Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say January 24? 3rd after the Epiphany

   
I'll preach on Mark, the call, the boat, the water - that scene which I think is the greatest single miracle (maybe) in the Bible... All the lections remind me of something in Wendy Farley's riveting, thoughtful new book, Beguiled by Beauty. Exploring contemplative dispositions we are wise to cultivate, she includes "adventure," and right after "wonder." We learn how to be awed by the world, people, little moments - and then we work on "a spirit of adventure rather than security." American life is all about safety, and we wish God would keep us tucked in securely. To grow, to get closer to God, try some adventurous things. Could be baking a souffle when you're a zero in the kitchen, or meeting a stranger from the other side of town, attempting pole-vaulting (kidding...) or trying something really risky as a Christian or as a church. Might fail, might be laughable. But "the spirit of adventure allows us to encounter difficulty and uncertainty as part of the journey." I'll poke around with this in my sermon, and maybe in my life this week to acclimate myself to being more adventurous.

   Jonah 3:1-5, 10 is a lectionary groaner. Maybe pointing this out, and teasing out why, would make a great sermon! Some people fret over the historicity of Jonah in the fish. The more unlikely item in this story, historically, is that a guy walked for days to Nineveh, the massive capital of the evil Assyrian empire, preached a short, threatening sermon, and the entire population converted. Living in a fish for 3 days would be a piece of cake compared to that. No mention of this in the fastidious Assyrian annals. The moon god and cohort continued to be worshipped there, and the Assyrians never let up from their ferocious, bloodthirsty foreign policy – including against Israel. 

   It's made up, a parable of sorts, and only makes sense as the foil for chapter 4. Jonah, having run in the opposite direction when God first asked him to go to Nineveh, has just achieved the single greatest preaching result in history? “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (4:1). He pouts, and grouses about the shrub that grew up to give him shade. Small-minded, he resents a small injustice that makes him uncomfortable, when he didn’t create the shrub to begin with – and then why begrudge God doing good to masses of people?
    
   1 Corinthians 7:29-31 has never been cross-stitched or printed on a poster. You could come up with a lot of cheesy stuff if you asked What if this were your last day or week? People would go for their favorite wine, or drive to some scenic spot, gathering with loved ones maybe. Paul touches on those institutions and situations in which we find our security, our sense of belonging: your spouse, mourning loved ones, buying stuff. How would we live as if we had none of these? A loosened sense of attachment? Recalling it’s all temporary? I doubt it’s a negative so much as a positive, transcendent attachment to God – reminding me of Oscar Romero’s words: “I don’t want to be an anti-, against anybody. I simply want to be a builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.” So it’s not being against something so much as for something else – of immense urgency. 

   Notice the Greek: the “form” that is passing away is schema, which rightly sounds like “scheme,” which has a sneaky connotation, doesn’t it? These things can trip us up. And notice also how we typically want a both/and instead of an either/or. Jesus, we may recall, didn’t marry, and didn’t have business dealings or possessions! So Paul could be urging us to be like him. And, Jesus issued similar, disorienting warnings about not burying your dead or turning sons against fathers. Hard, stark choices are involved in this Gospel life. 

       Mark 1:14-20. Day 1 of Jesus’ ministry, as he strides out of the wilderness after 40 harrowing days. As if issuing fair warning to any who would dig into this story, Mark mentions that “John was arrested.” Dangerous business. The forces of evil are already getting organized. The Greek for “arrested” is paradidomi, which usually in the Gospels means “handed over.” Jesus too will be handed over, acted upon, arrested and killed. With that foreshadowing, Mark explains how Jesus arrived at the same destiny as John.

Jesus arrives at the shore of Galilee, picturesque even today. His message intrigues: it’s all about “time.” Not chronos, as in clock time passing, but kairos, as in “it’s time,” a pregnant moment, the turning point. In his lovely book, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, Gerhard Lohfink elucidates the way the urgency of time, the now! is what defines Jesus more than titles or identities. He showed up and named that God’s dreams and their dreams – it’s now, it’s dawning, it has dawned, can you notice it? Urgency: you have to decide now, not tomorrow, not next year. We think the miracles are Jesus’ healings or stilling the storm. Maybe a bigger one is he walks right up to guys at work who’ve never heard of him, and after the briefest exchange, they drop everything, livelihood and family, and traipse off after him to…. Well, they don’t have the slightest idea where they’re going, what they’ll be doing, or how it will all come down. Jesus must have been beautiful, or compelling in some unfathomable way.

