Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say December 22? Advent 4

  Before I ruminate with you on Advent 4’s texts proper, I’ll refer you to my general blog on preaching during Advent (“God Became Small”), with lots of illustrative stuff applicable to any of the Sundays – and also (especially as Christmas Eve is in just 2 days!!!) to my “Preaching Christmas” blog.

   Isaiah 7:10-16. I recall Religion 101 in college when my deeply religious friend got apoplectic when the professor tried to explain that the Hebrew here wasn’t “a virgin” but “the young woman.” Why do people cling so fiercely to the notion that prophecies are predictive? The text is far richer than any image of Isaiah gazing into the divine crystal ball and foretelling what would happen in 700+ years. What help would that have been to Ahaz or the Israelites anyhow? They were under extreme duress, with hard decisions looming.

   So the gift of Isaiah 7:10-16? Pressured by the Assyrian juggernaut, Ahaz is flailing about, sensing that a lunge into a treaty might help, might not, but to do nothing? – which is Isaiah’s counsel, or at least that’s what “Trust God!” had to feel like. God curiously urges Ahaz to ask for a sign. Our people are fond of signs (usually in place of diligent Bible reflection, spiritual formation, Christian conversation and prayer!) – leading them into what Bruce Waltke called “the Hunch method.” The dream house I’ve driven by every day for years has a For Sale sign! It’s a sign from God we should buy it! A hunch, baptized. People never see a poor person with three poorly clothed children crossing the road and think Hmm, it’s a sign: God wants us to adopt an impoverished immigrant family.

   Ahaz, rather piously, dodges the offer: “No, I will not put the Lord to the test.” I love Martin Luther’s view on this: “Impious Ahaz simulates a holy attitude… Thus hypocrites, when it is not necessary, are most religious; but when they ought to be humble, they are most haughty.” Ahaz may have rightly suspected that the sign to be given would not suit his power-grubbing, politically-advantageous fantasies. Your people likely feel weary of the bickering and inanity they see among politicians. Share with them Isaiah’s ding of Ahaz: “It is too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” You’re weary of politics? Think how exhausted God must be!

   The unasked for sign is the last thing Ahaz wanted: “The young woman” – in Hebrew, ha-almah – will have a child. Which “the” woman? One standing nearby? Isaiah’s wife? Isaiah must have exasperated Mrs. Isaiah by his choice of baby names, like Mahershalalhashbaz, Shearyashuv, their names being prophecies. Another made-up, prophetic name is announced for this child: Immanuel, familiar to us now but a bizarre one back then – meaning, as we know, “God with us.” Ahaz wanted more, like a legion or thicker walls around Jerusalem. Instead, the infant-sized promise that God is with us. This is the heart of Advent and Christmas – and the whole Gospel.

   Sam Wells shrewdly reminds us that the most important word in the Bible, and in all of theology, is with. God is with us – which is way better than a dazzling fortune-telling of what will happen centuries from now. God is as with us as this child is with its mother right now. This then informs how we do ministry: we don’t fix people, we aren’t charitable toward people, and we certainly don’t pity them; we are with them. Please read A Nazareth Manifesto if you have not. Best theology book in a decade.

   Romans 1:1-7. Instead of a holy tablets view of Scripture, we can in this moment imagine Paul welcoming the secretary into the room, saying “Have a seat, get out your pen, I want to compose a letter to the people in Rome I’ve never met.” Pacing, uttering a few words, pausing, grimacing, wiping his brow, a few more words tumble out. Romans begins.

   Right off he speaks of the Gospel which was “promised beforehand.” Just as with Isaiah, it’s not that the Gospel was predicted long ago. God’s eternal plan, God’s constant manner of being, God’s own heart, always laboring, always loving, culminating in the Jesus moment – not a backup plan, not a last ditch effort, but God’s holy intention from the commencement of creation itself. 
Michelangelo’s creation of Adam depicts God with a woman and child tucked under his left arm – a visual of God’s eternal, beforehand promise and way.

