A Green Shoot in the Midst of Struggle

I am a preacher. Currently my Sunday morning gig is to supply a small United Methodist church with sermons, and to help lead their worship service. I also do some visitation ministry for the congregation. I am functionally their pastor, but that’s not my job title. While I’ve been a pastor, I am not licensed by the UMC, and the church isn’t big enough to pay a pastor (the denomination and the conference has some guidelines for what their pastors should be paid). It is a small community church, and the membership is aging out. We are lucky if there is 17 or so of us gathered on a Sunday morning and the congregation has no idea what tomorrow holds. In the meantime, I hope to speak a hopeful word for them.

My passage this Sunday comes from Isaiah 11. There is some evocative imagery there about a wolf and a lamb, a leopard & a goat, a calf, a lion a yearling, a cow and a bear, a child leader, and an infant playing in a snake pit. But the passage begins with familiar words we quote while awaiting the Christ child this season, ” A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1).

I know something about stumps (I am not an arborist, but I play one on tree-vee). Stumps are dead.

We had a giant maple tree in the backyard of the property we rent in Medford. It wasn’t a healthy tree, but it seemed stable enough. It was wide and tall and still had signs of life. But in early autumn a branch fell off onto our shed. I went in the backyard to inspect the tree and discovered that parts of the trunk were rotten. I could stick the handle of my garden hoe right through the trunk. I called our landlord and over the next several days, he had cut the tree down and only a stump remains.

Evidently the previous owner, had decided to make a raised garden bed around an existing tree, and covered the maple tree roots with soil, stressing the tree. While the tree looked alive enough for awhile, it was dying a long slow death. Now there is just stump left for dead.

When Isaiah had his vision, the northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria (circa 722 BCE), and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (where Isaiah was) was forced to pay tribute. While Judah maintained their independence, the golden age of David and Solomon was behind them. Judah found itself dominated by powerful nations all around them. They had a noble past, but their roots were distressed under a layer of dirt. Life had ebbed from the tree.

Isaiah has a vision of the dead stump of Jesse—the Davidic monarchy at its end (Jesse was David’s father). Lifeless. I am sure Jesse’s stump wasn’t from a maple tree. I picture one of those Lebanon ceders the Old Testament keeps mentioning, only dead. Just a stump, until a green shoot grows from its center. It was a renewal of hope in a Messiah—an anointed King in the line of David—a green shoot from the stump of Jesse. And with it, hope grows.

Joan Chittister, in Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope (Eerdmans, 2003) writes ” Everywhere I looked, hope existed—but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (preface, ix).” With hindsight and a high Christology, we read of the green shoot in Jesse’s stump and wax eloquent about the Coming of Christ. I am not sure how comforting this was for Isaiah’s hearers, who remembered that stump and the grandeur of yesteryear. But as Chittister says, “Hope, I began to realize was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life” (ibid).

Advent hope, then and now, is a gift of life. It is a green shoot in the midst of struggle. A green shoot in a stump of a failing monarchy doesn’t sound much like hope. But it became the hope of salvation for the whole earth. Christ’s return sounds to us like pie-in-the-sky escapism, but it is our hope for the renewal of all things, here. A green shoot in the midst of struggle.

I don’t know what you are going through and what it means for you to hold out hope. I don’t know what it means for our world threatened by violence. Or our a country with ever-deepening divisions. I don’t know what it means for the church I pastor that I’m not the pastor of. But each of us, are more than the stump of what was. Hope grows. A green shoot—life where we least expect to find it.

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This is Not the Way It's Supposed To Be

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When I was a kid, during the month of December, there was a Peanuts cartoon on the front page of the daily paper, announcing how many shopping days left until Christmas. The month of December was deemed Christmas shopping season. But that was then, now our Christmases, in all its commercial glory begins sometime late September. It is about then that our big box stores begin receiving their Christmas order, and not wanting to clog the back rooms, make space for Christmas décor somewhere on their sales floors.

