Monday, December 18, 2017

Luke 2:1-20

This passage occurs as the Gospel for Christmas Eve in all three lectionary cycles.

Summary:  I have no desire to summarize the meaning of the incarnation in Luke's Gospel.  This passage has layers and layers of meaning for us to draw on this year and every year.  I offer this as a way to hopefully point toward something in the passage that can help launch your reflection and preaching.

Words I found interesting:
οικουμενη(ν) ("world", 2.1)  The word for "all the world" here really means civilized world, coming from the Greek work οικος.  It is a reminder that for those in the Roman empire, this meant the ENTIRE world.

δογμα (literally dogma, meaning "decree", 2.1)  No important theological consideration.  Just that Rome has always been interested in promulgating dogma ;-)

απογραφη ("registration" 2.2)  A few directions one can go with this word. 
First, power of Rome:  Liddell Scott refers to this as "a register of persons liable to taxation."  Rome wanted a census because they wanted to tax and conscript people.
Second, challenge of history:  Quirinius doesn't add up in terms of a chronology. (Other scholars are more generous.)
Third, sin of a census:  In 2 Samuel 24:10, David confesses to sinning as he has engaged in a census.  Why is this a sin?  Because the idea was not to count your troops but to trust the Lord in battle.  In fact, it may be that the zealots (mentioned in the New Testament) arose out of anger of this census being taken. 

Can we put this altogether:  Even if you cannot accept as historical fact the coincidence of Jesus birth with the census, Jesus would have been a young child during a census, a brutal reminder of the power of Rome, a foreign and pagan power.  Quirinius' biography is a great story of the "Roman dream" where someone rose through military victory and shifting political allegiances.  In short, Luke's setting the stage is correct:  The Jews existed under an imperial power, hostile to their faith.  Jesus was born in an empire that cared not for him.  This imperial power was and remains the envy of all other empires in its military and administrative might.

To drive this point home, the angle proclaims, "who is Christ, the Lord."  In Greek, this is spelled Χριστος κυριος, which is the basic confession of faith (Christ is Lord) that ran contrary to the Roman confession of faith (Caesar Kurios).  The angle here offers a subversive confession of faith!

καταλυματι  ("inn", 2:7)  There was no room for them in the inn.  Later Jesus will make room for himself in another inn -- the upper room (22:11)

μεγαλην (literally "great", 2:9 and 2:10).  Two things are great in this passage -- there is a great fear and then a great joy.  This sets up, in many ways, the background for the whole of Luke's Gospel:  Jesus will cause great fear, but also great joy.  It is a backdrop for any good Christmas sermon too -- there is great fear in our world, but because of Jesus, we have reason for great joy.

ευδοκιας ("pleasure", 2:14)  I often wondered about this word -- did God intend peace for all people or just those whom he liked?  First, the Greek has a textual problem.  The manuscripts seem divided (and even in manuscripts there are edits) whether this should be read as a nominative or genitive.

If we read it as a nominative:
N) glory to God; peace on earth; good will among humans (i.e. three items distributed in three realms)
If we read it as a genitive
G)  glory to God; peace on earth among humans of (his) pleasure.
If we go with option N) it seems that good will is toward all people, unambiguously.  Unfortunately, the evidence textually, even though divided, favors option G).
So, if we go with option G) we encounter a bit more ambiguity.  If this is the case (okay, bad pun there), Luke writes "upon the earth peace among people of pleasure/desire."  The Greek leaves out the phrase, "of him."  It simply states, "among people of desire."  I am not sure if we can, on the basis of grammar, solve this case (again, bad pun).  What is unambiguous is that God intends for peace on earth!  What is ambiguous grammatically and historically is how we humans live into this peace.

ρημα (literally "herema" meaning "word", 2:15)  This word is like logos, and it can mean thing or matter or word.  That I want to point out is that the shepherds literally say, "Let us behold the word."  John's Gospel is famous for such a construction (John 1:14), Luke has the same concept embedded here.

Ιωσηφ (literally "Joseph", 2:16) Just a reminder that Joseph isn't left out of the picture!

συμβαλλουσα (literally "symballoo", meaning "ponder", 2:19)  Mary "pondered these things in her heart."  The word for ponder is symbol -- to draw meaning, to pull together or literally to throw together.  This is fascinating that Mary is gathering together the images and thoughts of the angels in her mind.

Grammar Review:  Cognate Accusative
It is considered poor English to write a sentence in which the verb and object share the same word root.  For example:  I climbed a climb or I rode a ride.  We are trained to make the object and verb different words:  "I climbed a mountain" or "I rode a bike." 
Because of Hebrew's limited vocabulary as well as the importance of simplifying stories for oral transmission, cognate accusatives are very common.  Not so much in Greek, however.  Which is strange then that Luke uses two of them in this passage:
φυλασσοντεσ φυλακας (literally "guarded their guard," or "tended their flocks," 2.8)
εφοβηθησαν φοβου (literally "feared a great fear," 2.9)
Not sure why Luke does this other than to speculate he was reading a lot of the Old Testament as he wrote the Christmas narrative!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Luke 1:26-38 (Annunication)

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary during Advent.

Many commentaries reading this passage display a hermeneutic of suspicion.  For example, the anchor Bible commentary was lamenting that Luke put everything in an OT style.  Strangely enough, this was proof that he was making this stuff up.  (Imagine, God works in a consistent manner over time).  The virgin birth becomes highly problematic within this hermeneutic of suspicion! 

I do not think Luke wants us to read with such cynical eyes.  First, Luke goes to great lengths here to give us names and dates, indicating he intends to write history, not fiction.  He even has the angel offer Mary a sign (the pregnancy of Elizabeth), reminding us of Mary's human need for proof.  While his characters may follow patterns of other Biblical characters, they seem to me to be real people with hopes and fears.

I think Luke offers us another hermeneutic:  belief in God's word to do miracles.  I use the word hermeneutic because Luke plays on the word herma in this passage; the word for "thing" in verse in 37 is "rema", but because of the heavy breathing on the "r", this comes into English"herma"; the word for "word" in verse 38 is also "rema" (herma).  We should read the Bible, not ready to doubt, but ready to be amazed at what God has done.  This hermeneutic, I believe, is what Luke intends that we might echo the angel and Mary in declaring that “All things (hermas) are possible through God”  and “Let it be done according to your word (herma).”