   Notice the words we’d find in a theological dictionary, all piled on top of one another, as Paul tries to explicate the revolution that Jesus touched off: servant, called, sent, set apart, good news, holiness, grace, obedience of faith. All this “by a spirit of holiness” – the same one that came upon Mary! He probably anticipated that his listeners, once the letter was wrapped up, delivered, and finally read aloud in Rome, were people of low social standing. So he speaks to them of being “slaves” – maybe a step down for many of them! – with no rights, no standing, and yet with the ultimate standing, the freedom and nobility of being God’s family!

   N.T. Wright suggests Paul is utilizing some “wry irony” when he speaks of being “set apart,” which the Pharisees boasted of being. We are set apart, not to be insulated from others, or superior to others, but set apart to be for others, called from the world to be in and for the world in obedience (the Greek, hupakoe, cherished by Diaspora Jews as the translated of shema, the treasured call to faith in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which they recited in a creedal way every day. It’s worth remembering that in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph were still devout Jews (as they would be after the birth too!), doing things like reciting the Shema, and singing Psalms. Jesus, in utero, would have heard his mother’s voice doing so, muffled a bit, but rejoicing his infant heart.

   Matthew 1:18-25. A text so familiar: better to be the docent pointing to its wonder than to try to explain it or make it relevant or devise some moral takeaway. To me, three little things here are noteworthy, if I’m the docent pointing to the wonder. The angels anticipates their fear. Yes, Mary and Joseph had good cause to fear, as do we, always. And yet Scott Bader-Saye’s wisdom comes to mind. Noting how, in our post-9/11 culture, security is everything, and so we wind up living timid lives: “Instead of being courageous, we are content to be safe… We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good… Our overwhelming fears need, themselves, to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.” Joseph and Mary’s fears certainly were.

   Matthew reminds us of the child with the prophetic name at Isaiah’s court, Immanuel, God with us – and then clarifies how this nickname jives marvelous with the proper name to be given to this child: Jesus, yeshu‘a, which means either “Lord, help!” or “the Lord saves” – or both. Madeleine L’Engle said Jesus’ first cry sounded like the ringing of a bell. Jesus is one with the cry of all humanity. And Jesus is the divine reply to the cry of all humanity, in his cry, in his being Immanuel.

   Or the preacher might simply want to tease out what Joseph, who only gets a little play here in all of the Gospels, might have been like, and mean for us. In my little Advent book, Why This Jubilee?, I wrote this:    Joseph has always been relegated to the background of Christmas pageants, looking on, doing nothing much besides gazing, peering over Mary’s shoulders, hanging on to the donkey’s reins, his face solemn, looking a little bit sheepish, even foolish, while attention is focused on the real “stars” of the drama, Jesus and his mother Mary. No dramatic skills required to pay Joseph. He’s just there.

   We don’t know much about Joseph - and the little we know seems ridiculously inconsequential. He worked in construction. A laborer who worked hard for a living. Not a star. Oddly, God’s highest calling might be for us to be like Joseph. He was simply there. He stuck close to Jesus, and that was enough. “For me it is good to be near God” (Psalm 73:28).

   Something else unspectacular on Joseph’s resume: he was virtuous (Matthew 1:19). Was he some titan of holiness? I see his greatest virtue as something humbler, and harder: he was merciful. He did not shun Mary after her pregnancy. He had his rights: in those days, to be “betrothed” was more binding than a mere “engagement” today. On betrothal, the groom assumed legal rights over the woman, and the arrangement could only be broken by a legal divorce. The law threatened the death penalty for a woman caught in adultery. We can only guess as to the whispering gossip he overheard, the chilly stares boring into him, and her. But he was quiet, and prayerful enough, to be in sync with God’s Spirit on this one, and so he refused to pass judgment. He stayed.

   Maybe he had been shown mercy, and knew what it felt like. When Jesus was grown, he told people who knew precious little mercy, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus didn’t just talk mercy. He was abundantly merciful to people who knew no mercy at all: lepers, demoniacs, tax collectors. Had he witnessed this in Joseph? Weren’t Jesus’ best stories, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, all about the mercy that Jesus himself was?

