Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say July 12? 6th after Pentecost

   Midsummer preaching is … challenging? fun? different? I enjoy fiddling around with Old Testament stories, not to make moral points but to open people’s minds to the world of the Bible. Genesis 25:19-34 is one fascinating text, inviting us into Rebekah’s womb where twins are kicking around, making her uncomfortable. A predictive kind of discomfort too: did she realize in retrospect, once Esau and Jacob were grown and engaged in intense sibling rivalry, that their combativeness began in her own belly?

   Henri Nouwen, in Our Greatest Gift, tells a charming story about an argument fraternal twins have in their mother’s womb. Check it out here. Profound, memorable, theologically suggestive: preachers should know and use it! – although maybe not while dealing with Jacob and Esau…

   These twins could not be more unidentical. Esau, hairy, an outdoorsman, is as stereotypically male as you could be. Jacob, smooth, preferring the house, a mama’s boy. The famous Alan Bennett “On the Fringe” comedy routine pokes fun at the text – and I suspect the storytellers who passed all this along before it landed in Genesis, and throughout history, there’s a chuckle in here somewhere. Maybe at Jacob’s expense. I wonder if a sermon would dare to name gender stereotypes and how they lead to misperception and trouble.

   I wonder, given where we are in 2020, if these unidentical, combative twins might mirror race, or political ideology in our country - or traditionalists and progressives in United Methodism. Black and white, Progressives and Conservatives, clearly kin... and yet so different, so implacable, so ill-equipped to get along. Yet Jesus' prayer at the Last Supper was that we would be One. It wasn't a command, but a prayer - and the enabling of oneness was to come the next day in his crucifixion, and in the sending of that Spirit he promised right before he prayed. Esau and Jacob are at odds for years - but at the end of the story, even these two reconcile.

   A moralist would fault Esau for thinking short-term desire, thus squandering his long-term destiny. Brueggemann reaches a bit in this direction: “The contrast is between deferred and immediately material blessing. Esau cannot wait. Jacob is the figure of trusting Israel, able to wait.” But that’s hardly what the text is about. It’s not a moral at all. It’s telling what Israel’s ancestors were like: robust, edgy, alluring, memorable, fitting ancestors. The theological thrust is that it’s the younger one, it’s the less muscular one who carries God’s blessing. It’s also the conniving, grasping one… God’s ways are so strange, not at all about human merit – and yet God’s people can be so very clever, even to their own undoing.

   Russ Reno (noting this text’s usage in Romans 9-11): “Only God’s wanton disregard for our moral and spiritual worthiness makes fellowship with him possible. That God tosses reasons aside does not signal that he does not care, but instead indicates a love that tosses aside the fact that the beloved does not deserve to be loved.” I love that he adds that “the standard spiritual mistrust of the doctrine of predestination stems from a latent spiritual pride that encourages us to survey the divine pan from above and coolly judge its merits.”

   Hard not to float onward in the story to the intense heartbreak to come, at first for Esau and Isaac, but then inevitably for Jacob as well. They come to make peace with one another, but only after years of conflict worse than that in the womb.

   Romans 8:1-11 is well worth preaching if only to underline the truth the vast majority of clergy and other Christians have missed for centuries: “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” The Church has dished out an endless spewing of condemnation, and we’ve harbored a lot of condemnation in our own heads, or in gossip. Worst of all, we turn our condemnation skills on ourselves. But whole point of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection is that now, “Therefore, there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” We are no good at it, it’s not our job, it eats us alive and ruins everything – and is not the obligatory responsibility Christians assume is on their shoulders. I might make my whole sermon just this, maybe with some examples of how condemnation has been stupid, cruel, and the worst conceivable witness to the goodness that is Jesus. When Paul speaks of our minds being “on the flesh” in this text, we need go no further than our proneness to condemnation.

   I love preaching on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Jesus’ parable of the sower. Every few years, when this text appears, I get a bag of seeds and fling them around the sanctuary as I’m preaching (you can watch one example here!). My history with this text goes back to a summer internship I did during seminary. The pastor, Marion Crooks, began his sermon by singing “What Kind of Soil Am I?” (to the tune of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”). He asked Am I thorny, a barren road, or fertile soil for God’s Word? Great sermon. But years later I read lots of commentaries on the parables, and they all were obsessed with the weirdness of this sower – which must have been Jesus’ point. What kind of sower is this? I might sing. Willing to waste seed, not frugal, downright profligate – like grace.

   In my sermon last time, I spoke of my first rural appointment where I attempted a vegetable garden. I measured seed, bought just enough, planted so very carefully – and as unlike Jesus’ sower as possible. The surprise came when my carefully planted squash was mediocre – but then I had what country folk call “volunteer squash.” I must have spilled some seed in an unplowed area just outside my garden – and that was the fabulously productive squash. Why? There’s power in that seed. There’s power in the Gospel. You never know where it’ll spring up.

