Catching Up and Walking On

This weekend the Ice family will be making strides against breast cancer in fabulous downtown Nashville.  Laura’s folks are coming in for the weekend and my mother will also be walking, so its a whole-family affair.  Laura has assembled another “Jean Team” to walk in memory of her beloved colleague from Una Church’s Mothers Day Out program.  Our group of about 15 will join several thousand for what looks to be a nice sunny stroll from the Titans stadium, through downtown and back across the river.  Today its cold and rainy, but tomorrow looks better.  Let’s hope what is true for the weather holds true for the fight against breast cancer.


Our evenings have been occupied with house cleaning, laundry and the ever-present homework.  My study is coming along nicely and should be clutter free by late tonight.  Darby helped me decorate it for Halloween. I’ll try to post pictures of her handiwork tonight.


Needless to say, between household chores and prep for my teaching on Sundays, Uncle Dave has been neglected.  But we’ll see what next week holds. 


Yesterday I was blessed to visit with the staff at World Christian Broadcasting in Franklin.  I spoke at their staff devotional and toured their facility.  They are fine people who do a good work worthy of your support.  We have supported them financially and urge you to do the same.  I’ll upload my comments to the Spoken Word page shortly.


I have notes for last week’s class on Acts 27, but they are not yet typed. I think the approach I settled on is a fairly good way to approach narrative for spiritual transformation.  Though a travel narrative like Acts 27 poses a challenge for lectio divina I’m satisfied with the direction I took.   I’m continuing with Acts 28 Sunday and brining it (the book, the series and one of Acts’ larger theological points) to a close.


I preach from manuscripts but teach from handwritten notes.  Always.  For me, I’ve found the discipline of crafting a sermon (or a devotional or some other kind of speech) works best when the process results in a full manuscript.  I simply preach better (in my estimation at least) from a manuscript.  But for class settings, the time and attention devoted to writing notes by hand rewards me with the ability to teach from memory with only an occasional reference to the notes.  I can’t explain why I benefit in different ways from each approach, but somehow I do.  Also, the dynamic of presenting a sermon lends itself to manscripts (I”m not a hand-waver or a stage-walker).  But the dynamic of a class-setting (again, for me) is much improved when I avoid the podium like the plague.

Our Bodies a Sacrifice

Our Bodies a Sacrifice
Central Church
Sunday Morning, December 16, 2007
McGarvey Ice

