Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say October 4? World Communion Sunday


   How lovely that World Communion Sunday falls on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi! His humble embrace of poverty, the stranger, the untouchables, and even the sultan of Islam, his prayerful devotion to Christ, his deep kinship with nature, his reformation of the Church: so many stories from his life illustrate our texts, and all texts really. Francis’s daily to-do list was whatever he read in Scripture. He took the Bible literally – in that he thought he was supposed to do it. For some highlights of his life, check out my “Heroes Found Faithful” blog on him, or my little book, Conversations with St. Francis.

   Let me say a little on Exodus and the Psalter, then focus on Philippians. The Matthew 21:33-46 text, a simplistic, transparent allegory that fuels supersessionist and even anti-Semitic inclinations, frankly leaves me cold. Was Jesus having an off day? Did a clunky editor insert this pericope?

   Exodus 20:1-20. I love simply reading the commandments in worship, or having people read them together. I loathe the way they’ve been politicized. And frankly the way they’ve been ignored, or perverted into a weapon of judgment. Our Psalm 19 reading clarifies that the law is God’s precious gift, the creator’s beautiful and tender care, showing us the way to life.

   Jesus, of course, probed the heart of the commandments, not to give us a thrashing for lusting, that unseen adultery in the heart, or for anger, that silent killer, but to set us free, to disentangle our souls from what weakens and diverts us from God and all good. 

   And how wise of Martin Luther to detect the way there is a Gospel promise hidden in each commandment. Don’t covet? You don’t have to. God provides; you have and are enough. A lovely sermon could be concocted around rummaging through each commandment, or a selection of 2 or 3, teasing out how it’s not a You Oughta Or Else! but a liberation from bondage. No other gods? You don’t need other gods. Rest on the Sabbath? Aren’t you weary? God’s got things under control, so you can rest. You can disconnect and be unavailable – because if you’re always available, you’re never available, to God or others or even your self.

   Psalm 19 is perfect for World Communion. Worldwide access to God through creation, as Paul trumpeted in Romans 1. The heavens speak, the stars sing, nature cries out the beauty, the lavish goodness of God. Ellen Charry, always insightful, suggests (in her Brazos commentary) that “Psalm 19 rings like a sermon to Israel’s cultured despisers, tempted by pagan gods.” Scholars who think Psalm 19 is 2 Psalms stuck together don’t get the heart of God, the Creator, who devised order so our lives could be blessed instead of riddled with confusion and agony, so we needn’t bow before the bogus deities of society.

   “Warned” in v. 11: nizhar can also be translated “becomes radiant.” We’re warned by God’s law, but it makes us radiant, countering the anxiety the Psalm names as omnipresent, always threatening. The antidote to anxiety is, strangely, absorption in the praise of God and a peaceful striving after holiness. Charry detects an intriguing movement here: “Psalm 19 hopes to attract us to the glory of God in stages.” Being awed by God in creation is easy. Wisdom goes deeper. Then becoming pure is harder, but ultimately fulfilling; it’s what the creation calls us toward.

   Philippians 3:4b-14. Paul’s ego! Paul’s self-absorption! No wonder he was hard to get along with, and can be hard to warm up to today. Yet he was the one God used. God can take an arrogant, self-absorbed Francis of Assisi, humble him and make him a saint who still shows us the way to God; and God can take an arrogant, self-absorbed Paul, let his egocentric word tumble out of him – and we find God there too.

   We’ll have to sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” this Sunday. “My richest gain…” Francis intentionally lost his riches to be close to Christ. Verse 9 intrigues me. Paul speaks of being “found in him.” Rhetorically I might ask my people Where are you? Where are you found? I’m at my address. Or am I? I’m at work. Is that the place I truly am “found”? I remember each of my children getting lost at some point. I wish I could remember being a child, being lost, and then, aha! There he is! Such joy. We found him. Grace is exactly like that.

   We think God can or should shelter us from suffering. Or maybe not. Paul quite transparently seeks suffering. He wants to share in Christ’s sufferings. He implies we are missing out on Jesus until we too seek a share in his sufferings. How alien to modern piety!

   Think St. Francis once again. He slept on rocks – hoping to be close to nature, close to Jesus, the “rock of ages” cleft for us. He prayed before, not sterile shiny crosses, but crucifixes. Two years before his death, he prayed intently before a crucifix at La Verna, “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask before I die. One is that I might feel the pain you felt in the hour of your great passion. The second is that I might be filled with the love that drove you to undergo such suffering for us sinners.”

   Who would dare pray such a prayer! Paul suggests we miss the joy until we know Jesus’ sorrow and pain. When you love your spouse or child, if they are in pain, you don’t run away, grateful you feel good. You hurt. You do whatever you can to bear their hurts. You’d take them on yourself if you could.