Key Words:
οηομα ("name"; appears throughout the section)  It is curious that the word name appears four times in this section.  In addition, every character has a name; even people not part of the immediate story, David and Elizabeth, are named.

καλεω ("call"/"invite"; appears throughout the section)  It is also curious that the word "call" appear four times in this section.  Clearly calling things a name is a vital part of this pericope.

παρθενου ("virgin" or "young woman"; 1:27)  Let's settle this debate.  Linguistically it is possible to imagine that Mary is simply referred to hear as a young woman and not a "virgin."  However, the word for virgin is parthenos (like the Parthenon building, to the virgin Athena).  Furthermore, Mary's very objection to the pregnancy is the fact that she has never known a man.

χαρις ("grace"; 1:28; 1:30)  In 1:28 this appears as a verb in the perfect passive form:  "Having been graced." It is interesting that the grace is in the perfect, in that the graceful event occured previous to the angel's announcement.  What was the event that already gave her this grace? Perhaps her own immaculate conception?!  Another tough thing about this idea of Mary's grace is found in the NET's translation notes.  They lament the vulgate translation, "full of grace" because it presents the idea that Mary has grace to bestow on others.  While it is true that Mary's grace comes from God, it is hard to make the argument that Mary does not bestow grace on the rest of us through her role in the birth.  Catholics go to far, but we protestants have never quite done Mary justice!

Grammar Review:  Missing words
The phrase the "The Lord be with you" is not really what the Greek says. It simply reads "The Lord with you." (ο κυριος μετα σου)  This can be read as an imperative, as in it expresses a wish, "The Lord be or will be with you." Or as an indicative: "The Lord is with you." Interestingly, most translators translate a similar construction at the end of the Gospel of John (Peace to you) with an imperative/wish "Peace be with you." Using the same translation method they use here, that phrase should read there "Peace is with you."  In this case, I would probably argue for the translation, "The Lord is with you" because a) the angel is standing right there and b) the angel says she is graced.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

This passage is for the Narrative Lectionary for March 13, 2016 (along with Mark 13:1-8)
It is also for Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 1, Year B, most recently Dec 3, 2017

Summary:  Check your 2nd coming baggage at the ticket counter and preach the text!

For those preaching on those during Advent:  This passage is a great passage for a culture swamped with Christmas chores.  Our focus should not be on to-do lists that come and go, but on Jesus Christ and his Word!

Otherwise:  I also think you can play around with the word authority and derive the mission of the church from Mark's Gospel:  While we await the coming of Christ in an age of idolatry masked as piety, we are to pray and teach prayer; cast out unclean spirits and heal people; we are to spread the Good News of repentance and forgiveness.

Key words:
γρηγορειτε ("watch out". 13:34, 35 and 37)  This word comes into English as "Gregory".  To note:  in the very next chapter the disciples will not be able to stay awake...

θλιψις ("suffering", "distress" or "tribulation";  13:24 and also 13:19)  This is hard word to translate.  "Suffering" has all sorts of baggage, both in the Bible and in our culture.  "Tribulation" can mean a particular thing to certain people.  As Wikipedia helpfully summaries:

In the futurist view of Christian eschatology, the Tribulation is a relatively short period of time where anyone who chose not to follow God before the Rapture and was left behind (according to Pre-Tribulation doctrine, not Mid- or Post-Tribulation teaching) will experience worldwide hardships, disasters, famine, war, pain, and suffering, which will wipe out more than 75% of all life on the earth before the Second Coming takes place.

I would translate it "distress" here.  But I want to focus on why.  Normally I believe in "canonical" translation, that is, help people see connections within the larger context of Scripture.  However, suffering and tribulation are such buzzwords that they distract from the immediate point of Jesus:  There will be an age of false messiahs and prophets who will claim to be saviors.  The great distress is living in an age where people turn away from the true worship to idolatry, the worst kind, where people call it Jesus but it is not.

Power:  There are three different words in this passage that relate to power.
αι δυναμεις (25):  When this word (coming directly into English as "dynamite") is in the plural, it means miracles or deeds of power.  In this case, it is translated "the powers," a logical translation, but strange use of the word!

δυναμεως (26):  Here the word is an adverb meaning powerfully

εξουσιαν (34):  Here the word means authority.  The man in the passage has conferred authority on his people.  It is worth noting that in spite of the fact that the end is coming, Jesus has still given us authority to do works.  In chapter 6 of Mark's Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples authority.  In that case, they were called to cast out unclean spirits, heal, evangelize and preach repentance.  In chapter 11 you might also argue that Jesus gives his disciples authority to pray, to teach and to forgive.  If you put these together, you come up with the mission of the church in Mark's Gospel:
While we await the coming of Christ in an age of idolatry masked as piety, we are to pray and teach prayer; cast out unclean spirits and heal people; we are to spread the Good News of repentance and forgiveness.

Grammar note one:  Why learning future participles is a waste of time
The construction of 13.25 is so odd.  The word for 'fall' here (from pimp-oo; πιμπω) is a present tense participle used with the a "to be" verb in the future tense. This construction (instead of a future participle) is a good lesson of why you should not waste any time learning future participles. They are so rare and even Greek speakers avoided them with other constructions, using the familiar English construction of:  "They will be falling"

Grammar note two:  Strong future denials
In 13.31 the promise of Jesus that his Words will never pass away is a ου μη construction, ie, a STRONG future denial. Also interesting is that this word (parercho-mai; παρερχομαι) appears in 2 Cor 5:17, Behold, Everything has passed away.  This could effectively be translated, "no way, never gonna happen."

Monday, November 13, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

This passage occurs on Christ the King Sunday, Year A, most recently November 2017.
Much like the beatitudes, it is hard to preach this text without steering off the cliff of works righteousness.  A few thoughts.  First, a goat and sheep are born that way; the sheep did not become sheep by their actions; neither for the goats.  They are declared righteous, but the text never declares them righteous because of their action.  It simply says they are righteous.  They did X, Y and Z good things.  Lutherans believe the righteous do good things.  Second, the sheep are not endeavoring to save their hides but they are simply helping people.  The goats were perfectly willing to help Jesus to help themselves, but they weren't interested if it didn't get them points.  The whole freedom in faith righteousness is that we no longer have to work about our own reputation (glory) or status before God but instead can worry about our neighbor.  The goats never got that far.  Lastly, for Matthew glory is found in judgment.  For Lutherans we believe that judgment comes on the cross, which points toward the cross being the center of glory.  Even if this seems stretching it the basic point of this text is a theology of the cross:  Jesus's glory is revealed, yet still somewhat hidden, in the brokenness of the world.

