Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say July 14? 5th after Pentecost

   Amos 7:7-17. We are in a summer series on Worship, and Amos will help us understand how worship is Prophetic. Amos, the southerner, travels north to the sanctuary, to pious, sacrificing people, and dares to suggest that not all worship is good. Prophetic words are rarely welcomed – even when not in your hometown like Jesus in Luke 4! “The land is not able to bear his words” – an intriguing phrase. The land of promise, so solid, with growing things, even trembles under the weight of God’s Word. Thomas Jefferson (not noted for his piety) rightly said “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.”


   Amos’s vision is of a “plumbline,” as if God is a builder, measuring Israel’s moral straightness (or lack thereof). Sweeney points out that ’anak could mean “plaster” – as if God is a renovator. The walls of the kingdom’s lavish sanctuary and palace were in superb condition – or so they presumed. Marianne Williamson suggested that when we invite God into our lives, we expect a decorator to appear to spruce the place up a little. But instead, you look out the window, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear it all down and start over.


   My first pre-seminary sermon, somehow, latched onto Amos’s disclaimer: “I am not prophet.” I was no preacher, for sure. Amos wasn’t a pro; he spoke only under divine compulsion. Hans Walter Wolff: “Amos establishes a sharp contrast between a prophet by virtue of office and one called by the Lord, one trained and one sent, between a salaried cult official and his own independent activity sanctioned by the Lord alone.” Amaziah, not surprisingly, bans him from the precincts – and Amos’s reply proves he didn’t take Kindness 101 in seminary: “Your wife will be a prostitute, your children will be slaughtered.” Yikes.

    Colossians 1:1-14 opens an astonishingly eloquent letter, which commences with this flourish about faith, hope, love, fruitfulness. Paul was clearly energized, as verses 3 through 8 form a single sentence with no break in Greek. You have to love the way he portrays prayer. Our prayer requests are about gall bladders, better jobs and nice weather. Paul’s is that they may “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” What if we prayed this for one another?


   Some details: plerothete, “filled,” is a passive, intimating that God is the actor, as Jerry Sumney explains: “The Colossians do not attain this knowledge for themselves; God grants it to them. The divine passive represents a subtle rejection of the other teaching, which prescribed means for its adherents to attain heavenly knowledge and experiences for themselves.” Any versions of Christianity today that do the same?

    This business of “pleasing”: we ding pleasers, but God would be pleased. How cool is it that God actually can be pleased by us? Think you aren’t too important? You can please God. And you can “live a life worthy…” The verb here is peripateo, which means literally to “walk around.” As we walk around, our life is about pleasing God.

   And why bother? “He has rescued us from power of darkness.” Pretty different from the pale religiosity that imagines a distant God who gives you a boost now and then. Of course, Paul is just warming up for the brilliance of verses 15 and following… Verse 13 (in the meantime) carries a political ring: “One’s allegiance must shift to the king of the new realm. This requires the believer to relativize all other allegiances and commitments” (such as empire, nation, city, even family, as Sumney reminds us).

     Luke 10:25-37. They “test” Jesus – but the reader knows they stand little chance, as he’d survived the onslaught of the devil’s testing already. The tester “wanted to justify himself” – as do we all; this being our primal difficulty, right?


    Jesus, responding to queries about what love of God and neighbor are about, responds not with “Here are 7 principles of love for God” or “There are 6 ways to love your neighbor.” Instead he tells a story, and then winds up in a story. A made-up story – the best kind. I love it that in Israel you can visit “the Inn of the Good Samaritan” – which isn’t a real place... Love this photo of my daughter Sarah, aged 8, with Jason Byassee, at this spot! But back to the topic:

     “Love” (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) isn’t just an inner emotion, but something concrete, touching, doing, sacrificing – and not just for someone easy to love, or someone you really like. The “neighbor,” Jesus suggests, is the one who is offensive to you, the one you are least likely to “like,” a dreadful Samaritan (whom the Jews despised)… which raises awesome questions about how and where we spend our time and energy. 

 G.K. Chesterton wrote, “St. Francis loved everybody, but especially those others disliked him for liking.” Who is hard to love? and who is the stranger? According to Jesus, eternal life seems to hinge on whether we go out of our way, find these people, and love them, selflessly, thereby fulfilling God’s plan for our lives.

   In my preaching book, The Beauty of the Word, I suggest that with many texts, listeners have a sermon in their heads they believe you will preach. An excerpt: “So, at all costs, the preacher must know where people think the preacher is going – and steadfastly refuse to go there.  Suppose the reading is Luke 10:29-37, the duly famous parable of the Good Samaritan.  The reader begins, and people tune out – the way frequent flyers pay no attention whatsoever to the flight attendant who is reviewing the safety and emergency procedures before the plane takes off.  Where do they think you’re going with this text? They yawn and wait for the pedestrian lesson: ‘So often you’re like the priest or the Levite, in such a rush, hurrying right past the poor person who needs help.  But God wants you to be like the Samaritan.  Slow down, help the guy who’s beaten and bleeding by the side of the road.’ They are snoring by now, or rifling in their minds through the afternoon’s to-do list.