   So in sermons I sometimes riff on the hymn. Here’s an excerpt from a book I have coming out next year on the theology of hymns (called Unrevealed Until Its Season); this could work as the sermon on Philippians 3:4-14 for me:

   When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. We don't just glance at it. We measure it carefully, size it up, consider every angle. Too often, we sanitize the cross, preferring those of smooth wood or some shiny metal. The original cross would have been of olive wood, gnarled, hacked hurriedly, with human flesh gruesomely nailed into it. Back in 1968, archaeologists discovered an ankle bone from the time of Jesus – pierced by an iron nail. Crucifixion was a gruesome, horrifyingly painful, public humiliation of criminals. Having seen plenty of crosses, the soldiers at the foot of Jesus’ cross didn’t “survey” this one. They didn’t know to be attentive to this one, or didn’t have the surveying skills to see that this was God, this was the start of a revolution of redemption. Looked like any other dying, despised person – which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve.

   “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Just meditate on that for a minute, or an hour, or the rest of your life. Blood and perspiration were mingled all over his ravaged body, and then after the piercing by the soldier’s cruel lance, Rock of ages, cleft for us, blood and water flowed, mingled. But it wasn’t tragedy and justice mingled, although most observers then would have thought so. It was sorrow and love, God eternal, finally and fully manifested love for us, mingled with sorrow over our brokenness, our waywardness, our confusion, our mortality. Medieval paintings depicted little angels flying around the cross with cups to catch that sorrow and love flowing down. It’s precious. It’s medicine. It’s life for the world.

   Isaac Watts asks us, “Did ever thorns compose so rich a crown?” Museums all over Europe display sumptuous crowns. At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord. Did she ponder his crown, bristling thorns gashing forehead, temples, and scalp? Or the sacrificial love that refused the derision of spectators: “Save yourself” (Luke 23:37).

   This cross isn’t just some religious artifact, or even the mechanism God uses to get you into heaven once you’ve died. It fundamentally alters our values, and how we live. If this is God, if the heart of God was fully manifest in this moment, if this is what God’s love actually looks like, then everything changes. “My richest gain I count but loss” (echoing Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8). “Pour contempt on all my pride.” “Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ” (echoing Paul’s other words in Galatians 6:14). “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them.”

   Indeed, the more we ponder the crucified Lord on the cross, the less attached we are to the gadgets and baubles of this world, the less arrogant we become - and then we are ready to abandon what we were clinging to, as we realize in the face of our mortality, and God’s redeeming love, these formerly valued things are just nothing. It is as if someone at the foot of the cross were reading the book of Ecclesiastes aloud: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Indeed.

   Casting aside vain fantasies, we don’t walk away from our survey back to our old life. Instead, we get caught up in Christ’s causes, and become generous with our money and things. What is your offering to God? Watts’s hymn imagines “Were the whole realm of nature mine” (an absurd idea, that the richest of the rich could have so much!) “that were an offering far too small.” No gift I could muster would be enough to begin to match Christ's sacrificial gift to me, to us - so when then is my giving so measured, so chintzy?

   We get busy and deluded and forget what the life of faith is about. We water it down to a little add-on, something we indulge in when convenient, a place we turn when we're in a pickle. But the last words of the hymn get to the truth of things - and stand as a stirring, unavoidable challenge to us, if we sing with any sincerity at all: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Not this compartment of my soul, or this segment of my life, or the part of me I don't mind parting with. My soul. My life. My all.
***
  {Images: one of Chagall's several paintings of Moses with the commandments; one of Giotto's frescoes of the stigmatization of Francis; one of Rouault's Crucifixions; von Grünewald’s smaller and less familiar crucifixion; then a detail from his more famous one.}

What can we say October 11? 19th after Pentecost

   Exodus 32:1-14 (and really, you must continue past v. 14 to the end of the story to make any sense of this) always makes me laugh out loud, or shudder. The sheer psychological genius of the narrator invites us into a theological intimacy that is stunning. The people, their souls still stuck back in Egypt, grow impatient at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They deduce that Moses is “delaying.” Why would he delay? Isn’t it just their rush to move on, or to shrink back? They refer to him as “this man Moses,” not “our beloved Moses.” Martin Buber was right: “Whenever he comes to deal with this people, he is defeated by them.”

   They fashion an idol, a golden bull, the kind they’d seen back in Egypt, connoting strength, potency, virility. Hard not to take a hard look at the golden bull on Wall Street in New York! Up on the mountain, God was even then telling Moses what their gold was supposed to be used for: to adorn the tabernacle. Hard also not to grin over the adjacent statue, the "Fearless Girl." Is that the Church, not cowed by the bull and all its cultural trappings?

