Tuesday, January 1, 2019

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.

What can we say September 1? 12th after Pentecost

    Jeremiah 2:4-13. God sounds like a wounded lover or fractured parent here: “What wrong did they find in me?” Do we do this – finding fault with God? Or is it exasperation that the God of Scripture isn’t quite the God we’re looking for, or that God is inadequate somehow to the tasks we place on God’s shoulders.

   From God’s perspective, they “went after worthless things, and thus became worthless.” The Hebrew is hebel, featured so provocatively in Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”): hebel is a wisp, a breeze, nothing really, just dust settling. Can I show hebel somehow? Dropping a little shred of paper or some dried up leaves?

     When we as people pursue what is worthless, we ourselves become what our pursuits are. If we pursue God and substantive holiness, we become just that. Fascinating: our searching, our quest defines who we become! The preacher is wise to ask, Who are the vain recipients of our devotion? – and it’s such a long list. Political ideology, for sure. Things. Others. Self. Institutions. I wonder if the church itself, as an institution, might be a curious kind of vain recipient of devotion.

   Jeremiah suggests that we ask the wrong questions, or we fail to ask the right questions, like “Where is the Lord” (which any random person might ask) – and yet it’s not just any Lord, but “the one who brought us up out of Egypt.” Jeremiah wonders if the priests (that’s us, the preachers!) ask “Where is the Lord?” The preacher should ask this question now, later today, tomorrow, every day.

     “Do people change their gods?” Well of course they do, have, and will! A sermon could explore the bogus gods we fixate on, and dream upon – but with Jeremiah’s nuance that “Mine have changed their glory for what does not profit.” Wow. Romans 1 echoes! God’s glory (kabod) is swapped for the unprofitable (yō‘īl).
     Jeremiah explicates, wonderfully, the double fix we are in. Not only has God been forsaken, but the new fake deities exasperate. Jeremiah’s image is that they forsake the living water, the font, the spring of fresh water – did he have one in mind? – for “cracked cisterns that hold no water.” What a vivid image! Can you, the preacher, locate modern parallels for cisterns that hold no water?

    I love Elizabeth Achtemeier’s language: “Given a garden, we choose a desert (Gen. 3), and thirst and heat and fainting, as frantically we look for water from the useless deities of our own making.” Sounds like a mirage to me.

     I recall my dad driving to the beach when I was a child. I’d see the mirage of what I thought was the ocean – but it was merely heat, rippling across the hollow road. But the water was still to come! We were headed to the beach! I wonder if there’s a sermon there: the mirage is deceptive – but we really can anticipate something astonishing and life-giving.

     Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 is a rich, astonishing text!  Our unknown author says “Let mutual love (philadelphia!) continue” – but this makes me wonder if he should have said “Let mutual love begin!” It’s not like we see it all that much. The Greek, philadelphia, reminds me of the Tom Hanks film by that name – about a man suffering from HIV and AIDS, simply asking, in those early days, for fairness, acceptance, justice and love. The goal of philadelphia isn’t merely enjoying people like us, but philoxenia, love for strangers. Why love them? Hebrews, like Genesis 18 (Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers b the Oaks of Mamre), reveals that God has this quirky way of using the stranger to test us, to let God’s self be made known to us, for new life to come through them, the them who should be we/us

    You have to love the vision of Hebrews here. Remember those in prison – as if you were in there with them. A bold act of imagination, abetted if we heed Jesus’ thought from his last sermon (Matt. 25:31-46) – that when we show up in the prison to visit, we are in the company of Jesus himself!
    What is an “undefiled marriage bed”? Two lie down: is the defilement lust (even then)? Dominance? Judgment? Iciness? Welcoming a stranger in this place is defilement. Listeners will suspect homosexuality might be in play here – and it must be the case that even those who totally embrace same gender relationships and marriage have to recognize that those beds too can be defiled in the same way straight beds are.
   The counsel to “Be content” is almost as numbing as the Bible’s frequent admonition, “Be not anxious.” It’s like piling on! But the preacher has to do what no one else will: expose Madison Avenue and all advertising for what it is – a constant clamor digging into everyone’s soul, shouting Do not be content! You need more, newer, different gadgets, stuff, clothes, experiences. Contentment isn’t even Okay, now I possess enough of those things. The Greek arkoumenoi means enough, sufficient – and then clarifies resides in God’s promise never to forsake us. Flannery O’Connor once spoke of the Eucharist, noting how it’s not much yet it’s more than enough: “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

