Sunday, August 13, 2017

What can we say come August 20? 11th after Pentecost

  {to keep receiving links to these and other preaching materials and conversations, email me}

     I cannot imagine why a preacher would forego the Old Testament lection for this Sunday – ever, but especially now, given the severe splintering we’re experiencing in society, and in the church.  Genesis 45 is the theological high water mark of the Old Testament, and is a peer of even the best the New Testament has to offer.  Reconciliation should be the fixed point in all our thinking, imagination, labor, and prayers. 

     I would commend to you the resources we pulled together back in the winter as our church engaged in a two month long, intensive series on Reconciliation, featuring Christena Cleveland and her investigations into the hidden forces that keep us apart, why African-American spirituals still speak across the racial divide today, how a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird can help us, ways to understand people who are different, paths to interact on politics, and more – as we fulfill Paul’s commission to us to be reconcilers, just as we are reconciled (2 Corinthians 5), as individuals, within families, communities, our denomination, and the nation and world.

     I would also commend to you a stunning Ted Radio Hour podcast featuring J.D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) and most profoundly, Suzanne Barakat, a Muslim striving for reconciliation after her brother and sisters-in-law were brutally killed in Chapel Hill.  I was listening in my car, and had to pull of the road until I stopped crying.  This could work in a sermon on this text well; further down I’ll get to the climax of Lord of the Rings and Good Will Hunting – but the text really doesn’t need any help.

     No biblical story narrates the grief, time, joy and miracle of reconciliation as powerfully as the drama of Joseph.  The emotional intensity of the climax in chapter 45 is intense, and you have to let it be intense, and feel it in your bones; let the story take your breath away or they won’t feel it either.  The Egyptians overheard Joseph’s sobbing in the next room; people in the pews had best hear it in the sanctuary.  The weeping and embracing are just astonishing, and so beautiful – and I can’t help at some point racing ahead to the riveting moment when Joseph is reunited with his father; “he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a long time” (Gen. 46:29).

     You can’t just plop down in chapter 45 either; the backstory matters.  Without over-explicating every detail, the preacher has to pick up where the story begins, in chapter 37, with a pathetically dysfunctional family, Joseph’s dream that was from God but felt like sham arrogance, the brothers’ cruel dispatching of him and then the wretched way they shattered their father’s heart, Joseph’s rise, and then fall, and then rise in Egypt.  Don’t assume people know the story, but then don’t expend twelve minutes retelling it either.  Urge your people to read it at home, promising it’s better than House of Cards or Game of Thrones.

       Here’s an interesting detail from the Hebrew: of all his sons, Jacob loved Joseph best – because his deepest affection was for his mother Rachel, not the other mothers of his other boys.  And so, Jacob dressed this son, not in an “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” (as in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical - which is such silliness compared to his other work!), but (as the Hebrew puts it) in “long sleeves.” The other brothers wore short sleeves, meaning their labor was in the fields, in the heat, where briars would get tangled in long sleeves. Joseph was established in the house with those long sleeves, in a position of comfort and power over the brothers.  It was that long-sleeved garment of privilege denied them that they bloodied and handed to their father.

     To focus on chapter 45 I wouldn’t spend too much time on Joseph’s character – which isn’t really the point.  He has considerable brilliance, and a moral compass we do not see often in our days.  But that would be to moralize a theologically robust story.  The shock of God’s way comes when the famine compelled the brothers to go down to Egypt, the breadbasket of the world. In a stunning plot twist, it was Joseph from whom they had to ask for food. He would give them far, far more. Naturally they didn’t recognize him; but he recognized them. After dallying with them a bit, he dismissed his entourage from the room, let loose long pent-up emotions, gathered himself, dried his tears, and revealed his secret: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

     When I preach on this, I let the emotion drip, I leave time for it to flow around the room and into the souls of people.  His next words?  “Is my father alive?”  Again, in a pre-cell-phone era, he did not know, and hoped against hope; the brothers, who had despised father and brother, had to feel the gut-wrenchingness of his question.  Mind you, the Bible doesn’t tell us how they felt!  So we have space to find our own emotions from our own life stories in there somewhere – without reading in so much you don’t hear Joseph’s story any longer.  The brothers had to be stricken with shock, horror, guilt, trepidation, remorse.