     Maybe the predictable sermon is more nuanced, with some modern parallels to today’s Samaritans:  ‘Jews and Samaritans loathed one another; we have our Samaritans, don’t we? People with AIDS? Immigrants? The poor (or rich) person across the tracks? Jesus wants us to love them.’  Like the priest and Levite, the bored pew sitters quite justifiably rush right past the poor bleeding sermon lying by the side of the road.

So what to do with the Good Samaritan text? You may not know just yet, but you firmly make a vow to yourself: ‘Whatever I say this Sunday, it will not be the predictable or the trite.’ Notice it may well be a superb idea to help people who are hurting, or to reconcile with strangers. But when Jesus told the story it wasn’t an old saw. People who heard him left home and family to follow him, risked life and limb to proclaim him. In fact, at the end of the day, Luke 10:29-37 is about this one they left home and family to follow. Jesus is the teller of the story, and that must matter. It’s not a free-floating story Confucius or Plato might have told. It’s from the mind and heart of Jesus, and the story is in full harmony with who he was.

     In hatching sermons we can reconsider what I call the ‘identification game.’ We hear a Bible story, and we begin to identify with some character or another – understandably, and even helpfully. But we don’t play around with the possibilities thoroughly enough. With the Good Samaritan, the options seem to be priest/Levite? or Samaritan? But what about the bloodied victim by the side of the road? Don’t listeners know what that feels like? What about the guys who beat him up in the first place? Whom have we hurt, even if unwittingly?

    These are questions with energetic potential in the preparation of a sermon. But the better questions are always about Jesus, the teller of the story – or by extension, about God, the subject of not just the sermon, but the subject of all subjects. Wasn’t Jesus beaten and bloodied? Wasn’t Jesus the one who spared no effort in helping a stranger? Isn’t Jesus the stranger? Augustine saw Jesus as the stranger who helps – and we may even see Jesus as the wounded one we tend to…

What can we say July 21? 6th after Pentecost

  I’m not preaching on Amos 8:1-12, but I’m drawn to the timeliness of his vision of a “basket of summer fruit” here in July! Amos is in full-bore judgment mode here. Preachers always have to assess when to speak judgment and when to voice hope; the catastrophe is when we get them reversed. Israel’s prophets do both, but at the right moment (perhaps in line with “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”?). John Goldingay rightly says “the true prophet knows what time it is.” How does the preacher know? and when is the preacher merely venting his or her own exasperations with the people?

    Lingering another moment here, I’m fond of Gerhard Lohfink’s thoughts: “According to biblical faith, the deceased are judged not according to a system, but by the living God.” So it's not Rules, and did you meet them? but a Relationship, and were you in it? I’d add God isn’t simply the judge, but also the defense attorney, and even the scapegoat bearing your judgment. More Lohfink: “When we encounter God in death, we will for the first time recognize with full clarity who we really are. God has no need to harangue us. We ourselves will judge and condemn the evil in us… The encounter with God in death will become an encounter with truth – about God, others, the world and ourselves. We can even hope for judgment, because truth is something in which we can rejoice.” For our hope is in the judgment that is God’s mercy – which clarifies, then purifies, then heals.

     Colossians 1:15-28 is an astonishing wonder of a text a preacher might marvel over – and not just to piece a sermon together. The style of this? Elevated, eloquent, with rhythm. It’s poetry, lyrical, maybe a hymn. Can the preacher’s style in the sermon be elevated, not chatty? Maybe we quote hymns, or poems – or just trust the text, re-read it to them people in short segments, or building to a crescendo, and then let it do its own work, of which it is more than capable. The writer wants readers to slow down, ponder, parse, reflect, re-read. Can the sermon help listeners to do so?

    In 1953, J.B. Phillips (the Eugene Peterson of his day!) published Your God is Too Small. The title tells it all. We eviscerate Jesus, narrow him down, putting him in some small box (personal savior, prophetic revolutionary, conservative stalwart, liberal pundit, compassionate guru) – yet our text blows our mind with how great Jesus is. The words are big (fullness, all, etc.). Hifalutin philosophical terms (eikon, arche, etc.) are trotted out by Paul (or "the author of Colossians," if you prefer) to try to capture how fabulous Jesus was, is and will be, always has been and will be. Jesus is expansively amazing, over, under and beyond all of creation – reminding us that our worship of him isn’t about us; we praise, adore, listen, fall slack-jawed on our knees, dizzy from the grandeur.

    It’s edgy and countercultural too. If you adore this Jesus you might wind up suffering (as the latter segment of our text underscores) – but you won’t even mind as you’re so lost in wonder, love and praise. Jesus is set though against claims of empire, as Jerry Sumney (in his very solid Colossians NTL commentary) explains: “The church possesses an allegiance that supersedes the claims of empire. This alternative allegiance will require them to live in ways that people around them see as disruptive and perhaps subversive of even illegal.” You can’t just swoon over Jesus if you don’t see him clearly, and if you don’t embrace what he’s about. I might praise my wife incessantly, but we might still wind up divorced if our values are out of sync (reminding us of the Amos text!!!).