            And this past Thursday was Thanksgiving, If it was a good one, you likely ate too much and stumbled from your dinner table to the couch, in a turkey-induced Tryptophan haze, trying to stay awake through a football game, or a holiday movie. Our consuming doesn’t end with one holiday meal. There is Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and holiday sales designed to get us to spend more  money. This is the season of giving, but often it’s the season for overspending. And why not? For many of us Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, it is the season where we feel the dull ache of what we miss. Loved ones, we’ve buried, family we’re estranged from, and all the things we’ve lost. What better way to get through the holidays, then with a little retail therapy?

                But then we come to church, and we discover that here we mark the season in a wholly different way. Advent. The word Advent simply means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming.’ This is one of the preparatory seasons on our Church calendar, and it is our way of preparing the way for the coming of Christ. Traditionally Christians have thought of this on a couple of levels. There is preparing to remember well, Christ’s nativity—the mystery of Incarnation, the sacred moment of his birth, when light shone in darkness, but the dark did not overcome it. It is also a time for preparing for Christ’s second Advent when Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation. And in between these comings are all of Christ’s little advents, the ways Christ comes to each of us and meets in the quietude of our hearts.

                In Isaiah 2:1-5, and Mathew 24:36-44, our passages for the first Sunday this year, we hear twi descriptions of God’s coming:

Isaiah 2:1–5 (NRSV)

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36–44 (NRSV)

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 Matthew’s passage describes this as great and terrible day of the Lord, when God returns to the judge the wicked, Just like in the story of Noah and the flood where the wicked were swept away, Jesus says “two will be working in the field, one taken and the other left, two women will be grinding meal, one will be taken and the other left. Keep awake therefore because you do not know when the day your Lord is coming.”   19th and 20th Century dispensationalism had an idea called “the rapture” where Jesus took the faithful in Christ out of the world before things really got bad. Chances are you may have come across this idea if you’ve ever saw a Christian movie about end times. It is a relatively new idea, and it reverses the thrust of Jesus words. Like in the flood, those who were taken, were those under God’s judgement, those who were ‘left behind’ were the ones who escaped it.

                The Isaiah passage is a little happier to our ears. In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest and all the nations of world will stream into it. Isaiah imagines a future where nationalism is no more, and Israel has fulfilled its calling to be a blessing to all nations. People from all over the world would come to be instructed in the Lords ways. God will judge between all peoples and all the war mongers and weaponizers will beat their swords into plowshares, and not study war anymore.

Both passages give us a little taste of God’s coming advent, but in a couple of different ways. I think these passages have several lessons for us as we enter Advent this year.

  1. Advent means being dissatisfied with the way things are.  Jesus words in the first century come  at a time when the nation of Israel is occupied by Rome, and the whole conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples in this passage, hinges on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (which happened in 70AD). Isaiah began his prophetic ministry, under King Uzziah of Judah reign. The Assyrian empire. had laid waste to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Judah was forced to pay tribute to them. In both cases, things weren’t as bad as they could be. In Jesus’ time and Isaiah’s time, God’s people could still worship God in the temple. And there were people that made do with the world they were in. After all, even though things weren’t as bad as they could possible be, things could be worse right?

In our country today, we enjoy religious freedom. Every once and a while you hear someone talk about the war on Christmas, but nobody has stopped us from meeting, and celebrated the birth of Christ. But we have been at war. War perpetually since 9-11.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and there is the rumor and threat of war with Iran. And there are worries about fair trade and tariffs, even with our allies. In our own borders, we are also not at peace. We suffer, political unrest, with the great divide between east and west. Are hearts break whenever we hear about another shooter at a school, church, synagogue or public venue. Things are not the way we should be. This is not the way it is supposed to be. And yet, we could busy ourselves in the holiday we can ignore everything wrong with our world and just sing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/ from now on our troubles will be miles away.”

But the message of Advent is this, right now is not the way things are supposed to be. God is coming and we have hope for a different future. Which brings me to our second lesson.

  • Advent means holding out hope for our bright tomorrow. Jesus is coming!

