Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say February 2? 4th after Epiphany

   Not one, not two but three texts this week that might land in anybody’s top ten of preachable, powerful texts! Sometimes I think toward a sermon by hearing music kin to the text – so I’ll start with “Blest Are They,” the great David Haas hymn and chorus. I also like to ponder art – so spending time just gazing at the folly of a crucified God will bring healing to my soul, and hopefully to my sermon, even if I don’t speak on the epistle! Speaking of which, I explicated 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 in my March 4, 2018 blog post, weighing the absurdity of the cross, various portrayals of the crucifixon, St. Francis’s prayer (the real one, not the popular one), and a great reflection from Michael Knowles on the folly of preaching that may be the greatest single word of encouragement written for preachers I have ever read.

   Familiar texts are surprisingly hard to preach on though – because they are so… familiar. It’s tough to capture the shock and awe that Micah’s first hearers, or Paul’s first readers, or those gathered on a Galilean hillside must have experienced. Maybe naming the surprise that was theirs might help pew-sitters this Sunday.

   Quite oddly for me, I have written a book on both texts.  Doesn't guarantee a good sermon though, does it?  Micah 6:1-8 turned out to be more intriguing than I’d imagined. Micah (meaning “Who is like the Lord?”) was from rural Moresheth-Gath – and in those tumultuous 8th century days, the rural towns bore the brunt of foolish policy-making in the big city of Jerusalem. Would a rural church pastor dare join in with Micah complaining about policy in urban places?

   The question, “What does the Lord require?” needs parsing. The verb, require, is a translation of darash, which is not like a teacher requiring homework or a judge requiring punishment. Darash is the way a child requires its mother’s love, a flower requires sunshine, a lover requires the beloved’s presence. And God darashes 3 things, which may really be 1 thing viewed from 3 perspectives.

   1. Do justice, not think about justice or believe in justice or hope for justice. DO justice. And “justice” is our rendering of mishpat, which isn’t fairness or getting what is deserved. Justice, mishpat, is when the poorest are cared for.  There’s that statue of justice outside the Supreme Court – showing that “justice is blind.” God’s justice isn’t blind at all. God sees, God cares. God isn’t unbiased. God is immensely biased, toward us, hoping for the best conceivable outcome for our lives.

   2. Love kindness. Kindness seems vapid, although we should be kind, especially in such an unkind era.  The Hebrew is hesed, steadfast love, covenant loyalty.  Really it’s about mercy. Pope Francis proclaimed 2016 as “The Year of Mercy” (and he showed mercy to any and everybody) – but God knows we still need it in 2020. God is all mercy. We are called to be merciful (as the Beatitudes will show!).

   3. Walk humbly. In a cocky world, we are asked to be humble – not humiliated, but humble, which really is nothing other than the truth about ourselves. We are weak, vulnerable, in need, dependent upon God, not all that brilliant or strong after all. And we walk, not standing still. You go – for God.

   Matthew 5:1-12. Jesus, as full of desire for the wholeness and love of people as God speaking through Micah, began his sermon to a bunch of nobodies by blessing them. The Beatitudes aren’t commandments: go be these ways! What we see is that God blesses what the world despises. Matthew has “poor in spirit,” but Luke 6’s version has just plain “poor.” Most Americans will want to keep “in spirit,” but it’s both, always. Jesus blessed those who “mourn.” We pity them – but in God’s heart they are blessed. Jesus admires the “meek.” Put that on your resume and see how swiftly you lose an interview! But with Jesus, meekness is holy. Help your people feel the shockingly counter-cultural feel of all this! No conventional wisdom or trite soundbytes here.

   Jesus blessed those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Not those who ARE righteous, just those seeking it, craving it, grabbing what they can and discover then they really want more. Then we see his blessing of the “merciful” – and it’s reflexive: they receive mercy. We could spend our lives well just striving for mercy; we’re all desperate for it already. Jesus knows – and simultaneously blesses the peacemakers, and those who suffer for righteousness...  So much in this rich text.

   What fascinates me is thinking of people whose photo you might attach to each Beatitude. St. Francis? Dorothy Day? Your grandmother? I suspect though Jesus didn’t think of these as eight distinct things. They are, again, really one. The meek can be merciful; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness make peace. And so forth. Stories of holy, courageous, blessed lives always work well in preaching!

   The real picture to attach to these Beatitudes is Jesus himself. It’s virtually autobiographical. Jesus was all these things. He’s showing us what it’s like to be close to his heart.

   So to preach these texts:  I think I'll begin by inviting people to imagine what God is like - and some mix of that darash-kind -of-God, and Jesus looking with deep care and compassion at people on a hillside above Galilee. That's the kind of God we're talking about. He dreams holy dreams for us. He longs for the happiest, most joyful life for us. He's not a commander so much as he's a yearner, and is willing to show the way by being our best selves so we could see and believe. I might rifle through each thing (do justice, hunger for righteousness, etc.) or pick a couple. Maybe meekness, which is so out of style (and fits walking humbly): where have I seen this around our church or in the world? And the merciful, or peacemakers: where are these guys needed in a clashing society? Can I find a story where mercy was enacted, and the world changed?