    I will surely clarify to my people how this text alone debunks all the DaVinci Code nonsense (I still can't believe the guy who played Gandalf also played Sir Leigh Teabing!) – that Jesus was just a guy, and later politicians hatched the notion of his divinity to hold the empire together. As early as two decades after Jesus, while plenty of folks were around to know better were it not true, Colossians has the most gargantuan, high Christology imaginable – higher even than pedestrian Christians today.

   Luke 10:38-42 gives a narrative, at-home version of the praise in worship articulated in Colossians. Visiting with his friends in Bethany, Jesus did the unthinkable in Bible times: he permitted a woman to sit at a rabbi’s feet. Shocking, way out of bounds, overturning religious convention – again. The story’s context is crucial: he’s still unravelling the primal commandment to love God and neighbor. First he picks up love of neighbor with the Good Samaritan story. Now he dovetails back to love of God. It looks like Mary – and not Martha.

    We may well sympathize with Martha. It is probably the Feast of Tabernacles, so she is doing the right hostessing but also religious thing: providing a festive, complex meal. Quite rightly she upbraids Mary for doing nothing. Isn’t prayer and praise always doing nothing? I know of churches that have “Marthas,” a band of women who serve at meals. You just have to chuckle. Martha is scurrying about doing good – even for Jesus! But Jesus asks us to listen – for to what Jesus might want you to scurry about doing, but also just to him, just to be with him, to adore him.

    Listening is the heart of the life of faith. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, said (in his memoir of being a biographer, Working) that the key to research is leaving long, awkward silences during interviews. People will eventually fill the void. His notebooks are filled with marginal markings: SU, SU, SU. Shut up! We SU. We listen, we relish the silence with Jesus. Instead of Lord, hear our prayer, we say Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Mary listened – and the Greek is ekouen, the imperfect tense, implying “she kept listening.”

    Jesus chides Martha for being “anxious about many things.” What could be more apropos for people in our day? The solution, the conversion, is to fix on “one thing.” Søren Kierkegaard’s book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing comes to mind. How daunting is this for us? Early copyists of Luke Gospel made a fascinating textual change that can’t be a booboo! Instead of henos, “one thing” is needful, they shifted to oligos, “a few things are needful.” I can just imagine the abbot, the spiritual leader, getting frustrated over the monks not getting their work done; perhaps they even countered his demands by saying Jesus said only one thing is needful. He replied, and inserted it into Scripture, Well, a few things are needful.

    Jesus upends things by saying Mary has chosen the “better part.” St. Augustine suggested he meant “a better meal,” namely the Bread of Life, the Eucharist.

 

What can we say July 28? 7th after Pentecost


    Hosea 1:2-10 has provoked much conflicting commentary. Did God really tell Hosea to marry a prostitute? Or did he marry in good hope, but then her later infidelity, in retrospect, led him to see God using his experience to reveal how God feels about Israel? What sort of woman was she anyhow? I do wonder, with such texts, if they speak to the preacher about the carnage in personal life that can impact your ministry. And then Psalm 85 takes us from inappropriate, tragic intimacy to the loveliest, most picturesque kind of affection – when “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” I’ve tried preaching on this – but the vivid beauty of the line is so much greater than my paltry words.

     Colossians 2:6-19 continues this eloquent epistle’s soaring Christological assessment of Jesus and his implications for us. We “continue to live in him” – and the verb literally means “walk.” As we walk around, we are in him, he is in us – or I think of Pasolini’s wonderful film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” where Jesus is always walking somewhere, striding purposefully and urgently, the disciples struggling to keep up, as he teaches, looking back over his shoulder.

   This text reminds us that there are two parallel stories, two plots unfolding all the time: the obvious story of the world you see in the news and as you look around, but the other a hidden, elusive but certain narrative that unfolds unseen, entirely at odds with the other story, leading to God and goodness and redemption. The secret is not being deluded or diverted by the first story. William Temple famously said the world is like a shop window into which some devious person has sneaked at night and switched all the pricetags around. The lunacy of life is that we spend ourselves then on what has little value, missing the precious stuff.

    The paradox of the God story reaches its climax in the cross. The powers seem to have done him in and showed who’s boss. But from Colossians’s perspective, Jesus was dis-arming the powers, making a public spectacle of them. Like “That’s all you’ve got?” Or “This is where evil and the world wind up.” The striking image of nailing the law and its demands to the cross bears much reflection. I love Austin Farrer’s wisdom: “What, then, was done to this body? It was stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross: stripped of all dignity and all possession, scourged with the stroke of penal justice, and nailed up like a dead thing while it was still alive. The body you receive in this sacrament accomplished its purpose by nailing to a tree. You are to become this body, you are to be nailed: nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.”

    Luke 11:1-13 captures the disciples’ best request of Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” They had overheard and observed Jesus’ intimacy with God, Abba, and wanted in on it. I suspect our people want and need, above all else, to learn to pray, how to talk to God; like Paul, they are dimly aware that “We do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). We know prayer gets winnowed down into 911 panicked calls for health assistance.  

     Bonhoeffer’s wisdom here is unforgettable: “The phrase ‘learning to pray’ sounds strange to us.  If the heart does not overflow and begin to pray by itself, we say, it will never ‘learn’ to pray.  But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings – all of which the heart can do by itself – with prayer… Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.”