   Deep inside, don’t you crave mercy? to be loved despite your craziness, to be handled tenderly? Don’t we need to be tender, merciful, forgiving to others? Joseph, after all, did bear a magnificent name. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was eminently wise, and forgave his dastardly brothers who sold him into slavery and broke their father’s heart. He was the one who saw through all their misdeeds and perceived the divine plan: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

   How do we get close to Joseph, who was so close to Jesus? I am adept at finding fault, and zeroing in on what’s wrong with everybody else. But Jesus came so we would not judge, so we could become merciful, like the mercy we itch for. A judgmental thought rings your doorbell? Don’t answer. A critical remark hangs on your lips? Hush. An ugly observation, about somebody out there, someone you love, or even yourself, suggests itself? Take a breath, and imagine Joseph hovering lovingly next to Mary, whom he could have despised, and over Jesus, God’s love bundled in the manger.
   Joseph doesn’t fit in to our cynical culture very well. We are quick to doubt, swift to blame. A jaded skepticism seems to work for us. We are determined never to play the fool. But Joseph, the first of a great cloud of fools in Jesus’ wake, believes Mary’s story, and God’s, courting shame and embarrassment. He trusts. He stays.

   The fact that he’s just standing there is all we really need to know, all we really need to do. Confronted by the scandalous surprise of God becoming flesh, granting every good reason to flee for the exits and be the center of attention in our own dramas, maybe this Advent we can learn what it means just to stand nearby the manger, to look, to wait, to stay, to trust. We may look a little foolish. At least, we hope we will.


What can we say December 29? 1st Sunday of Christmas

  The days after Christmas, and that Sunday after Christmas: time feels very different, maybe slower; we exhale a little, worship has a simpler, earthier, emptier feel. I love Isaiah 63:7-9’s unintended meaning: “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord… all the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to Israel – his mercy, the abundance of his steadfast love” – and I think without being supersessionist, we who are Christian hear a resonance here that these gracious deeds, acts, favor, mercy and abundance of love are not any thing at all, but simply Jesus himself, God with us.

   Psalm 148: did Mary and Joseph sing this one during Jesus’ early days? “Praise him in the heights, all his host” (a la the angels on Christmas night?). Echoes of Job in this stirring tour of creation, including not just the pretty and photogenic, but also monsters, frost, stormy wind, wild, dangerous animals. All praise the Lord, even unwittingly, simply by being. Annie Dillard (in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) muses over the mind-boggling diversity and experimental dazzle that is creation, saying “There’s nothing God won’t try.”

   Why the incarnation? A major piece of the answer is in Hebrews 2:10-18, which doesn’t feel very Christmasy until v. 17: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters so he might be a merciful and faithful high priest.” God is like us. We are like God. All of us were born. I have a book coming out early next year entitled Birth, with a section on the very earliest days of Jesus’ life, some of which is reported in Matthew 2:13-23; here is an excerpt reflecting on that text and those earliest days:

   We love the carol which suggests “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Surely he cried. We should hope he cried. He became one with all of us who cry. Babies cry, and we may be grateful, as that sound is the sign of life, vitality, a protest against being so rudely removed from the warm safety of the womb, a declaration to the world that “I have arrived” – and “something’s wrong.” As an adult, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, over the death of his friend Lazarus, and he surely still weeps over us. His name, after all, is a cry, yeshu’a meaning “Lord, help!” 

   Mary nursed him, rocked him, whispered and sang to him. Like all mothers, she fought through the weariness. Did she suffer any postpartum depression?... Remember those long shadows in Rembrandt’s “Adoration of the Shepherds”? Immediately upon the birth of this child, history’s ongoing struggle of good versus evil got ratcheted up quite a few notches. A thin view of Christmas might elicit giggles over the image of parents with their sweet child. But a cosmic battle just got touched off. “Why do the nations rage?” (Ps. 2:1). The idolatrous, unholy powers, immediately upon Jesus’ birth, seemed to realize that their domain had been invaded.