   The Lord saw their lunacy first and told Moses, speaking of them not as “my people” but “your people” whom “you” (Moses, not I, the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Moses turned the tables just as swiftly, referring to them not as “my people” but as “your people whom you” (the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Down in the valley, Aaron his brother had proven to be an effective but wrongly directed leader. Once the calf was finished, they threw a big party.

   When Moses happened upon the scene, Aaron violated Jim Collins’s rule for Level 5 leaders (leaders attribute success to others and apportion blame to themselves) and explained how “they” were set on evil. He bore no responsibility. Hilariously he recalled what transpired: “I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ So they gave it to me, I threw it into the fire, and out came this bull calf!” (v. 24). Out came. I’m not big on a sermon retelling a story in great detail. But this one is just so delicious, so revealing of human nature at its most religious and most flawed.

   What Moses accomplished next astonishes. Moses talks God out of raining wrath down upon the people. “The Lord changed his mind” (v. 14). Philosophically, this is absurd. But the Bible’s God is in this with us, with give and take, suspense, jockeying back and forth – which is what love does. Failing in leading the people, Moses leads God – as Michael Walzer observes, Moses was “rather more successful with God than with the people.” Does this text tell me something about how to lead my people? – maybe by leading God? or advocating for them with God instead of venting my frustration with them?

   The preacher need not provide moralistic take-aways, although they are the low-hanging fruit. Let the story stand. Let people see themselves and others in it. Let them most important get a glimpse of the severe holiness of God struggling with the tender mercy of God.

   The violence at the end leaves me numb. I recall what I learned from Jonathan Sacks on a similar passage: 1 Kings 18. Elijah slaughters the Canaanite priests – but Sacks points out that the rabbis were appalled, noting that God never told him to kill them. I think it’s healthy and hopeful for clergy to wonder out loud if Moses, or the writer of Exodus mis-heard God – just as we all do. Scripture is still very much inspired – precisely in sharing moments when people act in ways contrary to the larger heart of God known throughout Scripture.

   Karl Barth called Philippians 4:1-9 “one of the liveliest and most allusive in Paul, or anywhere at all in the New Testament.” And it’s so personal. Paul calls out two people by name! For me, “Rejoice always” and “Do not be anxious” feel like piling on. I’m already anxious, and veer toward melancholy – and here’s Paul (or is it God?) ordering me to feel differently. Like, it was bad enough already…

   George Hunsinger, in his new Brazos commentary, is wise on this: “It is not a matter of elation but of resilience. Nor is it basically introspective but Christocentric.” He quotes Martin Luther King: “Abnormal fears and phobias expressed in neurotic anxiety may be cured by psychiatry; but the fear of death, nonbeing, and nothingness, expressed in existential anxiety, maybe cured only by a positive religious faith.” I think I’d lean way more sympathetically toward mercy on the anxious and fearful, who aren’t so easily fixed. But the notation of “existential anxiety”: that’s huge. It’s what we can genuinely and faithfully address in the church.

   Regular anxiety might be something we can help with too. Read the text slowly. “Have no anxiety… but with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be we file our requests, and if God complies, then we give thanks – right? No, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We begin with gratitude. Jesus invited the crowd to be rid of anxiety by pointing to the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field: they are arrayed in beauty, God provides for them (read Matthew 6:25-34!). Notice what God has done, feel the blessings you neglected to pay attention to (which is probably why you got into the anxious mess you’re in…). Could it be that gratitude is the antidote to anxiety?

   The psychiatrist Martin Seligman has written (in his great book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) about anxiety – and shares that studies show how gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression (not entirely, but by a significant, measurable percentage).  My personal observation is that it is impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time.  Something about gratitude – and not merely feeling thankful but actually expressing it in a note, a phone call, whatever – calms and even reverses anxiety, at least in the moment.

   That’s when the joy comes in: “Rejoice always.” How? By not being anxious. How? By sharing your requests with God – with thanksgiving. And then, when this becomes habitual, and natural, we get to the goal of the thing: Peace. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (v. 7).

   How intriguing that Paul dictates out loud, with the emperor’s Praetorian guard listening through the bars, that God’s peace will “keep” your hearts: the Greek word means to “guard.” Paul is in prison, guarded by men with weapons – which is how Caesar guaranteed his much bragged upon pax romana. But who’s really free, and who isn’t? In God’s hidden script, it’s the armed soldiers, and the emperor himself, who are not free but are in chains, while Paul is free as a bird, protected from them by the peace of God.

   The other thing is in v. 8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” With so much negativity and rancor, what good counsel! But it’s not positive thinking. It’s finding, and attending to the beautiful. Jewel’s best lyric goes like this:

It doesn’t take talent to be mean
Please be careful with me
I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.
I have this theory that if we’re told we’re bad
Then that’s the only idea we’ll ever have
But maybe if we are surrounded in beauty
Some day we will become what we see.