   I make this a parable about church life. We are so careful. We measure predicted results. We don’t risk much. Then Jesus lures us to be like this sower, flinging it around everywhere, trying any and everything. So what if stuff doesn’t work? It’s always been that way. But then you get volunteer squash people where you least expect it. And you’ve embodied as a church what the grace which founded the church is like, not measured, or plunked on the likely ones, but strewn all over the place.

   How lovely of Jesus, by the way, to be preaching and find his illustrative material in a day laborer working in a field behind him. Millet's painting (above) captures the peculiar beauty of such everyday labor. Van Gogh did his own cover of the Millet. He'd started into the ministry before becoming a brilliant painter; he wrote that "I have sometimes had a lesson from a German reaper that was of more use to me than one in Greek." The simple observation of labor, so lovely, inherently godly, worth noting with no moral in a sermon. 

   I’d add that scholars generally regard Jesus’ explanations of his parables as later interpolations. They usually are pretty lame, like explaining a joke, or taking the rough edges off a bawdy story. In the case of the sower though, the interpretation isn’t so bad, especially part 3, where it is “the cares of the world and the love for money that choke the word.” Indeed. Back to What kind of soil am I? or maybe rather, What kind of world is this where the Word of the crazy, generous Sower is always being swept aside?
  Thinking of children in the womb... my newest book, and my favorite ever, is Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series) might be of help to you and others.

What can we say July 19? 7th after Pentecost

   Three great passages; some thoughts on each one. Genesis 28:10-19a (which echoes the Psalm, 139, in intriguing ways, as Jacob is learning the answer to “Where can I flee from your spirit?”). It’s hard to ponder this text without hearing “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” Even reading: you pause after “are,” and after “climbing,” as if you grasp a rung and pull, then pause before the next rung. “Every rung climbs higher, higher.” Singing it requires some patience. The pace is slow but certain. No wonder slaves on plantations, dreaming of going up and over and outta there, loved this song.

   Thomas Merton shrewdly suggested that you can spend your life climbing that ladder society directs us to climb. But then you get to the top, and you realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall. Jacob had been a ladder-climber, doing whatever it took to get ahead, cheating his brother, deceiving his father, whatever. But in Genesis 28, as he comes to “a certain place,” no place really. He’s exhausted. Must rest. In a fitful sleep he has a dream, one Freud might analyze, a vision, one we might covet. A ladder bridging the great chasm between earth and heaven. The Hebrew really means it’s a long, steep ramp, the kind archaeologists have uncovered on the sides of those tall Tower-of-Babel-like ziggurats in Iraq.

   Angels, not the sweet ones we know from little statues, but mighty heavenly warriors and messengers, going up and down, down and up on the ramp. What could it mean? Jacob snaps out of his sleep or reverie, and dumbfounded can say nothing but “The Lord was in this place and I did not know it.” I wrote an entire book of recollections from my childhood, youth and adulthood of times and places God was there, but at the time I did not know it (Struck From Behind); only in retrospect could I say Aha! God was in that moment, that person, that circumstance.

   God was there but I not only didn’t know it. I wasn’t seeking it. I wasn’t praying. Jacob isn’t on some spiritual quest. He’s on the run from – his brother? His parents? His past? His demons? “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”? We’re groping in the dark for we don’t know what. And it turns out to be the way to God – or God’s way to us. Jacob, after all, doesn’t seem to even try to climb the ladder. He’s awestruck, he makes a vow, and then goes on his way to a new job, a couple of wives, children who squabble, and a lot of heartbreak. God was in those places, too, he now understood. Jacob was “a border crosser, a man of liminal experiences” (Robert Alter).

   Jesus mysteriously told Nathaniel, “You will see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). St. Catherine of Siena thought of Jesus’ cross as a wooden ladder to heaven, and of his crucified body as that ladder on which we climb toward God.

   Who’s doing this climbing? “Soldiers of the cross.” Of course, the old spiritual was thinking one way. But maybe we can jump to the soldiers at the cross, the ones who nailed Jesus to it, the ones snickering, the ones gambling over his clothing. And the ones he forgave, although they didn’t repent or ask for any mercy. Pondering this, the way God showed up to Jacob in his anxious flight from God and goodness, and the way Jesus our ladder to heaven forgave unrepentant soldiers of the cross, we know the only answer to the hymn’s other questions: “Sinner, do you love my Jesus?” and “If you love him, why not serve him?”