    And finally this formulaic “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” – a glorious truth, not to be confused with crazed notions that Church rules or Bible interpretations are the same yesterday, today and forever!

     Luke 14:1, 7-14. I allude to this passage constantly, as it unveils how thin our alleged attachments to Scripture can be. The Bible is clear! Or We stand with Scripture! melts away (or should) when we notice how utterly uninterested we are in Jesus’ very simple and doable Scripture admonitions like Luke 14. I’m less sure how to preach on this. Just let it linger? Give people a few minutes to jot down whom they’ve eaten with lately? Or had over to their home?
    Certainly Jesus flunked Miss Manners’s course in etiquette. Dinner with him is one faux pas after another! Jesus helps us see how we discern honor and shame at table – of all places! And it’s even more humbling to notice Jesus doesn’t say Don’t only invite those who can invite you in return – but flat out, Don’t invite them! Sheesh.

    Where’s the Good News? Jesus would liberate us from narrow social interactions – and from patronizing versions of mission in his name. For years, my churches have collected food to be sent off somewhere for the hungry. Or I think of people who have with some grandiosity walked into my office with a ham, asking me to get it to some poor person. On bad days I’d say Thanks! On better days I’d say Find someone and deliver it to them yourself. On my best days I’d say Take it home, and invite the people you have in mind into your home and share it with them. That’s a Jesus-y meal, right?
    It’s also Jesus’ intense love for the fullness of our souls that is evident in his dinner commandment. I’ve often said If you only hang around with people who are like you, you become arrogant and ignorant. I know of no exceptions. What better way to shed some arrogance and ignorance than to share a meal, at your own place, with someone very different?

What can we say September 8, 13th after Pentecost?

   Jeremiah 18:1-11. Jeremiah is told by God to “Go to the potter’s house.” Last time around in the lectionary cycle, I did. I visited a potter in her studio, wrote a sermon with her, then brought the potter to my house. My sermon was a conversation with her – and in a couple of our services, she actually worked on a pot right in front of us! (Listen here - it was amazing!).

   The language potters use is theologically suggestive. Clay gets spoiled, so the potter reworks it. If it’s wonky, the potter has to redeem it. The potter is never sure how the pot will turn out; the clay “talks back” to the potter. The clay is passive – but has its own life and nature that can resist the potter!

   The potter strives to open up the clay. Keeping the clay centered is key – and two hands are required to shape, reshape, begin again, refine. The outside must conform to the inside. Hard clay is a challenge – and so the potter adds water (so can we think tears? Baptism?). The clay gets exhausted – and so is set aside for a time (can we think John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, “Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you”?). Time, patience, practice are required. The potter continually learns from each new pot. And you can’t force the clay. You let the wheel do its work, its force being more pivotal than the hands, which merely shape.

   Pottery is frustrating – and Jeremiah pinpoints that moment the potter (God) wants to start over and make the clay into something new and different, so resistant is Israel to God’s way. Israel is wonky, needing redemption. Israel and all of us need to interiorize Augustine’s famous thought: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Not just as individuals either! – but as a people, as the family of God.

   Philemon 1:1-21. I’ve never tried this, but you can preach a whole sermon on a whole book – which is nothing but somebody else’s mail. Paul wrote a letter pleading with his friend to liberate his slave Onesimus. This little window into shared social responsibility in a world that does not share our social commitments is telling, instructive, and probably exemplary. To whom might we speak regarding the fulfillment of the Christian vision? What word might each of us bear as an invitation to a different way of life?