  The beauty that is everywhere was crystallized and definitively embodied in Jesus, who is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise. Of him, St. Augustine wrote, “He is beautiful as God, beautiful in heaven, beautiful in his mother’s womb, beautiful in his parents’ arms, beautiful in his miracles, beautiful under the scourge, beautiful in laying down his life, beautiful in taking it up again, beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the sepulcher, beautiful in heaven.” Ponder him, his beauty, his excellence, his grace. Anxiety will slide down a little. Be grateful. Know some joy. This will preach, friends.

   I’m skipping the Gospel, which reveals Jesus in a not-so-beautiful tirade. Matthew 22:1-14 just strikes me as yet one more of Jesus’ angrier, mystifying parables. Too much value in Exodus and Philippians to go there. Maybe you have a great angle on this one; share it with me if you do!

What can we say October 18? 20th after Pentecost

   Exodus 33:12-23: talk about a “thin place,” or a “liminal space.” Moses, on the (not a, but the) mountain with God. Wryly he chides God for telling him they’re going but hasn’t revealed whom the guide will be. The Lord says I’ll go. Then, with considerable cheek, or derring-do, taking his life in his hands, he asks to see God’s “glory.” The Lord responds to this bold ask by sneakily substituting “goodness” for “glory.” Want to see my glory? Here is some of my goodness. Maybe that’s how we see God’s glory, not head-on, which would overwhelm us, sort of like trying to look at the sun from 25 feet away. God’s goodness is a manifestation, an accurate shadow of God’s glory, an accommodated glimpse.

   The meaning of the name Yahweh is perhaps best explained in v. 19: “I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, I shall have compassion on whom I shall have compassion.” No predestination here. Rather, it is in God’s nature to be gracious and compassionate. It’s God’s choice, not our earning, not our goodness.

   Tenderly, God offers a viewing spot for Moses: in the cleft of the rock. “Rock of Ages, cleft for Moses.” How good of God to provide, in the tectonic shifts and geological upheavals that made mountains, to provide little caves and crevices for creatures to hide and rest. St. Francis of Assisi believed, as did many medieval people, that clefts and crevices in rocks, all the way in Italy, were created at that moment on Good Friday when, just as Jesus died, earthquakes rocked the land. Medieval theologians and artists also saw Jesus’ wounds as clefts in the rock in which we hide ourselves. So lovely.

   I’m reminded of St. Francis, who went day after day into a cave to pray.  When he came out each day, Brother Leo would ask him, Did God say anything?  Francis said No.  Day by day he poured out his soul, and day by day he always answered No.  Finally, one day Leo asked, and Francis surprised him:  Yes, God did say one word to me.  Leo: What was it?  Francis:  More.  I love that.  God wanted more  - of St. Francis.

   God shows Moses God’s “backside.” Fascinating to play around with, isn’t it. You see the backside as it moves. God isn’t a still life, but one who moves. Yahweh clearly is a verbal form, an action verb in Hebrew. And where are you if you see the backside? You’re behind. Jesus said “Follow me.” That is, keep behind me, watch my backside closely.

   Moses’ request to see God’s glory might remind us of John 14 where Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”   Jesus then did show all of them God’s glory – by being crucified. Martin Luther (worth dragging in, as the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg door is looming!) suggested that in the cross, God showed us all the glory of God we could bear – calling it “God’s hidden backside.”  

   With all this Moses/mountain stuff, I plan to use the great benediction of the late archbishop Oscar Romero:  “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”

   1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 is a lovely intro to a letter. Can’t see preaching on it. I do wonder about its contents though as something for the preacher to ponder – and trust: “Our message came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” Easy to mutter some pietistic platitude about this. But the best we can do is talk as well and faithfully as possible. If hearts are changed, if the world tilts on its axis, it’s God’s work, not ours. Luther famously said it was God who reformed the church while he (Luther) was in the pub with his pal Philip drinking Wittenberg beer.

   Matthew 22:15-22 is one of the most grossly misquoted texts ever, as if Jesus were outlining the separation of church and state for modern people who would find such an arrangement to be very convenient for themselves and their political ideologies. They come to “entrap” him. Jesus’ strong suit was discerning hidden motives – and knowing theirs, and his downright Lincoln-esque abiity to reply to tough questions with something clever to stump the questioners, they had no chance.

   They open with flattery. Aristotle pointed out that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. They indeed are what Jesus calls them: hypocrites, the Greek meaning play actors. They think they have the perfect question, unanswerable. If he says Yes, he appears sympathetic to the hated tax collectors, thus alienating all nationalists. If he says No, he’s risking a charge of sedition. Not surprisingly, Jesus serves up neither. 