     Bonhoeffer used a helpful analogy. Children do not just know how to talk. Rather, “The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father.” So it is as we learn to pray. And the child must be shaped and molded in ways that may not suit the child’s immediate desires. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” Or as C.S. Lewis put in, “In prayer we lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” 

     Luke 11 begins with The Lord’s Prayer, well worth much explication, or a series of classes. Here is a little email series on it I sent out a few years back. Use it if you’d like. How different is this prayer from our usual praying! It’s about God more than me and my wishes – which get undermined, if Huxley was right in saying “Thy kingdom come means My kingdom go.” “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” will leave us plenty to do, making heavenly realities happen here and now. The reflexive forgiveness requirement is haunting, and bears repeating every few minutes in our rancorous culture.

    Having supplied this prayer as a good sample, Jesus continued with a story of a man banging on his friend’s door at midnight, demanding bread. George Buttrick once described prayer as “beating on Heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark.” Persistence in prayer will be hard for us in our “quick” culture, where speed and efficiency are everything, where we press a button and stuff gets delivered to your door. Prayer is not quick. Pray is not efficient. Communion with God isn’t won in fifteen seconds.

     The preachers should acknowledge that “Ask and it will be given you” is more discouraging than hopeful – as it fosters the illusion that “prayer works.” If it works, it doesn’t work very well – and people are grateful when pastor acknowledges what every Christian knows all too well. C.S. Lewis can help us: “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine – something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion, or else it is a personal contact between incomplete persons (ourselves) and the one utterly concrete Person (God). Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it. Confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us.”


   Same as in human relationships. My wife’s value isn’t in whether my requests to her “work.” A healthy marriage, like prayer, hinges on spending time together, listening, going places, discerning what she might want, loving each other, loving others. You have to love Jesus’ clever wording: fathers know how to give good gifts to their children – and so our heavenly father knows how to give… what? Good gifts? No: the Holy Spirit! God’s presence: that’s the answer to prayer, the point of prayer, the dream of all who pray. It’s all love – as Madeleine L’Engle explained so movingly. Over a long weekend, she and her husband Paul were waiting on his biopsy result. She kept praying, “Please, dear God, don’t let it be cancer.” Someone suggested that her prayer was invalid: it already either was or wasn’t malignant. But she said, “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 August 4? 8th after Pentecost


     I’m unsure which text I’ll choose, or if I’ll try a pair. All three are suggestive. Hosea 11:1-11 was a text I weirdly fell in love with in college. Taking a great course from Prof. Carl Evans on the prophets, I was coming to understand the severity of the judgment articulated by Amos and Hosea in the 8th century. This text’s turn from judgment to tender hope was so moving – and then some friends at church were digging this Christian band called Lamb, whose song “Comfort Ye My People” picked up on themes from Hosea 11, and then “Ephraim” replayed Hosea’s words explicitly. I was mesmerized by the Hebraic-feeling music, and the content. I wonder how often in preaching your own personal history with a text can be the stuff of a meaningful sermon – as we really are inviting our people to enter into a personal history with a text.

   How revolutionary, this image of God as the tenderly loving parent, history recast not as the movements of powers, but as a parent fondly caressing a child. The child isn’t useful, but helpless. Can we visualize God teaching a wee one to walk, scooping her up in the divine arms, lifting an infant to his cheek. Hans Walter Wolff’s great commentary notes how Hosea was the first to use “love” for how God chose and sustained the people: “The first event in the life of young Israel worthy of report is that Yahweh loves him.”

    Mind you, Freud popularized a common critique of religion – that our desire for God as parent is nothing but wish projection. 
Rabbi David Wolpe’s rejoinder? “That we wish God to be a parent does not that God must be a purely human projection. We also wish that flowers bloom, that children laugh, that sunsets streak red on the horizon. Perhaps we do wish God to be a parent. Perhaps God obliges. We cannot be asked to discard a belief because it comforts us.”

    I love that. The child in Hosea 11 is recalcitrant – and know as you preach, someone out there has loved a child who has bolted. God’s swirling rage of emotion is riveting. The Ancient Near Eastern deities bickered among themselves over whether to toss down thunderbolts or show mercy. Yahweh carries on that debate within Yahweh’s own heart. The emotion embedded in “How can I give you up? My heart recoils within me…” can be repeated and left to linger in the room while you’re preaching. Let the words do their own work in your rebellious children! Wolff’s remarks are wise: “God is completely sovereign over his own actions. He, unlike men, is independent of his partner’s actions – not compelled to react. The future will be determined by Yahweh’s decision to let his love rule.”

   Hosea likens the Lord’s coming to a lion. I likely will turn to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe’s moment when Mr. Beaver tells Susan Pevensie about Aslan. She trembles, saying “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion. He’s safe, isn’t he?” Mr. Beaver: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.”