   What about the church?  Is the church poor, meek (yes?? - in this declining culture), merciful and a doer of justice (not so often)? When has the church looked like Micah 6 or Matthew 5? Can we dream of such a church? This is a church that does justice because it has received mercy, that loves hesed because this is what we hunger and thirst for, and walks humbly because we acknowledge joyfully our meekness.

   So it's not Go thou and do likewise! but painting a beautiful image of what holy living looks like, so we'll be attracted, so we'll discover we already have more meekness and mourning than we let on in public... How good of Jesus to bless them and us with such a humble, holy, soaring vision of life with him!


What can we say February 9? 5th after Epiphany

   Another week of terrific texts. I’m pondering how Isaiah and 1 Corinthians might be lassoed together around notions of weakness – ours, others’, and even God’s.  Isaiah 58:1-12. Walter Brueggemann somewhat sarcastically points out that the Israelites “enjoy worship.” But it’s nothing but self-indulgence; they think of the Lord as useful for their advantage. It would be hard to think up anything more true of churchgoers today than this thought. Worship as entertainment, God as a mechanism to wrest from the world what we desire.

   St. Augustine’s distinction between kinds of love (he wrote about this in De Doctrina Christiana) might help frame things. There is love of use (uti in Latin): I love something not in itself but because I can use it for something I really want. Money is a classic example: I don’t want to fondle it or frame it as art; I use it for other cravings. This happens, of course, with people… Then there is love of enjoyment (frui): I love something just because, whether I get something else out of it or not. I love chocolate, not because of what it does (which may not be so good!). I just love it. My wife wants to be loved with frui love. And so does God – but we generally go at God with uti.

   Isaiah’s memorable lead-in (which would make a good sermon title), “The Fast I Choose,” is haunting in a way. The people are at least fasting – an alien practice for us modern consumerist Christians. We would assume if we fasted (and really fasted, not just doing with donuts for a day), we’d join the ranks of the super-spiritual. To regular fasters, God says I want something else – or really, something in addition to fasting, or really the ultimate purpose of fasting. God wants justice, shalom for everybody. Brueggemann again is right (but how hard is this to work into a sermon with modern Americans?): “Worship not congruent with humane economic practice is bad worship.”

   To fast, to think and act differently with respect to economics, requires a self-imposed (or God-imposed) weakness. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16. What was Paul’s weakness? Raspy voice, frail appearance, poor sermon delivery, bad breath? Church and clergy just don’t get weakness, yet it’s at the heart of who Jesus was/is, and at the core of Paul’s ministry. We trust in strength-finders, or even spiritual gifts (religious strength-finders, right?). We want skills, resumes, productivity. But Paul comes in weakness, and brags about it. In 2 Corinthians 12 we see the bookending of today’s text: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

   Brené Brown has drawn a massive following with this theme. Why does it seem unusual to church people? It’s in vulnerability, in our weakness, that love, good, hope, relationship, and actually everything good happens. Weakness isn’t something to be overcome. It simply is. My leadership book is appropriately titled Weak Enough to Lead. Are you?

   I love the way texts aren’t mere fodder for sermons, but feed the spirit of the preacher. I adore this word of encouragement from Michael Knowles, commenting on just this text: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity.  And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it.  Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work.  The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness.  Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God ‘who raises the dead.’”

   The preacher might want to clarify that when Paul says “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus,” he is light years from the way preachers or believers today might say “Just give me Jesus.” Which Jesus? We remake him in our own image so swiftly and unwittingly. Paul adds “and him crucified,” which helps. Paul doesn’t exactly keep Jesus simple. Isn’t the plea to keep theology simple really an evasion of the complex claim of the Gospel on all of life?

    Matthew 5:13-20. Jesus’ wonder-sermon on the mount continues. The scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian hilariously pictures people trying to hear Jesus, and mistaking what he was saying (Blessed are the cheesemakers!). The preacher might try to set the scene – the lovely Galilean hillside, not much changed today from 2000 years ago! And also the shock, the mental revolution Jesus was hoisting on his listeners.

    And then how personal all this is! The Greek “you” (humeis) is emphatic, like “You yourselves” or “You – yes you!” Jesus speaks of salt without explaining the connotation. Salt preserves, seasons, purifies, fertilizes; it’s a metaphor for wisdom, and was used in sacrifices at the temple. Jesus again left it open-ended for them and us to poke around, find peculiar meaning just now for me and others. 
Regarding salt: I plan to reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s 240 mile march to the coast of India protesting the British tax on salt. Hundreds of thousands trailed behind him; 60,000 were arrested. When Gandhi got to the shore, he made a little salt – his point being it occurs quite naturally in God’s good world, is so essential to life, and thus should not be a high control government monopoly. Sounds like grace, or compassion, or even justice.

   The lamp would have been utterly familiar, the small terra cotta kind that didn’t cast a lot of light, but cast what light there was. Laughably, Jesus says you wouldn’t put it under a bushel!  The “city set on a hill”: Jesus may have pointed north above the Galilee to the town perched up there: 
Safed, elevation 3,000 feet above sea level, the highest city in all of Israel, and to this day a fabled center for Jewish learning and mysticism. The image of “the city set on a hill” fed the dreams (and fantasies) of America as God’s chosen people (so the Puritans, and on into modern political Evangelicalism). These visions haven’t been wicked, and there is a holy dream at the core of it; and yet the perils, the implicit arrogance, pose problems. Jesus is inviting his people, the nobodies, to be the bright hope of the world.