Key words:
δοξα ("glory"; 25.31)  It is interesting to note that in the Gospel of Matthew the word δοξα is almost always connected with Jesus second coming and judgment.  Perhaps it is worth reflecting on -- what is so glorious about judging?

εθνος ("gentiles" or "nations"; 25.32). When used in the plural it normally means "gentiles" ie, non-Jews.  Jesus will finally tell us to go to all the nations. 

κληρονομήσατε (from "κληρονομεω" meaning "inherit"; 25.34)  This word can mean receive, but it really involves inherit.  An inheritance means two things:  First, that someone died.  Second, that there is a gift.  The kingdom given to us is a gift in Jesus Christ and his death.

ξενος ("stranger"; 25.35) The phrase, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me' actually has the word: "xenos" as in xenophobia.  Furthermore, the verb is "synagagete," from which we get synagogue.  To translate a different way: "I was an outsider and you gathered me to worship." "Synag-oo" as a verb does not mean invite to church, but the word underneath means gather.  I think Jesus is implying something stronger than simply welcoming strangers but more like:  ushering in freaks.

Grammar:  Unclear antecedents
Like in English, Greek uses pronouns.  Sometimes it is unclear what "it" is refering to.  For example, the Greek says, "throne of glory of his."  Is the throne his or the glory?  Probably doesn't matter in this case, but worth reminding ourselves that Greek does have ambiguities.
In 25.32 the object of the word "divide" is interesting.  Jesus has just finished talking about the εθνος (gentiles), which is a neuter noun.  The pronoun object of the word divide is a masculine plural, suggesting the nations are not what are divided, but the individuals in the nations (masculine plural pronouns can refer to a group that has both men and women).

Matthew 25:1-13

This passage occurs during year A in the Revised Common Lectionary season, most recently November 12, 2017

Summary:  This is a tough passage to preach on!  I am still wrestling with this passage so I offer you some Greek insights that hopefully allow you to build a message!

Note:  Because this parable involves a group of women (a bit unusual), the endings on words might be a bit unfamiliar!

παρθενοις (plural of parthenos, "virgin" or "young (unmarried)" woman; 25.1)  In our culture we hear the word virgin with all sorts of other connotations, related to sexual purity, as opposed to unmarried state.  Furthermore, I wonder if translating this as bridesmaids (see NRSV) makes the most sense.   First, there is no ceremony that includes the bridegroom marrying these women.  Second, Jesus doesn't advocate/project/encourage for polygamy anywhere else.  Third, the new testament presents the whole church as the bride collectively, not individually.  Finally, there is an alternate reading, "Bridegroom and bride."  The textual evidence is much stronger for "bridegroom" alone, but significant (western) manuscripts have both included.  In this case, I do not think one should add back in the words; they don't seem in the original.  But I think this textual problem, along with the other problems, suggests this word should be translated at least as maidens, if not bridesmaids, instead of the loaded term virgin. 

μωραι ("mooria" meaning "fool"; 25.2) The word for fool is "mooria" moron, or like "foolishness to Greeks."

φρονιμοι ("phronimoi" meaning "wise"; 25.2)  Again, a huge connection here with Paul's letters to the Corinthians.  Furthermore, this word will be turned upside down by Paul in many ways, as he fights against the notion that wisdom/wise thinking was being unmoved (ie, stoic), but instead argues that wisdom is about taking on the Christian character of being moved to suffer for others (Philippians 2).

ηγερθησαν (from εγειρω meaning "arise"; 25.2)  This is from the word stand/raise up that also means resurrected.

εκοσμησαν (from κοσμεω, like cosmos, meaning "trim"; 25:7)  The word for "trimmed" lamps here is actually "adorned" perhaps recalling for you the hymn: Soul adorn yourself in gladness.  To trim the lamp is to adorn the lamp, the light of Christ!; to adorn the soul!

εκλεισθη (from κλειω, meaning "close"; 25.10)  I don't like this image.  It suggests people that want to get into the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot.  A silver lining?  Jesus is the one who opens up the doors (the word for the tomb's entrance is also "door" in Matthew 27:60).  The only one with the power to open the door is Christ, not us with our lamps.

γρηγορειτε (from γρηγορε, like the name gregory!, meaning "watch out"; 25:13)  This verb is in the present tense, suggesting this is to be an on-going activity.  My sense is that we have lost this sense of watching out for the coming of Christ in our churches today.  If we are to regain this though, we must offer people what the Bible offers them about Christ's return:  both fear and hope.

For those reading this with the Thessalonians text:
25:1 The word 'meet' in Matthew is similiar to the word meet that is found in the Thess. text for this week (απαντησις vs. υπαντησις). What a contrast of the meetings -- one of a king in power and the other of bridegroom.

25:5 The words here for 'sleep' are different from those in 1 Thess. (This does not mean one can/should not make a comparision; just pointing it out)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Matthew 22:34-46

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2017.
Summary:  I suppose one could go to great lengths to parse out the Greek meaning of the words, "heart", καρδια, "soul," ψυχη, and "mind," διανοια.  After discovering that they mean different things in Greek than in English you learn that Jesus wants us to...drum roll...Love God and love our neighbor with everything we've got.  This is probably not much for a sermon, but I find it comforting that Jesus wants us to love God with our minds.  In my formation and candidacy, I was often made to feel guilty about my intelligence as if somehow, I just needed to be a big ball of emotions to serve God.  One of my professors, Dr. Henrich, pointed out that in this passage, we are called to love God with our mind.  This was an incredible word of Gospel to me.  Intellection exploration of God's Word is okay too!  Funny how law can be heard as Gospel sometimes...