   Paul alludes to the church meeting in Philemon’s home – so he must have been a man of means. A sermon could build on home-as-church (with Merton’s admonition that “Christians should have quiet homes,” places of peace, solitude, prayer and reflection). Paul also indulges in much flattery in his long warm-up to make his pitch for Onesimus. God’s kingdom is a social flattening, an end to every caste or pecking order. The rhetoric astonishes: he once was useless to you, but now is useful once more – but not in the way you’d imagined (as a returned slave!). He is now your brother – and useful thus in converting your soul!

    Some story will come to you that embodies this. I may tell what happened recently with our dear friend Dorothy Counts Scoggins. In 1957, Dot was the first African-American sent into a white school in Charlotte. And they sent her alone! The drama is commemorated now in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Recently, two Girl Scouts, 5th graders in that very same building Dot entered 62 years ago, erected a bench and plaque in her honor. When she arrived for the dedication, dozens of children waved signs saying You are welcome here now! We love you! – whereas she’d been spat on, hit and mocked 62 years earlier.

     Or you have the funnier moment in Forrest Gump when Bubba’s family made a fortune and went from serving as the hired help to hiring help… but that’s not quite on point, is it?

   Luke 14:25-33. No sweet Jesus here, inviting hatred of father and mother. We can handle the text, but dare not ignore it. Francis of Assisi is one of a horde of Christians who shattered their own families in order to follow Jesus. The moment Francis, being sued by his father Pietro, gave all he had back to him and swore his sole allegiance to God as his Father. I know I have a very personal story that fits this mold - and the question is always whether to tell something so personal and agonizing or not. It embodies the text quite vividly, but can distract from the main point?

    This taking up the cross isn’t grimacing and praying hard or doing without a few things for Jesus. Joel Marcus, in his great Anchor commentary on Mark, directs us to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had to say about going to death row in the Gulag – which is what taking up your cross would have meant: From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the threshold, you must say to yourself: My former life is over, I shall never return. I no longer have property. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious to me. I can’t re-use those words often enough in preaching.

   Jesus eases back a little from death row to counting the cost of building a tall tower. If I have time, I’ll refer to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, in which Tom, the mason, ruminates on what it means and requires to build a tall cathedral: “He had worked on a cathedral once. At first he had treated it like any other job. He had been angry and resentful when the master builder had warned him that his work was not quite up to standard: he knew himself to be rather more careful than the average mason. But then he realized that the walls of a cathedral had to be not just good but perfect. This was because the cathedral was for God, and also because the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure fatally. Tom’s resentment turned to fascination. The combination of a hugely ambitious building with merciless attention to the smallest detail opened Tom’s eyes to the wonder of his craft. He learned about the importance of proportion, the symbolism of various numbers, and the almost magical formulas for working out the correct width of a wall or the angle of a step in a spiral staircase. Such things captivated him.  He was surprised to learn that many masons found them incomprehensible.”  What if we thought of our life with God, our pursuit of holiness, our determination to be the church, in such thoughtful terms?

   One wrinkle though. If we ponder the cost of building, we might assemble lots of wood, bricks, shingles, nails, carpenters, painters, etc. – whereas the cost of discipleship, the cost of a holy life, is more divestment than assembling. You unload the stuff you have. Well, maybe you do keep the carpenter!

What can we say September 15? 14th after Pentecost

    The selection of texts. I love (vainly?) to say the lectionary imposes discipline on me – but then do I select the easy one among the weekly offerings? Luke 15 is far more palatable to preach on than Jeremiah 4. Does God want us to preach the tough one – tough for our people but even tougher for the clergy? And then I wonder, when weighing texts, if God doesn’t want one of them to be one we linger over and ponder, but don’t actually preach upon? 1 Timothy 1 might be a great gift to the preacher personally, not to be skipped over but relished.