   My favorite Jesus movie, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, depicts Jesus walking briskly, talking over his shoulder to disciples and onlookers breathlessly trying to keep up. That's about right.

And how unusual! From the thousands of stories we have of rabbis in those days, not one of them asked students to follow. How did old Zebedee manage his boats the next day? What did he say to Mrs. Zebedee when he got home? The preacher can and must underline the radical nature of the impact Jesus had on people. He didn’t say Hey, nice boats, I’ll come visit you again next week! The pearl of great price had materialized, and they dropped everything to follow. Find something to illustrate this, maybe like Will Hunting abandoning his new job and old friends and driving across the country for Skylar. But you might just trust the story as it is. Jesus said Follow me. And shock of all shocks, and yet Grace of all Grace, they did. 

   It could be a time to tell your call story, if you can clarify “call” isn’t into ministry but into a life of following Jesus. My story involves this story. After years of zero church interest, some friends dragged me to their church. I started going – kind of in a back row kind of way. Some invited me to a small group. I laughed, not being that kind of guy. But then I had a dream one night. Jesus (how did I recognize him?) was by the sea, and he said to me, Follow me. I woke up, and thought I might try that Bible study. When I got there, my discomfort ratcheted up exponentially when the leader sat down and said This evening, let’s explore Mark 1:17, when Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ That wasn’t a call to ministry for me – yet. It was a call to get serious about following.

 
Speaking of dreams: when preaching this text, I’ve told about a dream the novelist Reynolds Price reported. After being diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his spinal cord, he dreamed of Galilee. Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Price answered him, “That’s not exactly what I am worried about.” I don’t have any takeaway from this story, but dang, it’s so good.
Clearly, this story helps us see that Christianity isn’t about being nice, or goodness, or judging other people. It’s getting in motion, dropping some stuff, off on a new path. And it’s real world stuff. There are some vivid details in the story that remind us of this: the verb, “casting their nets” is amphiballontas, which means throwing around, circular tossing, whirling something heavy. Archaeologists found a boat under the mud in the Sea of Galilee dating to the time of Jesus. If it only had S.S. Simon Peter carved into the prow! I like to show my folks images from classic art. Caravaggio’s stunning “The Call of St. Matthew” shows Jesus with a raised arm and slightly cocked finger, clearly echoing Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of God creating Adam. Notice the posture and seeming hesitancy of the disciples, a bit of a Who me? look about them. And this: evidently Caravaggio, when painting this, went out into the street and rounded up the first guys he found loitering around, sat them down in his studio and painting them as the disciples. And there they are! Our people, you and me included, might just find ourselves caught up in the picture of Jesus’ now.

What can we say January 31? 4th after The Epiphany

   Two thoughts I stumbled upon preparing for this week’s lections: Joel Marcus’s clever way of framing his insight that the demons in Mark’s Gospel “seem to experience a fatal attraction to Jesus,” and St. John Chrysostom’s familiar but compelling appeal on how to win over skeptics: “Let us astound them by our way of life.” Deuteronomy 18:15-20 bears the curious promise that God will raise up a prophet like Moses. But 16 chapters later, Deuteronomy says No prophet like Moses has ever shown up. Christians wink and say Not yet, haha… but rushing to Jesus from Moses is a bit bland, doesn’t let Moses just be Moses, and also has a tinge of anti-Semitism hidden in there. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 is Paul’s intriguing counsel on what you can and can’t eat, and why, as a young Christian in a Greco-Roman city. He sounds like Socrates at first (“Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge”), and then warns against the gnostic tendency to get “puffed up” (what a lovely, vivid image). You could craft a pretty good, if a bit moralistic, sermon around how one’s liberty causes others to stumble. But I’m going Gospel this week. 

   Mark 1:21-28. Tourists flock (or they did pre-Covid!) to the synagogue in Capernaum. Photogenic as it is, what we see is a later synagogue of gleaming white limestone built right on top of the floor of the black basalt synagogue of New Testament times. What a great image: the preacher guides the people in looking beneath the surface of things, and it’s a little bit darker, but more real under there. Jesus is a young man in a hurry in Mark. Everything happens “immediately.” It’s urgent – although in this case, to say Jesus “immediately” entered the synagogue is simple fact. Archaeologists discovered Peter’s house, where Jesus stayed, and it’s literally about a dozen steps from the house to the synagogue! 