Text: Romans 12.1-21

One of the strategies for reading an occasional letter like Romans is mirror-reading. That is, since Romans is written out of an occasion in the life of its author and its recipients, then it naturally follows that the content of the letter addresses that particular situation. As a mirror reflects the image of what is before it, so the Biblical text reflects the situation of its author and recipients. For example, Romans chapters 9-11 are roughly 20% of the book and are all about Jew/Gentile issues in the larger plan of God. There must have been some sort of significant Jew/Gentile issue in those house churches in Rome for Paul to have spent the time and ink he did.
In Romans 12 we have a situation where there may be any number of people who would really appreciate church better if everyone else were a lot more like them. And we have a church struggling with how to embody the gospel in their daily lives. So, it seems a fair generalization to say that in Rome we have a church troubled within and a church troubled in the marketplace.
Illus. from Randy Harris[1] about the Thinkers. Servers. Worshippers. Justice/Mercy. Contemplatives. There is great diversity in personality, temperament, and tendency to various kinds and styles of ministry. Every church has these sorts of folks. Such is the great blessing for every church and a potential source of great conflict as well. We normalize for others what comes naturally for us. What is easy and natural and so very sensible to us can easily become much more than simply our disposition or preference. We are tempted to trace an outline of our personalities and preferences and manufacture a pattern out of our own image. We then mandate to others that to really live and serve as a faithful Christian, you must look like, think like and act like me.
Given what Paul says in 12.3-13, it appears that there is trouble in Rome. We’ve got church folks who live as church by the ways of the world. When we live life as church by the ways of the world we will have hypocrisy, preference, and selfishness, and jockeying for position, power plays and manipulation. We’ve got Christians in Rome who say my gift matters and yours doesn’t. My gift is special and yours isn’t, and if you were really spiritual you’d be a thinker/server/worshipper/activist/contemplative like me. And if that is the situation in church imagine how they live out in the marketplace. Imagine how powerful the pressure is to conform to the ways of the world, where life is lived by looking out for number one, by exploiting the other person’s weakness for your gain, by demanding your rights and paying back evil with evil.
That’s the situation in Rome, and all too often for us as well. But Paul writes to Rome, and we are reading it. It is scripture for them and it is scripture for us. Paul’s task in Romans is a pastoral task.
[2] He writes to Christians in Rome to shape them more and more and more into the image of Christ. Paul’s task is a shepherd’s task: to lead and guide the church along the way of Christ. Paul’s task is a leader’s task: to cast a vision for the church and to lead the charge. Paul’s task is a teacher’s task: to show the better way of Christ and make it plain. By way of this letter, Paul is at once teacher, leader and pastor. He is shepherd, visionary and guide.
Often when preachers and teachers get to Romans 12 they see the gears shift in Paul’s rhetoric. Then they often say something like Romans 1-11 is ‘doctrinal’ and chs. 12-5/16 is ‘practical.’ And in a sense they are right. In 1-11 Paul gives emphasis to theology; in 12-16 he gives emphasis to practical teaching. Unfortunately the distinction between doctrine and practice is often overplayed. Paul doesn’t separate the two nearly as far as some preachers do. Paul doesn’t section off doctrine over here and practice over there. It is a false dichotomy, a false separation, to put doctrine over here as if it is all about thinking and reasoning and understanding and over there is daily life where we all live out the moments and events and ins and outs of our lives.
For Paul the two are integrated. Paul doesn’t write two letters to Rome: one a theological treatise and the other a how-to manual for Christian living. He writes one letter that integrates the teaching about what God has done and therefore what our lives should look like if we embrace the gospel. For Paul doctrine and practice are integrated and if they’re not integrated for us, they ought to be. If Paul doesn’t separate them like this, why should we? If we desire spirituality we will seek to integrate the two; and where they are not integrated, we need to be corrected and formed and shaped and taught.
Paul’s task as preacher, teacher, pastor, shepherd, leader, guide in Romans is to lead the Christian churches in Rome to bring their lives more and more in line with what they say they believe about the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that God has demonstrated his faithfulness to us in Christ. The implication for those who believe the gospel is to offer to him our life of faith.
If we believe the good news of Christ crucified then we will present ourselves to God a living sacrifice conformed not to the world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. Thus Paul can begin to explain how there is a better way to live as the Body of Christ.
First of all it is absurd to boast of a gift. Note the Greek of vs. 6: gift is from the same term as grace. In 12.3-13 Paul anchors life as church in the gracious gifts of God. We did not earn them, do not deserve them, and do not exercise them in our own power. Rather, each has a gift by God’s grace to exercise for the blessing of all, just as God’s grace is for all. God’s intent for the church is to be the people of a transformed mind whose life together reflects the rich variety and diversity of his grace. The church ought to be gracious because God is gracious. They embody his grace in their life together. So when life together as church looks more like the world and less like the grace of God, something is wrong. When we say that your gift is special, or prized, or more worthy, we reveal that what really matters are the values of the world. When we turn the gifts of God’s grace into instruments of pride and boasting we reveal that our lives are not nearly as attuned to the values of the gospel as we would think.
God intends for the life of the church to be a reflection of his grace not only to each other as Christians, but a declaration of his grace to the larger culture. So vss. 14-21 show how the grace of God ought to be made real in the ordinary moments of life.
Do we believe the gospel story: that love triumphs over hate, that grace triumphs over sin, and life overcomes death? If we do, then we will live what we say we believe. If we confess that true doctrine, then our lives must conform to that doctrine. If the gospel is the announcement of good news of the righteousness of God: that while we were still sinners Christ died for the ungodly, then we will seek sinners with a fervor and grace that mirrors God’s toward us. If we say that the gospel story is true, then we will seek peace and blessing for those who persecute us. If when we were enemies of God, Christ laid down his life for us, then we ought to embrace a life of grace and feed our hungry enemies and give drink to our thirsty enemies. If when we were hostile to God, the grace of Christ initiated reconciliation, then we ought to initiate reconciliation with our enemies by rejoicing with them when they rejoice and weeping with them when they weep. If the reign of God’s peace has been made real in our own hearts, then as followers in the way of Christ we must interrupt the escalation of violence by implementing a life of peace.
The way of the world is to kick your enemy in his teeth. It is to step on his neck in order to get ahead. It is to stab her in the back as you push your way to the front of the line. The way of the world is by all means and at any cost and in every way to look out for number one. But the way of Jesus is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, not to be conformed to this world. The way of Jesus is not to think of yourself more highly than you ought, but to let love be without hypocrisy. The way of Jesus is to hate what is evil, to cling to what is good and to overcome evil with good.
The way of the world is to curse your enemies, but the way of Jesus is to rejoice with your enemy when he rejoices. It is to weep with her when she weeps. The way of Jesus is to seek out the lowly and associate with them.
The way of Jesus is not something in addition to true doctrine; it is the embodiment of true doctrine. In the life of faith, theology and doctrine are not over here somewhere while daily life is over there. The life of faith is the embodiment of what we say we believe, and the living out of the story we say is true. As Christians, we have pledged our allegiance to the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have confessed that that is the true story by which we will live our lives. We have embraced the grace of God in the death of Jesus at our baptism. And at our baptism we have pledged ourselves to God in faith to pursue new life through the resurrection of Jesus. In our baptism we have pledged to carry out the way of Jesus on the stage of our lives. If the story is true then we will honor God not merely by striving for pure doctrine in some abstract sense, but we will integrate true doctrine into our lives and offer to God our bodies a living and holy sacrifice. Amen.

