the gospel.   We can look into the world around us and see lots of other examples of that woman bent double for many years because of an ailment.   Today that woman is an orphan and victim of war, like Omran Dagneesh whose photo was beamed around the world this week.  That young Syrian boy pulled out of the ruins of his home after it was bombed and destroyed.    Sitting in an ambulance staring out in to a world that is full of hate.   What can we do to free him from the bonds of war that torture his life.  What can we do to give him a Sabbath?

Or maybe our woman bent double in pain is a friend or a family member that we know who is bound by the chains of addiction, who is held down from reaching their fullness in God through poverty, fear, oppression or prejudice.   What can we do to give each and every one of them a Sabbath?

Jesus got the lesson plan, he saw the woman barred from attaining God’s goal for her, and he acted to put it right.   Will you join me in trying to do the same?   Let us study Holy Scripture to discern the lesson plan and God’s goal for us.     Let us open our eyes to our life, the community around us and the world in which we live to see our brothers and sisters in need.  Then let us act, and if that means changing some of our traditions or even some of our laws then so be it.   Fred Craddock wrote “If helping a stopped woman creates a crisis, then a crisis it has to be”.  

In all that we do as Christians may we discern God’s goals for us, may we actively seek out those in need and may all of that – lead to action.