   They were “astounded” by his teaching. Not “they nodded in agreement,” but they were astounded. I’ve never astounded people much. If I try to be astounding, they wag a finger in my face and tell me I’m mixing politics and religion – which is easily decipherable code for You said something that doesn’t suit my political ideology! At the Festival of Homiletics a couple of years ago, I preached a sermon on this text – for clergy. I mentioned that Annie Dillard said that, if we thought about the Gospel, we should wear crash helmets at church. People nod – but their heads are uncovered. I called it “How to be amazing in the pulpit” – although it’s about us being amazed, as if we’re amazed, astonished, astounded, onlookers might be too. If we aren’t, they won’t be. 

   Hugh Anderson wisely reminds us that “Mark wanted to show that when Jesus taught, things did not stay as they were, but God himself was on the move against all evil forces of the world.” The reason can only be that talk uncovers the hidden reality of spiritual forces, good vs. evil, God vs. the devil. There are ways to speak of this today without implying the devil is a red guy with a pitchfork breathing fire. People are puzzled by politics and society and other people; can’t we see this through the biblical lens that it’s not just one bad decision and then another, or stupidity, but actual vile forces that would undo us all. I used to worry people would think I was crazy if I mention evil forces; but nowadays people nod. It’s really the only thing that makes sense – and gives us hope, since God is steadfastly laboring against those forces, and they surely will be defeated. 

  Almost comically (and Mark is poking gentle fun at the demons), the demons in the guy recognize Jesus – when the pious can’t figure it out! Joel Marcus cleverly points out that it would be smart for the demons to keep a low profile. But they have that “fatal attraction” to Jesus. Jesus must have been attractive, for why else would the fishermen simply drop everything and traipse off after a near total stranger? The demons too find him alluring. 

    Jesus, never as sweet and gentle as we fantasize him being, says to those invisible forces of evil, “Hush!” The Greek, phimotheti, is slang, coarse, sort of cursing, more like “Shut up!” or as Marcus suggests, “Shut your trap!” God always wants silence, right? Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46), Jesus stilling the storm, the quiet Elijah heard after the storm on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19). The racket of the world is racket. The noisy rancor of political ideology, the clamor of marketers to get you to buy something, anything. The hollering in your head that you’re no good. Name plenty of loud evil spirits, and in your sermon, embody Jesus saying to them phimotheti! Hugh! Shut the hell up! Maybe omit hell.

   I have no real clue how to be an amazing preacher like Jesus. I am amazed by Jesus. And I do wonder how we might be an amazing church. If Jesus was amazing, maybe Jesus now, the body of Christ, Jesus on earth in ecclesiastical form (his only form now), can be amazing, astounding – which is where Chrysostom comes in. Instead of a church where nice people do nice things, or we drop off a few canned goods, which even the pagans do, maybe we astound them. Unsure how that would happen or what it would look like where you are. But raising the question might be astounding enough to open the window. Here’s Chrysostom’s full quote: “Let us astound them by our way of life. This is the unanswerable argument. Though we give 10,000 precepts in words, if we do not exhibit a far better life, we gain nothing. Let us win them by our life.”

What can we say February 7? 5th after the Epiphany

    I love Isaiah 40:21-31. Here we realize the “inspiration” isn’t some dogma about God’s relation to the text. These words are inspired, inspiring, poetry, almost like a symphony or a ballet or a fabulous painting. Best not to try to explain any of it. Just linger over the words. So much hope. Such encouragement for the discouraged. Ringing so very true, even in dire circumstances.

   My mind drifts to images of God “above the circle of heaven,” William Blake’s Ancient of Days, or Michelangelo’s ethereal God floating above it all while creating such wonder. For us, the world is vast, yet cozy, a real home – “like a tent to live in.”

    Anticipating our demoralized angst, the inspired poet puts words of fear and doubt into our own mouths, not thrashing us for it, but embracing who we are, and offering hope for the weary. Energy for the weary, actually. 

I should imagine that J.R.R. Tolkien had this text in mind when Frodo and Sam fall exhausted after their arduous journey to Mount Doom – and eagles arrive, swoop them up and deliver them to Rivendell for the joyous reunion of the fellowship.

   Paul picks up on weakness in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, bragging about it, noting how his weakness enables him to reach the weak. Here’s the constant challenge around strength/weakness: we associate God with giving us strength, but then the Scriptures fully embrace weakness, Christ emptying himself, God’s power being perfected in weakness. We hold these together, not glorifying those who seem to garner great strength from their faith at the expense of those who still feel so very weak.

  Michael Knowles wrote these glorious words about Paul’s weakness, and that of the preacher – so not for sermon use, but for the edification of you, the preacher! – in dealing with criticism, a sense of irrelevance, and smallness in the life of ministry: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity. And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it. Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work. The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness. Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God who raises the dead.”