Key words:
διδασκαλε ("Teacher", 22:36)  Thanks be to God Jesus wasn't simply a teacher, but also the savior.  However, let us not dismiss the idea of Jesus as teacher.  The word teacher appears throughout each Gospel a total of 48 times.  What can we learn from Jesus this week?
αγαπαω ("Love" 22:37)  One can parse the word love a number of ways.  What is interesting here is that αγαπη, which is often thought to refer to divine love, here refers to neighborly love.  A reminder that in the kingdom of God, love doesn't remain on heaven, but comes to earth.
καρδια ("heart", 22:37)  In Greek, the heart is NOT the center of emotions, but of will. 
ψυχη ("soul", 22:37)  BDAG points to the broad nature of this word.  The soul is, perhaps best said, that which makes flesh alive.  The Bible will use the word ψυχη to mean more than simply "the ghostly blue vapor" of our existence.  Perhaps another way:  our essence?  Hard to nail down...
διανοια ("Thoughts" or mind, 22:37):  As I stated in my summary, I want to point out that Jesus wants us to love God with our mind.  Also interesting is that God admits fulfilling this is impossible.  In Genesis 8:21 God says that all our thoughts (διανοια) are bent on evil.  Eph 2:3 and 4:18 are similiar.  Interestingly, in Jeremiah 31:33, God says he will put the law into our minds.  All this points out that not simply our "hearts," but our minds, are also a battle ground for God, a place that needs rebirth.  (In fact, this word is often translated from the Hebrew word that means "heart" because the Jewish thought located thoughts in the heart).
χριστος ("annointed" 22:42).  This is a very common word in the NT.  The reason why I bring it up here is because most of our thoughts about the word "Christ" are not what the listener's in the OT would have heard.  They would have expected someone to replace David as a true king over Israel.  The spiritualization of his role was a NT development.

Grammatical review:  "Hendiadys"
A Hendiadys is a very fancy way of saying "using two words to mean one thing."  Literally from the Greek:  "One through two."  An example of this might be from Genesis 1:  "Formless and void."  They both essentially mean the same thing.  Put them together and you get:  "A whole lot of nothing." 
In this particular passage, we have a hendiadys typical of the New Testament: 
ο νομος και οι προφηται (22:40)

The law and the prophets.  This is the NT way of refering to the Old Testament.  Sometimes they will include the Psalms, but more often, just these two sections.  So Jesus isn't simply saying, "All of the commands and words of the prophets hang on these two commandments" he is saying, "the whole Bible that you know of depends on this."

John 8:31-36

This passage occurs on Reformation Sunday (last Sunday in October).
This passage lays out the fundamental convictions of the Reformation:  That the normal human condition is bondage to sin; that in Christ, through faith, we are freed and Christ abides in us.  Worth noting in the Greek is the word μενω which appears throughout the Gospel of John; justification is not here seen as simply forensic (ie, Jesus died for your sins) but as ushering in the new creation:  Jesus abiding in us.  Worth also considering is the household nature of δουλος, or slave; not simply the worker, but also the lower member of the family.

Key Words 
μενω: (8:31; 35, meaning “abide.”)  This word is translated here as “belongs” or “stays” which are probably fine, but the important thing to remember is that this word appears throughout the Gospel of John repeatedly; “abide in me…”  One might argue this concept of "abiding" is the most important in the Gospel.  Furthermore, when Jesus says, in this passage, that the "son abides forever" (vs. 35) this son-ship ultimately will include us, who are invited to also abide in the Father's house forever (basically, all of John 14 and 15).  

Some more theological commentary on verse 31 for Reformation:  The Reformation idea of "Justification" is often presented in "forensic" terms, i.e., a courtroom metaphor.  God is judge and in Jesus Christ we are declared innocent, regardless of the content of our deeds, which inevitably fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23).  While this metaphor has Scriptural warrant (see John 8:50) and preaching power, it also has its limits.  Both Paul (in Romans) and Jesus in John's Gospel move beyond simply forensic justification to new creation.  We are not simply declared free of our sins, but we are made new in Christ.  While other passages in John's Gospel delve more into this, in this passage in John's Gospel, we are "disciples" (vs 31) who receive a new status in the family (vs 35; see rest of John's Gospel). 

I realize I am stepping into a 500+ long inter-Lutheran argument about justification.  My point is to invite preachers to give at least a second thought to preaching only about forensic justification on Reformation Sunday, as if this is only what Paul, John and Luther taught.  Luther himself talks quite a bit about the new creation and when talking about justification, also describes it in terms of marriage or love between the believer and Christ.  As he writes in the Small Catechism:
"all order that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true." 

Some more grammar commentary on verse 31.
Vs. 31 is a conditional phrase.  Greek can set up conditional phrases in a variety of ways, often with ει or εαν.  They mean different things.
εαν is really the Greek word for “if."  If is the case we learn that "ει" means "if" when we memorize our first Greek words, but actually ει simply sets up a conditional sentence.  In other words ει can me "if" but also "since" or even "In fact, not in this case."  εαν leaves “the probability of activity expressed in the verb left open.” (BDAG).  In this case, abiding in Jesus' word may or may not happen.

δουλος: (8:34;35, meaning “slave”) Slavery provided the gas of the Greco-Roman economic engine. People became slaves through various means: captivity from war, kidnapping by slave hunters or debt. Slaves existed in all parts of the empire.

Slavery could be quite brutal, especially for slaves that engaged in mining. However, slaves often were attached to households and gained a certain amount of responsibility. Such slaves often helped raise the children (even educated them in manners), administer property, earn money and even sign legal contracts. Some slaves even owned other slaves. Even after manumission, the freed person would often pledge themselves to the former master or to a patron.

The slave was not simply the bottom of the macro social and economic structure, but the bottom of the micro social and economic structure, the household. This afforded some degree of comfort, security and even opportunity for advancement. However, there was nothing glorious about slavery. Regardless of their particular status in the house, the slave did the work that allowed the masters of the house to participate in civic life.
Side note, when the audience with Jesus says they have never been slaves, this is not true historically (see Exodus!); but it may be true theologically in that they never were slaves to God in they way they should have been.

ελευθερος:  (8:32;36, meaning “free”)  My sense of the Greek word for free is that it aligns itself with the idea of being unencumbered, not so much the freedom “for” as the freedom “from.”


Sentence breakdown:  John 8:35

The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.
Greek:  ο δε δουλος ου μενει εν τη οικια εις τον αιωνα, ο υιος μενει εις τον αιωνα
First step is to divide up the sentence into smaller parts:  divide at the comma!  
Second, look for the verb in the first part of the sentence.  In this case the verb is μενει.  You have to work a little hard because here you have the negative particle, “ου”.  So you have your verb: ου μενει which means “does not abide.” 
Then you look for your subject.  How to find a subject?  Look for nominative definite articles:  ο, το, η.  In this case, again, you have to take it one step further because you have the word δε in front of δουλος.  But now you have your subject (you can ignore “de” for now):  “ο δουλος” which means “the slave”
So now you have:  “The slave does not abide.”  The rest of the sentence until the comma are two prepositional phrases:  “εν τη οικια” and “εις τον αιωνα” which mean “in the house” and “into forever.”  Test yourself:  Why is the first example in the “dative” and the second example in the “accusative” case?