    Jeremiah 4:11-28. I continue to wonder how to preach these texts (and both testaments have them, including right from the lips of Jesus!) which are straight up, severe judgment. I could just blast my people – and some days they tempt me sorely! I wonder about teasing out what happened back then (so, Judeans were going through the motions, didn’t parse their own waywardness or their external threats, so here’s how Jeremiah reported on what was in God’s aggrieved heart) – and then (1) get a tad sarcastic, like Thank God none of this applies to us! or (2) find the way to tremble and with utter humility and solidarity with the people say Friends, I’ve been lying awake this week, wondering if we aren’t grieving God’s heart in just this way.

   What a vivid image Jeremiah employs when he speaks of the hot, burning east wind. The theological nuance of the Hebrew is inescapable: it’s a ruach, same word as God’s creative wind, same word we render as God’s Spirit. In this case, God’s Spirit is dry, harsh, unbearable. Jeremiah is thinking of the sirocco, the violent wind that scorches from the Arabian desert to the east. George Adam Smith described it in his diary: “Atmosphere thickening. Wind rises, gale blowing air filled with fine sand, horizon less than a mile, sun not visible, grey sky with almost no shadow.” Thinking of this ungentle breeze, David Grossman entitled his harrowing book about the destructive violence of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis Yellow Wind.

    Is God like this sirocco? Does God unleash horrors on us out of the swirl of God’s wounded, grieved heart? Or is it that God created the world with an order that isn’t flouted without consequences – and so when we get sideways with God, there are terrors? Martin Luther distinguished between God’s proper work and God’s “alien work.” Wrath is simply the goodness, the grace of God, but how it comes at us when we are at a bizarre angle or entirely out of sync with God. If we pray for God’s Spirit, will it be a cool, life-giving breeze, or a harsh, burning wind of judgment? Are our social anxieties, our political issues, fretting over security, family division, international strife and injustices abounding all instances of the harsh east wind of God’s sorrowing over us? Can I tell this in a way that moves my people to repentance (which Jeremiah himself didn’t get done!)?

   1 Timothy 1:12-17. I have a curious attachment to this text ever since I was on a retreat years ago and somebody handed me a little card saying “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me trustworthy in making me his minister” – 1 Timothy 1:12. My gut reaction was “This translation must be out of kilter, or tendentious in some way.” But the sense is Paul’s, expressing surprise and gratitude that, yes, God chose me to be God’s minister. I have had hundreds of these printed over the years. I stick them in notes written to clergy, I hand them out when I speak at clergy events, and I keep one in my car, one on my desk, and one in my sock drawer just to encourage and remind me.

   I did hear a clergyman attempt what Paul attempts here. I didn’t know him at all – but heard him declaring at some length “I am a worse sinner than any of you.” Hard not to scratch your head and wonder what he was harboring inside… Sermon didn’t go anywhere good. I think Luke Timothy Johnson’s summary of the glory hidden in Paul’s manipulative language is helpful: “The mercy shown Paul was not simply forgiveness of past behavior, but the gift of power that enables him to live in a new way.”

   Luke 15:1-10 (which I preached on last time around): is this really the easy one? Jesus’ signature is all over this short text. 
I’ll never forget the evening we had my former coworker and constant friend Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor of Capitol Hill UMC in Washington, back for a program. I opened by asking her a question she didn’t know I would ask: Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story –that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us.

    The sheep story echoes this. It’s not sufficient in God’s Kingdom to say, Hey, we have 99, that’s not bad. No, we even risk losing the mass in hand to search out the one that’s lost. 
I chuckle over the Mitch Hedberg comedy routine: you’re in a restaurant, and they call for the Dufresne family – but no reply. They move on to the next name – but Mitch wants to hunt for the Dufresnes: “They’re not only lost. They’re hungry.” The one sheep is lost, and hungry…