    Mark 1:29-39 continues to track the opening days of Jesus’ burst onto the scene, startling the crowds and sending demons scurrying away. There is a “Take Time to be Holy” moment here: Jesus, the Messiah, with the sick clamoring for him, with demons to cast out, with teachings to reveal, rose in the morning, while it was still dark, and went to a deserted place. How far did he go? Until it was quiet? Far enough off the road not to be noticed? To a vantage point with a view of the sunrise, or of the towns dotting the Galilean coastline so he might pray over them? I wonder if the preacher prepares to preach on this – or to live the rest of her life – by rising while it is still dark and literally going somewhere out of doors to pray.

    Like our people, we are busy, we are rushed, and distracted by our gadgets like the one you’re reading this on right now. Jesus, lord of creation and savior of the world, needed, wanted, had to have time alone with God the Father. No wonder the disciples would soon come to him and ask how to get in on his intimate relationship with God: Lord, teach us to pray.

  No need in the sermon to scold or sound swimmingly pious. I remember learning that John Wesley rose for a couple of hours of prayer before daylight – and found that to be terribly demoralizing or just so remote as to seem irrelevant. {Doesn't he look really tired to you?} How do we invite people into the solitude – which isn’t loneliness at all? There’s fear of failure at spirituality, fear of my deepest self, fear that God isn’t really there, fear that God might be there and might ask something hard from me. Help people navigate why all this is tough.

   Peter had a mother-in-law - so he had a wife too. Notice the evocative line, “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Feel the ambiguity: as a woman, she resumed her role, she returned to her “place.” Can we shift the gender and offer the idea that anyone who is healed, or who is touched by Jesus, then quite naturally and even spontaneously begins to serve others? It was in person, face to face. She didn’t drop off the ancient equivalent of some canned goods. She worked with her own hands, and served and shared time with real people. “Better to deliver aid than to send it,” as Wesley the early riser pointed out. Share a story, even from your own parish?

    I’m also intrigued that “they hunted for him.” Poor Jesus, can’t catch a break and get some space! Feels like ministry. Jesus was the consummately “interruptible” one. He doesn’t shush them or tell them to pray like he’s praying. He says Let’s head on to the next town.

 

What can we say February 14? The Transfiguration of our Lord

    Is this early for Transfiguration Sunday? And it’s Valentine’s Day. St Valentine, a 3rd century Roman priest, martyred, buried near the Milvian Bridge (historic with Constantine!) outside Rome. Oh my. His skull (relics?!?!) is housed in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the church in Rome with the “mouth of truth” made famous by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Are there truth issues to be raised this Sunday?

   2 Kings 2:1-12. To me, like so many biblical stories, there’s not a “go thou and do likewise” moment. Just be dazzled by the biblical story, its characters, our spiritual ancestors. Thank God for them. Elisha, although Elijah seems to be trying to get rid of him, won’t leave him alone – maybe like Sam with Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo, at the end of the 1st movie, says, “Go back, Sam. I’m going to Mordor alone!” “Of course you are,” responds Sam, “and I’m coming with you!” He plunges into the river, gets in over his head and almost drowns before Frodo pulls him into the boat. Once Sam catches his breath, he explains: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.”

   The mantle is intriguing; Gandalf rather unwisely left the course of affairs in Middle-earth to the diminutive, fun-loving, timid Hobbits. “Despair, or folly?” said Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”

   As dogged as Sam, Elisha would not leave Elijah alone, although Elijah tried to shed Elisha like a pesky gnat. Why? Biblical narrative habitually refrains from reporting motivations and feelings. Was he sparing Elisha? Did Elijah simply prefer to die alone? When Jesus, who like Elijah had miraculously fed the hungry and healed dozens and gotten cheeky with the powers that be, said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” did the disciples think of Elijah trudging off to die alone?

   I think of Roland Murphy, the Carmelite Old Testament scholar who was my dissertation adviser and lifelong mentor. He shared a lot of wisdom with me; I never made an important decision without exploring things with him. But he did not, as he could not, vouchsafe to me what his dying moments were like, or what he saw when the door of this life closed and he took the first step of his journey into . . . we do not know. He died on the feast day of Elijah—fitting for a Carmelite, and a Hebrew Bible guy! Were there chariots or some dimly lit, beautiful silence? We trust, perhaps because we harbor in our souls some mysterious confidence that all must be well with someone who lived so well and loved us so well.