   Romans 8:12-25, so rich, inviting us to cry Abba! – and in our moaning it’s the Spirit groaning, praying within us. And we are one with the whole world in our agony – which to the eyes of faith aren’t terrors but labor pangs. Notice we become heirs with Christ, not “if we suffer with him” but “provided we suffer with him.” Oh my. I’d prefer Paul have written something more soothing.

   Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. Images are our only chance to help people imagine a diverse, divided church staying together. I was vacationing in Scotland and lucked into a conversation at a pub with a shepherd. Like a professional. One question I asked was Why do you never see just sheep, or just goats, but always both? He replied, We’ve found over the centuries that they just do better together.

   Jesus found a vivid image: wheat and tares, growing together. The question in Jesus’ simple, unexplained parable isn’t Am I wheat? Or tares? You’re both, of course… But this story is about the community, the people of God. The Church is wheat, and tares, both, and we like to think we know who’s who, as if you could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify who’s who. And we’ve got to do something about those danged tares. 

   Robert Farrar Capon points out, "This is no way to run a farm. Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter... Programs designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do. Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody." He suggests that the devil's best strategy is to sucker good people into taking up arms against one another, while he sits back and laughs.

   Churches divide – grieving Jesus’ heart, who prayed for unity on the last night of his life (John 17), and still does. I’d commend my blog on why unity is required of us as United Methodists; all churches tend to want to separate wheat and tares, which Jesus said we keep them together. 
  Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of evangelicalism, wrote about the way we fail to love within the church: Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.” We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

   I love this scene in Stephen Bransford's novel, Riders of the Long Road. Silas Will, a circuit rider back in the 18th century, was grilled with hard questions by a young man about God, evil and suffering. His response? 

   "'God sees much more than we see. He sees the beginning and the end of things and He is doing what is best from all that He sees. God would never kill a child. But there is an invisible war that goes on around us while we live here on earth. God promised to destroy the Devil.' The young man asked, 'Why won't God finish it now?' Silas was thoughts for a moment, and then suddenly leaped up, bent over with excitement. 'They asked Christ the same question.  Look here, watch down here.' He bent over. 'Christ said the Kingdom is like a sower who sowed good seed, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. See, here are the good grasses' - his hands stroked the grass - 'and this pennyroyal here is like the weed.' One hand closed upon a large mint-leaves pennyroyal stem. 'Look at it, and look what happens when I pull it out.'  Silas yanked the pennyroyal up by the roots. It exploded from the ground, showering both of them with dirt from its spreading roots. 'This is what Christ said. The people urged Him to pluck all the weeds from the wheat field, but He said, no, let them grow together because to pull them out now will destroy much innocent wheat. See the grasses that have died here because I pulled up the pennyroyal? We know pennyroyal roots grow under ground, tangled beneath the other grasses. God knows the roots of evil grown around every sickness since Adam and Eve. Yes, God can purge the world of sin and death right now, but He doesn't because all have sinned and we are all so tangled with the corruption of sin that He would destroy us and the whole world in that selfsame moment. What kind of God could do that?'"

What can we say July 26? 8th after Pentecost

   On a dare, I preached on Genesis 29:15-28 last go round – and surprised myself by how well it went. “In the morning, behold, it was Leah!” It’s all about how disappointment works – in marriage, friendship, life, with the church, yourself, God even. Jonathan Sacks notices how Jacob’s trickery earlier in the story boomeranged on him; the medieval rabbis imagined Jacob chiding Leah: “Why did you deceive me, daughter of a deceiver? Didn’t I call out Rachel in the night, and you answered me!” He blunt reply? “Isn’t this how your father cried out Esau, and you answered him?” There’s also the rich irony of Laban’s assertion that “this is not done in our country,” giving the younger before the firstborn – which is exactly how it does wind up happening in the strange world of the Bible.

   Romans 8:26-39 is one of the most pastoral, and personally moving texts in all of Scripture. Again, I imagine Paul pacing the room, blurting out his latest thoughts, the scribe scrambling to get it down on parchment, thinking “Wow, this guy is on fire today!” So much here: “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” which is an understatement. So often parishoners in crisis say they don’t know what to pray, or feel they can’t pray. I ask if they’ve done any sighing. Of course they have – and we note how Paul dares to suggest that our “sighs too deep for words” are really the Spirit praying in us. Wow – so encouraging for me as a pastor, and as a guy who sighs a lot. Preaching this requires no illustration, except the shared bonds of humanity.

   Verse 28 is one of those verses people love to cite, thinking it means that God is orchestrating everything in your life so you have a happy ending and all goes swimmingly well. But those who quote this aren’t attentive to context. It’s not that God causes everything to work together for my enjoyment. The panta, “all things,” pretty clearly refers to the sufferings of the present time (verse 18). And sunergein, “works together,” more likely connotes “assists,” or “are profitable.” John Calvin explains: “Paul does not mean that all things serve the comfort or convenience or worldly interests of believers; it is obvious that they do not. What he means is that they ‘assist our salvation.’” It’s about the assurance of a future with God, and how present sufferings can’t unravel that relationship with God and with others in the Body of Christ. Scripture does of course have the Genesis 45 and 50 belief – that God uses evil for good. But this is a far cry from God using little circumstances and happenings to make my life fun.

   Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. In v. 51 Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” They answer, “Yes” – but I’m a little puzzled. I’m not sure Jesus’ stories are really supposed to be translatable into some logical proposition. He told stories with vivid images because that was the way he wanted to communicate what he had to say. The vivid image is his message. It’s all mind-boggling. A tee-tiny mustard seed burgeons into a big shrub which can accommodate birds. Treasure hidden: how often do you find such a thing? What’s the nuance? The joy? The finding? That it’s hidden? That it’s precious? That sacrifice is required? The answer is Yes – and more. Pearls, and then the pearl; I love it that the Greek word for pearl is margarita – although I may not share that.

   If I make a connection for people, it might be revisiting the ending of the film Good Will Hunting. On the advice of his therapist, Will drops his new job and his settled life and drives off to find the girl. He’s full of joy and hope – but even those he abandons are filled with joy that he’s gone.

   And then Rick Lischer, in his great book on the parables, passes along a quirky reading of the hidden treasure from a sermon he stumbled upon: 
“‘When Jesus was taken from the cross, they hid his body in a tomb and then sealed it lest someone find him. For 3 days, Jesus himself was the Treasure hidden in the field; for 3 days he was the seed lying dormant in the ground. He was a human parable of God’s love and power.’ It is fair to say that neither Jesus nor the author of Matthew’s Gospel intended that to be the meaning of the parable. Nevertheless, the preacher, not schooled in the church’s rich tradition of theological interpretation, has managed to speak in perfect continuity with the tradition and declare something ‘new.’”

What can we say August 2? 9th after Pentecost

   Genesis 32:22-31. Can we read a text from the perspective of a hymn? Charles Wesley, before composing “Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown,” must have spent a lot of time ruminating on this story. Estranged from his brother for decades, with a troubled marriage, Jacob is alone, anxious, on the run, evidently thrashing up against the limits of existence.

   He can’t even get a good night’s sleep. Terror of all terrors, he’s tackled by… well, it’s too dark to see. A robber? Is it Esau? An angel? God? The ambiguity is the reality for Jacob – although the implication is that God is somehow, mysteriously in the thick of this life-threatening assault. Wesley’s surprising insight is that he imagines Jacob actually inviting the perilous encounter: “Come, O thou traveler.” Come. Bring it on. Jacob never shrank from trouble, and instigated plenty of it on his own. He’s a fighter, someone who weirdly enjoys conflict. The Bible portrays a God who enjoys it as well. What an odd religion Israel and then Christianity have: we argue with God; we can do combat with the Almighty. God allows this. God welcomes this. God seems to want a relentless, ferocious openness, honesty and grappling from us.

   There may be something in here about how we think about strangers. A “traveler unknown” arrives in Jacob’s camp. Who are the strange travelers in our world? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reads Genesis and Exodus as if God is telling the truth about the stranger to each one of us: “If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers… Though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” Indeed, Wesley’s hymn presses the traveler: “Tell me if thy name is Love.” God is in the stranger. Love is in the surprise encounter in the dark. God is with Jacob – by being against him, by wrestling with him.

   Jacob doesn’t try to escape. The hymn grasps this: “With thee all night I mean to stay and wrestle till the break of day.” Does Wesley’s hymn help us see this, which might be implied in Genesis 32? Jacob has chutzpah, a cockiness that dares to fight anybody, God included. And he fights even God to something of a tie! And he isn’t merely a survivor. As always, he’s getting something to take home: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” He had stolen the blessing from his brother – and now he insists on blessing again. Is it a model for prayer: we grapple with God, then we grab hold of God and won’t let go until we get the blessing?

   Just as the sun begins to rise, Jacob limps away from the scene. He is wounded, marked by the encounter. There are pains that come from our battles with life and God. Sacks speaks of “honorable scars.” In Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, a woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall.  The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity." Jesus' scars persisted, and they still do. Jacob is scarred; he limps, his wound the badge of honor from having engaged mightily with the Almighty.

   Jesus, we might recall, had scars after Easter, scars he earned when he gave life to all of us, not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Frederick Buechner envisioned this when he preached on Jacob limping away from his contest with God: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” Genesis 32 isn’t about Jesus. Or to the eyes of faith, is it? Wesley’s hymn imagines an inquiry into the name of this nocturnal stranger, guessing that it’s Love – with a capital L – and finally, and delightfully concluding, “Tis Love! Thou diedst for me.”