   We who dig notions of being saved by grace not works, and we whose religious life is really I do what I want, I ask God to help with what I want or when I’m in trouble, then I go to heaven one day, should shudder at the clarity and height of Jesus’ soaring demand (or isn’t invitation the better word?). Our righteousness is far beyond even the Torah. Jesus doesn’t want mere adherence to rules – although rules mattered to him, he wasn’t a lax, do whatever you feel like kind of guy. The commandments must be exceeded in the heart of God’s holy people – as he explains in subsequent verses (next week's text!) in this same amazing sermon. Don’t murder? If you’ve harbored anger… Don’t commit adultery? If you’ve harbored lust in your heart… It’s a profound inner and outer holiness Jesus is after. And it’s not a straitjacket. It’s the way of freedom. So important for preachers: to underline how God’s commands aren’t commands so much as compelling invitations, open paths to live freely and joyfully. Can the preacher devise a few thoughtful examples of how this unfolds? A story from your life or someone you love and admire?

What can we say February 16? 6th after Epiphany


   Deuteronomy, big picture, feels so promising to me homiletically. Israel, perched on a high cliff overlooking the Jordan valley with the promised land beyond, listening to a long sermon from Moses, his last – and all about God’s promises and how freed people can receive and enjoy the gift of the land as free people. So much love, unmerited grace; so much potential and hope! But so many texts feel like a nag, dire warning, as if God’s making a list and checking it twice.

   Deuteronomy 30:15-20 is so right: there is disaster in fawning after all the other gods; there is joy and vitality, genuine shalom, in living in sync with God the creator’s laws. And we do muck it up – but the door is always open for us (not as individuals so much as the people of God!) to repent, shuv standing out as the key word and summons for the whole book, and all of the Deuteronomist’s history to come in Joshua-2 Kings. But how can the preacher lay all this out without people’s perceptions sliding into a legalistic, gnostic blame game or feeling of superiority which seems so alluring? I’d paint the stunning locale, and all that was and is at stake – and try to invite people into a profound covenant relationship with the God who wants all of us, and that it really matters, it really is life and death.


   Walter Brueggemann (in his commentary on this text) does notice the "doable" character of Torah. This is no "impossible ethic" - and thus the faithful are freed from anxiety or dread of inevitable falling short. He illustrates the plain and simple character of doing what God has prescribed by the Christians of Le Chambon in France who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II - at great risk to themselves. When asked why they did such a thing, they shrugged. No big dramatic, heroic or strategic explanations. Acting this way was simply a doable thing from their Scriptures.

   1 Corinthians 3:1-9 has often been discussed in my presence, as if its meaning is self-evident; but I am just baffled by Paul’s apparent progression from infant’s milk to solid food, spiritually that is. My gut discomfort might just be Paul’s point (or so I fantasize!). My friends who’ve spoken of the solid food imply they’re digging into it, while the less mature are still back on the bottle. Roy Harrisville’s wise commentary ties this text to Jesus’ prayer, “I thank you, Father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes” (Matthew 11:25). In other words, the milk is it. We’re always to be like children, humbly drinking what’s given. The arrogant ones who presume they’ve matured father are the… arrogant ones. I hope Harrisville is right: the Gospel of grace and utter dependence is all there is.

   And yet Jesus himself presses for a kind of maturity, or at least depth of soul. Last week’s text lured us toward a righteousness that exceeds that of the uber-righteous Pharisees. This week, in Matthew 5:21-37, he provides samples so we’ll get the hang of things. Picking out a couple of the easier of the Ten Commandments, Jesus lovingly but firmly presses those who haven’t murdered anybody to ponder their hidden anger – which is a kind of killing the other person. And killing yourself! Isn’t anger the toxicity that feels like it’s venting itself on the other guy but only eats away at you?

   I’ll guarantee you your people know anger well, and are weary of it. Political ideology feeds rancor. Drivers rage. Spouses demean. Bosses boss people. The nations rage too. Politicians show their fists. Hoping for good, we go after guns, or the other political party, or we blame whomever for whatever. But there is a kind of accepted, expected anger in the world, in society, in all of us, and it’s the high god who’s commanding loyalty and devouring us all. Jesus exposes it, not to say Nyet nyet nyet, gotcha!! or You’re even more of a worm than you thought! Rather, Jesus, like a gentle surgeon, lances the wound, lets the toxins seep out, and opens the way toward healing.

   What’s all the anger about, anyhow? It’s the unwitting recoil of fear – at least most of the time. We fear change, we fear others, we fear loss, we fear…. Preachers can fill in this blank endlessly, and fruitfully, looking with compassion into our people’s eyes; they can’t avert their gaze; they know – and hope against hope that Jesus’ hard words really do bring life and light. 
To do this I try to model myself on Dinah, the frontier preacher in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. “Dinah walked as simply as if she were going to the market, and seemed as unconscious of her outward appearance as a little boy, no attitude of the arms that said ‘But you must think of me as a saint.’ There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations. The eyes looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer could help melting away before their glance… The simple things she said seemed like novelties; the quiet depth of conviction with which she spoke seemed in itself an evidence for the truth of her message. She spoke slowly… She was not preaching as she heard others preach, but speaking directly from her own emotions and under the inspiration of her own simple faith.”