    Colossians 3:1-11. Our post-Easter logic might be “If Christ is raised, you live assured you’ll go to heaven.” But for Paul, if Christ is raised, “then seek the things above.” The resurrection is like a mind/heart transplant. You think differently; you fixate on heavenly/divine things. Your life is “hidden” with Christ in God (kekruptai rightly reminding us of the adjective “cryptic,” as there is something mysterious – to others and even to yourself – about this life in Christ). It’s hidden: your Baptism, your conversion is in the past, yet that hidden past persists in you now; and the future is similarly hidden, your fruitful life in the fullness of God’s kingdom – the fruitfulness which commences now.

   Paul’s imagery intrigues. Not “try to do better” but “Put to death” anger, wrath, malice (notice how what we are to avoid can we characterized as the “seven deadly sins,” which weirdly have come to embody the “good life” in America!). The execution in question would be to visualize nailing these problematical moods to the cross – sort of the inverse of what we cited last week from Austin Farrer: “What, then, was done to this body? It was stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross: stripped of all dignity and all possession, scourged with the stroke of penal justice, and nailed up like a dead thing while it was still alive. The body you receive in this sacrament accomplished its purpose by nailing to a tree. You are to become this body, you are to be nailed: nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.”

   Paul shifts rapidly from the nailing image to clothing. The stripping off and the putting on: used often in Colossians. We might think of later baptismal rituals and the symbolism of new clothing. I love that moment when Francis of Assisi, removed his chic, stylish clothing, returned it all to his father Pietro, and donned the shabby attire of the poorest of the poor. I suspect we could persuade the most diligent of our people to try every day for the next week to stop when dressing in the morning, praying in their closet (as Jesus suggested in Matthew 6!), and envisioning a putting on of Christ for the day.

   For us, we are in a summer series on the meaning of various acts of worship. The offering will occupy us this day – as the offering isn’t raising money for the budget, but a demystifying of wealth, the weekly, worshipful counter to greed and the outsized place money plays in society and in our hearts. Colossians 3, and the Gospel text both stand as deadly serious warnings against laying up treasure on earth – and thus paradoxical invitations to generosity.

    Luke 12:13-21 is one of those texts that is so easy to ruin in the explanation. Like a good joke, talking about it shreds its impact. I wonder about the sermon that has a bit of an intro, and then just lets the parable linger in the air for people to ponder. Where I live, very fine homes are purchased, and torn down, to build bigger houses. But Jesus isn’t blasting people for their tear-downs… or is he? There’s a larger issue, of course, with these bigger barns.

    The context is pivotal. Someone in the crowd says “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” My mother died in February – and in handling her various accounts, I felt weird, unanticipated emotions rising up regarding who got what, how much, and why. I’d bet plenty of people I’ll preach to have felt some weirdness around inheritances. Jesus’ warning is to be on guard against “all kinds of greed.” That’s worth exploring: maybe greed isn’t just a thing, but a complex thing. There are “all kinds of greed.” Differing greeds about money. Greed for me can be about time. What is it for you? What do you suspect are the “all kinds of greed” your people harbor in their souls? Maybe you ask in the sermon, and leave some time for them to reflect without over-naming it for them.


    Jesus humorously portrays the guy in his parable as talking to himself. Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington point out that “Interior monologue in the Gospels is not a sign of wise circumspection but of self-centered plotting.” A better translation might be “calculated.” This parable is, of course, a variation on Jesus’ theme that rarely elicits much attention from “The Bible is clear!” people. “Do not lay up treasure on earth,” which we are masters of doing, and explaining away. Interestingly, and in fine Wesleyan fashion, Saints Ambrose, Augustine and Basil all construed the building up of ever greater barns for my own possessions as theft from the poor. The preaching challenge is how to convey any of this without browbeating? How do we not let them wriggle out from the stark claim of Jesus’ wisdom without castigating them? We begin with finding the words to speak with oneself as the preacher, who owns a few barns of his own?


What can we say August 11? 9th after Pentecost

    Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 is sort of an overture to Isaiah’s message, a little introductory anthology of his primary themes. Reluctant as we and our people might be to hear it, Isaiah’s mission is the disclosure of Israel’s sin (and our sin), the certainty of judgment, and their dire need of repentance. How interesting: the lectionary skates past verses 2-9, which expose the extent of Israel’s sin (which isn’t a minor peccadillo now and then but thoroughgoing fallenness!) and the severity of God’s judgment.

    The preacher needn’t skip – although any such preaching is dicey, as a call to repentance can be a thinly veiled expression of my frustration and anger at my people, or else a weirdly popular kind of grandstanding where our summons to repentance is nothing but a thinly-veiled critique of what we don’t like out there. To what degree is current talk about repentance something we think somebody else out there out to be doing? Examples abound… Or if we internalize it, how much is writhing in a mood of guilt, instead of genuine Old Testament repentance? – which would pick up on the Hebrew shuv, meaning to make a 180° turn, or even the Greek metanoia, meaning a change of mind? It’s not feelings of remorse, but real change.

    Isaiah (whose name means “The Lord saves”) sees a vision. Fascinating: like the author of Revelation, he is vouchsafed a glimpse into heavenly realities, into God’s very presence. Down on earth, the year must be 701 B.C.E.  After the stranglehold of the Assyrian juggernaut, Zion alone is left, and barely. The people foolishly saw its survival as a great blessing, as if God were pleased with them and not others. Always beware any theology that says I made it, they didn’t, God has sure been good to me.