[1] Randall J. Harris, Instructor of Bible, Abilene Christian University, used this illustration on numerous occasions.
[2] See James W. Thompson, Pastoral Ministry According to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, 85ff.

We do not lose heart

We Do Not Lose Heart…
Homecoming Sermon for Lindsley Avenue Church
October 14, 2007
McGarvey Ice

Text: 2 Corinthians 4.1 :…since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart…. [NASB]

Trouble in the Biblical Text
SIGH Look at what we are up against! Division, personal enemies and opponents of our ministry who would discredit our ministry and distort our teaching. Deep-seated racism and class-hatred in the church, false and misleading teaching on a host of issues, envy and sectarianism, blatant immorality, a crisis of leadership. Why, our worship assemblies sometimes look more like chaotic gatherings to the gods of wine and love than moments of divine grace before the Lord of Life. Our city is on the one hand famous for its cosmopolitan character and on the other hand notorious for its lack of moral character. SIGH, look at what we are up against!
I wonder what it must have been like to be one of Paul’s associates during the years he labored and corresponded with the Christians at Corinth. Sosthenes, Timothy and Titus, along with others, shared ministry with Paul and had a part in the writing and delivering of letters (not to mention personal visits) to and from Corinth. Paul’s ministry in Corinth, and the time he spent in contact with the church there spanned a number of years and a number of letters. What we know is that the church was situated in one of the more important trade centers of the Mediterranean theater. It was truly cosmopolitan and offered the best of Greek and Roman culture. At the same time it offered the worst of idolatry, immorality and competing stories by which life could be lived. Into this circumstance Paul and others declare the good news of God: that Jesus Christ was crucified and buried and is now raised from the dead. Into this situation Paul and others declare that the way of Jesus is the story by which we live. And yet, the church at Corinth is a congregation divided. Personalities, false doctrine, class, ethnic and racial identities, sin, would woo the church from the foundation laid for them in Christ. No wonder we could easily imagine Paul letting out a deep and painful sigh as he receives the latest news or correspondence from his beloved Corinth.