   Jesus, his eyes shedding love, turned then to speak of adultery. To all who’d managed not to have an affair, he said that if you’ve harbored lust in your heart, it’s the same thing. President Jimmy Carter, such a devout Bible guy, unveiled his heart (in Playboy magazine!) on this and got hooted down. But in our #metoo chapter of civilization, in a culture that mangles attitudes toward the body and intimacy, what more precious words could we contemplate? Everybody else talks about sex. Why are we so hushed in church - except for the occasional "Don't be naughty" triviality?

   I’ve found no better wisdom on this than from the philosopher Roger Scruton (in both Beauty, and Sexual Desire), who shows how physical intimacy between lovers properly is an interest in a person as embodied, not merely as an assemblage of body parts. In a kiss, the mouth is involved. But it’s not an aperture for food and drink, or the dentist’s workshop. Embodied persons touch with their mouths – but in a kiss you touch the other person in their very whole self.

   Lust and its partner, obscenity, mistreats the body on display as mere body; and so lust is “the eclipse of the soul by the body.” If we make the body “a thing among other things,” something to be owned, we forget that my own body isn’t my property; it is my incarnation; it is God’s temple. Lust assaults mentally, and many times physically, the other as an object for my pleasure, not as a person. Another target of lust, “pornography, like slavery, is a denial of the human subject, a way of negating the moral demand that free beings must treat each other as ends in themselves.”

   Genuine, human intimacy isn’t getting what you desire. You’re part of the whole. A caress “incarnates” me and simultaneously the other. We discover the mystery of one another in reciprocity. “I am awakened in my body, to the embodiment of you.” How lovely and profound – and a far cry from the couple recently who answered my question, “Why do you want to marry?” The groom cockily replied, "She's the best in bed I’ve ever had.”

   Another philosopher, Simon Blackburn, in his thoughtful book on Lust, analyzes Bronzino’s “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.” Lust is portrayed as surrounded by other related and consequent troubles: Venus holds apple of discord; in the background is blind Fate (fortuna); just behind Venus is Deceit with her fair face and honeycomb of pleasure, but with a serpent’s tail; tearing at her hair is Anger – and she herself is treading on thorns. Modern Americans would celebrate lust, or just accede to it as inevitable. But the woes springing from it when it is nurtured is like kudzu, a tangle obscuring God, love, and goodness.

   Lust is a tough topic to preach on? How could we pass up such a tantalizing possibility to talk about what is at the core of the disjointed modern soul?

*****

 You might check out my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word - not an intro on how to preach, but reflections on the task and the wonder and challenge of it once you've been at it a while.


What can we say February 23? Transfiguration Sunday

   For Transfiguration, I’ll focus on the Gospel – but how fabulously the Old Testament sets it up and reminds us of the theological framework the earliest Christians would have had in mind on first hearing it – and then the Epistle a remarkable confirmation of the reality of something so mystical and incandescent. Later I'll fix on the problem of thinking about "mountaintop experiences" - but the fact that these revelatory moments happen on a mountain reminds me of philosopher Roger Scruton's thoughts on the difference between a pastoral landscape (grassy, trees, hills, a stream running through) and a mountain crag. The first is "beautiful." The crag rises to the level of the "sublime" - which is less accessible; your mind lunges to grasp the scope, the raggedness; you're drawn to it, but there's peril. With Moses on Sinai and Jesus transfigured we've soared to that subset of the beautiful: the sublime.

   Exodus 24:12-18. I love it that the Lord invites Moses to come up – and wait. These texts are about stillness, wonder, glory, without takeaways or go thou and do likewise admonitions. We wait. Moses has to wait, as do the elders on the plain below (and their inability to wait proved disastrous with the golden bull in chapter 32!). A cloud, glory, the devouring fire: none of this can be explained, only noticed, imaged, marveled at. It’s the same Moses who shows up with Jesus – and it was at this same mountain that Elijah realized God was not in the storm or fire but only in the still small voice – or the utter silence.

   2 Peter 1:16-21. This letter is often dissed as a late composition, barely sneaking into the canon. I find myself drawn to and even agreeing with Ben Witherington, though, who notices its lateness and yet firmly believes it bears direct eyewitness testimony from Peter himself. Witherington claims the early church was battling a leadership crisis; “our author responds to this crisis by dusting off a piece of Petrine tradition, a piece of material from Jude, the Lord’s brother, and also alludes to the Pauline tradition, weaving these things together, like a student using excellent sources and putting together a good term paper.” When I narrate the Matthew vignette, I’ll portray that Mt. Sinai background every good Jew would have resonated with on hearing it, and do a If you are skeptical about such things, Peter himself, years later, swore it really happened as reported.

   Matthew 17:1-9 is my parade example of how well-intended preaching goes wrong. As a young preacher, I did it myself – the laughable sermon that says You have a mountaintop experience, but then you go back down into the valley to get busy with God’s stuff. This is no mountaintop experience. It’s not about us at all – although preachers err by making every sermon about us. This text, like so many, is about God. There is no moral, no takeaway. The sermon should invite people to marvel, to wait, to stammer in puzzlement and delight. What did the disciples who were there do? They didn’t theologize, they didn’t plot a mission trip. No, “they fell on their faces in awe.” I dream of the sermon that will cause people simply to be in awe.