     But how did Joseph deal with those who had treated him and his father so cruelly? His words must have taken light years to sink in: “Do not be distressed; don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me here to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). Even after the glorious reunion with his father, and then even after Jacob’s death, Joseph said the most remarkable thing: “Do not be afraid. You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, so that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20). Joseph forgave; he cast their common, broken life into the hands of God’s larger intentions. Testimony to God’s miracle – in the big story, but then also in Joseph’s gentle disposition.  Who is capable of what he just said to them?

     Notice the brothers weren’t given a “second chance,” another crack at getting it right. They never got it right; they never made up for what they had done. God did not depend on any attitude change among the brothers. God quite simply used the evil they perpetrated and transformed it into good.

     Not that God caused them to do evil: God did not make them sell their brother or break their father’s heart. But God gathered up their misdeeds, the broken will of God, and pieced it all together for God’s good purpose. Joseph’s leadership was defined by seeing, understanding, and then articulating this. He brought healing to the fractured family, and food to a hungry world – or rather, his leading was God’s imperceivable, mysterious use of his life, and then his awed witness to it.  It’s so important to get this nuance: in my Will of God book, I carefully distinguish that God uses evil but doesn’t cause it; and we need to say God uses every evil for good.  Some evils are just evil, and it eviscerates and trivializes the suffering to try sunnily to claim God brings some good from it.

     Leadership expert Ron Heifetz speaks of the need for leaders who climb up into the “balcony” and see larger patterns in the workplace.  Joseph was caught up far higher than the balcony; he was granted a view from heaven itself.  Claus Westermann (in his Genesis 37-50 commentary) wisely noticed that God did not merely use the evil of the brothers; God could have done that without the brothers ever meeting up with Joseph. No, “God’s plan is to bring the evil devised by the brothers to good in such a way that there can be forgiveness.”

     So many threads to follow.  Reconciliation takes time, a long time.  Reconciliation isn’t forgive and forget; it’s genuine healing – for everybody involved.  Joseph needed the healing as much as the brothers and their father did.  The beneficiaries of this reconciliation?  Not just this family, but people who had never known them!

     If ever a text shouted to the preacher “Trust me!” it is this one.  You don’t need to make it relevant; it’s more relevant than anything you can devise.  You don’t have to make it interesting or funny; it’s the greatest story ever told.

     I might touch on “Joseph could control himself no longer.”  We are control freaks – but the healing comes when we yield control and let the emotions roll.  The emotion isn’t Oh, I feel God! but rather, Wow, God is releasing, and healing my emotions!  Think of the joy when the hobbits are reunited in Rivendell after the ring is destroyed at Mordor (The Return of the King); J.R.R. Tolkien told a friend that when he wrote this scene, his tears kept smearing the ink.  He never saw the video of course, but Peter Jackson handled this so well.


     Or the scene in Good Will Hunting where Sean embraces Will and keeps repeating, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”  Very Genesis 45ish.  Of course, the climactic scene of all climactic scenes is the cross (“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”) – or is it the resurrection? Or that breakfast reunion by Galilee (John 21)?

************************************

   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

What can we say come August 27? 12th after Pentecost

  If you’re like us, we have big back-to-school emphases on August 27.  So I find myself drawn to the OT, Exodus 1:8-2:10, a good Bible story (with children involved!), and also the Epistle, Romans 12:1-8, whose opening verses portray an alternate view of what we’re about with school – and life: it’s not education per se, or getting ahead, and thus it’s not about conformity!  The Christian gig is Transformation.  My college roommate’s girlfriend cross-stitched Romans 12:1-2 and hung it in our dorm room – perhaps a favorite verse, maybe as a bit of a warning to sophomoric college dudes… but it’s thus been an important, memorable passage to me. 