Trouble in the Present Day
One-hundred fifty years ago Cherry Street Christian Church in downtown Nashville was hailed by many as the finest church in the city. It certainly had the finest building, and her minister, Jesse Babcock Ferguson, was praised as the best preacher in the South. But the church was troubled. A few years into his ministry, Ferguson has clearly and openly espoused Universalism and Spiritualism and the peace of the congregation was deeply upset. In fact, when Alexander Campbell himself paid a visit to the Nashville church to assist them, Ferguson left the city, claiming that the ghost of William Ellery Channing had warned him not to meet Campbell. At one time the church was strong, with many capable workers teaching and ministering. But in the late 1850’s the church was broken. In the midst of what we now call the “Ferguson Affair” David Lipscomb began preaching in the suburbs of the growing city. He preached in East Nashville, North Nashville, and here, in South Nashville. After the civil war, as the city was reconstructing itself, this area of town was the intellectual center of Nashville. The universities were here, a good deal of wealth was here. But between this hill and downtown was a slum known as Black Bottom. In the years before the Cumberland River was controlled by dams, that low area would flood and the rich black silt from the river gave the area its name. It was, by all accounts, one of the worst places in Nashville, and its was just down the hill from where we sit this morning. This area of town offered the best and the worst of one of the key cities in the South during Reconstruction. And this area of town would be the place where David Lipscomb would devote the remainder of his life as Elder of the South College Street Christian Church. His first audience in the 1850’s was three ladies and little boy. By 1877, 130 years ago, the little band was able to purchase a corner lot a block from here. A decade later in 1887 they were able to build a building and the congregation grew. As they grew they faced grievous obstacles and grand opportunities. Life in the church in Nashville was in some ways similar to that in Corinth. There was division; there were competing stories that vied for a place in the hearts of Christians. Racism, class-hatred and sectarianism were constant issues. I suspect that David Lipscomb, T. B. Larimore, James A. Harding, J. C. Martin, W. H. Timmons and others could echo Paul’s deep sigh for the church.

Grace in the Biblical Text
Deep as that sigh might have been, Paul was convinced that division, personal enemies, doctrinal upheaval, and immorality would not have the final say as to the hope of the church. For Paul had declared to the Corinthians that the one who establishes them both in Christ and who anointed and who sealed them, and who gave to them the Holy Spirit as a pledge is none other than God himself. Furthermore, Paul declares, as many as are the promises of God, they are YES in Christ Jesus. Paul’s ministry in Corinth is not based upon nor is it rooted in his own personality, his own ethnicity, his own social status, or his own teaching. Paul’s ministry is rooted in the gracious act of God in Christ. His ministry from first to last is Christ, indeed, to sum it up, as God’s promise to us in Christ is YES, so our response and our ministry is AMEN (2 Cor. 1.19-22).
Into troubled Corinth, with all of its promise and all of its peril, Paul declares that God’s gracious promise to us in Christ is YES. Paul will go on to say that his adequacy comes not from himself, but from God (2 Cor. 3.5). For Paul there is something that stands beyond the troubles of the moment that roots and grounds ministry: the grace of God and the mercy of God and the ministry of God. How else could he be hopeful for Corinth? How else could he be so confident as to declare the gospel in that city? How else could he deal so boldly yet patiently and lovingly and tenderly with the church in Corinth? How could he except for the prior work of God? How could he but for the mercy of God and the ministry with which God had blessed him?

Grace in the Present Day
2 Cor. 4.1: “Since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart…” David Lipscomb comments concerning this verse that “as God had committed to him so great a trust, he would not be discouraged or disheartened by the great persecution he endured.” J. W. Shepherd adds that “there was nothing so deep down in his sould, nothing so constantly in his thoughts, as this great experience. No flood of emotion, no pressure of trial, no necessity of conflict, ever drove him from his moorings here. The mercy of God underlay his whole being.”
How else could David Lipscomb, T. B. Larimore, James A. Harding and others declare the gospel in Nashville in the 1850’s, or in 1887, or how can we declare it today given the circumstances we face? How can David Lipscomb dare to plant a congregation when the best and brightest his church had to offer turned out to be a shame to the brotherhood across the South? How can he be so confident as to plant a congregation between his city’s intellectual center and her most squalid slum? How could he but for the mercy of God and the ministry with which God charged him?
How can we venture forth with the good news? When we look around our city we would could very well sigh and shake our heads and say look at what we are up against. Look at how we are afflicted! Look at how we are perplexed! Look at how we are persecuted! Look at how we are struck down! Look at what we are up against!
Henri J. M. Nouwen says this, “Our lives are full of brokenness. Broken dreams, broken relationships, broken promises. How can we live with that brokenness except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives?”
Paul says, “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that they surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
How can we lay down our lives in such brokenness? We can, since we have this ministry. We can, because we have received mercy. We can because of what God in Christ has done for us and is doing through us for our city. Because of God’s faithful presence in our lives, we do not lose heart. Amen.