   Like the bush in Exodus 3, the fire of the horses and chariot here are not consumed – and do not consume Elijah! The film, “Chariots of Fire,” ruminates on the lives of Eric Liddell, a Christian who runs for God’s glory, and Harold Abrahams, a Jew running to defeat prejudice. With Liddell in particular, the clash of his simple, holy commitments to God with the world might seem old-fashioned, but sometimes it’s the old-timey story that awakens us to the craziness of our own world.

   2 Corinthians 4:3-6. The Gospel really is veiled – and that’s not all bad. Paul’s exclamation that “We do not proclaim ourselves” is probably important for clergy to ponder privately and deeply – but do you do this in a sermon?

   Mark 9:2-9. When I try to wave my magic wand over the world of homiletics, the Transfiguration is the first text I point to – as it is the prime example of the understandable but deeply flawed way even well-meaning preachers take a text that is most clearly about God, and try to turn it into something about us.  In my preaching book, The Beauty of the Word, I explain how so many texts are about how amazing God is – and it’s sufficient just to ponder the amazingness of God in the sermon! But we have to make it about us, our faith, our to-dos, our doubts, our serving… and then we struggle and wind up botching things. 

    With the Transfiguration, I’ve read and heard so many sermons like a few I tried when I was young – with some ridiculous attempt at “Okay, you have a mountaintop experience, and then you go back down into the real world…” All 3 Synoptic versions of this moment have as their “point” the simple fact that Jesus is amazing, someone to be worshipped, gawked at, and the only takeaway is to be lost in wonder, love and praise. Mark shows us the way the plodding disciples tried what preachers try: Lord, let us do something. Let us build three booths!  Mark’s comment reveals a kind of mercy on them, and on us: “For they did not know what to say.” Indeed. Like the preacher coping with this text, too marvelous for mere words.

  What the preacher knows to say is that Jesus quite shockingly started glowing, shining; the Greek means literally metamorphosized. He shimmered. No ordinary guy, this Jesus; we get a preliminary peek into his eternal glory. The only conceivable responses are recorded in Scripture. In Mark, Peter does offer the greatest understatement in religious history: “It is good that we are here.” Matthew 17:10 is even better: “And they fell on their faces in awe.”

   There's an echo here of Jesus' perhaps greater metamorphosis. The cloud "overshadowed" them (v. 7) - the same verb (episkiazousa) used of what happened to Mary when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:35). This overshadowed one gave birth to God's "beloved Son," so announced at the opening of his ministry (at the Baptism), and now as we move into the final act of Mark's plot. All 3 moments embody what Paul wrote in Philippians 2: "Though in the form of God, he emptied himself." That is the metamorphosis - seen sort of in reverse in the Transfiguration!

   I want to preach the sermon that simply causes me and my people to say “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place – and it is good that we are here,” or that would make me and them simply blush in awe. This sermon won’t attempt to resolve any personal or societal dilemmas, it won’t allow notes to be taken to put into practice on Tuesday morning, it doesn’t even try to get me to do anything but observe a bit of a sabbath from doing things like building booths or even being religious, and simply let my jaw drop over how cool, how very different and glorious this Jesus is. 

   I have attempted this myself a few times in sermons. Mind you, the material extolling the beauty and glory of Jesus is plentiful. The birth, the incarnation – God becoming small to show us God’s heart. Wow. Jesus’ words, his holiness, the people he touched, the marvel of his healing. The temptation narrative (another one we botch by making it about how we overcome temptation): we see Jesus achieving what you and I wouldn’t have a prayer of doing – resisting the devil’s seductive allure. His suffering in silence, his compassion on the soldiers who just nailed him up, his tenderness toward a thief, his love for his mother. “What wondrous love is this?” 

   Am I veering from Mark 9? I don’t mind if I do – but the timing of Mark 9 invites this very speculation: Jesus has just asked the disciples about his identity, and he has just explained his vocation to go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, despite the strenuous objections of those who knew him best. Jesus.  His resurrection, and ascension.  Gee, I’m going to need a heckuva lot of time to explore “Fairest Lord Jesus, Beautiful Savior.” 

   The only remote takeaways might be two: first, to try to do the awe thing every day… and then second, as the voice from heaven (which echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism) quite sensible suggests, “Listen to him.” Yeah, the guy who glowed, the one who is God and who healed and touched the untouchables and gave his life? Listen to this guy and not all the other pretenders who’ve frankly never glowed for a nanosecond.

What can we say on Ash Wednesday?