    Of course, this little parable tells us how to be the church. And it tells us about God – and we dare not miss the note of Joy in God’s heart featured so prominently. Years ago I heard someone I can’t recall preaching (isn’t this the way? – and a humbling realization for us who preach!) who used this evidently true story as an illustration. Several families were camping out west someplace, and as it was getting dark, when getting ready for dinner, they noticed a little girl named Cathy wasn’t there. Their search gradually became increasingly frantic as night began to fall. “Cathy! Cathy! Cathy!” everyone was shouting as they fanned out. Hours passed as their terror mounted. Finally, almost at dawn, someone stopped shouting “Cathy!” and got really quiet – and heard the soft sound of a whimpering child. There was Cathy, suffering from some bruises, scrapes and exposure. They took her to the closest hospital where she was treated, and then her family was home that night. Her dad tucked her into bed, kissed her goodnight, turned out the light and was about to close the door when he heard her voice. “Daddy?” “Yes, sweetheart?” Perched on her elbow, she smiled and said to him, “I bet you’re glad you found me.” He replied, “Oh, if you only knew.”

What can we say September 22? 15th after Pentecost

   Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. I preached on this exactly three years ago; it went well, but now I’m hunting some fresh angles so as not to bore myself (much less them!).

   I’m struck by Jeremiah’s lament that “My joy is gone.” Jeremiah has never struck me as someone ever exhibiting the slightest joyfulness… and what was joy, after all, back in the Iron Age? Hardly a comfortable, satisfying life full of fun and relationships. His joy “has gone up” (as in “flew away”), and if that weren’t bad enough, grief “has come down.”

   Such famous lines! “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Christians who want quick turnarounds might attend to Jeremiah’s timeline, where hope is assured – in a few decades, not years or weeks or days.

   Our choir will surely sing “There is a balm in Gilead,” but the hymn/anthem turns Jeremiah’s intent into something sweeter than it should be. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” – a region known for its healing ointments. The answer? Of course there is a balm in Gilead – but it is of no use. The problem is deeper, down in the very marrow of the national soul.

   Jeremiah’s grief is to be pondered. He not only grieves. He yearns to grieve even more. He wants to weep. “Oh that my head were a spring of water, my eyes a fountain of tears.” Who wants more sorrow? The one in sync with God; the one who gets Bob Pierce’s wish: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.” Preaching should perhaps begin with some sorrowing, even tears over our people and the world.

   Tears may heal or purge in some way. For Jeremiah, it’s all about solidarity with God. If you do not know Maggie Ross’s The Fountain and the Furnace, I commend it to you as one of the wisest, most provocative and profound books on life with God and ministry ever. Here is just a small sample of what she says about weeping: “God baptizes us with tears. God loves creation enough to weep over it. As the divine breath still moves over the salted water of creation, so with tears Mercy bathes and mothers us into new life with her life. It is strange that we have repudiated our tears… We have lost the understanding that the salt of tears is the savor of life. We need to recover our understanding of the life-flood of tears, God’s and ours, that mothers the fire of our life.”

   Is there a sermon where we pause and simply weep together?

   1 Timothy 2:1-7. Paul presses for prayers “for all men.” Luke Timothy Johnson points out that the noun here is anthropos, not anēr, so it’s not males but all people; Johnson calls this “a leap forward in early Christian consciousness.” I like to think he’s right, given how paternalistic and male-centered Scripture seems to be.

   Preaching could devote itself properly to the idea that we pray “for kings.” Most people either grouse about the President – or mindlessly fawn over him. What if we expended these energies in prayer for the one in power? The prayer itself is dicey, as it’s not a blessing of or divine endorsement of the powerful. Johnson again is helpful: “The prayer for rulers is the Jewish and Christian way of combining a refusal to acknowledge earthly princes as divine and the duties of good citizens of the world.” He claims there is “an implicit critique of any claims they might put forward concerning their absolute authority” when we place them in God’s hands.
   And then it’s hard to escape what seems plain here: Paul prays, yearns for, and believes in the possibility of all being saved. Christians have their gnostic tendencies, wanting to feel they are among the elect, while others (even fellow-Christians!) will be consigned to perdition. David Bentley Hart – this week! – has a new book out: That All Shall Be Saved, in which he explores the long-held belief by many of our greatest theologians through history that none will be lost. The preacher would need to process and communicate such an idea with delicate care.