Do the same with the second half of the verse:  First, find the verb; then the subject (hint:  Look at the articles.)  Once you’ve done this, you can plow right through:  The son abides into forever.
When Greek doesn’t have participles or subjunctive phrases, it’s really a matter of finding the subject and verb; figuring out what the small words mean; conquering the prepositional phrases…and then presto, you’ve got English

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Matthew 22:15-22

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2014.

Summary:  One does not find the Greek words for church and state in this passage, as much as this passage is used to justify all sorts of behavior and relationships between church and state.  What is mentioned though is the word "εικον" meaning icon, or image.  The temptors of Jesus, forgetting Genesis 1, say that the coin bears the image of Caesar.  They answer the truth, but not the whole truth.  An image of man is still an image of God.  Money, whether it says, "In God We Trust" or "Caesar" or anything, isn't exempt from God's creation.  It still has to do with humans and how we live in this creation, and thus it still belongs under God's dominion.

Freedom note:  I am using this passage to launch a Reformation 500 series on the Freedom of a Christian.  I pick this passage because Jesus discusses that even those of us free in Christ still have responsibilities before other people.

Key words: 
παγις ("hunter's trap", used as a verb, 22.15) The word for ensnare comes from the root for trap. What a cruel image of the pharisees trying with metal jaws, to trap Jesus. 

αποστελλω ("send" 22.16).  The literal phrase here is that his enemies "apostled their disciples," a reminder that Jesus is not the only one with apostles and disciples...

υποκριτης ("actor/hypocrite", 22.18) The word for hypocrite means actor, or one who plays a part.  (He answered above the others from stage.)  This is not necessarily a negative word, but in the NT it is used exclusively that way.  Jesus isn't interested in actors, but real people with real sins that need real forgiveness.

εικον (image/icon, 22.20) The word here for "head" or "portrait" here is literally "eikon," which means image. So the question is whose image? If it is a human head, the answer could just as easily have been "God." (See Genesis 1!)

Translation/Grammar review:  Idioms
Some things in a language are simply impossible to translate literally.  This week Jesus is told, "You do not look into the face of people."  This doesn't sound so nice.  It simply means, "You don't look at exterior things."  (Which is a positive assessment).  He is also told he doesn't care about nothing.  Missing from this idiom is the word "opinion."  Jesus doesn't care about the opinions of others, in the sense that he acts free from petty judgments of others.  You could take them literally, and perhaps derive some meaning; that said, with idioms, it is often best to let professional translators do the work...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Matthew 21:33-46

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A; Most recently October 8, 2017.

The meaning of the parable is clear:  Ancient Israel rejected prophets of old; they will reject and kill Jesus.  Somehow God will rebuild on the rejected Jesus.  How do we find a Gospel message relevant for people's lives?  While there is some really interesting stuff in verse 34 about sending and bearing fruit, I sense myself drawn to verse 42 and the proclamation that God will rebuild on the rejected stone.  This verse points toward the faithfulness of God, who rebuilds on Christ.  I think we can apply this to people's lives: even through we again and again reject God's commands and even love in our lives, God rebuilds us on Christ.

Key Words in verse 34 -- which sets up the whole thing
ηγγισεν (from εγγιζω, meaning "approach", 21:34)  This word, meaning "approach" or "come near", appears at turning points in the Gospel:
3:2  John Baptizes Jesus (John the Baptist say the Kingdom of Heaven is approaching/near)
4:17 Jesus begins ministry (Jesus says the KoH is approaching/near)
10:7 Jesus sends disciples (He instructs them to proclaim KoH is approaching/near)
21:1 Jesus is approaching/near Jerusalem
26:45/46  Jesus is betrayed (The hour is near/approaching)

What is interesting is that each time the Kingdom of Heaven is approaching, these is movement of Jesus and arguably a movement of the Spirit.

καιρος (kairos, meaning "season", 21:34)  This word means 'season' or 'ideal time.'  In this case, it describes the harvest season.  It is always a reminder that in Jesus there is the fullness of time!

απεστειλεν (from αποστελλω, meaning "send", 21:34)  I am amazed at how many times in Jesus' parables in Matthew we have (the character representing) God sending out people.  I think we often think of this as a concept in John's Gospels, but it is really crucial to Jesus' ministry.  We are sent out, certainly if and when the Kingdom of Heaven is approaching!  This word is important because it reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven, while principally about the movement of Jesus into this world and toward the cross (see discussion on ηγγισεν) it involves our movement too.

καρπος ("fruit", 21:34)  Again, we find a word that appears throughout scripture to describe the impact of the Spirit and the Kingdom of Heaven in our life:  We bear fruit.  In this case, workers are sent to gather the fruit.  What a beautiful image of ministry -- gathering the fruit that God has already created.  As the word αυτου ("of him") remind us, the fruit belongs to God.

Other interesting words
οικοδεσποτης  (oikos - despot, meaning "owner of the land", 21:33)  This is a fun word in Greek.  It is built on two smaller words that we can recognize: oikos and despot!  It is interesting that Jesus would refer to God as an οικοδεσποτης, which was unlikely a favorable comparison for working-class listeners.  It is a reminder that first, these are parables and not allegories; second, it all belongs to God.

υστερον (meaning "last," 21:37)  The word here for "last" is used 4 times in Matthew 21 and 22; and also in Matt 25 and 26, but rarely ever appears elsewhere in the NT...Matthew is starting to emphasize the final nature of things and of his Gospel.

εντραπησονται  (future passive of εντρεπω, "respect", 21:37)  The word for "respect" means more like short, they will be embarrassed enough to show respect.  In the rest of the New Testament, it is always used within a context of shame rather than respect.  Perhaps this is a reminder that respect within an honor/shame culture has a different meaning; perhaps it is a reminder that Jesus ends up shaming the pharisees and religious leaders.  Ironically their attempts at shaming Jesus (killing him outside of Jerusalem) only lead to his glory!

οικοδομεω (meaning "build" "erect" or even "rebuild", 21:33 and 21:42)  The word here for builder is the same as in vs. 33. God built something.  People messed it up.  God will rebuild.  God is always at work revising the mistakes of our bad construction, relaying the foundation of our lives on Christ that we may bear fruit!