   Let’s check out one of these coins, he says. Surveying it, he asks an easy question: who is this guy? Caesar. Archaeologists have found these coins, with an image of Caesar, and the inscription including the blasphemous (to Jews) word DIVI: he’s divine. On the flip side, the coin dubbed Caesar as PONTIF MAXIM, the “high priest.” Here is God’s divine son, our great high priest, studying this very coin.

   Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The Greek apodote means “give back,” as in return it to him. Must be his. Let him have it. Then the clincher line: and Render, “give back” to God what is God’s. And that would be… well, everything. Your life, these boats, the water, the fish, maybe even the minted coin with the blasphemous image. Heck, the emperor himself.

     Jesus’ wisdom was met with stunned silence; I wish my sermons were met with the same! There’s the sermon, with a clear imperative, an all-encompassing takeaway: Render unto God what is God’s, who is God’s. You can spend the rest of the day and your life working on that one. Grab a few examples here and there. Your lunch break at work. Your shopping this afternoon. Your conversation with a neighbor. The stuff in your closet. Your anxieties in the night. Your portfolio, or your debt, or your fantasies. Your time, your energy, your brokenness. It’s all God’s. Render it to God.

What can we say October 25? 21st after Pentecost

   Three years ago, I commented at length on the marvelous Deuteronomy 34:1-12, with help from Martin Luther King, Jr., Franz Kafka, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Reinhold Niebuhr. You’ll find plenty there, although now I would add what I’ve read recently from a pair of rabbis.

   First this, from David Wolpe, in his wonderful The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God: “Moses fasted, put on sackcloth, drew small circle, refused to move until decree reversed. ‘Master of the universe, you know how hard I strived to teach the people your words and will. I journeyed with them. They are to enter the land without me?’ God answered, ‘The time of your death has come.’ Moses continued to pray, ‘Master of the universe, remember the day you called me from the burning bush. Remember the days and nights we were together. Do not now hand me over to death.’ God calmed Moses’ fears saying ‘Do not be afraid. The time comes to all mortals to die. I myself will attend to your burial.’ Upon hearing these words, Moses stood up, and sanctified himself. God came down from the very heights of heaven to take away the soul of Moses. And God took away the soul of his servant Moses with a kiss. And God wept.”

   I’ve used this at a couple of funerals. It also picks up on some themes Jonathan Sacks explores. Focused not on Moses’ death as punishment, but on the fact that he’s simply mortal – and what that means for all of us: “For each of us there is a Jordan we will not cross, a journey we will not finish, a paradise we will not reach this side of the grave.” Moses is human, and shows us how to be human. Here’s the mission for us humans – in Sacks’s reflection on that Moses’ “eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated.” These aren’t just 2 things. The 1st explains the 2nd. Why was his strength unabated? “Because his eyes were undimmed – because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, right, the good and the holy.”

   “No one knows his burial place” isn’t a clue that God swooped him up into heaven, but rather that God didn’t want this great one’s grave to be a place of pilgrimage. Moses was no demigod. He shows us how to be human. His leadership has, in many ways, been one failure after another: the recalcitrance of the people, Moses’ own bitterness and fatigue. Sacks asks “Can a life of failures be a success? In worldly terms, no. In spiritual terms, emphatically yes.” I need to ponder this.

   And finally: how odd that the entire Pentateuch ends with a death, a not-yet-ness. A good story should have a happier, more complete ending. But for Israel, there’s always this sense that we’re not there yet. We’re always on the brink. “Judaism is the only civilization to have set its golden age not in the past but in the future.” I wonder if Sacks might agree with me that Christianity shares in this not-yet-ness.

   I like to think of one text each week as one for me. Not to preach on, but to speak to me as a preacher. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 stirs me to courage, and resilience. Verse 7: Paul says “We were gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her children.” Do I love my people in this way? Verse 5: Paul never used “flattering words.” Do I seek flattery? Do I flatter them? Aristotle said the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. Notice how tender is Paul’s affection! Verse 8’s “You are dear to us” is translated by Abraham Malherbe as “We have come to love you.” I come to my people to love them, always and particularly in preaching.

   Matthew 22:34-46. How lovely that Jesus cut to the heart of the Torah by lifting up the two love verses from Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6! Not that the others don’t matter. Rather, all of God’s will, everything God has ever said (or will ever say) to us is Love. God created because of love. Ours is to love – to love God, others. Pastors need to talk about love all the time. We love our people. We tell them they love God with us (aspirational, maybe).