   Romans 9:1-5. Paul maybe doth protest too much: “I am not lying!” So defensive! And yet so effusive in his adulation of Israel. Anti-semites never read Romans 9: “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs.” Exactly. We Christians would always do well to reflect with endless gratitude and joyful solidarity with our Jewish neighbors.

   Matthew 14:13-21. Jesus’ habit – that he “withdrew to a deserted place” – is exemplary. As is, though, his “interruptibility.” This is the ministerial life, and also the ideal life of the laity, as we zigzag between the discipline of time alone with God and then being willing to be interrupted to respond to a person needing mercy. Jesus’ “compassion”: the Greek, esplangnisthe, is so evocative, meaning an inward turmoil, a twisting of the guts. Jesus really feels what he feels for the people. He’s not ordering them around or judging them; his entrails get all contorted, like a woman’s womb in labor.

   Hard not to admire his reply to the disciples informing him of the obvious – that the crowd is hungry: “You give them something to eat.” Emphasis on the you. The 5 loaves and 2 fishes were commemorated in an unforgettable mosaic in the little church on the shore of Galilee. My questions, raised in a sermon I preached on this text in Duke Chapel a few summers back (which I’d commend to you as the best I have to offer), are Wouldn’t a better miracle have been to have produced just enough for the crowd instead of all the leftovers? What did they do with the leftovers? Worship the bread (in Catholic style)? Distribute it to the poor? Why the waste? Or is it a story that shows God’s lavishness, that God really does give us more than enough – what Sam Wells calls a “superabundance”?

   At Duke I told about Dorothy Day giving away a big diamond ring to a poor person. Who says it should be sold and distributed according to the world’s calculus? Maybe God wants fabulous things for the poor as well. I’d encourage the preacher to think of moments of God’s superabundance. I told about an ordination I preached in Haiti. We had a lovely service planned, a nice dinner, and appropriate gifts for the ordinand. But we got the idea of loading extra suitcases full of Oreos for the kids (and grownup kids). It was a giddy feast, unexpected, yes a bit wasteful – but God’s like that, right?

What can we say August 9? 10th after Pentecost

   Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 appeals to me, as the idea of preaching through the narrative of Joseph (Gen. 37-50) is something I want to do some day. The lectionary, though, skips immediately to chapter 45 next week and then plunges ahead into Exodus. Maybe a sermon can capture the flow of the larger story – without the sermon being a mere retelling of that story.

   And what a story! The drama, emotion, irony and vivid settings make this the Bible’s single greatest tale. The climax in chapter 45 (or is it in 50 after Jacob dies?) is stunning, undermining all our theological oversimplification. Joseph doesn’t let the brothers off, or give them another chance. He sees in how God, without causing evil, uses it for good – and the preacher dare not over-trivialize that thought either. Perilous but precious stuff.

   Just on chapter 37: Joseph, if we’re reading the Hebrew correctly, doesn’t get a “technicolor dreamcoat” (a la Andrew Lloyd Webber!) but rather a coat with long sleeves. Short sleeves were essential for day laborers in the fields, where it would be hot and brambles would get caught in longer sleeves. So Jacob is saying Joseph gets to live in the comfort and authority of the house, while the older brothers bear the sweat of hard work out of doors. As happens in the case of Cain and Abel, brother rages against brother, when brother’s real problem is with the Father (or God).

   Jonathan Sacks notices how Reuben fairly quickly tries to intervene, but fails – calling him “the Hamlet of Genesis,” someone with good intentions he never completes, or they backfire; at the critical moment, he never comes through.

   We have little hints in this opening scene of the story of how God superintends things. God is, as Sacks puts it, “already monitoring the sequence of events, arranging the necessary strategic interventions to ensure that the outcome will be as planned.” All this is concealed, not obvious at all – and so I wonder how the preacher opens up to listeners the idea that we are sort of “co-authors of our lives,” free to act, yet with God’s involvement, a far cry from the silly “God is in control” mantra people love.

   I love it that the Bible seems utterly lacking in sweet, happy families. So much dysfunction – helpful to me, as a guy from an utterly dysfunctional family. Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina is poignant: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a bit tongue in check. Every family has its unhappiness. A pastoral challenge is to help people not to glibly say such saccharine things about family. During the Covid-19 crisis, how many people said “Oh, how cool to get more time with family!” – in earshot of the woman whose belittling husband now stays home instead of giving her the respite of leaving for work, or the divorcee who felt her loneliness more agonizingly. Don’t do this in preaching, ever! – and help people to learn how to talk with one another about family. Bible families oddly enough show us the way.