εθνει (ethnos, meaning "gentiles", 21:43)  The word for "people" here is "Gentiles."  Interestingly, Paul will talk about how he has a harvest of Gentiles in Romans 1:13, a case where Scripture is fulfilling itself!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

This passage occurs in both the Narrative Lectionary (Year 1) and the Revised Common Lectionary (Most recently October 15, 2017).

Summary:  It is all about the right clothing.  The only clothing that can work at the heavenly wedding banquet is our Baptism.  I suspect there is a bunch of historical criticism that would help make sense of this parable, but I am not sure if that makes a good sermon.

Apologetic note:  Just because someone is thrown out doesn't mean they can't be invited a second time; or that we have permission not to care for them.

Key Words/Grammar insights:
καλεω (kaleo, "call" or "invite"; 22:3, 4, 8, 9 (14 as adjective)).  The word here for invited is simply the perfect of καλεω which means to call/invite. This word is used in various forms throughout the passage.  Jesus calls us to invite those willing to come because many of those invited were not interested.  A reminder that in all Gospels, but truly in Matthew, Jesus cares for people the world does not; the b-list people, so to speak.

τεθυμενα (tethymena, perfect participle of θυω, "slaughter" or "kill", 22:4).  This word can mean sacrificed.  If one were to go this route, then this parable could be interpreted within the paradigm of the conflict between Jews and early Jewish converts to Christianity:  Jesus has died (been sacrificed); many early Jews are not accepting him.  The temple is destroyed and that nation has fallen, perhaps as punishment for lack of conversion. This may be way to explain the passage, but I am not sure if this insight makes for a good sermon.  If one wants to go this route, one can also look at
εφιμωθη (aorist passive form of φιμοω, phimo-oo, "silence"; 22:12) Jesus will silence the Sadducees later this chapter (22:34).  This parable is not intended simply as a myth, but as a description, I would argue, of how Jesus' was and is being received.

ενδυω/ενδυμα ("clothe" as verb; "clothing" as noun; 22:11, 12).  Matthew's Gospel talks about clothing a few times (more than any other Gospel, incidentally).  We learn that John the Baptist is clothed in Camel's hair (3:4); we learn not to worry about our clothing (6:25-28); we meet the angels wearing white (28:3).  Which leads to the question -- what should one wear to the heavenly banquet?

To get at this, I did a word search on ενδυω ("clothe/wear" to find examples of people wearing stuff in the New Testament, especially as it would relate to the heavenly banquet.  I've included them and underlined the word as the NRSV translates as ενδυω:
1 Corinthians 15:54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
Romans 13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Luke 24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Matthew 27:31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Ephesians 4:24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 6:14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
Revelation 19:14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.
Galatians 3:27    As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

To me, the only thing that can meet all of these criterion:  the gift of Jesus Christ in faith, love and righteousness, eternally pure and immortal yet also ready to die to the world, is our Baptism.

υβριζω (hubrizoo (rough breathing over υ), meaning "mistreat"; 22:6)  The word for mistreat here is "hubriz-oo," literally, have hubris.

Tiny little grammar note.  22:5 shows both ways that Greek can show possessive; his field and his business)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Philippians 2:1-13

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently September 2014.  It also occurs at other points in the Lectionary, including Palm Sunday.

This is a very rich passage. By itself it stands as one the most powerful description of Christ and his work.  Worth pointing out though is that Paul continues to build off the imagery the rest of his letter to discuss not simply Christ's work on the cross, but also Christ's work on us.  He changed his shape (μορφη) into humility but will co-shape (συμμορφος) ours into glory, not simply through his suffering, but even our own.

Key words:

μορφη ("shape" or "form"; 7, 8)  If you look up this word, you will find it appears twice in Philippians, once in verse 7 and once in verse 8.  Jesus had the form/shape of God; took the form/shape of a human.  Sounds good.  However, later on in Philippians, Paul comes back to this word, but using it with the prefix συν (the -n becomes a -m...see note below) .  First, in verse 3:10 where he says that he is being συμμορφιζομαι-ed into Christ's death and later when he is  being συμμορφος with Christ's resurrected body (3:28).  Paul moves from talking about the form of Christ to the co-formation of the believer, both into suffering, death and then resurrection.  I think the word μορφη can be used to guide one's reflections on the whole letter:  The transformation of Jesus creates the transformation of the believer.  To put it another way, I see Philippians as Paul's personal exposition on his line in Romans 8:17:  If children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ -- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

εκενωσεν and κενοδοξια ("emptied" from κενω, 7; conceit, 3)  Much is made from κενω, which means to empty.  I find it interesting that Paul gives warning just a bit earlier about conceit, literally false glory.  The only way to true glory, for Christ and for us, is through suffering and death.

κατεργαζομαι ("work out", 2:12; from kata (intensifier) and erg-oo (to work))  One possible meaning for this verb is simply "achieve" but another one is "to work up," ie, to make use of; fields, for example, are worked on to make them ready for harvest.  This verse can be problematic in that it makes it sound like our salvation is our responsibility.  However, Paul's never verse, 2:13, makes it clear that God is the author of our salvation.  I think in this case, Paul uses salvation (σωτηρια) to describe our entire relationship with God in Jesus Christ, specifically the process of dying and rising.  It is worth noting that the verb here (and also for "co-form" (see above) are in the present tense, suggesting this an on-going process.

Grammar/translation:  The morphing "n"
When someone learns Hebrew, they learn verbs like n-t-n, which means to give.  They then try to read these in the Bible and discover it hardly ever exists in that form and most often the "n"s drop out in conjugation so that words like y-t-l-m mean he gives or something like this.  This is true in Greek, but in a different way.  The problem is not Hebrew, but the letter "n" which has a soft sound.  It tends to morph into other sounds.  This actually happens in Latin.  For example, con is the prefix for "with"  But notice how often that "n" disappears or morphs:  communication, cooperation, combat, comfort, command, corroberate.  This happens in Greek, especially when verbs add the prefix συν.  The weekness of the "n" sound is also shown in the fact that its moveable (ie not very necessary).

Monday, September 18, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary (most recently March 1, 2015).

Summary:   Tough parable for us.  Most churches preach grace, but when exposed like this, grace just seems, well, unfair!  But grace it is.  And grace abounds.  I find grace in that God goes after the lazy (αργος); furthermore, even the envious (πονηρος, evil in fact) get into heaven.  We do not enter God's Kingdom based on our heart being perfect, but simply by God's grace.  I also find grace to be the hiring, not the pay-day; It is all by God's grace that we are hired in the first place and get to belong to God, to work in his vineyard.  I also find grace irresistible in that even the grumpy don't get kicked out of God's vineyard!