   Our church did a whole series on these twin commandments that are really one, for love of neighbor is love of God since neighbor is the image of God. People dig saying “God is in control.” But love doesn’t control. How risky of God, to love and crave our love in return. I picture God singing along with Bonnie Raitt when she unintentionally spoke for God: "I can't make you love me." Or in the Don Schlitz  country song, when the man asks his Lord "How much do I owe you for giving me this day, and every day that's gone before?  Shall I build a temple? Make a sacrifice? Tell me Lord, and I will pay the price" - and the Lord said, "I won't take less than your love."

   Sure, love gets watered down, trivialized, and twisted inside out. But knowing it’s misconceived means there’s a real thing, and it matters. Jesus fingers Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, recited twice daily by Jews. Call a rabbi friend – or make a rabbi into a friend by calling and asking, Tell me about Deuteronomy 6.


   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, always insightful, explores that this Shema means "Hear" - with the surprising revelation that "there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey," all the more surprising since there are hundreds of commandments. Instead, Israel (including Jesus and his friends) is to "hear," which means to listen, to pay focused attention, to understand, to internalise, to reflect on its meaning, and to respond in action. Israel's is not a faith that values blind, unthinking, unquestioning obedience. We hear, we ask questions, we wrestle, it goes deep within.

   Heart, soul, mind, strength. These aren’t 4 distinct things. God is just pivoting around you, asking you to love God with every fiber of your being, not casually, not when it’s convenient, or just when there’s trouble.  To be sure they understood God wishes to be loved all day long, every day, in everything, Moses added “Talk of these words when you sit in your house, when you’re walking around, when you lie down and when you wake up.  Bind them on your hand, and as frontlets between your eyes. You may have seen pious Jews with a little black box on the forehead, or straps on the wrists. Talk about taking the Bible literally! 

   “Write them on the doorposts of your house.” On the door jamb of Jewish homes you’ll find a mezuzah, a little container with a tiny scroll of Scripture, looking something like a doorbell. (Christians too, can have them! I have one at home - that's it to the left - and also one on my office door, just one more little reminder...).

   They are taking literally what Moses intended – and what I find I need to stand any chance of being godly. I stick little cards and hang tags all over my world, in the shower, in my desk drawer, on the dashboard, to remind me to love and think about and ponder God throughout my day. 

  My book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is an attempt to help us Christians think about how to think about our love for the Lord all the time.  A challenge for me:  I should attach something to my head, I think.  If I hear myself thinking You shall love the Lord over and over, I actually shall love the Lord.

   If you recall falling in love:  love is reckless, love doesn’t count the cost or the passing of time.  Love loves with every fiber of our being.  Deuteronomy 6:4 says we are to love God with heart, soul and strength.  Jesus added a fourth:  mind.  If he’d lived longer he might have added a fifth, sixth and seventh.  How do we love God?  Let us count the ways.

   A couple of useful “love” quotes. Mystics can guide us into this love for God.  I greatly admire Thérèse of Lisieux, whose short life was all about intimacy with Jesus:

Ah, how sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! 
It was a kiss of love, I felt that I was loved,
and I said: ‘I love you, and I give myself to you forever!’  
My heaven is to smile at this God I adore.
To die of love is what I hope for,
on fire with his love I want to be,
to see him, be one with him forever,
that is my heaven – that’s my destiny:
by love to live.

   Thomas Merton, always helpful, prayed, “Let this be my consolation, that wherever I am, you are loved.” And speaking of prayer – which is love! – Madeleine L’Engle, over a long weekend waiting on biopsy results for her husband, kept praying “Don’t let it be cancer.” Some friend told her, “You can’t pray that, it already is or isn’t cancer.” Her thoughts on this? “I can’t live with that.  I think the heart overrides the intellect and insists on praying. If we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings. And so I pray as my heart needs to pray.” Later, after the cancer was pronounced terminal, she wondered if her prayers had been wasted.  But she concluded, rightly: “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted. Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted.  They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hands outstretched to receive them, like precious pearls.”

What can we say November 1? All Saints Day


   After many years, All Saints day actually falls on a Sunday! – and as I write this weeks in advance, we are preparing for the possibility of not being together in the sanctuary. Hauntingly fitting, as this is the day we take note of being together with those who aren’t here, who have departed, the communion of the saints.

   How to preach All Saints, without being sappy or boringly predictable? Our texts open windows for us into broad spaces that are far more intriguing than simply Mama has gone to heaven or Daddy’s playing golf with grampa every day and we’ll join them by and by. How vapid and self-indulgent is so much of what our people believe about heaven? And they probably derived all this from some place…

   I do love the notion of church as a family of love, perhaps on All Saints more than any other day. In Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Animal Dreams, we read how the citizens of a town called Grace observed the Day of the Dead: lavishly decorating the cemetery, nothing solemn, but much laughter, running, and many flowers. "Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones.  The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care.  It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead.  In these families you would never stop being loved.."