   Romans 10:5-15. Like Genesis 37… unless you’re preaching your way through Romans 9-11, which would be daunting (is it more of a class?), perhaps best to avoid this text. Verse 9 gets isolated: “If you just confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” as if that’s a formula for a revival. Paul is leaning in to his Jewish relatives and friends who just don’t buy into Jesus. Complicates things – and then do we really want to name that anyone who utters “Jesus is Lord,” and intellectually accepts that Jesus was raised are saved? – and that’s it?

   What about the woman I counseled with who swore to me she’d never believe in Jesus because her daddy, who most certainly did as a Bible teacher and deacon in his church, sexually abused her through her teenage years? He’s saved and she isn’t? Or those who have only heard about Jesus from boring, vapid, judgmental people? They’re not saved but the dullards are? I don’t think it’s a problem to ask such questions in the pulpit. No need to answer them. Just let them linger.

   And then take off your shoes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” My surgically repaired foot is ugly as sin. Of course, Paul is seeing the beauty in the proclaimer, who’s been sent, actually going, walking, getting to the people to share.

   Matthew 14:22-33 is, for me, one tough text. The setting is alluring. If you’ve been to Israel, you totally get “the other side.” When you’re by Galilee, you look across and – there it is, the other side. Jesus went up on a mountain by himself to pray: exemplary for us, a flawless sample of the way being solo need not be loneliness, but solitude. The sensational archaeological discovery of “the Jesus boat,” a real fishing boat dating to the time of Jesus, a boat he most assuredly saw and maybe stepped into, helps me feel my way into the reality of first century life on Galilee.

   But then Jesus had to go and walk on the water. And Peter did too, acting very Bruce Almighty-like – briefly though. Peter, whose name means “rock,” sank like a stone. As we would expect. And Jesus fusses at him! Seems like he should give him credit for taking even a few steps – on water.

   There’s a Buddhist story of a disciple who walked on water, or sank depending on whether he focused on the Buddha. Easy story to spiritualize. We can even sing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” But I’m probably not the only guy in the room who will just shrug and say Gosh, not sure this really happened. The Gospel writers had to know skeptics as well. Maybe one or two were themselves skeptics. But they let the story stand – maybe to throw cold water on skeptics like me and invite me to suspend me for a few minutes and tread onto such a story that, if it happened or not, most clearly is about faith, and really about how utterly amazing and God-like Jesus really was and is.

What can we say August 16? 11th after Pentecost

   When I think of the Joseph story, its weather seems hot and dry. Must be the Egyptian setting, and the famine in Palestine. Genesis 45:1-15 is, to me, without question, the high water mark of all of Scripture when it comes to drama and theological depth. I’ll preach on it once more, and send you to my blog from last go round, with illustrative material from “Good Will Hunting,” “The Return of the King” and To Kill a Mockingbird. To this now I’d add the final ten pages of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is a profound, riveting exploration of forgiveness (and how much of it is courage!). What a text. If anything, I’ll probably over-explain. This is one we just trust. The preacher is like a docent in a museum, simply pointing: Wow, did you notice his sorrow? Did you see that he doesn’t give them a second chance? Can you fathom their anxiety, and relief? And so forth.

   How intriguing that the lectionary arrangers got the Psalm (133) right! “How good it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” Sounds like Isn’t it fun when siblings get along and enjoy one another! But maybe it speaks to the beauty of the broken, divided ones miraculously arriving at a space of reconciliation.

   Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32. You’ve got to be a far wiser preacher than I to probe these little segments of the dense, emotional, theologically daunting Romans 9-11 section week by week! I’ve taught it in a class – which to me feels like what Paul is providing for the Romans, and for us.

   Matthew 15:10-28. Jesus’ blunt thrashing of the pious: “Blind guides” (the same derogatory term he uses during Holy Week when the pious are already plotting to kill him!). What goes into the mouth? – makes it into the sewer! Jesus is so keenly obsessed with the inner life. As in Matthew 5, it’s the hidden murder, the cloaked adultery that are huge problems with those who externally behave properly. Just as you can murder or commit adultery in the privacy of your own mind, you can also bear false witness in there as well!

   And then we come upon the peculiar episode where the woman won’t take No for an answer, upbraiding Jesus himself. She asks for mercy – for her daughter, of course, but then any parent who’s watched a child suffer needs mercy too. What to do with this blunt repartee? Floyd Filson, in his 1960 commentary on Matthew, suggested that he winked at her when he spoke these words, implying insider status for this one. Or was it a clever ploy on Jesus’ part to evoke deeper faith in her, or those watching?

   Jesus did come to Israel – not for them alone but so they might be spurred on to their mission to be the light to the world. Morna Hooker, noting how Jesus confined his attention to the Jews, suggested that “the Gentile woman requests a cure outside the context of Jesus’ call to Israel; she seems to be asking for a cure which is detached from the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, merely taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the presence of a miracle worker. This is perhaps the reason for Jesus’ stern answer; his healings are part of something greater and cannot be torn out of that context.”