   "Awe" isn't the same as "hokey." Artistic representations of this moment typically make Jesus look like a glowing ghost, or else as if he is radioactive somehow. He's still very much human, just shining... Icons tend to treat it more literally, and hence better - although such a shimmering glimpse into eternity, into the resurrection life to come, would inevitably foil the best photographer or sculptor.

   The intertestamental echoes are there, of course: six days, paralleling Moses’ wait on Mt. Sinai; Jesus took assistants, as Moses took Joshua; there’s a cloud, and brilliant, blinding light. Here are the key details, not to be missed: Jesus was “transfigured.” The Greek is metamorphothe. Metamorphosis! A brown crawling thing, encased in a crusty cocoon, emerging in metamorphosis as a colorful butterly flitting upward. It’s the same thing, but in a radically new form. Jesus just a minute earlier had been in a grimy tunic, with dirty feet and oily hair. Then he’s dazzling, his face (the same one they’d just been relating to about his imminent crucifixion!) “shining like the sun.”

   And he has company: Moses, Elijah, both long gone, presiders over the Bible’s two pillars, law and prophets – and both with downright baffling deaths, departures, and lack of burial. I love the simple detail: “They were talking with him.” Maybe the 3 greatest ever, chatting, in conversation. The intimacy, the love, the wisdom. What were they talking about? I’ll ask in my sermon, knowing we don’t know. I’ll let my people be still for a minute and wonder themselves – which the text invites us to do.

   Jesus’ identity is exposed – as in the Baptism: this is my beloved Son. Not the mighty warrior, not one to lord it over you. Beloved. My son. So much love, and tenderness. We think we’ll pray or say something in reply. But the text has God tell them and us: “Listen to him.” Be quiet. Be available – not to go and do, but to be and adore.

   Peter utters the greatest understatement in all of Scripture: “Lord, it is good that we are here” (v. 4). Good? It’s fantastic, fabulous, fantabulous, exponentially amazing. I think the text invites us to realize our oneness with Peter. It is good that we are here/there as well. Peter, like many preachers and believers, wants to do something, he needs a task, a takeaway: let’s build booths! But no, it’s just time to marvel. 

   As I repeatedly insist in my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word, sermons are about God, the beauty of Jesus, the wonder of Christ. Let it linger right there. What could possibly be more transformative than our people simple falling in awe, stammering in joyful wonder, at the glory that is Christ? Let it linger. Don’t do anything with it. Be still. Know that God is God. Ours is to be riveted, awed, flabbergasted, lost in wonder, love and praise. Reaching for an illustration? Nothing compares to this. Nothing is like it. It is its own illustration. Trust the glory of Jesus.

What can we say March 1 (Lent 1 & Ash Wednesday)?

  {For Ash Wednesday, look to my blog from last year, with a package of ways to approach the homily.}

   Lent is here, a season that isn’t what it used to be. Robert Schuller updated things with a thought that would make Norman Vincent Peale proud, suggesting LENT should be Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking. There still is such a thing as sin – although the wise preacher can re-couch it as a fearful flight from God more than crass rule-breaking. Our texts are rich with insight. 

  I will pass by Romans 5:12-19, although I found a long, boring paper I wrote on the “second Adam” for a religion course in college. I’m grateful for the experience, as before that paper it hadn’t occurred to me that the New Testament was doing exegesis on the Old Testament, and relying on interpretations not in the Bible. The expanded mind can then appreciate all those historic paintings of the crucifixion that feature a skull at the base of the cross. It’s Adam’s, of course… Speaking of whom:

   Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7. Jonathan Sacks perceives in this story a leadership failure – which is the denial of personal responsibility. Then Cain, as if a chip off the old block, embodies the other leadership failure, denial of moral responsibility. Adam and Eve, not literally the first and only two people (although this isn’t worth getting into, is it?), are placed in extraordinary beauty and blessing, with a simple vocation: to till the garden, to exercise dominion, which is caring for God’s earth, not taking over. They are “free,” that is, permitted to browse and consume.

   But don’t overstate this freedom. American pew-sitters love being told they are free. Genesis 3 illustrates how unfree we are. We are in bondage to our limitations, to the first lure that comes along; our wills are shackled to self, as fearfully we lunge for power we don’t need and couldn’t exercise faithfully if we had it. God is God, but we have a hard time letting God be God. Hence our shame, our Fallen world, our desperate need for rescue.

   So much is homiletically interesting here. Mark Twain famously said “I don’t know why Adam and Eve get so much credit. I could have done just as well.” Lancelot du Lac arrogantly sang “Had I been made the partner of Eve, we’d be in Eden still!” Doug Marlette’s cartoon lampooned pious religious people who think their faction is above sin, unlike the others; he drew it when the Presbyterians were doing what Methodists are doing now. The devil offers the apple, but the smug couple replies, “No thanks, we’re Presbyterian.” I love Douglas John Hall’s assessment that we’ve been taught that we are like Prometheus, defiantly stealing the power of the gods (do you know the comic strip?)
   – and yet the truth is we don’t feel defiant so much as we are exhausted. His preferred mythological image isn’t Prometheus but Sisyphus, pushing that rock uphill all day only to have it roll down to the bottom once more. Is this the human condition? How is sin like pushing the world uphill on our own and wearing ourselves out?