     Matthew 16, as demarcated in the lectionary, lops off the whole point, which unfolds after verse 20 – so we shall return to that the next week!  Check the blog below for Sept. 3.
     I preached on the Exodus text 3 years ago; you can view this sermon here, punctuated with illustrations from Mother Teresa, Alex Fleming, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIm9KsjZIaQ

It’s tempting but ticklish to open with a salvo against “empire” (as I was trained to do) – as people have such sensitive political antennae.  At the same time, Exodus clearly exposes with clear hints of mockery the massive yet anxious power of the Pharaoh.  Walter Brueggemann, in his lovely recent book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which I reviewed – glowingly! – in Christian Century), shows how sabbath is not merely a spiritual discipline, but an alternative to our busy, frenetic, workaholic consumer culture.  What socioeconomic system did the Pharaoh legitimate?  One different and yet scarily like our own…
     – and the preacher can speak of this in ways that people will comprehend, and feel loved and understood.  It’s about obsessive work, requirement for ever more production, money flowing upward toward the top.  With Egypt’s deities, like our society’s, work is never done.  I love his way of phrasing it:  “It is not accidental that the best graphic portrayal of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”  Who is the most anxious one of all in this anxious system?  The one at the top – which tells us something about that whole upwardly mobile pyramid.  He “dealt shrewdly with them” – and we have to laugh out loud, which the Hebrews couldn’t do back then.  He provides less straw, and wants to kill off the males – his labor supply, and also those who will father the future labor supply.  His nervousness makes his behave in self-destructive ways.

     But God knows, God hears, God comes down.  The saviors in the early portions of Exodus are the unexpected – following the Bible’s quirky logic.  Two young women, Shiphrah and Puah (whose names mean “little flower” and “lovely”), do not mind disobeying the law; civil disobedience has an honored place among God’s people, although for church people, one person’s civil disobedience is the other guy’s lack of patriotism or troublemaking.  I love the way they defy Pharaoh with a sassy impertinence: Why didn’t they kill the babies?  “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are so strong they give birth before the midwives can even get there!”  Revolutions – and God knows we need them today – require some pluck, and a bit of subtle braggadocio.  We are not merely victims!  Jonathan Sacks, in his wonderful Lessons in Leadership, commenting on the midwives, reminds us, “There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that ‘I was only obeying orders.’”
     Preachers can explore the heroic – in society, and certainly in the church.  I like to introduce this theme with Charles Dickens’s great line from David Copperfield (and used to great effect by John Irving in Cider House Rules): “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.”  Your life must show whether you will be heroic.  So I’ll rattle off some instances.  Huge stories – like Albert Schweitzer, ridiculously brilliant, Bach scholar, consummate organist, the world’s leading New Testament scholar – and then he left Europe behind, became a doctor and moved to Lamparene.  Why?  “I wanted to make my life my argument.”  See preaching stuff here?


     Then I try to find simpler things.  Rosa Parks just sitting there is something really anybody could do, no muscle power or unusual IQ required.  Find examples in history (my little summary of heroes in church history, Servants, Misfits & Martyrs: Saints & Their Stories is my packaging of my favorites, all of which I’ve used in sermons) – and maybe some close to home.  Maybe it believable, doable, and even joyful.
Jochebed defied Pharaoh in her own way by hiding her son. But this gambit could not last long. In desperation, or in faithful hope (and we may ask how different these really are), she placed her three-month-old son in a basket and set it afloat on the Nile River.
The Hebrew word for this basket, tevah, occurs only one other time in scripture: and that is to describe Noah’s ark. Both ark and basket were rudder-less, lacking locomotion, carrying the future hope of humanity toward who knows where. This tevah floated right up to the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter happened to be bathing. Nothing is explicit, but we sense God somehow brought basket and princess together.  You could say she “cast her bread upon the waters” (Ecclesiates 11:1).

     I like to tease people toward the coming Sunday, or Sundays – so in this case, build a little anticipation, reminding your people that they didn’t know how things would turn out; even those who clung to hope had to teeter on the brink of despair.  Things certainly got way worse before they got better…  But then we do have the larger perspective to know the end of the story.  That Pharaoh, if we calculate the way many historians do, was Rameses II, the greatest, longest-ruling and most powerful of all the Pharaohs!  How cool – that the deliverance came not under a wimpy excuse of a Pharaoh, but under the biggest dog of all; in much the same way, Jesus was born, not in the reign of one of the measley, impotent caesars, but when Augustus, the greatest of them all, ruled from Rome.
     The fate of all the scary powers is destruction.  All empires, the ones that loom through history and even today, including our own great nation, will eventually crumble.  I like to remind people of that poem about Rameses (whose Greek name would have been Ozymandias) penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley:  "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read, / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, / The hand that mocked them, & the heart that fed / And on the pedestal these words appear: / "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."