   Consider these 3 texts: Revelation 7:9-17. John is granted a glimpse into heaven, not a gigantic palatial estate in the sky where you go after death, but ultimate reality right now, as dual plots are being played out before our very eyes. The world is plodding along in horrific directions; but Augustine’s “city of God” is there too, for those who can see, a cosmic battle being waged over our souls and history itself.

   For those who can see – and hear. Fascinating that John “looked” (v. 9) – but then the report is mostly about what he “heard.” We cannot see eternity, or heaven, but we hear, we overhear, and the hearing induces hope and confidence. Heaven, as we hear of it, is lots of bowing and worshipping. Not like going to church all day every day, but being awed and allured by the stupendous wonder that is God that we just won’t be able to take our eyes off the throne of grace.

   I wonder as we near the end of 2020 if it’s worth being attentive to “Those who have been through the great ordeal.” Bible and the life of faith are about enduring ordeals. The first readers (hearers actually!) of Revelation knew family and friends who had lost their lives, not to a disease but to Roman persecution. They wear white robes washed in red blood (gory… and what does this image do to ways we try to think about race?). And I just want in my sermon to name, and ponder, without any explanation, that “the Lamb will be their shepherd.” Lambs need shepherds. The shepherd manages the lambs. But in God’s redeemed creation, the lamb is the shepherd. In preaching, we don’t have to explain everything or provide a takeaway. It’s just a real ahhhh moment.

   1 John 3:1-3. You could preach a pretty long series of sermons on this text, which should be read very slowly, maybe repeated, pausing on this or that marvel. We are, not we hope to be, God’s children now. And yet there is a “what we will be” not revealed to us yet. When will that be? Not “When we all get to heaven,” but rather “When he is revealed.” It’s all about him, not us! In that realization, “We will be like him.” Am I now? Yes, we’re God’s children now. Am I unlike Jesus? Heck, absolutely. But then we will be like him – just as he became like us in the incarnation.

   But how this will happen? “We will see him as he is.” When we see him, really see him, not our fantasies about him or projecting our image of whatever onto him, but as he is, that will make us like him, we will be awed and unable to take our eyes off him – and thus we will be like him, as he will be our vision, our heart, our total reality. I’m circling. Preachers can circle. Let people be drawn into the circle. There’s no moral takeaway, no “go thou and do likewise” here. It’s just a marvel to behold. We may rightly covet the saints we’ve lost, for they are already living fully in this circle of being lost in wonder, love and praise. They inspire us.

   “See” is idete, like Behold! And then there’s that little nothing of a word, “what.” What what? According to Raymond Brown, this “what” expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.” Volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of): God’s love makes us God’s children.  Jesus spoke of becoming like children – and I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”

   Matthew 5:1-12. I explored the Beatitudes in another blog for All Saints 3 years ago, touching on each line and its implications – a little digest there of my book The Beatitudes for Today. There, and often, I’ve said this text is not prescriptive, it’s not a list of commands, like “Go be meek!” or “Go make peace!” Jesus simply blesses people. And it’s autobiographical – so the blessed are those who are like him (echoing 1 John 3!). But I do wonder, today, as we draw near to the end of 2020, if we might lean in a bit to suggesting Jesus is commending habits and dispositions here. In our day, we might strive for some poverty of spirit. We have good cause to mourn; so many griefs and losses, all the more if we ponder what Bob Pierce envisioned (“Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”). Meekness would serve us political ideologues well. Mercy, purity of heart, making peace. Even being persecuted, suffering ofr faith. We live in a day when this actually happens, although it’s usually in surprising ways, right?

   Of course, as it’s All Saints’ Day, the accent may well fall on “Blessed are those who mourn.” We come mourning, indeed – but we grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Again, I trust the reading of the names in God’s holy place more than I trust my frail words to express the hope of the Gospel!

What can we say November 8? 23rd after Pentecost


   1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a rich text that in a way reiterates All Saints: “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” The world does its grieving, but it’s trivial, isn’t it? At a funeral “gathering party,” for there was no service, everyone sang “I Did It My Way” and then danced the Macarena, fondly recalling the deceased. Insufficient. Cute. We say a person lives on in memory. But not for long. We have hope, and not just for a ticket into heaven to continue endlessly the life we’ve enjoyed (like dancing the macarena, or even hearing Elvis himself….). Hope is finding yourself by sheer grace as a small but infinitely important and beloved part of God’s redemption of all history and all creation. And everything is transformed. No surprise Paul could say, in v. 18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” I’m encouraged just suggested that we encourage one another with these words.