   Perhaps we can always remind our people of the wideness to God’s mercy – and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s incontrovertible wisdom: we can and must at least hope that everyone will be saved. I’m not the judge, but if I love, and rank God’s love and power highly enough, I will never settle for believing that Yes, these guys are doomed and that’s fine with me. We yearn for, we hope for the salvation of each and every person.

   Luke 16:1-13 is just so hard to dissect and to get inside Jesus’ head. In a Bible study, I have time to probe and get there. But in a sermon? If you’ve preached well on this text, send me what you’ve done! Jesus certainly isn’t all about goodness and being nice! The dishonest manager is commended. It’s not a “go thou and do likewise” though, is it?
   Joe Fitzmyer (Anchor Bible on Luke) points out that the parable (verses 1-8) is puzzling enough, but the situation is compounded by the lectionary attaching the next 5 verses, as if they resolve the enigma. Augustine saw in the manager “foresight for the future,” and Wesley appreciated the craft of the man and his stellar use of money. But what kind of sermon can you cobble together from that? And Wesley’s views on money would annoy my people. Jesus, wonderfully, turns our cozy expectations on their back ends. I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer’s provocative thought – that we often prefer our own goodness to doing God’s will. We want to keep our hands clean, when doing what God asks is about getting our hands dirty.

What can we say September 29? 16th after Pentecost

   Three great texts, thematically interrelated too. I wouldn’t try to preach on 3 texts… but sometimes an allusion to one, or at least probing deeply into a text I’m not preaching on actually enriches the preaching. I think.

   Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. The precision of dating (the 10th year of Zedekiah, and the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar) provides essential background, and also reveals how God’s Word comes into and is intimately responsive to real politics in the world. And the mention of the world’s most powerful guy, Nebuchadnezzar, suggests that God and his seemingly powerless emissary, Jeremiah, are not intimidated; they won’t be bullied (in the same way that Israel escaped under the mightiest of the pharaohs, Ramesses II, and Jesus was born under the mightiest of the emperors, Augustus).

   Jerusalem is under siege. The preacher can paint the picture of the armies arrayed along the hillsides and valleys around the city walls, the sense of gloom and sheer terror among those peering over the towers. In this bleakest of all moments, Jeremiah (under something of a house arrest?) manages to slip out to purchase a field in Anathoth, 6 or 7 miles away. The adage Buy low, sell high doesn’t quite apply: no fool purchases a piece of land when the Babylonian army is swooping in for the kill. The land will be theirs any day now.

   The 17 shekels of silver is a dramatic investment in the future – one no one else could see. Jeremiah made a big show of signing the deed, displaying the papers in public, and then storing them in an earthenware jar. God’s future, and the future of the nation, was what Jeremiah was declaring his firm, if foolhardy belief in. He would not personally benefit from or even be around for the eventual turn in value, decades away. Reinhold Niebuhr’s words apply: “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore, we are saved by hope.”

    1 Timothy 6:6-19. I preached a sermon I think I titled “Love Your Money” a while back – benefiting from Scott Bader-Saye’s distinction between good and bad fear: there must be good and bad loves of money. Good love of money is like good love for your children: it’s not about or for you, but it’s about their thriving and finding their God-given purpose. Preachers can bore, if they do what people predict (which in this case is a harangue about greed) – so you can surprise them by encouraging them to love their money even more, and more truly.

    I preached on this text 3 years ago just days after a police shooting in Charlotte (where I live). Amazing how texts lend themselves to varying contexts and timings.

    We are doing a series this Fall on “Enough” – weighing the work of Doug Meeks (God the Economist) and Sam Wells (God’s Companions), hopefully helping our people think about the unending reach of creeping necessity, and what “godliness with contentment” (as in this Sunday’s text) might be (and in Scripture, it’s pretty minimal, food and clothing).