   The business of shame is huge for us. Bodies confuse us; the #metoo movement has exposed how we mistreat bodies and are mistreated. Nadia Bolz-Weber shocked even the previously unshockable by advocating a shame-free Christian sexuality. How does the preacher wisely speak of bodies and intimacy, inviting people into holiness without afflicting them with shame, which is not of God? Maybe just asking this question without answering opens a door to conversation and hope.

   We might prefer God put us in a garden without such dangerous trees. But Russ Reno picks up on St. Thomas Aquinas, understanding God’s desire to shape our desires. “The first commandment cannot help but seem arbitrary… But this is as it must be. If God is to train the natural man toward participation in the supernatural Sabbath, then the commands must exceed our capacity for understanding. What then is sin? “Perverted people follow false gods, leaders and promises, all the while imagining them to be the source of life.” This “deceived discipleship” exposes the depth of our slavery to sin.

   Then we wind up with self-justification, which is laughably off course. Reno calls it “the alchemy of rationalization that sews together fig leaves.” St. Augustine sees the lure of the apple as our substitution for short-term vs. long-term goods. The apple really is good… “The lie works because it has the ring of truth.” Romans 1 speaks of exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and God handing us over to our choices. Haunting. Banished, fallen, we have no hope, except for the one in our Gospel reading.

   Matthew 4:1-11. My primary mantra in teaching preaching (see my Beauty of the Word!) is the question: How is this text about God, not us? We make Matthew 4 about us, but it’s about how amazing Jesus was is. Please don’t try the sermon “Here’s how to overcome temptation the way Jesus did.” Not one of us would stand a chance for one day with the devil after us in a desert. The point of the story is that Jesus won this victory for us who fail. We are left, not imitating him, but in jaw-dropping awe of him. He’s our Savior precisely because he dealt victoriously with “the prince of darkness grim.” It’s not about a technique to overcome temptation; it’s a relationship.

     Consider the terrain:  from Jericho, tourists lift their gaze westward and see “Mount of Temptation.” An ancient monastery, to mark the memory of Jesus’ forty day trial, is carved into the cliffs. Curious: it’s one thing for Christians to build a church where a healing miracle or the resurrection happened. But why venture out to the place Satan chose to assault Jesus? It’s not an American-west-kind-of-desert with cactus and tumbleweed. Steep, rocky hills, caves, wild carnivores lurking about.

   It’s a testing, not a temptation. Israel was tested (failing miserably), not tempted, for 40 years after coming through the water; Jesus passes through the baptismal water into the wilderness and passes test after test. 
These tests weren’t merely for a season: Jesus knew this him whole life, and in his final moments, which is one thing Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ got right. I love his depiction of young Jesus: every time he reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples. He shrieked and fell down on his face. His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help. The rabbi shook his head. ‘Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?’ ‘Is there no cure?’ the wretched mother asked. “’t’s God, I tell you. No, there is no cure.’ ‘Why does he torment him?’ The old exorcist sighed but did not answer. ‘Why does he torment him?’ the mother asked again. ‘Because he loves him,’ the old rabbi finally replied.”

   The test is this: what will Jesus do with divine power? Will he turn into Bruce Almighty? Doesn’t the story play out like The Lord of the Rings – that it is the rejection, the refusal to use ultimate power, that is the culmination of the story and the way to life? Little Frodo and the wise wizard Gandalf alone understand that renunciation of power is the way; Tolkien surely had Jesus in mind as he wrote. Even the Bible can be a tool of power: Matthew 4 has lots of Bible quoting by both parties. It’s not wielding biblical power to win, but yielding as Jesus yielded that gets to the heart of God’s Word.

   Lent begins, a season of fasting. When ordained, we promise that fasting will be what we teach and do – but we are lame or unwilling fasters. Give up donuts for Lent? Fine. Try not eating any food for a few days – for God. Try fasting from your gadgets for 40 days, or 40 minutes… We’re all about satisfying cravings, and being “available” – both of which expose how unable we are to get close to God. We did engage in a congregation wide fast from alcohol for Lent. Some tried it and failed. Some managed it and learned a lot. One guy told me “I couldn’t possibly do that” – which is what he needed to learn.

   Is this (or any) devil real? Baudelaire coined the idea that “the devil’s greatest wile is to convince you he does not exist.” Thomas Merton, taking the opposite approach, noticed Christians who attribute all manner of thing to Satan – and concluded that what Satan wants the most is attention. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters gives us a peek into a way of understanding how what is not of God tries so very hard to undo us. There is evil, and it is intensely personal.

   Crafting a sermon from all this is a challenge. Our best hope is to focus on how flat out amazing Jesus was during those days.