Postscript: This sermon attempts two things: first I attempt to speak a good word to a congregation on a special anniversary. To that end the sermon recounts some measure of that congregation’s history, but places that history in a sermonic context and not a Sunday School class or history lecture context. I am not trying to lecture on the history of the congregation, I am using the history of the congregation as a resource for a sermon to the congregation. Secondly, I attempt to speak a good word to a congregation that deeply desires to minister to a nieghborhood of Nashville that is notorious for drug and gang activity. Though in part revitalized, the area has a way to go. A combination of the southern interstate loop around the central city and the urban development initiative of the 1960’s produced a depressed ghetto. Yet the congregation did not leave, or fold, or relocate. Instead, they stayed. And Sunday was a special day when several former members returned. I wanted therefore to speak a word that would contribute to the present work of the congregation, and more than that, to ground ministry in the good news of God in Christ. So the sermon is an attempt to do specific historical theology for the good of a local congregation. As to form, I took a cue from Paul Scott Wilson’s “four pages of the sermon” and structured my sermon accordingly: trouble in the biblical text, troble in our world, grace in the biblical text, grace in our world (cf. Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching 2nd ed., 128-129). One other thing, I did not footnote my quotations.

A Few Plain Rules for Preachers

The following which we clipped several years ago, and put in our Scrap-book, is as applicable now as then, and may be useful to a good many preachers, and will do none of them any harm to observe.

  1. Be very sure to understand the text yourself, before you attempt to make others understand it.
  2. Be animated—be emphatic. Convince your hearers that you are in earnest; but do not insult their judgments by extravagant appeals to the passions without enlightening their minds.
  3. Remember you are placed in the pulpit to teach. Study, therefore, your subject thoroughly, and do not follow—right or wrong—stale commentators. Think for yourself, and when you have new thoughts, communicate them, even if they do tread a little upon the toes of other expositors. At the same time a preacher should not aim to be original, merely for the sake of it.
  4. Approach your subject at one, and be short.
  5. Study to be eloquent—if you have powers of oratory, improve them. But let theatrical affectation be banished from the place.

J. R. H.*

[*John R. Howard, editor of the Christian Pioneer, the periodical in which these rules are published (vol. 1 no. 2, July 1861), MIce]

A Homily for Congregational Historians

2006 Stalcup Seminar for Local Church Historians

A Homily for Congregational Historians
McGarvey Ice
Public Services Archivist

Psalm 105.1-6 : O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. (NRSV)

The task of keeping up with the history of a local congregation is a fulfilling experience. We enjoy old newspaper clippings, faded photographs, obscure-yet-sought after references in books. We revel in oral history interviews and in finding scraps of information that will afford us better information, more accurate description, and thus a more faithful accounting of our past. We enjoy collecting material, retelling the stories, and keeping alive the memories of our congregations.
Allow me this morning to take you beyond that job description. I want to give you lenses through which to see your task as congregational historian. In fact, I would rather not use the language of “task” or “job”; instead we should use the language of “ministry” and “service.”
Drawing from the reading of Psalm 105, I urge you to see your history-gathering and your history-keeping as a theological task. Congregation history is names and dates and places and activities and chronology and photographs and records and lists. But it is so much more: to keep and tell congregational history is to keep and tell the “wonderful works God has done.” It is a theological task, it is a ministry. Congregations are more than mere assemblies of people; they are the assembled people of God, in whom and through whom and for whom God is actively at work. When we do congregational history we are telling of the work of God. Our task then is holy, it is sacred, for it concerns the ongoing story of God and his church. Bernard of Clairvaux has a statement that I have long cherished: “There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are some who desire to know in order that they themselves are known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are those who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others: that is love.” Drawing from Bernard, I urge you to see your history-gathering and your history-keeping as a pastoral task. The practice of acquiring, processing, interpreting and preserving congregational history is to be done for the larger purpose of serving and edifying others. The practice of congregational history is a labor of love for the good of the church. It is a pastoral task; it is a sacred ministry.