   Paul shrewdly diagnoses the inner entrapments of the soul the desire for money enmeshes us in. Desire for money and what money can purchase is addictive and deceptive. It really does lure you away from true faith, and your very self is “pierced” by many “pains.” Allowing that some are just rich, Paul urges them not to be “haughty” but to be “rich in good works.” I wonder if you have a story of someone with very little who was generous and at great peace – or the flipside, someone with much who’s rattled and prickly about it. As if to illustrate the point, the lectionary pairs this Epistle reading with the Gospel:

   Luke 16:19-31. Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, got hauled off to jail in 1949 for advertising his sermon title “Segregation After Death” on the church marquee. His text? The parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Under interrogation, Johns was required to preach the sermon to the police. Dives, gazing across the great gulf of prejudice, is blind to the humanity he shares with Lazarus; he thinks of him still as a servant, demanding that Abraham “send” Lazarus with water. Dives has been condemned by his insistence on segregation, which he perversely maintains even after death. Johns not only draws our attention to the disdain in Dives’s assumption that Lazarus is at his beck and call, but he also embodies in his own arrest and harassment that very kind of disdain in a modern context.

   The name Dives isn’t in Scripture, of course. The rich, purply feaster remains nameless – illustrating God’s great reversal of the way things are in this world. As Jesus tells the parable, the rich guy does know the poor man’s name. Had he simply stepped over him often enough to have heard his name? The entire parable is a little dicey if we try to get literal about it. Jesus is not giving a photographic portrayal of what things will be like: hollering across a massive chasm, Abraham leading the conversation, etc. It’s a story, brilliantly making its point. And you can’t miss the irony in “If someone from the dead goes to my brothers, surely they will repent” – but the risen Christ has failed to persuade millions, who might give mental assent that Okay, he arose! but live unaltered, unrepentant lives, jammed full of sins of commission and omission.

   The preacher will be wise to anticipate objections to the obvious suggestion that he should have helped the guy. Should we really just give to anyone who asks? People should be responsible! Dependence on charity actually ruins people’s chances of rising up to self-reliance. In the churches, we’ve been warned “toxic charity,” the way our holy efforts to help those in need are either wasteful or counterproductive.

   Fascinating how our awareness of toxic charity can underwrite cold hearts – and so avoiding toxic charity leads inevitably to toxic lack of charity. We are Christians after all. Check out Paul’s great fundraising campaign for the poor he didn’t know (2 Corinthians 8-9, Romans 15:14-32, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). How might we conceive of our offerings for those in need? “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov 19:17). Recall the complaint about the Christians from the emperor Julian the Apostate: “Those impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”

   Whatever our political ideology might be, Jesus and Paul established giving as a holy obligation. Never forget that for Paul, the poor also are required to help the poor! Some of the most courageous, impactful ministries for the poor I’ve seen in my lifetime are fully carried out by people we’d think of as poor. I have a friend in Lithuania who engages in startlingly effective ministry with the poorest of the poor – while she herself is poor. And when I’ve preached in Haiti, we take up a collection for, yes, the poor.

     As Christians we pursue a peculiar kind of charity that doesn’t stop when we put a check in an envelope. Charity without relationship really is toxic. How much church charity drills home the demeaning message that You are a problem, We are the answer, You have no worth, We will provide worth and you can thank us. Wesley was right: it is always better to deliver aid than to send it. Dives could have sat on the step with Lazarus and shared a meal, or invited him in to sit at his own table. Jesus did say “When you have a dinner, don’t invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor…” (Luke 14:7-14). The daunting but achievable and joyful goal is described by Stanley Hauerwas: “To know how to be with the poor in such a manner that the gifts the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient. For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us.”

What can we say October 6? World Communion

   How strangely fitting that our first lectionary reading on this Sunday when we ponder God’s worldwide church is Lamentations 1:1-6! This sorrowful dirge over Jerusalem, devastated by the Babylonians, portrays God’s church in haunting ways. “How lonely the city once full, how like a widow, the princess has become a vassal, she weeps bitterly…” The lost majesty, the bitter lot: has the world simply crept long enough to finally squash us? Or does verse 5 explain things: “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”? I can’t be sure, and I don’t think the preacher needs to pick. Lift it up, as a tease or open question: the church is in considerable demise? Is it the world, the culture, the media, materialism triumphant? Or is it on us for our timidity, our bungling, our self-serving vapidity?