    Isaiah gives voice to God’s exasperated assessment of their worship. At our previous denominational General Conference, I penned a blog on this that went viral – as it wasn’t hard to imagine, after our lovely, moving worship, overhearing God saying “Remove from me the noise of your worship,” as we fought like cats and dogs once worship had ended. Isaiah’s God chides them for the futility of their sacrifices – making me shudder, as we don’t even bother with the sacrifices before we cause God to shudder.

   Notice that God notices that their “hands are full of blood” (v. 15) – thinking of their guilt, reminding us of Lady Macbeth. In Israel, worshippers hands were not just metaphorically stained with blood. The animal sacrifices would have left bloody traces on their hands, a vivid image the prophet points to. The preacher can play with this: Pilate tried to wash his hands of Jesus but could not. Lady Macbeth could not rid her house of its guilt. Jesus, the bearer of all guilt, died with his own blood all over his own hands. I wonder if this is a Sunday to revive a couple of those old, gory but theological pointed hymns about the blood of Jesus.

   Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 begins a long, eloquent text, a roll call of heroes of the faith, as if the author was thumbing through Scripture in his mind. I wonder if the preacher might do just that: hold a Bible, start in Genesis, thumb through, mentioning Abel, Abraham, Moses, David. I’d add a few from the New Testament, and church history (“By faith, St. Francis…” “By faith, my grandmother…”).

    People think faith is believing spiritual things, or having religious feelings, or trusting God will do stuff I ask for. Hebrews, with simplicity and yet near-philosophical sophistication, defines faith as the substance (hypostasis, what stands under or supports, a foundation, and thus the real nature of things, with the added nuance of serving then as a pledge, a down payment) of things hoped for (elpizomenon). Hope is always worth repackaging for our people. Late in his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., said “I am no longer optimistic, but I remain hopeful.” Christopher Lasch distinguished these well: optimism believes things will get better tomorrow; hope is ready if things don’t get better. Optimism is up to us doing better; hope depends on God.

    Faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” What isn’t seen? Invisible, spiritual realities? Not in the Bible’s understanding. The unseen things are in the future. Our future is secure with God, so faith can live in the uncertainty and even agony of now. Luke Timothy Johnson: “Faith makes actual, or makes ‘real,’ for believers the things that are hoped for, as though they were present… They are understood to be as real, or even more real, than things that can be ‘seen,’ that is, verified by the senses.” Here I love a thought David Steinmetz used to emphasize about Martin Luther – for whom “the organ of faith” was the ear, not the eye. The eye can deceive; we are fooled by what we see (or don’t see). The ear hears – and hears God’s Word, which can be trusted no matter how things look.

   Hebrews deftly reminds us that when Abraham was called, “he went, not knowing where he was to go.” Genesis 12 portrays God telling Abraham to go – where? “A place I will show you.” Jesus called his disciples to go… where? They had no clue. In my Will of God book, I explore this at some length: we want a map, or to know “God’s plan for my life,” when in reality we simply follow, taking the next step. “Thy word is a lamp to my feet” – not a brilliant Coleman lantern, but a Bible-times little pottery lamp that might light up the road for about 4 or 5 feet. You go, you take the next step, then the next.

    Hebrews 11’s images are powerful. Abraham “had no city,” but God was creating one for him (and God’s people). Robert Caro tells about Lyndon Johnson arriving in Washington as a young man from the hill country of Texas. He would walk toward the Capitol building, glistening in the rising sunshine, and he would begin to run out of sheer delight. Sarah had no fertile womb. God’s will, God’s way for you, but more importantly for God’s church, does not depend on our resources but on God’s vision and our following, not our ability but our availability.

    How poignant is it that Abraham (just like Moses) died not seeing the fulfillment of the promise, not participating in what all of life had been a pursuit of. No, he “greeted it from afar.” Moses did this from Mt. Nebo: Hello, promised land… The preacher would be wise to point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon (“I’ve seen the promised land… I may not get there with you”) – or Reinhold Niebuhr’s great wisdom (“Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope”).

     Lk 12:32-40 is an assortment of Jesus’ short, pithy sayings. We might think of Wendell Berry’s similar list of counsels, “Manifesto” (“Every day do something that won’t compute. Work for nothing. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Give your approval to what you cannot understand. Praise ignorance. Ask questions that have no answers. Plant sequoias. Practice resurrection”). How different (worth noting in a sermon!) are Jesus and Berry from the conventional wisdom you find on posters or in chat rooms.

    A few details. Jesus calls them his “little flock.” How tender. How humbling for them, and yet how hopeful. “Let your loins be girded” means, as Levine and Witherington put it, “Let your long, ankle-length robe be adjusted by the waist-belt to ensure readiness for action or departure.” The “breaking into” of the thief means literally “dug through.” We can paint the picture of the mud-brick walls of houses in those days. It would take a while – almost like Andy’s escape from prison in The Shawshank Redemption!

    As always, Jesus emphasizes our need to travel light, to own little, to give with abandon – and that to lay up treasure in heaven is accomplished not by being pious but by outlandish, generous giving to those in need (as Augustine, Ambrose and Chrysostom explained early on). If our people wonder why we don’t experience much Jesus or resurrection, we need look no further. How might we, and our people, make even incremental progress on such things?