  Ash Wednesday. I always tell myself and fellow clergy that they don’t come for the homily. They come for the ashes. With coronavirus, will they come at all? Self-administration of ashes? If they come, or if we’re virtual somehow, I still love the great reflection Martin Sheen offered when interviewed by Krista Tippett: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

   I continue to commend some sort of Lenten fast, although it gets watered down into dieting or substituting beer for wine or whatever you gave up. Jesus fasted for his 40 days, and the saints we adore did the same. 
William Placher's terrific Mark commentary cites Alexander Schmemann ("Fasting makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure"), Macrina Wiederkehr ("Fasting is cleansing. It lays bare our souls. In the Divine Arms we become less demanding and more like the One who holds us. We hunger and thirst for justice, and holiness. We hunger for what is right. What hunger to be saints"), and St. Basil ("Fasting is to refrain from vice"). I'll ponder those for me, whether they worm their way into a sermon or not.

   Matthew 6 is perfect yet terribly odd for Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells us not to practice our piety visibly (v. 1), and not to disfigure our faces but to wash them (v. 16) – on the very day we disfigure our faces publicly. Nobody at my place though is showing off, sporting ashes for the rest of the day. If anything, they’ll get some strange stares at the store on the way home.

  When I get home, I try to take some time to linger before a mirror – to ponder that I have just been marked with the horror and hope of Jesus’ cross. No hymn captures so thrillingly the paradox of this horror and hope as Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We “survey” the cross. We don’t just glance at it. The soldiers didn’t survey this one. They’d seen plenty of crosses, and had no reason to think this was God. All they saw was a dying, despised person – which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve. More lines in that hymn bear reflection: “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Onlookers saw tragedy, maybe justice mingled.

   “Did e’er… thorns compose so rich a crown?” At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord. Did she ponder Jesus’ very different crown, its only ornaments those harsh thorns gashing his forehead, scalp and temples?

   “My richest gain I count but loss.” Lent is the season to reassess what has value, what doesn’t, how much we offer up to God. Do we urge our people to embark on a fast? It’s not dieting. It’s not being glum and feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s solidarity with those who aren’t choosing to fast. It’s weaning ourselves from dependencies on things. It’s an awakening to where our treasure is.

   Where are the “Take the Bible literally!” people when it comes to “Do not lay up treasure on earth”? We prudently save, we check our retirement portfolios, we pay off the house. No use castigating the people, or ourselves. It’s a mark of our brokenness, our desperate need for the true God. The ashes are lie that mark on Cain’s forehead. It’s guilt, and grace.

  And so we invite people into (hopefully) a growing devotion, a loosening of our grip on our treasures, an expansion of God and grace into daily life. Here’s something we did a few years back. At the Baptism of the Lord, we handed out shower tags (we got the idea, and even purchased the tags from Adam Hamilton!), which you hang in the bath: “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my Baptism. Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child today, and honor you in all that I do.”

   On Ash Wednesday, we picked up on Matthew 6 and handed out closet tags. Jesus said “Go into your closet to pray.” The Greek tameion is an inner room of the house, a storeroom, small, private – reminding us of the need for a dedicated holy space at home. I love this – that if you go into your closet and pray, you are doing God’s will! Picking up on other clothing images in Scripture, here’s how that tag reads: “Jesus said, ‘Go into your closet and pray in secret; and your Father will reward you.’ So pray. Prepare for your day with God. As you dress, remember Romans 14:8, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and Colossians 3:12, ‘Put on compassion, patience, forgiveness, love – and be thankful. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.’”

   Two more items while we’re on Matthew 6. Jesus says “When you pray,” not “If you pray” – and he was assuming 3 set times of prayer as was common Jewish practice then and now. When Will Willimon was Dean of Duke Chapel, he told about a Muslim student who asked him, “Why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” He obviously observed the 5 set daily times for prayer in Islam, and was puzzled that he never ever saw Christians stopping to pray. It’s a judgment call whether you can mention this to your people. I think it’s compelling, and inviting – but some folks have such potent, irrational anti-Muslim feelings that they’ll shut down on you.

   And then Jesus talks about “reward,” shunning earthly reward, but implying quite clearly there are rewards, ultimate rewards to the life of faith. I for one downplay this, remembering a very smart college student who asked me if he could become a Christian if he didn’t believe in eternal life. His angle was he wanted to follow Jesus just because it was good, right, noble and true, not to secure any prize for himself. I admire that – but quite clearly the Gospels and Epistles lay out for us fabulous, unspeakably fantastic rewards, or ultimate realities, for those who believe.