Key words
απεστειλεν (aorist form of αποστελλω, apostello, meaning "send"; 20.2).  John's Gospel get a lot of publicity for the idea of sending (even within the Trinity), but Matthew uses the word αποστελλω 22 times! (Mark 20; Luke 25; John 27).  Here they are even sent into the...

αμπελων(α) (ampelon, meaning "vineyard"; 20:1,2,4 and 7).  First, it is interesting that Matthew and John have such a strong connection here, with vineyard and sending.  Another comparison worth exploring is between the parables in chapter 20 and 21, both about vineyards.

αργος (argos, meaning idle; 20.6)  I have no unique insights to add to this word.  I just want to point out:  God goes after the lazy, those not fit for work elsewhere, those who simply stand around.

αποδος (from αποδιδημι. meaning "pay/give back"; 20:8)  Matthew uses this word quite frequently in his Gospel:
Matthew 6:4, give in secret, your father will reward/pay/give back in secret (see also 6:6, 6:18)
Matthew 12:36 On judgement day, we will have to "give back" an account of our life (see also 16.27)
Matthew 18 and the parable of the unforgiving servant -- lots of pay back in this story!
Matthew 22:21  Give/render to Caesar what is Caesar.
Matthew 27:58  Pilate gives the dead body back.
In the case of Matthew 20, the workers are paid/rendered/given back their wages.  The question is:  What is salvation?  Working in the vineyard or getting paid?  I would argue that the moment of salvation is becoming one of God's workers in the vineyard.  Ultimately, as long as we view salvation as pay, there is likely little joy along the way and much frustration about the salvation state of our piers.

καυσων(α) (causon, like caustic in English; 20:12)  It is worth reminding ourselves that doing Christ's work is not always easy.  I wonder if the Gospel for this passage is found way back in Matthew 11:  Come to me, all your who are heavy laden..."

τοις εμοις (dative with "the of me"; 20:15)  The Greek here is not good English, but the English reader can make sense of it.  When you have the word "the" without a noun it means more like "things", in this case, "the 'the' of me" or "the 'things' of me."  The question is here, is the master talking about money or people?  It seems that in the case of God, the things of God are the people. 

πονηρος ("wicked" or "envious"; 20:15)  Even the wicked still get into the vineyard!!  God is really gracious.

ισους (isous, from isos, meaning the same, as in "iso-metric"; 20:15)  The problem is that the master is making people equal to each other.  This should call to mind Philippians, in that Jesus did not regard equality (same word) as something to be exploited, but humbled himself.  In this case, becoming like Christ is being willing to work in the vineyard and to rejoice over a repentant sinner instead of being frustrated they get the same "reward" as us!

Last bonus:  The evil eye in 20:15
The literal translation of 20:15 is "Or is your eye evil because I am good."  God does not describe himself as generous but as good. Ultimately goodness is tied into generosity.  Furthermore, those disgruntled are described as having an evil eye.  A reminder that a reward is given to those with jealousy and evil in their hearts, not just those pure in heart.  God is good.  He gives to humans. Regardless of how long they worked; regardless of how lazy they are; regardless of how good they are.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently September 2014. 
Summary:  A classic tale of forgiveness.  A man owes an absurd amount (Roughly 10.8 billion by my calculations).  After being forgiven he arrests his friends who him a couple of hundred dollars.  Take your pick:  Are we debtors, beggars or slaves?  All popular American terms.  At least the first one...

Key words:
δανειον  ("debt"; 18.27) The use of this word for "debt" here is unique in the NT.  The word normally carries with it a suggestion of interest, even usury with this debt.  Most simply it means a loan.  God is calling the loan and then forgives it.  What has God loaned you!?

ει τι ("whatever" 18.28)  The exact construction of the phrase "Pay what you owe me" is rather interesting. It actually includes an "ει τι" phrase. This phrase is normally translated "if anything," as if to say, the man was not even really sure what the debt was, if in fact, it was anything.

παρακαλεω ("encourage"/"plead"; 18.29, 32)  This is a powerful theological word used twice in this section.  Also used in the present tense.  Here the image is one of constant begging (used in present tense).  (The word for Holy Spirit is derived from this word:  "paraclete")

συνδουλος ("fellow-slave" 18:28, 29, 31, and 33)  The Greek can put "fellow" and "slave" together in one word.  Powerful word.  Fellow slave.

Grammar review:  Future vs. Subjunctive:  Sins aren't subjunctive in this case!
The Greek language is obsessed with the future.  There are multiple ways to show the future implications of a given action.  Worth noting is that there is no future subjunctive.  Either something will happen in the future or it might happen starting from this moment forward in an unknown time.  But you cannot do "might happen in the future"; that simply means might happen.  Today, when Peter is asking Jesus about forgiving others, he does not put the verb αφησω (forgive) in the subjunctive.  The whole sentence is in the future.  In short, Peter expects sin and forgiveness. The sentence literally reads: "How often will my brother against me and will I forgive him? Until seven times?"

Monday, September 4, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently September 2014. 
Summary:  Jesus seems to let us off the hook today, telling us we can treat sinning Christians like gentiles and tax collectors, as long as we've gone through the appeal court system.  However, this is the worst news of all, because Jesus spends most of his time eating with tax collectors and even getting harassed for his association with them.  In other words, Jesus doesn't give us permission to drop them, but rather instructs us to bear them, teach them and even get persecuted because we continue to care for them over and against their difficulties toward us.  Yes, he does let us remove our heart strings a bit from them, but not our moral obligation.  Hence why Jesus has to promise us his presence in the midst of conflict!

Key Words:
αδελφος (brother/sister; found throughout section)  Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, he refers to his followers as his brothers and sisters (12:49).  He is telling his disciples that in the church they are also brothers and sisters to one another. 

εθνικος (pagan, gentile, literally "ethnic"; 18:17)  Jesus suggests we treat Christians who have greatly sinned against us as gentiles.  Interestingly, Jesus final words in the Gospel of Matthew instruct us to preach to the gentiles (all the nations of the world; same root word) and earlier Jesus reminds us to love our enemies, because even the gentiles to this.  Jesus is not giving us permission to be rude and dismissive to our brothers and sisters in Jesus, even those whom we are angry with.