   And so they recoiled – like that haunting moment in Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Lord of the Rings.” The wicked “eye of Sauron,” atop a high tower, casts its evil beam over the land, probing, ruling, intimidating, always watching for signs of good to be dealt with; “its wrath blazed like a sudden flame and its fear was like a great black smoke, for it knew its deadly peril, the thread upon which hung its doom.” When Frodo put on the ring of power, the eye was seized with some paroxysm of envy and terror, jerking suddenly in Frodo’s direction, far away. Jesus was born quietly at a distance of many miles from Herod or Caesar Augustus. But in that moment, there was a recoil, a leap to secure the borders, and police the people so the powers that be will remain unchecked. How astonishing, that this birth struck anxiety into the hearts of those dwelling arrogantly and securely in the corridors of power.

   An appalling, gruesome manifestation of this evil recoil was unleashed by King Herod. Notorious for his paranoia, famously feeling threatened by and then killing members of his own family, Herod flew into what for him was a typical rage, ordering the cruel slaughter of all male boys under the age of two in his realm. The arrival of the Christ child was no security blanket to shelter the people from harm. On the contrary, his advent actually brought on intense sorrow, such is the ferocious kneejerk retaliation of evil in our broken world against the good that would bring life – back then, and throughout history.

   The laments, the shrieks of the mothers of Judea have echoed through time. If we listen, we can still hear them, and also all mothers who have flailed and strained and crumpled to the ground in sheer agony as they have witnessed brutal violence against their children. A mother, wrenched from her small son in Auschwitz, was forced to watch with the rest of the horrified crowd as he dangled by a rope around his neck. A man in the crowd asked, “For God’s sake, where is God?” Elie Wiesel, who was there, said he heard a voice answer, “This is where – hanging here from this gallows.”

   Of course, thanks to a good angel who had warned Joseph, by stealth the homily family fled to Egypt. Legend has it that lions and leopards in the wilderness bowed their heads and wagged their tails in homage. Palm trees bent low to provide food for them. Two thieves pounced on them, but then relented when Mary wept – the same robbers who were crucified next to Jesus thirty years later. The symbolism of this flight to Egypt would not have been lost on Jews of Jesus’ day or careful Bible readers today. This child, who had come to be the deliverance of the people, descended to Egypt, as Joseph and his brothers had centuries earlier, only to return in peace to the land of promise.

   Still in his infancy, Jesus was a refugee, joining the ranks of countless throngs of people through history pushed out of their homelands, in desperate flight to survive grisly armies, rulers and thugs. I have known Jews who managed to slip out of Europe and elude the Nazis; a neighbor of mine was hidden in a potato sack and thrown onto the back of a truck by her parents, whom she never saw again. Refugee camps dot the globe. Particularly haunting are those camps in the land of Israel to which Jesus came. In Bethlehem itself, camps like Dheisheh and Aida have been the home for thousands of Palestinians expelled from their homes, living in harsh conditions for generations now since the war in 1948.

What can we say January 5? Epiphany?

   Although January 5 is the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, with fine texts, we will observe Epiphany on this 11th day of Christmas.

   Isaiah 60:1-6 feels a little like “So rise and shine and give God the glory glory…” But the vision is higher, downright cosmic in scope. God’s reclamation of creation isn’t me feeling better or the saving of souls. It’s the redemption of the created order – and it is God’s act, illustrated well by the common distinction (Christopher Lasch, Martin Luther King, Jr.) between optimism and hope. Optimism is the sunny dream that tomorrow will be better, and it’s up to us to make it so. Hope can hold it together even if tomorrow is worse; hope trusts in the larger, longer future – and it’s up to God, not us. Ours is, as our text puts it, to “stand.” I saw a doctor ask a woman to stand as he told her her husband had just died. We stand (and argue about it!) for the National Anthem. We stand at the end of worship. This standing in the soul is all about dignity, readiness, an eagerness to see and be ready to move.

   I think of Oscar Romero’s words, which I might use as my benediction: “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong, to face the world’s difficulties.”