What can we say February 21? Lent 1

   Lent begins. How do we help our people, in this season, to distinguish the theological time of ashes, repentance, grief over sin, and fasting from the larger cultural mood of pandemic, distancing, and grief over lost travel, visits, etc.? Do we use the feel of the season to segue into a desired attitude of Lent? Are people eager for the old Robert Schuller quip that LENT should be “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking”? Our texts this week intrigue, as all speak of immense hope coming out of a time of intense lack and struggle.

    Genesis 9:8-17. What was the “mood” after the flood? God promises never again to flood the earth – but does a worldwide pandemic count, just a little? The flood itself, and the covenant God makes here, reminds us that God’s redemption isn’t merely human souls but all creatures, all of creation. St. Francis understood our kinship with his brothers and sisters the birds, fish, wolves, cattle, flowers and trees, and sang it in his Canticle and enacted it by preaching to creatures.

   The rainbow is an opening, I suspect, to talk about signs. Lots of religious people love signs – but they see signs that maybe are suspect as divine in origin – and then we miss the signs that really may be signs from God. Seeing a rainbow really is a lovely reminder of God’s ultimate mercy. So are the trees, flowers and birds, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount. Too many “signs” people claim to notice are a bit self-indulgent, or what Bruce Waltke calls “hunches.” You hear plenty of these from your people, a mere chance or coincidence that folks anoint as God’s doing. No need to chide or mock them for this. Society teaches this kind of bland theology.

   1 Peter 3:18-22. Hmm, Jesus went to and made proclamation to “the spirits in prison.” Is this a clue regarding “He descended into Hell”? What was Jesus doing between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? This dogma makes so much sense of so many things, from pre-Jesus inhabitants of earth, to those in remote regions who’ve never heard of Jesus – or even those who reject Jesus for darn good reasons, like mean, abusive or simply boring representatives of Jesus. Robertson Davies wryly suggested in one of his novels that hell must have “visible branch establishments, and I have visited quite a few of them.” Jesus’ whole mission was to visit and make proclamation to spirits in prison. We are shackled by so many things. No wonder in the Eucharistic liturgy we say Jesus came “to release the captives.” That would be us, you, me, the people I cringe over as they are captive to bad thinking or crass ideologies – and frankly, everybody. Thank goodness.

   Mark 1:9-15. Most of us will fixate on the Gospel text for Lent 1. Notice in Mark it’s direct, second person speech: not “this is my beloved,” but “You are my beloved.” I like that. Personal, giving the preacher the opportunity to invite people to be Jesus’ Body and hear God say “You – yes, You! – are my beloved.” This whole category of being Beloved: Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book on what this vision of your identity can do to relieve agonies and instill joy and hope. 

   Notice the vivid "the heavens were ripped apart" (which the Greek literally means). Donald Juel reflected on this and observes that "what is opened may be closed again; what is torn apart cannot easily return to its former state." Remember the roof being ripped open in Mark 2 when the paralytic was lowered from above!

   But not for long, and not so folks can relax into the easy chair of being the Beloved. The Spirit “immediately” (Mark’s Jesus is always in a big hurry, so urgent!) “drove him out into the wilderness.” We have our drivennesses… The wilderness could be parsed as the challenges we all face. The pandemic season might feel like a wilderness. But it’s a place, a zone, a time of testing. Jesus was driven, but he chose to let himself be driven. What would it mean for us, and our people, to see ourselves as driven into a time of testing, of purifying the self, of shedding other crutches and to rely for a time only on God? Fasting, yes. Shutting off gadgets, yes. I like, in preaching, to suggest “Could be this, could be that, could be another thing” – or all of the above. Let people pick up on what resonates, or scurry off to discover their own thing to jettison for Lent.

   Old Church hands might have their interest piqued in that Mark doesn’t do the three boxing rounds of temptation with the devil we find in Matthew and Luke. Here, he’s “with the wild beasts.” Sounds scary, maybe scarier than verbal jousting with the devil. Leap off the temple? Easy to say No to that one. But a couple of jackals growling and drooling behind me, or some predator bird swooping down and pressing its talons into the back of my head? I bet your hurting people who aren’t in denial totally get this scenario. The only way to survive such assaults of doubts or self-recrimination or anxiety or grief or a restless night is the recollection of the Baptism, being Beloved. Martin Luther, when attacked by the devil, calmly resisted by saying “I am baptized.”

   And then there’s this: “The angels waited on him.” The verb “wait” is always theologically suggestive. We “wait” on the Lord, as in its takes time, watching, expecting, not there yet, but coming. Did the angels wait on him in this way? We also “wait” on the Lord, as in the way a waiter waits on a table, serving, hosting, helping. What waiting service did the angels provide to Jesus? Not food: he was fasting! Wiping his brow? Words or even better (since they were angels) songs, choral anthems of encouragement and inspiration? American piety has way too much sentimentality around angels. But here they are, waiting on our Lord.