τελωνης ("tax collector"; 18:17)  Jesus eats with tax collectors.  He repeatedly takes heat for being seen with them.  So considering someone a tax collector means something more like this:  "Treat them in such a way that no one knows how much they anger and embarrass you, bearing your cross and thanking God for this opportunity to become a more patient and compassionate person."

συμφωνησωσιν ("agree" or "match", from συμφωνεω; 18:19)  The actually meaning of this word is not that interesting.  What is interesting is the derivation, "symphony" which means "together-sounds."  Jesus says that if we make a symphony, God listens.  Haha!

συνηγμενοι ("gathered"; passive perfect participle from "συναγω"; 18:20)  This participle covers up a familiar word:  synago, from which we get synagogue.  The voice is significant here.  We do not gather ourselves in the church, but rather are gathered God.  Thus, we are moving  from human action to God's promise. Also worth noting that Jesus promises his presence in the midst of the office of the keys and congregational conflict.  The church is a gift, however human and sinful it can be!
Translation Issue:  Hypothetical situations with εαν

Technically, this word is a combination of:  ει αν, both of which are "subjunctive" markers.  Put them together and you have a very hypothetical situation.  If you have the word εαν, the writer/speaker is not specifying if this will actually happen.  It means something like, "if" or perhaps "whenever."  If is used in Greek to set up a simple phrase (so necessary for science), if-then.  So in our text for this week, Jesus is not promising conflict; nor is he promising that people will not listen.  He is simply saying, "If you experience this, well, then do this..."

Also worth noting:  Every other verse in this section has an "if" clause, yet in 18:20 Jesus simply declares -- Where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of you.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Track vs Field: The unchurched and churched

Reformation 500 and the unchurched
This summer my congregation did a great deal of research into the unchurched in our community.  This was part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  We are thinking about the call of the Holy Spirit to continue to reform the church, in this case, our congregation.  One of our projects was to build a "Thesis 96" wall outside our church.  We invited people in the church and community to write their statement (or thesis) to the church.  It has been really awesome to see what people have written.  But that is for another day!

Our hope through the Thesis 96 project and our Reformation 500 celebrations is to consider -- what prevents people from accessing God's grace in our culture, specifically our community, today?  How could be better reach out to the unchurched in our community.

Track vs Field Understanding
Back to the unchurched.  I confess that I often end up with a view of the unchurched and churched that looks something like this: 

In this view, there are unchurched and churched people.  Each group is divided into two subgroups:  The unchurched has people that are really opposed to the Gospel (we'll call them atheists) and people that are somewhat open ("seekers"); the churched has people that come ("participants") and those that really are involved ("elders").  We could nuance this chart, maybe adding a few more arrow segments, but basically the idea is to move people from left to right.  If they are questioning, get them in the door.  If they are in the door, get them involved.  There are tons of books written to give churches tools as to how to make this conveyor belt process work.
There are also tons of blogs/books written as to why people are drifting from right to left on this chart!  Given this mentality, it is easy to feel like we are fighting an impossible task, running right into the head waters of our culture that is increasingly ambivalent, if not hostile to church, institutions and in many ways, commitments.
As we did research, which included looking at data and talking to people in our community, it occurred to me that this track or linear view was really inadequate for our task.  I want to propose a more "field" than "track" view of the churched and unchurched.
In reality, there are many reasons why people are unchurched.  Some of it comes out of opposition to the church or the idea of God.  Frankly though, survey after survey shows that most Americans do not consider themselves strident atheists.  Most people instead are out of church totally or most Sundays for a variety of reasons
- They moved to a new community or had a huge change in their family situation
- They were burned out on their church
- They were abused by their church
- They have never been to church and have never been invited (7 out of 10 unchurched people has never been invited)
- They work on Sundays or have made a commitment to their child's sporting "career."
Furthermore, there are lots of ways that people plug into church
- Some people are "all in" - "elders" who come nearly every Sunday and serve in leadership
- Some are homebound members
- Some connect only with certain areas of ministry - education or social ministry or a particular outreach of the church
- Some come when they are can, but are really busy
- Some connect only online
- Some travel extensively and are only plugged in when they are in town
In short, we do not have two or even four groups that could fit on a line.  There are people all over the highway in terms of church involvement or not.
General Motors' Maven
General Motors has a subdivision called Maven, which is providing short term rentals of GM cars.  It is designed to compete with ZipCar.  General Motors has come to the conclusion that for certain phases of life, people want access to a car, but neither want nor can afford ownership.  In some cities, people use Maven for weekend getaways, in other cities people use Maven to get across town and still in other cities people use it as their vehicle for money making through Uber!  What is most striking though is that General Motors does not simply think this kind of car utilization is for a phase of life; it acknowledges that many people will never own a car, but will be interested in using a car.  General Motors set up Maven so that even if people are not buying cars, they can still make a profit in the car industry!
To put this perspective back into our discussion about churched and unchurched, I think we should realize that just like many people today will not own cars, but will still use them, many people in our congregation will not be "all in" and may, in fact, never be "all in" but they will still be in the sphere of our congregation.  Just like people are automobiles for different reasons and to different extents, the people who come into our congregation will engage in different ways.  This does not mean they are bad or incomplete Christians or even that they only have a consumer mentality, but their life set up prevents them from being "all in."
Creating paths instead of a track
Rather than trying to move everyone along some mythical church conveyer belt, I suggest we embrace a far scarier task:  Providing more (personalized!) paths to faith development.  Let's assume that young families are not going to come more than twice a month.  How can we help them pray at night with their kids?  Let's assume that homebound members cannot serve on committees.  How can we keep them connected and feeling a part of the decision making process at the church?  Let's assume that the person who only comes to play in the handbell choir is unlikely to come for anything else.  How can we make that 6 hours a month she commits to the church as faith filled as possible?
The goal of making disciples may ultimately have a linear or clear trajectory, namely, helping people see their relationship with God in terms of transformation rather than transaction.  However, the map of people's engagement with the church is anything but linear.  To put it another way, I feel liberated - my job is not simply to move people from an increasing pool of unchurched to a shrinking pool of churched.  My task is to help the congregation figure out "faith paths" that can move people toward a deeper commitment to their Lord and the church, acknowledging this will not necessarily look "all in" from a church perspective.  This does not mean that serving Jesus demands anything less than "all in"; rather, this acknowledges that being "all in" to Jesus will manifest itself in a variety of levels of engagement with the church, particularly one congregation.