It is for this reason then that we cling to God, to Christ – and don’t vest ourselves in this world, no matter how shiny or scary it might be.  Which brings us to Romans 12.
N.T. Wright (in his New Interpreter’s Bible commentary) says “The opening 2 verses of this section are as dense as any passage in Paul.”  Agreed.  Read slowly.  Preach a whole series on the thing.  I won’t attempt every detail, but here are a few that leave me thunderstruck and appear to be fertile preaching ground.
The “Therefore” is huge!  Paul assumes you’ve just been listening to somebody read out loud chapters 1-11 – so remind yourself about grace, faith, the Spirit, baptism.  Paul seems to be shifting from faith to action – an unfortunate “seems,” as Christians forever focus on belief and then forget to get to ethics, simultaneously forgetting they are one and the same.  N.T. Wright again: “Belief and behavior are inextricably woven.  They are the breath and blood of Christian living, the twin signs of life.”

Paul gets at the nucleus of what the “therefore” is picking up from chapters 1-11 with the phrase “by the mercies of God.”  Notice the plural: mercies!  

Pope Francis has rightly catapulted Mercy front and center as the essential theme of what’s in God’s heart, what the Christian life is about, and how to be the church; I’d commend his favorite book on mercy to you: Walter Kasper’s Mercy.  Profound, wonderful.  On this topic and passage, John Calvin wrote, “Men will never worship God with a sincere heart, or be roused to fear and obey Him with sufficient zeal, until they properly understand how much they are indebted to His mercy.”

Mind you, in our culture there is so little mercy, and we even forget our need for God’s mercy – so some considerable re-education is needed.  Although… I find in preaching that when I pause and explore our hunger for mercy, and how hard it is to find it (I’ll say things like “There’s not much mercy at work, none at the mall – and lots of people don’t find a lot of mercy even at home” – and quite a few people flinch, or nod).

Paul “beseeches” (the Greek, parakalo, is an exhortation of intense urgency and earnestness!) them/us to “offer up your body as a living sacrifice.”  I remember playing football and our captain repeatedly shouted “Give up your body.”  Okay, not a brilliant illustration…  I admire Wright’s observation that Paul strikes “a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery.  Even the self-discovery, however, is the discovery of the new self one is called to become in Christ and by the Spirit.  Grace fulfills nature.”

We all worship some deity with our bodies all the time.  Paul blazes a path along which we might “please God.”  “Pleasers” are regarded dismally – but pleasing God is a profound, ennobling thought.  I tell my people: you can please God.  How cool is that?  How cool are you?  God made you with that ability.
But of course, we more typically fail to please God, or we displease God.  And it’s not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying harder.  Paul says it’s a matter of “being transformed.”  Ponder this:  the Greek metamorphousthe (do you see metamorphosis in there? does the preacher describe the caterpillar to butterly morphing?) is a passive imperative.  Amazing.  Imperatives imply Go do this – but the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, or don’t go actually, just let it be.
This metamorphosis goes hand in hand with the decision to abandon conformity.  The passive imperative is all about God’s doing; and yet we are responsible.  We need not be victims; I’m only human?  Humanity distorted is humanity in conformity.  I wear, buy, act and think in ways that are dumped into me by this vapid culture; I’m barely cognizant of it going on. 
But a good starting point is the way J.B.Phillips, in his perennially popular paraphrase of the NT put it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”  And then I dig C.E.B. Cranfield’s remark (in his fabulous ITT commentary on Romans): “There is only one possibility open to us – to resist this process of being continually moulded and fashioned according to the pattern of this present age with its conventions and standards of values.  The good news is we are no longer helpless victims of tyrannizing forces, but we are able to resist this pressure which comes both from without and from within, because God’s merciful action in Christ has provided the basis of resistance.”

Tying Romans 12 to Exodus 1-2?  Moses in that basket is obeying a passive imperative of sorts; and doesn’t being transformed, being metamorphosised, involve things like civil disobedience, not conforming, embracing the risks of faith, giving up the security of what we can control and manage?