What can we say August 18? 10th after Pentecost

    Isaiah 5:1-7 is a vivid parable of a well-tended vineyard failing to produce fruit, reminding us perhaps of Jesus finding that tree to be unfruitful. If you visit biblical sites in Israel, you notice the omnipresence of wine presses. Bible people were utterly familiar with vineyards, fruit, wine-making, light years from the elitist sommeliers and wine tours we see today; Bible people were close to the earth, and knew its processes. Gisela Kreglinger, a theologian who grew up in a wine-producing family, has written a fascinating book, The Spirituality of Wine, well worth exploring! A barren vineyard would have raised questions about the roots, the weather, the soil, bugs, laziness.

    Isaiah 5 is couched as a love song, beginning in tender joy (with verbal echoes of the Song of Songs!) – but it turns quickly to scathing critique, featuring wickedly harsh wordplay. God looked for mishpat (justice) but found only mispach (bloodletting); God sought zedekah (righteousness) but found only ze’akah (a yelp of pain). Memorable, haunting words that cannot have been well-received by the smug who first heard them.

     Preparing to preach on this? Drive to a vineyard, get in a conversation with a laborer or two, or the vintner. Ask about frustrations. Get the feel of the place. Get the feel of what God felt. Or ask people around your parish or neighborhood of times they felt they had labored hard but earned nothing but exasperation in return. You’ll be getting close then to the heart of this text.

     Hebrews 11:29-12:2 continues the roll call of Israel’s heroes of faith from last week. I love the “time will fail me” in v. 32 – kin to the scene in Sleepless in Seattle, when Jonah springs a phone call with radio therapist Dr. Marcia Fieldstone on his dad, Sam. She asks, “What was so special about your wife?” He responds, “Well, how long is your program?” The preacher can tantalize people by playing on this, and just rattling off names and brief summaries of the exploits of Bible heroes (including those saints who've lived past Bible times!).

     How intriguing is Hebrews’s spin that “They grew powerful out of weakness” – a common biblical theme, and one re-popularized in our day by Jean Vanier, Brené Brown and others. Verse 38 reminds us of the Desert Fathers… Even all these great heroes didn’t get what God has prepared, which is better. Wow. If so, for us, we “put aside every impediment” – raising homiletical questions about what impediments people carry around like some heavy backpack.

    The race running image: if you aren’t a runner, or even if you are, interview a few runners. Review the text and see what they say about running, discipline, the mental battle, injuries, cheerleading, whatever.

    And the “cloud of witnesses” image is so powerful! I preached a few years back at our conference’s memorial service for clergy and their spouses who had died in the past year. I tried to think about tears – which are little droplets of water. What is a cloud, but little droplets of water all together? And that such little droplets are at their most colorful and beautiful – when? – at the end of the day, as the sun is setting. We have lost great ones, and we have tears – but those tears are gathered up into a cloud, and the refraction of light is stunning, lovely.

    Finally, Luke 12:49-56 is a great text, although I won’t focus on it. The family division is tough to talk about, although we have someone like St. Francis of Assisi (who could be an addendum to the Hebrews 11 list!) winding up cut off from his father Pietro because of his following Christ (as depicted so powerfully in Giotto's fresco). Certainly Christian faith doesn’t make families chipper or hold them together. It might, but often does not. Idolatry of the family is one of the naggingly pernicious blockers to people following Jesus – again, growing out of our nasty tendency to think that the Christian life is about being nice, or my goodness, or as a prop to our prearranged, preferred lives. Serious adherence to Jesus inevitably breaks down human relationships.

What can we say August 25? 11th after Pentecost

   For us, August 25 is sort of a “promotion Sunday,” with children moving on up to the next grade in Sunday School – not to mention school starting. So Jeremiah 1:4-10 begs for preaching attention; it’s time to ponder the young.

     Jeremiah is called as a “youth,” a na’ar, maybe a young teen? The preacher might help a church family to thrash through how they think about whatever youth they have. “Oh, let the youth serve a meal at the shelter,” or “How neat our youth go on a mission trip” or whatever. Then churches can be just as dismissive of youthful idealism, teenaged dreams for the church; or churches don’t bother to ask, or to listen. What if churches, instead of insuring the token youth member on the board, asked children and teenagers what sort of church they dreamed of us being – and then we made that our agenda? Jesus was pretty adamant about us all becoming like children, welcoming children, etc. I love it that Pope John Paul II, at his inauguration on October 22, 1978, chose to speak to the youth of the world, telling them “You are the future of the world, you are the hope of the Church, you are my hope.”

    But Jeremiah’s call came way before is teenage years. God called him in his mother’s womb – or earlier! A sermon could dwell profitably on how we all came to be in our mother’s womb. Hans Urs von Balthasar spoke of “the terrible accidentalness of sexual causation” – how you came to be in some weird mix of intentionality or the proverbial back seat. The act itself, described unforgettably by geneticist Adam Rutherford: “On contact, that winning sperm released a chemical that dissolved the egg’s reluctant membrane, left its whiplash tail behind, and burrowed in.”