   I love Claus Westermann’s summary assessment of the whole book: “Lamentations did not arise in order to answer certain questions or to resolve problems. These songs arose as an immediate reactions of the part of those affected by the collapse. The ‘meaning’ of these laments is to be found in their very expression. Questions of a reflective sort arose only secondarily; they are of subordinate important to the lamentation itself. The real significance resides in the way they allow the suffering of the afflicted to find expression.” Then he adds, “That sufferers have been given the opportunity to pour out their hearts before God is seen in the Old Testament as itself an expression of divine mercy.”

   While the crushing defeat and destruction of Jerusalem makes our small, “first world problems” look meager, we do experience a similar collapse of the known world. Jerusalem was the holy city, the channel of blessing, the tangible presence of God, memory and hope on earth. Our people similarly experience something like this collapse – and can we as priests and preachers help them rediscover lament, not to explain things or fix things, but to give people the opportunity to pour out their hearts before God? 

   Here’s what conservative and progressives surprisingly share in common: the crumbling of their world. Conservatives see their familiar, tried and true world they’ve known and loved crumbling around them – and progressives witness the shattering of their hopes for a new and different world of which they’ve dreamed, but isn’t about to become reality. Can a sermon unite them in their shared loss? Is our fractured state the real locus of who we are on World Communion Sunday as we fracture the bread?

   In such agonizing circumstances, relationships matter. Writing from prison, Paul expresses immense tenderness and an overflow of love for his colleague, his friend, closer than even a son, in 1 Timothy 1:1-14. In a situation every bit as forlorn as that of ours or the ancient Judaeans, Paul dwells on tears, his and Timothy’s. He is gravely concerned that what he and the early Christians are enduring will feel like shame – which is so often the case. 

   Paul offers a profound, shocking alternative to shame – inviting Timothy to be rekindling of the gift within you from the laying on of hands. The Greek (maybe better rendered “re-igniting”) is anazopureo, which echoes anamimnesko, to recall. Reigniting is rooted in recollection. Do clergy preach this? Or simply reignite their own hopefulness? Recalling my calling, and all that ramped up to ordination is a healing salve for me. I do not recall thinking I want to go to meetings, or I want to make budgets, or even I want to preach sermons. Way back then, I really just felt an intense love for Jesus, and wondered if he had any errands I might run for him. Period. Recalling that somehow re-energizes me, at least for a little while. I wonder if the world church... if we can envision such a real entity... might do well to do some recollecting and reigniting, not by digging in institutionally, but by getting younger, freer, nimbler?

   We do what we do, not so much by choice, right? Paul is an apostle “because God wills it” (v. 1). God’s spirit isn’t my spirit but God’s – and it isn’t cowardice but power and love. We preachers have a holy calling – “not according to our works” (and dang, have I been working hard!) “but according to his purpose and grace.” Verse 12 clinches it: “God is able” – not “I am able.” How often are we clergy like those vapid disciples, when Jesus asked if they were able? The hymn, “Are ye able?” gets it so very wrong. “Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered… Lord, we are able!” But we are so not able, and there’s no reigniting and lifting of our exhaustion until we own and relish that we are not able.

   A word of caution, if you preach on 2 Timothy: I’ve heard some sermons playing on Lois and Eunice – sort of Ahh, we received such great faith from our mothers and grandmothers. But some in the room most certainly did not. And some of the great faith of our forbears was deeply flawed – just as the faith we hope to pass on to our families, or to our church people, is similarly flawed.
   And if you’re like me, you’ll have to work not to giggle over the name Lois – as I can never get that famous Family Guy scene where Stewie is trying to get his mom’s attention…
   I am unsure how to warm into the Gospel reading, Luke 17:5-10. Increase our faith – implying it’s quantifiable. Who has more, and what is the measure/evidence? Casting trees around? Is Jesus’ point Do your duty?