And then every good sermon asks What kind of church does this text asks us to be?  To what degree do our churches conform to the paltry habits of society?  We baptize political ideologies, we pander to people’s self-interests and conformity, and we hardly look like a butterfly that used to be a caterpillar; we dare not disobey civilly.  Lord, have mercy on us.  It is worth pressing a little further into Romans 12:3-8, where we see that when I give up my body, I become part of the Body – which is what God intended for my body in the first place.

************************************
   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

What can we say come September 3? 13th after Pentecost

     For us, Labor Day weekend attendance sags – and I hate it for the people, as we are treated this week to not one but two of the most fantastic texts in all of Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15, and Matthew 16:21-28.  I am startled by the way these 2 texts coincide and perhaps mark the revelatory turning point in both testaments respectively – sheer luck, evidently, as the lectionary is plodding through Exodus and Matthew.  Maybe God is good after all…

     In The Beauty of the Word and everything else I’ve written on preaching, I try to remind myself and others that sermons are to be about God, and then about us only secondarily.  These two texts make this clear.  We see with striking brilliance who God is; so preachers, focus first on God and don’t rush quickly to moralisms or takeaways, which in these cases can be as silly and trite as “If you see a bush on fire, take off your shoes.”

     Exodus 3 reveals to us a God who hears, who cares, who calls, who comes down to save – and not merely pie in the sky afterlife saving, but real, physical, socio-economic saving.  The Israelites’ need for saving is so fitting for Labor Day.  Our taskmasters are gentler than Egypt’s, but no less impersonal and depersonalizing.  Walter Brueggemann, in his jewel of a book, Sabbath as Resistance, shows how labor/economic systems look like pyramids, with the insecure potentate at the top, and all other subservient to his whims, existing only to produce for him.

     God asks Moses to go down (could your choir or somebody sing “Go Down, Moses”? – which, incidentally, originated during slavery; Harriet Tubman was nicknamed Moses for her leadership in the Underground Railroad, which went way down to let people go).  The pattern of Moses’ call is typical of Scripture – and of our lives.  God appears, usually uninvited, surprisingly invading someone’s space.  God asks for something huge.  The mere mortal responds with reasons why it’s not going to happen: Moses can’t speak, Jeremiah was too young, Mary hadn’t been with a man, Isaiah was unholy, Jonah loathed the would-be recipients of God’s mercy.  But God counters with a sign, with divine reassurance. 
Gerhard von Rad pointed out that “Neither previous faith nor any other personal endowment had the slightest part to play in preparing a man who was called to stand before Yahweh for his vocation.”

     A helpful preaching tactic can be to say God isn’t looking for ability, but for avail-ability.  Oddly, this is a key preaching point, as we do spiritual gifts inventories and strength finders – yet in Scripture God just picks people, usually and apparently precisely because they don’t have the gifts or native abilities!  The preacher may well want to explore these matters – but in a way that continues to hammer home the truth that it’s about God, not us.  As long as I’m the center of things, even the sermon, I’ll never discover that mere availability can be the entrée to the miraculous.

     This text is about God, and God is what our lives are to be about.  Here we see that God will save – for what purpose?  “So that you will worship me on this mountain.”  We exist to praise, notice, admire, be in awe of and simple be astounded by God.  An expansive mind, blown wide open by such a God, isn’t baffled by questions like Moses’ – how a bush could burn but not really. 
There are naturalistic explanations: the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna explained that the bush in question was the prickly rubus sanctus, which grows beside wadis, with lowers resembling small roses.  Was it a common bush that moved Moses somehow?  Doesn’t the story suggest something far weirder?  I’ve quoted it, but would ask preachers not to resort to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Lee” (unless you’re making my point here…), which closes with this:

   Earth’s crammed with heaven
   And every common bush afire with God;
   But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
   The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

God could use any common bush, or God could dazzle briefly; the point isn’t the bush, but that God got Moses’ attention when he is far from Egypt, deliberately avoiding the place where his destiny would play out.  The early rabbis, interestingly, saw in the bush an allegory of Israel’s life, sorely oppressed but not consumed.  Allegory is despised by modern scholarship – but as Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were great allegorizers, I’m sure God wouldn’t mind if a preacher saw the church in this bush – under fire yet not destroyed.