Isaiah tells of a new future where God’s temple, is not only not ‘under siege’ by Judah’s powerful neighbor’s but the place where all the nations come to pay tribute and learn and discover the ways of God. He envisions a future where countries aren’t racing to make weapons of mass destruction, but are joyfully, turning their old weapons into farm tools.  Isaiah holds out hope for the future of God’s promise, even if his current reality falls dismally short. When God sits enthroned in Jerusalem, things will be completely different. All the good things God has in store will come to pass.

In Matthew, Jesus warns of coming judgment. Trained as our imaginations are by American style revivalism, we often hear this as “you’re going to get it,” but I think the sense that Jesus speaks these words is, “they’re going to get it.” A new age is coming and the people that are oppressing you, who are taxing you harshly and conscripting you into service, or even slavery, the occupying military that threatens you, they will meet there end. And the justice of God will reign! When the baby Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem, the region of Judea was besieged by the Roman empire. But a baby child would come and bring salvation, not only to the Jews, but the whole world.

The good news for us is that where we are is bad. Maybe not the worst case scenario but bad enough. But the good that God has in store for us, is exactly everything he promises and is so much better than our wildest imaginings.

  • Finally, Advent means walking in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5). Isaiah exhorts ‘the house of Jacob,’ Israel and Judah to walk in the light of the Lord. I think this is an exhortation for us too. Walk in the light of the Lord.

What does this mean? What does it mean for us?  There is a Mahatma Gandhi quote that I learned by way of Martin Luther King, jr., “The ends and the means are convertible terms.” King applied Gandhi’s wisdom to non-violent resistance, concluding the way we get to the ends we want to get at, is to enact them. So for King and his struggle for civil rights, the Beloved Community where blacks and whites joined hands in universal brotherhood, meant that the way he envisioned getting there was by enacting the vision of racial peace he envisioned. If wanted peace between whites and blacks, he wouldn’t get there through violence; he’d only get there through non-violent, peaceful means.

In the words of Jesus and Isaiah we have heard the promise of future justice and peace. We have heard about the promise of a world at peace, where all violence ceases. What does it mean for us to be shaped by this vision? What it does it mean for us as a church? What would it mean for us to invest in a future where it isn’t us vs. them, but believing in God’s shalom, where all that is wrong with the world is put to rights, all injustice is brought to an end, and everything that should be, is, and everything that should not be is not?

In a broken ancient world, Jesus was coming. In our present, national and international divisions, Jesus is coming, in the quietude of our hearts Jesus comes. In Advent, we pause and prepare for the coming of King Jesus. We look honestly at the broken world we are in, we hear God’s hope for our tomorrow, and we live our lives in the light, shaped by God’s promise for us. Merry Advent. Come Lord Jesus, Come.  

Get Ready to Cheer for the Bad Guy

 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.

There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

Payback (1999)

When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.

The manager knows that he doesn’t have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway with a carboard sign which reads:

MIDDLE MANAGER OUT OF WORK.

ANYTHING HELPS

So, he devises a plan. He calls in all the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and 20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.

When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and  here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “

If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

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This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.

As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide disagreement  from one commentator to the next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different interpretations of the parable.[1] Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’ parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.

One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus, accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.[2]

Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He praises him for being shrewd.  And in verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:

If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”

and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as requisite for being entrusted true riches:

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”

And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings[3] The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.

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Christine Pohl says:

Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.[4]

So, the question for us is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our resources to build relationships?

And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?

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I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.

I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”[5]

The lesson Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.

Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends!   The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.

We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in.  But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.


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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.

[2] See Luke 4:16-22.

[3] I am aware that many scholars see verse 10-13 as only tangentially related to the parable (i.e. Jesus sayings that were placed by Luke here, but not necessarily commenting on the story).

[4] Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.[4]

[5] Cagle, Ryan. Twitter Post. Sept 19, 10:18 PM. https://twitter.com/_ryancagle/status/1174915706527174657

see also Greenfield , Craig, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” CraigGreenfield.com, January 8, 2016, www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2016/philanthropy