What can we say March 8? Lent 2

   Genesis 12:1-4a was an eye opener for me my first week of seminary. Prof. Lloyd Bailey explained how this wasn’t just a thing that happened to Abraham, but was the key to unlock the entire calling of God’s people – to be blessed, to multiply, to be given land (a huge problem historically!), and to be a blessing to everybody else. So preachable and wise. Psalm 121, which we read at gravesides, is also rich in wisdom; for his long journey, Abraham lifted his eyes to uncertain hills; and Jesus and his family, along with all pilgrims in Bible times, sang this as they made their way to Jerusalem for Passover – including Jesus’ last. Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 is Paul’s midrashic read of Abraham and why he matters; I love to dissect all this in Bible study, but am not so good at preaching it.

   So I’m going with the Gospel, John 3:1-17. Utterly familiar – and yet I’ve had good cause to rethink it in the past few months. I was invited to write a book about Birth (in the series, Pastoring Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well): it’s coming out next month! Listening to moms, doctors, and midwives, and in much research, I have tried to connect what I learned to what it might mean to be born again. I kept wondering why it is that preachers (George Whitefield, Billy Graham, etc.), who’ve talked for centuries about being born again, virtually ignore birth itself when theologizing about being born again. They’re men? Never witnessed a birth? Is “born again” really a revivalist mood, a surge of spiritual emotion, or even a zealous commitment to be different?

   Think about it: Nicodemus comes in the dark – like life in the womb, about to be born. When you were born, the first time, wasn’t it true that “God called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:9). 
Isn’t it curious that, in explaining this new birth to Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of being born of water and the spirit. Recall your first birth. You were in water. Then you emerged, gasping for air, for a breath – or we can say “spirit,” as the Hebrew ruah, and the Greek pneuma both mean air, and then by extension, spirit. It’s always water, and then the spirit when getting born.

   That you “must” be reborn intrigues. The Greek, deĩ, isn’t must as in You must do your homework, or You must report for jury duty. It’s more like You must come to my birthday party! or You must come with me to the hospital to see Fred before he dies. It’s love, it’s a deeply personal, can’t-miss-it necessity – like birth.

   The heart of Jesus’ surprising notion of being born again is this: you can’t grit your teeth and get born the first time, and you can’t when you’re born again either. Back in October of 1955, I didn’t think, Hmm, nice day to get born, let’s do it. An entirely passive, unchosen event. Even the mother has zero ability to turn a microscopic zygote into a breathing, squawling person. Birth happens to you, and in you. Rudolf Bultmann, reflecting on Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’s search for salvation, clarifies that “the condition can only be satisfied by a miracle… It suggests to Nicodemus, and indeed to anyone who is prepared to entertain the possibility of the occurrence of a miraculous event, that such a miracle can come to pass.”

   Given the ways preachers like Whitefield and Graham conducted revivals seeking new births that were marked by a swooning of emotion, it’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t ask Nicodemus to feel anything. There are, of course, intense feelings at birth. The mother giving birth may be overwhelmed with an intensity of joy, or anything else along a broad spectrum of emotion. The one being born though: is birth an emotional high for the baby?

   Of course, the feelings mother and child share in childbirth are the pains, the excruciating squeezes, the tearing of flesh and sometimes the breaking of bones. Could Jesus have imagined such agony when pressing us toward a new birth? Jesus courageously embraced pain, and invited us to follow. Paul, imprisoned and beaten multiple times within an inch of his life for following Jesus, wrote that “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God… provided we suffer with him” (Rom. 8:15-16). No wonder we prefer a happy emotional kind of rebirth at a revival, over against the costly discipleship that is the new life Jesus has in mind for us. It isn’t the feeling, but the fact of the new birth, and the hard facts of union with Jesus in a world puzzled or hostile to his ways.

   By now, of course, we see that Jesus wasn’t asking Nicodemus to behave a little better. It’s radical, a total shift of focus, priorities, behaviors and habits. Bultmann explains it perfectly: “Rebirth means… something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself.” My first birth defined my origin as a Howell. I have the DNA, I favor my dad, I am who I am. How could I come by a new and different origin? Let’s look to St. Francis of Assisi.

   After fitting in and even excelling as a child and youth, enviably popular, chic and cool, Francis heard the call of Jesus. Taking the Bible quite literally, picking up whatever Jesus said or did and putting it on his to-do list for the day, Francis divested himself of his advantages, including his exquisite, fashionable clothing, which he gave away to the poor. His father, Pietro, a churchgoing, upstanding citizen, took exception, locked his son up for a time, and then sued him in the city square. Giotto’s fresco in the basilica where Francis is buried shows a stark naked Francis, handing the only thing he has left, the clothes off his back, to his father. But his eyes are fixed upward, where we see a hand appearing to bless him from up in the clouds. At this moment, Francis declared, “Until now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who are in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” A biblical moment, if we have regard for “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 2:23), or “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).

   What is we ponder “born again” from the mother’s side? Anne Enright, who shows no evident interest in religion: “A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” Isn’t this what being with Jesus, a child who came out of his mother, is like? The past is laughably past. Every small thing, devoted to this Jesus, matters. Perhaps being born again is like the discovery so many new moms make, articulated beautifully in John O’Donohue’s words:
   Once it began, you were no longer your own.
   A new, more courageous you, offering itself
   In a new way to a presence you can sense
   But you have not seen or known.

  {Images: photo I took of the birth of my son, Noah, by c-section; Frank Anigbo's "Study for Agony and Ecstasy"; and Giotto's fresco, "Francis Renounces Worldly Goods."