     That this text is about God is reiterated when Moses asks, with naïve innocence I think, What is your name?  God’s answer is – evasive? teasing Moses and us into a deep mystery? Or is the name and hence the divine nature just too overwhelming for a mere Hebrew word?  Jews rightly omit the pronunciation of the name, which must be something like Yahweh (which seminarians utter with total abandon, gleeful in their thin knowledge of Hebrew, discounting the historic Jewish reverence for the name!). 
What can it mean, even if shrouded in mystery, this “he who must not be named” (and yes, as a Harry Potter fan I’ll probably play off Voldemort…)?  

     Yahweh looks like a verb.  I like this a lot.  God isn’t a static thing, but an action, a movement, a happening.  The vowels intimate that this verbal form is causative:  God is the one who causes things to happen.  So God happens; and God makes things happen.  Thirdly, this verb’s y prefix implies a future, an as-yet-incomplete action.  God is the one who above all else will be.  What was Jesus’ parting promise?  “I will be with you always.”  Whatever future we envision, God will be there; it will be about God, and for God.  2 Corinthians 5:7 says we “walk by faith, not by sight”; Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the conviction of things not seen.”  What is unseen?  Not invisible things, but future things.

     This business of naming God correctly fascinates me.  We pray “in Jesus’ name,” but what is his name?  Jesus, yeshua, means “Lord, help!”  Did Mary cry these words during her labor pains?  Isn’t Jesus the one who cries out for help with and for us, and simultaneously the one who is our help?  Of course, this “I am” tease by God in response to Moses’ query drives the Christian forward toward Jesus’ way of speaking in John’s Gospel – which clearly is playing on this passage. 

     Everything in our nature and in society drives us into the self, to ask Who am I?  The riddle is only answered by learning the answer to Who is God?  Shortly before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “Who am I? This or the other?” – taking note of his cheerful disposition he presented to his jailers, while knowing inside he was impotent and weak.  The only way he could resolve the dissonance, and the struggle to be in horrific circumstances, came like this: “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

     Brevard Childs, in his definitive commentary on Exodus, summarized what Exodus 3 is about: “Revelation is not information about God and his nature, but an invitation to trust in the one whose self-disclosure is a foretaste of the promised inheritance.  The future for the community of faith is not an unknown leap into the dark, because the Coming One accompanies the faithful toward that end.”

     The God who hears, cares, and then comes down takes on flesh in Jesus – and this dramatic hearing, caring and going down is nowhere more puzzling or wonderful than in Matthew 16:21-28.  
Years ago I stumbled upon an audio recording of Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Waiting (which I can’t commend highly enough… just hearing his voice…)  In it, he expanded upon the work of W.H. Vanstone’s profound book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he directs our attention to the peculiar plot of the Gospels.  In the opening chapters of each Gospel, Jesus is in control, he is an actor on the stage of history, dashing off miracles, wowing the multitudes.  Then, in the middle of the story, everything changes.  At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has ventured far to the north, then turns his face toward Jerusalem, explaining he will be “handed over” and suffer and die.  From this point forward, Jesus is pretty much passive, with only a minor miracle left to do, one now acted upon, no dazzling (except by the powerful vision of compassionate, suffering love).

     This stuns Vanstone and Lewis (and me too) – 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.

     Everything in us, especially as can-do Americans who cherish our independence above all else, rebels against and shrinks back from this.  But this is God.  Peter, like us, chides Jesus for even thinking of such a path.  But Jesus says “Get behind me” – which, ironically, is precisely where we need to be.  We follow Jesus – and you can only follow from behind.

     Exodus 3 and Matthew 16 both benefit from listening to Philippians 2 as background music.  Paul explains God’s ultimate nature:  “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself” – and I concur with those who translate this not as although he was God he did this humbling thing, but rather because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself.  Jesus isn’t play-acting or pretending for a short time to be humble, vulnerable, and suffering.  Jesus shows us the very heart of God, God’s truest, most core nature when he turns his face to Jerusalem and gets mocked and gruesomely killed.

     You see, Jesus uttered these words about turning his face to Jerusalem to be passive, vulnerable, and to die, not in a church or with a beautiful sunset in the background.  He was in Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to pagan deities for centuries, then more recently dedicated to the emperor, who was increasingly viewed and treated as a deity strutting the earth.  This artist's depiction of the city in Jesus' day shows temples to the Greek gods, to the emperor, affixed to the cave dedicated to the nature god Pan - which was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld ("and the gates of hell shall not prevail...").  Painting the physical place might help in a sermon; and the theology of the clash between the world's gods and the humility of the true God must be clarified.