   Paul’s phrase “The Lord shall descend” found its way into Horatio Spafford’s hymn composed in the wake of the deaths of his children at sea, “It Is Well.” Upper Room is publishing a book I’ve written about the theology of hymns – and on this one, my mind is drawn to Julian of Norwich. Seminarians may recall nothing else about her, except that she said “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Actually, those were words Jesus himself spoke to her. In the year 1373, she had a series of visions in which she saw the crucified Christ, who conversed with her. The “All shall be well” is the centerpiece of much profound theological exploration in her report of her visions.

   It may seem a bit naïve to sum up the Gospel as “All shall be well.” This is the kind of trivial spirituality people love, that everything is good, life is sweet, and tomorrow will be a happy day. But Jesus said this to Julian as she wrestled with stark realities of suffering and sin. She lived in a small brick cell in the city of Norwich during the Great Plague of Europe. More than half the population of Norwich perished. The Hundred Years War was simultaneously raging, and the worst schism in history was tearing the church asunder. In such a terrifying, insecure, bleak moment, Jesus told her, and those who listened to her, and us who read her today, “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

   Part of me wants to argue with him, or her. Yes, but… Yet seminarians remember those words, and they linger in my heart. Just hearing them, defying muddy reality, despite the news of the worlds crumbling around us, and our own personal losses and fears, brings inexplicable but certain comfort. I believe it. All really will be well. In the moment of hearing it, or saying it myself, I believe. Or singing it…

   I never quite warm up to Matthew 25:1-13, although I love the catchy anthem, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” It’s weirdly easy to moralize about such an eschatological text. Jesus could get away with it. But me? And is it sound to get creative with such a text? Gerhard Lohfink complains about modern readings that sympathize with the foolish virgins, who are shut out as the “stigmatized, suffering and humiliated.” We should share our oil with them! The Darwinian prepared virgins lack solidarity and harbor “concealed violence” against those unprepared: “This shears the point off of Jesus’ parable and perverts the whole thing. The issue is not one of solidarity, readiness to help or tolerance, but the neglected kairos, the hour not seized.”

   So I will preach on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. I rarely title sermons, but I may go with “As for me and my house,” the title of Walter Wangerin’s fantastic book about marriage, which I’d commend to you, as I do to couples preparing to marry or trying to recover. The Christian couple focuses on values, on serving the world, on being Christ’s Body, on (as we say in the wedding liturgy) being “a haven of blessing and peace”… “so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”

   Geography matters here. Shechem, today, is part of the contested, tense West Bank. The topography is rugged, rocky, not the easiest drive. Back in the Bronze Age, Israel hadn’t conquered the entire land. Canaanites still controlled the main roads, and the marginalized Israelites had to scrape for whatever they could manage.  In other words, Israel lived in a hostile environment, as a minority, and religiously, as a downright weird sect. {The same was true for early Christianity...}

   The question for them was the same for us: What does it mean today to make the choice they made – that we will serve the Lord, this Lord, the biblical God, Jesus Christ, and not all the others? The preacher is wise, periodically, to remind good Christians that many gods compete for our attention and loyalty.

   In the case of Joshua 24 there is even a peculiar wrinkle: Joshua says “Put away the gods your fathers served.” Does he mean Mesopotamian or Egyptian idols? Or even the gods known to Abraham, Lot, Jacob, etc.? What idols did your parents, whom you love and adore and owe so much to, serve? Jesus spoke of pitting father against son. He’s not stirring up family strife, but pressing for a choice. Many of our parents imbibed the whole civil religion thing of the good American life, American superiority, maybe the god of money and upward mobility, maybe those darker deities that bedevil us still on race or jingoism. How do we invite our people to shed even their parents’ lovely ideals, which may even have panned out marvelously, in order to serve the true and living God?

   And what does this theological God-choice look like? Not just mental assent, but very practical stuff, how you farm, your job, what you buy, how you treat people, especially different people. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord – so do we grab the latest gadget? Do we join in neighborhood banter making fun of somebody? Do we give church a skip to get to the golf tournament? Do we turn off the gadgets and TV and observe Sabbath? Examples abound.

   If it’s a Communion Sunday: “as for me and my house” involved food. How do we eat, what do we eat (and drink), and why? With whom do we eat? Jesus gave us a very do-able yet rarely-heeded command: “When you give a dinner, do not invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor, maimed, lame and blind – and if they don’t come, go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.” As for me and my house… we are at least going to try this.

   I laugh out loud when I get to Joshua 24:19. Having stirred the crowd into a resounding commitment to serve, Jacob surprisingly replies, “But you cannot serve the Lord.” What?? I can’t serve the Lord you just asked me to serve? We have here a humbling, a recognition at the outset that our most determined zeal to serve God will falter, be imperfect, or just a huge mess. I’m drawn to C.S. Lewis’s clever wisdom in Screwtape Letters, which envisions the devils plotting to do us in. I love this one: “My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”