Maintaining the Institution or Furthering the Mission?, A Sermon

Maintaining the Institution or Furthering the Mission?
A Sermon for GB 5613-01, Preaching Biblical Genres
Hazelip School of Theology
Dr. John O. York , Professor
October 16, 2006
Mac Ice

Text: Luke 6.1-11 – One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grain fields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus’ [NRSV]

Focus: Jesus’ faith and piety are informed by the content and mission of the good news of the kingdom of God rather than by the lesser agenda of institutionalized religious observance.

Function: To reflect upon how easily and often we substitute our own agendas for the gospel and to awaken ourselves to how Jesus’ clear priorities challenge our backward notions of faithfulness.

I was born on a Sunday. Now, though I was not born on a pew, I was seated upon one shortly thereafter. I was raised in the church: faithful attendee at VBS, active in the youth program, taught to be a good person, a faithful Christian, a responsible citizen. While I can laugh at the joke about Wednesday nights not counting, I also cringe inwardly because I was raised to love God with care and precision. I was brought up in a Bible-believing atmosphere, with a sense of duty, an expectation of holiness, a strong work ethic, and a keen attention to detail.

Taking the Bible seriously, being faithful, and maintaining distinctive identity are strongly-held values for the Pharisees. They retained amid a sea of moral corruption and religious pluralism a distinct historical consciousness: they remembered what happened when past generations sold out to the surrounding culture. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day are born into situation wherein they are pressed on all sides, yet they remain determined that the exile would never be repeated. God gave them a new lease as a nation and they are committed to keep faith with God. Against the Graeco-Roman programs of cultural and religious assimilation they will cling to their culture, their religion and its distinctive marks: circumcision, Sabbath observance, food laws and personal holiness. After all, these are our sacred institutions and we must maintain them at all costs.

Evangelical author Joseph Bayly wrote a slim little book in 1960’s entitled The Gospel Blimp. It is about a group of believers attempting to be the presence of Christ in their world. As it opens the main characters, George and Ethel, are concerned about the salvation of their beer-drinking, unsaved, neighbors, but don’t know how to reach them with the gospel. During an evening get-together of George and Ethel’s Christian friends, everyone is captivated by the sight of a blimp flying overhead. As they swatted mosquitoes George’s friend Herm gets a bright idea: why not use a blimp to proclaim the Christian message to the unchurched citizens of Middletown?

So the group incorporates (International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated) and after a couple of years of committee meetings, the blimp finally gets off the ground and commences to evangelize their hometown. They tow Bible-verse banners, ‘firebomb’ the town below with gospel tracts, and broadcast Christian music and programs over loudspeakers. But a series of misadventures puts the blimp ministry in jeopardy. Its captain becomes famous and goes off on the talk show circuit. The blimp comes to be seen as a noisy distraction in the otherwise quiet community. George becomes increasingly uneasy about the methods and business practices of IGBI and its “Commander”, Herm. The couple that hosted the picnic grows disillusioned with “Gospel Blimp, Inc.” and resigns from its board.[1]

Like George and Herm in Bayly’s story, the Pharisees spent a good deal of time discussing the ins and outs of what constitutes proper observance and maintenance of the markers of true Jewish identity. Just as the International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated took on a life of its own, so too did the Pharisees’ traditions. IGBI institutionalized a very good impulse. Indeed, to evangelize is a gospel imperative. But the gospel imperative was lost amid the institutional maintenance. Israel is the covenant people of God and are to keep Torah; such is an imperative; yet the Pharisees’ traditions took on a life of their own. The exercise of faith and piety has become set within an institutionalized framework.

But notice carefully from the text in Luke 6 how Jesus engages the Pharisees here. Mark this: Jesus is not merely quibbling in good Rabbinic fashion over tradition, he goes to back to Scripture.