What can we say March 15? Lent 3

   Exodus 17:1-7 – testing the Lord!  The Lord has just miraculously delivered them from harsh bondage in Egypt. The Lord has begun strewing manna around every day so they will be nourished and learn to trust. But then they get thirsty, and whine; they “murmur” (an English translation that astoundingly improves upon the Hebrew ylvn, as it actually mimics what it’s describing!). How manifest is God’s grace? Responding to grousing with abundant water in the desert. Such pathetic people (like us); such an astonishingly merciful God.

   Romans 5:1-11. Every time I imagine Paul pacing around a room, dictating this letter, I get slackjawed with wonder. There was no New Testament, no theology textbooks – and off the top of his head he came up with this! Inspired, sure. Still amazes me. What was the secretary thinking? Wow, this guy is on fire today. I ruminate on this in sermons sometimes. No takeaway, no go-thou-and-do-likewise...

   Romans 5, the preacher should note, is entirely in first person plural. It’s not I have peace with God, or you, you individual person out there, have access to God. It’s we, we’re part of the Body, God doesn’t intend for us to do this alone. The logical consequence of all Paul has declared in chapters 1-4? Peace. C.E.B. Cranfield reminds us that eirene isn’t “subjective feelings of peace (though these may indeed result), but the objective state of being at peace instead of being enemies.” It’s a fact. Done. And not by you but by Christ, and at immense cost to himself.

   James K.A. Smith, in his marvelous On the Road with Saint Augustine, paints a homiletically intriguing picture of what our pursuit of peace is: “Like the exhausted refugee, fatigued by vulnerability, what we crave is rest (‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you’)… Joy, for Augustine, is characterized by a quietude that is the opposite of anxiety – the exhale of someone who has been holding her breath out of fear or worry or insecurity. It is the blissful rest of someone who realizes she no longer has to perform; she is loved. We find joy in the grace of God precisely because he is the one we don’t have to prove anything to. "
"But it is also the exhale of someone who has arrived – who can finally breathe after making it through the anxiety-inducing experience of the border crossing, seeking refuge… The Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge.” He then invites us to imagine Augustine’s City of God “as a tent city, a refugee camp… Think of Dadaab in Kenya, the Sahrawi camps in Maghreb.” Not my usual image of the City of God - but there it is. 

   “Obtained access” in v. 2: F.F. Bruce vividly explains that the Greek, prosagoge, means “the privilege of being introduced into the presence of someone of high station.” Verse 3: “We rejoice in our sufferings” – which is aspirational more than true. 
There is beauty in suffering; Ray Barfield spoke at our church last month on just this (check out his little book, Wager: Beauty, Suffering, and Being in the World, on this). People know if you press them: “I was with my mother when she died, and it was a beautiful moment.” Paul has in mind some origami in the soul that suffering initiates. His lovely litany is memorable, and worth repeating (or cross-stitching): “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.” I’m tempted to edit Paul a little by inserting the word “might” or “sometimes.” Suffering can make you bitter or mean. Why does it produce character and hope sometimes, and not in others? It's too cheap just to say "If you have faith, if you trust God." Isn't community involved? Doesn't God have mercy on is when suffering drowns us in depression?

   “Hope does not disappoint.” Christopher Lasch clarified how optimism, the sunny view that tomorrow will be a better day, and it’s up to us to make it happen, is vastly inferior to hope, the substantive faith that all will be well, even if tomorrow is worse – for this future is in God’s hands ultimately.

   I may fiddle around with the “poured out” image from v. 5, a picturesque image of the lavishness of grace. Jesus’ blood poured out, pouring coffee in the morning, the pitcher pouring water into the baptismal bowl, Jesus pouring water over the disciples’ feet, the bartender pouring you a drink, the woman pouring oil over Jesus’ head, the priest pouring wine into the chalice, your mother pouring you a glass of milk, a waterfall, water over a dam, a garden fountain. Is there a way all of these and more not only symbolize but actually are the pouring out of God’s goodness?

   “While we were still weak” reminds me of a terrific story. In 1980 I was running “Helping Hands,” a ministry to folks in need at Myrtle Beach, S.C. Our most problematical guy was named Belton. I drove him to the job I’d helped him get; when I came back for lunch he’d quit. I bought him groceries; he sold them to buy queludes. He tore up the temporary living quarters we found for him. Finally the board and volunteers met to decide how to cut him off, I think. All was proceeding in that direction until a woman said “You know, the Bible says ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”

   Everyone nodded, except a very old, frail woman, who countered: “That’s not in the Bible. That’s Ben Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack.” I was impressed. She then opened her New American Standard Bible to Romans 5:6 and read “While we were helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And she added “That would be all of us.” The vote was unanimous. We’d keep doing whatever we could for and with Belton. I wish I had a happy ending, like He got on his feet, went back to school, and now is an executive at Bank of America. But no. We hung together another month or so, and then he just vanished. Did we fail? I don’t think so. We kept one of God’s helpless children alive a little longer, which is good. And God’s other helpless, ungodly children got a refresher course in theology from the physically weakest but most spiritually astute one in our group.

   John 4:5-42 (here’s the sermon I preached on it last time – and here is my post on it, including The Life of Brian, Mister Rogers, Amos Oz, and Jean Vanier).