   Joel Marcus is mindful of the history of bad blood between Tyrians and Galileans – and how the farm produce of Galilee so often wound up in Tyre, while the peasants in Galilee went hungry. So Jesus’ words make a bit of compassionate sense. Or should we suggest, as many have, that Jesus had a growing moment, a learning experience, a maturation in himself? Mistakenly, he turned her away – and her persistence cracked open a bit of hardness in Jesus’ Jewishness to leave space for a desperate Gentile? Depending on the height of your view of Jesus’ humanity, this may or may not work.

   Martin Luther examined this text and thought of the ways Christians are to persist in trusting God, even when God seems to turn his back on them. They must learn to see the ‘yes’ hidden in his ‘no.’  Much wisdom here – although the preacher dare not resort to trifling ideas such as those articulated in Garth Brooks’s crooning “Unanswered Prayers.”

   The woman’s persistence has recently been likened to the persistence of women right insisting on their place in the church. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became a popular slogan, t-shirt and hashtag this year. Persistence of all kinds is a biblical thing, falsifying the absurd notion of God’s will being associated with “the door was open.” Many open doors we most surely should not walk through. And many closed and bolted doors should be knocked down.

   I am fond of Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s probing sermon, “Crumbs” – cited in Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s great book, Prophetic Preaching. “Crumbs. That’s all they are looking for. Crumbs. Not the whole life. Not even a slice. Just crumbs. You and I want the whole loaf…” – and then she speaks of our wealth, access, all the poor lack. But then she presses further: “Crumbs. They want more than crumbs because deep in their souls, they know they deserve more. And yet they often do not know who to ask or how to ask…”

What can we say August 23? 12th after Pentecost

   I’m not a topical series preacher, as I tend to force things. I do like it when the lectionary walks us through a series of texts. Right now the preacher could open a walk through Exodus, which is so appealing to me. Romans has been moving along for some time, and the RCL has us deep into Matthew now. All 3 texts this week are provocative, with much to be said.

   Exodus 1:8-2:10 dovetails three dramatic moments: the vicious infliction of harsh servitude on Israel, the devious midwives countering, and then the birth and rescue of Moses, the rescuer. Tourists gawk at the pyramids as wonders of the world. Like most others, they came to be on the backs of slave labor, blood, sweat and tears. American culture is mired in debates now about monuments to the beneficiaries of slave labor. And Walter Brueggemann, in his lovely book Sabbath as Resistance, unearths how our culture clings to Egyptian ways: endless work, more and more production, money flowing upward toward the top. The coronavirus crisis underlines how we are lost without it. I love Brueggemann’s phrasing: “It is not accidental that the best graphic portrayal of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”

   And who’s the most anxious one in such a system? The guy at the top! “He dealt shrewdly with them,” a line to make you laugh out loud. Less straw, killing the male work force? Paranoia, self-destructive – but just as surely destructive of others.

   How deftly the narrator, like using a zoom lens, moves from the megapicture of Egypt, its vastness, and sprawling construction projects, to two small women, Shiphrah (meaning “beautiful”) and Puah (“fragrant flower”). Religious parents should name their daughters for them. They “fear God,” but they also have considerable spunk, sass, courage. History’s first civil disobedients!  Thoreau reminded the world that “I was just obeying orders!” is no defense. Church people need to get over their blind attachments to what superficially seems to be patriotism or goodness. God’s great heroes through history have blatantly disobeyed the law, starting with Peter (“We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5), continuing through history to the Civil Rights movement; the examples are endless, although the preacher never disses listeners. An art, not a science for sure.

   The Bible disses empire, but in clever, sneaky ways. Why didn’t Shiphrah and Puah kill the babies? “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are so strong they give birth before the midwives can get there.” True? A little fib? Doesn’t matter. They were heroic. Instead of blaming and feeling impotent in the face of massive powers, they did what they could. The heroic is always like that. Church doesn’t speak often enough of courage. Examples abound. John Irving, in Cider House Rules, uses Charles’ Dickens’s great line from David Copperfield to great effect: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Or Aunt May’s wise counsel to Peter Parker/Spiderman: “Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them. Years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us…that keeps us honest…gives us strength…makes us noble…and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most – even our dreams.”

    Heroes? Small people changing the world? Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Albert Schweitzer, giving up a lucrative career to plunge into Lamparene. Jochebed defied Pharaoh by hiding her son. Even Pharaoh’s daughter! Rameses II, greatest of the pharaohs (and it’s no accident that this was precisely when God showed who’s really God!) had 59 daughters! This one knowingly took a Hebrew boy who was to be killed into her home.