   {the images are Rouault's "Mocking of Christ," and an artist's rendition of Caesarea Philippi during the time of Jesus}

************************************

   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.


What can we say come September 10? 14th after Pentecost

   {to keep receiving links to these and other preaching materials and conversations, email me} 

   I’m preaching on Exodus 12, and we’re doing a little intro to Passover food and Judaism that week.  I’ll get to the text in a moment, but first want to offer some thought on the New Testament lections for the day.

     Romans 13:8-14 – one of many texts that calls into question those who would drive a big wedge between Jesus and Paul.  Here, just like Jesus, Paul alludes to the various commandments and then says they are summed up in the commandment to love. 

     Then he moves to the stirring “You know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep.”  Lots of sleepwalking images are fitting.  Americans have Washington Irving’s old story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in the Catskills as a faithful subject of King George, then woke up years later and was shocked to discover his beard was a foot long and America was a free democracy; he slept through the Revolution!  But I think about the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,” the 7 young men who (according to legend) hid inside a cave in the third century to escape persecution against Christians, then woke up at the beginning of the fifth century to discover the empire had become Christian.  The preacher could explore “sleeping through a revolution,” or it might be even more interesting to ponder what it would imply to wake up in a world where, if everything and everybody are Christian, then is anybody really Christian? 

     Americans also have “the Great Awakening,” a revival that was unanticipated and hard to understand today.  Read Jonathan Edwards’s dense, theologically muscular and not very entertaining sermons – and it’s hard to conceive that the masses, especially young adults, were stirred to renewed and deepened commitments to Christ.  Makes you wonder what might actually ‘work’ today.  Lighter, more accessible fare?  Or denser, harder stuff? 

We will be one day from the annual marking of 9/11 - which some thought would prompt a great awakening of religious life.  It lasted about ten days.  What sort of waking up - and waking up to what is involved, theologically speaking?  Something far more than the pricking of national pride or fear for our security.

     I also think of Awakenings, the book by Oliver Sacks (and then the 1990 film) – the story of victims of an encephalitis epidemic who surprisingly began to do quite well after years of affliction.  All are fitting images of the power the Gospel might have on a vapid, routine kind of life. 

     And I always recommend that preachers think, not only of what a text means for an individual person, but also for the church.  What would the awakening of the church, or of your church look like?  How would it actually happen?  Can the preacher paint the picture, which might draw the church toward the reality?

     Romans 13, a rich text, then clarifies what waking up is about: “It is time to cast off the works of darkness.”  We are deeply indebted to this text for its impact on St. Augustine.  This is the passage he stumbled upon while struggling so mightily in the garden of his friend.  I love Sarah Ruden’s new translation of this moment in the Confessions:  “I was weeping with agonizing anguish in my heart; and then I heard a voice from next door, a little boy or girl, I don’t know which, incessantly and insistently chanting, ‘Pick it up! Read it! Pick it up! Read it!’” – and it fell open to Romans 13, in particular this: ‘not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy’ (I was doing okay for the first four… but then the last two?).  ‘But put on the Lord Jesus’ (clothing again…), ‘and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’  We have made all sorts of provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires!  We speak fondly of ‘comfort food,’ or for all sorts of occasions we say ‘I need a drink,’ or ‘You deserve that vacation at the beach.’

     St. John Chrysostom commented on the almost inevitable connection between drunkenness and the others: “For nothing so kindles lust and sets wrath ablaze as drunkenness and tippling… Wherefore I exhort you, flee from fornication and the mother thereof, drunkenness.”

     I can’t do much with Matthew 18:15-20 – admittedly a better process than backbiting, gossip, getting mad, or placating. 

     So, on to Exodus 12:1-14.  Passover.  Each spring, Jewish families gather for a 3000 year old ceremony, 7 times older than America’s Thanksgiving.  So the story isn’t history so much as a prescription of how to be Jewish – and we Christian preachers aren’t, so we’re reading somebody else’s prescription of how to be something we aren’t.  Our “Last Supper” accounts are analogous, and not supersessionist…  The Gospel and Paul’s accounts of Jesus’ last meal tell us how to do the Christian meal.  We should be very careful never to attempt something like a “Christian Seder.”  My Jewish friends are amused or appalled when we co-opt their meal…  Holy Communion is not a Christianized Passover.