   In the womb, where God “knit you together” (Psalm 139!), you were utterly dependent. In fact, nobody knows you’re there – except God – for some time. We speak of navel gazing – but your navel, mostly collecting dust all these years, was your lifeline. What is God’s calling from, in, even before your arrival in the womb? We think of calling as something you hear, dodge or refuse now as a grownup. But way back then, when you were a microscopic next to nothing, God was already calling you. What if parents, on learning of a pregnancy, instead of the dramatic, showy gender reveal, pondered questions like “What is God calling this new life within to be?” St. Dominic’s mother dreamed, while pregnant, that she gave birth to a dog with a torch in his mouth.

   I have a book coming out later this year on Birth. Here is a little excerpt on this call business: If God is fully present in utero, if God somehow knit us together, if God understands better than we the complex realities of life in the womb and the daunting challenges of the journey ahead, then can we make sense of God’s will, of God’s desire for this fragile, latent person in the making? Is God merely rooting for survival? If mom and dad are already harboring dreams for this child, then how much more will God already be envisioning a holy, faithful life for this disciple-to-be? We think of God’s calling coming to attentive seekers, to young adults or to those in mid-life crisis. But in utero? Isaiah 49:5 teases out the idea that the prophet had been formed in the womb by God “to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him.” Jeremiah countered God’s call by saying “I am only a youth”; but then on further reflection, he began to intuit that God had actually begun calling him from his mother’s womb (Jer. 1:4-10).

     A fetus can detect sound at twenty six weeks. Can it hear God? Does God call particular people, or all people, even in their mothers’ wombs? What is calling anyhow? Is the divine call a voice out of nowhere? Isn’t each person’s sense of divine vocation a symphony of voices that call? Messages overheard from mom and dad, attributes and skills fostered in the womb and later, chance encounters, some church chatter and personal musing mixed in there: we process it all and infer God is asking something of us. Frederick Buechner famously wrote that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

     Fascinating: the world’s deep hunger is out there, waiting for you to be born and notice; and your deep hunger is already there, festooned in your DNA, destined by the parents you happen to have and the place you’ll happen to live. What if mom and dad began, during pregnancy, to ponder that this unseen child is already being called by God? And what if you and I reminisce a bit and puzzle over what we probably missed back then, and since – that God was calling us, even in utero?

    As I puzzle out in the book, the infant, in utero, is already worshipping. I’ve handed the Eucharistic bread to many a pregnant woman and wanted to say “The Body of Christ, given for y’all.” As a teenager, Jeremiah engaged in the usual ducking and weaving, dodging God’s longstanding call. Like Moses (can’t speak), Isaiah (not holy enough), Jonah (the Assyrians are unworthy) or Mary (I’ve never slept with a man), Jeremiah is too young. He may just be chicken, as God’s call is for him to upset the status quo, questioning the politics of his day.

    God’s call is a famous “chiasm” – the crossing, a downright crucifix of language: “to pluck up, to break down, to build, to plant.” See the criss-cross? We’d rather God just build and plant without the plucking up and breaking down! Marianne Williamson memorably said that when we invite God into our lives, we expect a decorator to appear to spruce up the place a little. But instead, you look out the window, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear it all down and start over.

    Hebrews 12:18-29 is just quite strange for me, requiring way too much research and explaining… That God is a “consuming fire” is intriguing, as, like the plucking up and breaking down in Jeremiah, we’d rather God not do the consuming fire thing.

    Luke 13:10-17 is another Sabbath miracle. Jesus is “in one of the synagogues.” I wish I knew which one! But if it’s Capernaum, or Magdala, or Chorazim, we might envision it as a smallish room paved in grey basalt (like the synagogue from Chorazin, pictured here), worshippers thronging together. The woman is sometimes misunderstood as being unwelcome due to gender, or for ritual impurity – but as Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us, this is one more instance of anti-Semitic reading. Women were welcome. The crippled bore no ritual impurity.

   This woman had suffered for 18 years from – osteoporosis? severe curvature of the spine? She has a disability – and the church is finally waking up to issues of disability, which really is a social construct, not a real thing in itself. Can we welcome all people? Can we not even in welcoming disenfranchise or stigmatize the so-called physically disabled?
  I love the marvelous NPR interview with Ben Mattlin - a quadriplegic, who has blogged about the giftedness of disability. He attended a funeral of a friend where all the preaching was about his wheelchair-bound friend being able to jump and run around. Mattlin was mortified, explained why (read his views here), and concluded “Are there no wheelchairs in heaven? I’m not buying it. For me, if there is a heaven, it’s not a place where I’ll be able to walk. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter if you can’t.”

    Jesus’ issue is with the leader of the synagogue. Levine and Witherington suggest that the leader has a fair point: “Medical practitioners today can expect that on Sunday morning they would not be asked between the first hymn and the sermon to provide therapeutic aid to people with nonpainful chronic conditions.” St Augustine allegorizes: “The whole human race is like this woman, bent over and bowed down to the ground” – reminding me of the medieval analogy of the hunchback, forever bent toward the ground, never able to look up and pray, as symbolic of our fallen state. I won’t go there, though. Plenty here without resorting to such.