Before we explore what Jesus makes of the David story, observe what he does not do with it. First of all, he does not overturn the law of the Sabbath. He does not criticize the law; he does say that the law is bad, or deficient. He does not replace the old law with a new one. What he does is he steps outside of the Pharisees’ interpretive box. In order to appreciate Jesus’ point about David, we must remember the context for David’s eating of the bread. David’s relationship to the law is informed first by his mission as God’s anointed king. Seen from this vantage point, to withhold the bread from David is tantamount to hindering the mission of God. David is not condemned because Torah serves the mission of God. Lifting the law about the bread outside of the missional context and putting it in its own institutional context is like putting the cart before the horse. To do so would have hindered God’s mission. The instruction about bread does not stand alone as an independent institutionalized legislation, does it?

Hear also Luke’s second story. It is another Sabbath story. Jesus is under surveillance. He is also on the offensive. Here Jesus initiates discussion. His question brings out, in bold relief, the issue at stake in both of these stories. His question: What is truly lawful? Why are we in this synagogue? What are we doing here? What are we about when we observe Sabbath? What is Sabbath for? Why do we keep it? What constitutes truly “lawful” Sabbath observance? If we take the Bible seriously, then what are we to do and to be? I ask you, what is the lawful thing to do: to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it? Are we about the maintenance of an institution or the furtherance of a mission?

And that is precisely what Jesus has been asking and doing all along isn’t it? This pair of stories does not drop in on us from the blue. Has not the missional and redemptive love of God been the controlling motif for Jesus (and Luke) all along? What text does he read in the Nazareth synagogue? What task does he claim for himself as his covenantal and relational status as God’s anointed? What does he do at Capernaum for the demoniac? What does he do for Peter’s mother-in-law? What does he do for the infirm, the diseased, the troubled, the distressed? What does he do for the crowds, and the masses and the cities and the villages? What does he say to Peter in the fishing boat? What does he say over the din of the snapping nets and the flopping fish-tails? What does he do for the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax-collectors and the sinners? And what does he say about old ways of thinking about the presence of God and the reality of his kingly rule?

Really, if we are to be faithful to the mission of God, if we are to take our history and our upbringing seriously, if we are to be the distinctive people of God, then what does it mean to be faithful to scripture? What is the lawful thing? What is the lawful thing to do in the midst of this Sabbath gathering? Is it lawful to do good? Is it lawful to withhold good? Is it lawful to prolong suffering?

Are we to be about the maintenance of an institution or the furtherance of a mission?

I was born on a Sunday. Now, while I was not born on a pew, I was seated upon one shortly thereafter. I was raised in the church: faithful attendee at VBS, active in the youth program, raised to be a good person, a faithful Christian, a responsible citizen. I am a lover of God. I have heard the stories of the Bible and I have heard the story of Jesus. I have been taught and instructed.

And now I have this document from Luke. A document carefully investigated and researched. Attentively crafted and ordered. Luke lays bare the way of Jesus that I may know the truth. He narrates how Jesus brings the tangible gospel message to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances. He shows Jesus calling disciples and reveals how he draws the ire of his enemies. He shows how Jesus reads and interprets Scripture.

And in so doing he beckons me, one who has been taught, be beckons me and probes me and questions me and scrutinizes me.

In the crucible of his orderly account he presses on me and works on me. Using the mortar and pestle of conflict and invitations to discipleship he questions my heart and my motivation. Am I in this for my own preservation? To preserve an institution? To make myself look good, feel better, to avoid facing up to the realities that it is much easier to maintain and defend an institution than it is to surrender my heart to the truth of gospel: the awful truth of the gospel that I really am no better than the sinner I despise; the awful truth that I would rather inflate a blimp than cross the fence in my own backyard to build a redemptive relationship with my godless neighbor?

He sounds the clarion call of mission of the kingdom: good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, declaration of the favor of God!

Going back to this mission of God in scripture, he exposes my small-minded institutional thinking and much like my Pharisaic counterparts now I must choose what I will do with this Jesus. Will we with fury oppose him, or will we embrace his priorities and his values, take up our crosses and embark on his wonderful mission?
[1] Plot summary adapted from, accessed 15 Oct 2006.