     We can approach Passover from a Christian historical perspective.  It was at the festival of Passover that Jesus came to Jerusalem, taught, got arrested and killed.  The Synoptics claim Jesus at the Passover before his crucifixion; in John, Jesus is the slaughtered, first born Lamb of God.  For me, the possibilities are far richer than simply saying Jesus died for us, like the Passover Lamb – which underscores some problematical theology anyhow.
  
     So what about this approach?  You paint the scene:  the population of Jerusalem swelled from perhaps 50,000 to a million in a few days; homes were jammed to overflow, tents covering the hillsides, racket, curling smoke, singing and shouting.  Josephus claims 255,600 lambs slaughtered in a single afternoon.  And in order to keep the peace, not merely because of the crowds but also because of the theme of the festival (deliverance from a powerful oppressor!), Pilate marched his regiments from Caesarea eastward, entering the city with much fanfare and intimidation, armor clattering – while Jesus provided his laughable but compelling counterpoint by entering the same city at the same time, ambling westward not on a war stallion but a humble donkey, unarmed, wielding nothing but truth and love.  For Christians, it isn’t that we replace Passover with something Christian like the Lord’s supper; rather, we confront Rome, the powers that be in every epoch, and take courage and hope in Jesus’ unlikely defeat of the once invulnerable powers.  That’s one way to think of Passover – and the political undertones cannot be muffled.  The powers that be, including our own, are questioned and exposed by the alarming peacefulness and mercy of Jesus.  {The image is from Jesus Christ Superstar - Annas as the power in this case looking down with a mixture of intimidation and anxiety on Jesus entering Jerusalem.}

     But there’s another type of approach to Exodus 12.  I don’t think I would dare preach on this Passover text had I never had the good fortune to be a guest in a Jewish home for a Passover meal.  If you haven’t done this, see if you can wrangle an invitation from a rabbi near you – although people in your family might convert.  My son had several Jewish friends growing up, and regularly said to me, I wish we were Jewish.  They just have more joyful rituals – and Passover is one.  Far from somber, a Passover meal is a time of great joy and celebration.  The Christian preacher has to reckon with how to invite Christians into regular family meals that are festive, biblically focused, and God-honoring.  Uphill climb – although I speak of this at some length in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.

     At Passover, the youngest son rises and asks, “Why is this night special (or different) from all other nights?”  What is commemorated is the climax of the plagues in Egypt and Israel’s deliverance to freedom.  The food is delicious but also richly symbolic. 


Bitter herbs = the taste of Israel’s suffering

Harosset = a mnemonic of the mortar with which slaves built

Matzot = how they left in a hurry

And of course a bit of lamb, remembering the blood and sacrifice.

Could our food remind us of moments in our own salvation history?  The theme, redemption from slavery, might direct us to our own bondage (which American are loathe to recognize) – or perhaps to the reality of bondage in American history.  We still reel from the lingering effects of racism and slavery’s impact on our society.  God would have us ponder such things when we respond to Exodus 12.

     Scholars remind us that the feast of unleavened bread wasn’t just a hustling out of Egypt thing; it was an agricultural festival, perhaps prior to the Exodus itself.  Passover similarly has connections to agrarian life, the offering up of a lamb as gratitude for the thriving of the whole flock.  Linking annual, natural blessings to spectacular historical interventions is the stuff of theology, worship and discipline.  As Roland de Vaux suggested about these nature-related Spring festivals:  “One springtime there had been a startling intervention of God.”  For years I have raged against vapid understandings of Easter that are about the blooming of flowers and the return of life to the outdoor world; but the resurrection of Jesus happened in just such a season – and our life with God is about something dramatic, once and for all, and also what is ongoing, annual, daily even.  Everything, including farming and eating, changes in light of deliverance – again, the subject of my book, Worshipful.

     We are going to attempt something hands-on and multi-sensory.  Food in the sanctuary, with tastes, smells, visuals…  So much preaching and worship is for the ears only.  Does Exodus 12 invite us to find ways for worship to attend to all our God-given senses?

************************************

   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.