   There’s so much in Exodus 2! Moses is a “good” child; the Hebrew, tov, is the same as what God pronounced over each day of creation in Genesis 1. How on earth would one keep a child quiet for so long? When she can no longer, in a moment wrought with poignant sorrow and yet unquenchable hope, she places him in a basket and just sends him down the Nile. The word for basket, tevah, is used only one other time in Scripture: Noah’s ark! Like Noah’s ark, this tevah had no rudder or sail, floating randomly – and yet was God’s hand in it somehow? The preacher might wish to say Yes! But it’s better just to let the question linger – which is how our people experience there lives. Think Forrest Gump: “I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happenin' at the same time.”

   And then the Pharaoh's daughter: how much courage did it take for her to welcome a slave child into the palace? Kelley Nikondeha, in her thoughtful book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom, sees her as a beneficiary of a closed system of complicity. When she bathed, she was "attempting to purge the filth of empire. Something in her broke under the water's surface." She leverages her privilege (this is God's call to us!) to save a child washed ashore. Nikondeha then ponders such moments in our day.

   My mind rushed to Pope Francis. For his first trip away from Rome after his consecration, he chose Lampedusa, and island in the Mediterranean where hundreds of immigrant bodies had washed ashore. He had an altar made from the wrecked boats of migrants, and spoke of the place as symbolic of "the locked door between the worlds of affluence and poverty." His sermon strove to "awaken the consciences of those who have forgotten how to weep over the plight of the poor."

   Romans 12:1-8 takes me back to college days. My roommate’s girlfriend cross-stitched J.B. Phillips’s rendering of this passage and hung it on our wall – perhaps fantasizing it would help us behave: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” Paul was on fire the day he paced a candlelit room, dictating these words to his secretary! After all the theologizing that has unfolded in Romans 1-11, Paul cuts to the heart of how we then live – beginning “by the mercies of God.” Notice the plural. It’s not “Behave! But if you mess up you get mercy.” It’s mercy, mercies plural that instigate, and make the holy life reality.

   Notice also for your people that worship for Paul isn’t sitting in a pew singing hymns and reciting litanies. It’s something you do with your body. We all worship something, some things, with our bodies. How stunning is this? You can please God, or not, with your body. It’s the “temple of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Paul’s grammar amazes me: “be transformed.” The Greek, metamorphousthe (like metamorphosis!) is a passive imperative. Imperatives usually say Go do this. But the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, just let this happen in you. Stop expending so much energy on conformity. Even our best Christian parents fret over whether their children will “fit in.” Don’t fit in! Who said “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd”? Shiphrah and Puah didn’t conform. They were transformed.

   And then Matthew 16:13-20. In the plot of the Synoptics, the clear turning point in the saga is this very moment. Until then (as I learned from W.H. Vanstone’s old and profound book, The Stature of Waiting), Jesus is in control, a dynamic actor striding across the stage of history, working miracles, dazzling the crowds. Now he has ventured to the border, in the far north, to Caesarea Philippi, which in those days was a warren of pagan temples; check out the artist’s rendition of what it would have looked like, imperial altars all affixed to the ancient cave dedicated to the nature god, Pan. After this haunting conversation in such a place, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem. No more miracles really. Increasingly he is passive; he is “handed over.” He is acted upon.

   Vanstone muses on what this alone might mean for us. as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence – and we loathe any turn toward dependence. I had a close friend with colon cancer.  A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.” We shudder; we pity – but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life.  Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry. But the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them. Even his resurrection was passive:  he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him.

   Jesus’ identity is debated, among those who know him best. Who do people say Jesus is today? Political ideologue? White guy? Liberal prophet? My personal assistant? The answers are many, and downright embarrassing. Peter gets the right answer, but doesn’t grasp what that identity implies. I love the irony in Jesus’ rebuke: “Get behind me.” That’s precisely where disciples are supposed to be – for it is from behind that we follow! Jesus is heroic, but not a Spiderman kind of heroic. He'll show the heroic, if Peter will be stick around.

   Matthew alone then supplies the much-abused conversation about the keys, and Peter as the rock on which the church would be built. Without dissing Roman Catholicism, we can name the way the church perverted all of this into a power grab, and still does. To us are entrusted “keys,” but those keys are our gentle pastoral authority to listen, love, guide, demonstrate mercy and hope. Martin Luther spent a lot of time pondering these keys. We ordained peeps are responsible for order and discipline. Peter is entirely foolhardy, as are all of us who dare to wield the keys and be the church. We simply stick behind Jesus, a little bit embarrassed over how dumb we can be, and count on his mercy, his mercies plural, and journey with him to the holy city not to assume power but to lose everything.