What can we say February 28? Lent 2

    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 lacks the psychological drama of chapter 18’s fleshing out of the impossible promise. I love it that Abraham was 99. Almost 100! But not quite. God’s counsel, “Walk before me,” is good, but then the addition “Be blameless” confounds all of us. Easy for a Christian to say our blamelessness isn’t our own purity but being cleansed by the shed blood of Christ – but still. I think God meant “Be blameless.” Not surprisingly, Abraham “fell on his face,” reminding us of the disciples at the Transfiguration (which weirdly is an alternate Gospel text for this day – but we were just there 2 weeks ago!). I do want more sermons that try to achieve just this: no big moral, no go-thou-and-do-likewise lesson, but just leaving our people in awe, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

  On this text, Jonathan Sacks provides an eloquent summation: “Faith is the ability to live with delay without losing trust in the promise; to experience disappointment without losing hope, to know that the road between the real and the ideal is long and yet be willing to undertake the journey. That was Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith.”

  Romans 4:13-25 is like an early Christian sermon on the Genesis text, coopting Abraham for the Christians. We strive to avoid supersessionist readings, or anything that would demean our Jewish neighbors. Sometimes, if I’m fretting about his, I’ll call a rabbi friend, tell her what I’m thinking, and see how she feels about it. Without a hint of anti-Semitism, there is plenty of preaching fodder in “Hoping against hope,” this origami of contradictory notions! C.E.B. Cranfield gets to the heart of things: “Abraham believed God at a time when it was no longer a human possibility for him to go on hoping. Human hope’s utmost limit had already been reached and passed.” And in a somewhat obscure hymn, Charles Wesley expressed something similar: “In hope, against all human hope, Self-desperate, I believe… Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees, and looks to that alone; laughs at impossibilities, and cries: It shall be done!”

   I wonder if there’s a sermon in “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body” (verse 19). What does the culture say to us about our bodies? Some sleek, fit, curvy ideal? Too fat? Too skinny? Too feeble? Fatigued? Ill? Paul presents us with a counter-cultural, hopeful vision of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). The preacher can invite people to look down, like right now, at their bodies. Not much? How fantastic: when you consider your own body, your faith can and should be strengthened!

   If your setting allows it, you could reflect on what our society has done to black bodies. Or to women’s bodies. Secular culture might blaze the path for us. Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral – with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Our Gospel story ultimately is about a broken, wounded, scarred body, as we see in our Gospel.

   Mark 8:31-38. In the Synoptics, the turning point in the plot comes at Caesarea Philippi, far to the north, on the border, amidst a warren of temples honoring the fake god, Caesar. It is here that Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem. He’s been a powerful, impressive character, striding across the stage of history up to this point. From now on, he is passive, acted upon, handed over, walking meekly into the teeth of danger to be acted upon. W.H. Vanstone, in his lovely book, The Stature of Waiting, suggests that this matches the plot of our lives. We work, we are productive, but then we increasingly are acted upon, handed over to nursing homes or family or the seeming bondage of feeble older age. Jesus’ glory comes in the 2nd half of his story, and therefore he renders our seemingly bad years as our glory.

   No passive spectators allowed here. From the sidelines, we’ll just admire Jesus for suffering “in our place”? Jesus says “Take up your cross and follow me.” Not watch, but make the walk to death row and suffering with me. This “taking up your cross” might sound like bearing your burdens, but that’s not it at all. In the Roman world, if you picked up your cross, you were on death row, you were walking that “green mile” toward your execution. Joel Marcus, in his commentary on Mark, wisely refers us to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on the gulag: “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself. ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. . . I no longer have any property whatsoever. . . Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”

   The logic of the Gospel is illogical to the world, always paradox. Deny yourself to find yourself. Lose your life to save it. Clearly Jesus is utterly uninterested in our niceness, our goodness, our political ideologies or our smug judgments of others. We put our cozy life behind. My property isn’t mine. It’s not what I want to do, and not even what I want to do for God, but what God wants me to do. The preacher errs by saying It might be costly. No, it will be costly – because we follow in a world that is terribly out of sync with Jesus, a culture that does not love the Lord Jesus. The preacher urges this with a soft, plaintive voice and maybe even some tears, never wagging a finger or stridently insisting. We dream that they might actually follow, at least with a few baby steps, to discover that the only thing that is more grievous than the cost of discipleship is the cost of non-discipleship.