   The 2nd Sunday of Christmas text, John 1, adores the “light that shines in the darkness.” Isaiah envisions a great gathering of the nations (not just our neighborhood!) – and in my blog 2 years ago I suggested the feel might be (corny as it seems) kin to the dramatic ending to “Field of Dreams” – or visually, John August Swanson’s “Festival of Lights.”

   Matthew 2:1-12. The magi arrive. Not as in “wise men still follow him,” but astrologers! – an art, an alchemy condemned in Judaism and Christianity! Yet, so eager is the Christchild to be found, and by everybody, that these deluded ones find their way to Bethlehem, and the Scripture, Bible-is-Clear! people miss out. He’s a Capricorn? 
It’s a tad irreverent, but the bawdy scene in “Life of Brian” when the magi show up at the wrong house might help us see that there’s some sarcastic humor tucked inside this text. Or maybe Owen Meany’s remark while singing the gory 4th stanza of “We Three Kings”: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying? Doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.”

   We also have that great line in The Shack: Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?” He replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere” – and then adds “I will travel any road to find you.” The road our people have just taken may veer them away from the Christ child: the frenzy of gift giving, decorating, entertaining – as if when Jesus was born the angel said “Thou shalt shop and travel and party in his honor!” Mike Slaughter put it well: “Christmas is not your birthday.” How do we delicately remind people that Jesus’ way is one of truth, simplicity, welcoming strangers – and even suffering? Just as The Shack begins with the murder of a child, so Jesus’ story features the slaughter of children. Jesus enters a world where paranoid powers harm children. Explore a few of the ways in your sermon.

   What astral phenomenon did they see? Halley’s comet? A supernova? Check out the great scene (view here! – trust me, 3 minutes well-spent!) in Pasolini’s Italian film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” where the magi show up in the daytime, and have silent, tender interactions with Mary and her baby.

What can we say January 12? The Baptism of our Lord

   We do a baptismal renewal service every year for The Baptism of our Lord, always very moving (see how we ramp into it here at the 23 minute mark). Martin Sheen, the great actor and devout Catholic, told Krista Tippett (in his fabulous interview with her in On Being) how he felt about standing in line in worship:  “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 overwhelmed, just watching people in line.  It’s the most profound thing.  You just surrender yourself to it.” 
    Or as Dom Jeremy Driscoll put it, “Monks are always processing. When we go from one place to another, we don’t just do it helter-skelter. I am reminded again and again that I am not just vaguely moving through life. I am inserted into the definitive procession of Christ. I am part of a huge movement, a definitive exodus. I am going somewhere.” I love that. Wonder if my choir will sing “Down in the River to Pray” from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

   Isaiah 42:1-9 won’t be preached on at my place. But the preacher can reflect on texts like this is an intriguing way, I’ve discovered – by asking the question: When Jesus came to the Jordan, did this text come into his mind? “Here is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” Read the rest of the text, envisioning Jesus standing by the river, then in the river. Did they look up at the sky and recall v. 5, “Thus say the Lord who created the heavens and stretched them out”? As they sighed or gasped, did they recall “…who gives breath to the people and spirit to those who walk in the earth”? When Jesus stepped into the water, and (as I imagine it) John reached out and took his hand, did v. 6 echo in their hearts? “I am the Lord, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” Jesus hadn’t done a thing publicly just yet. Did v. 9 whet their appetites and dreams? “New things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” Matthew saw the Baptism as fulfilling just this text!

   Matthew 3:13-17, so simple, so provocative, needing so little explanation! Can the preacher usher people into the scene by the river, and then get out of the way? Here are some background thoughts. Karl Barth (in the skinny volume of Church Dogmatics, IV.4, published not long before he died) shrewdly suggested that “Jesus was not being theatrical.  When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin -- not his sin, but our sin.  When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”

   Telling a Baptism story can be helpful: an especially meaningful or poignant one, or your own. I baptized a 45 year old man dying of pancreatic cancer. As I splashed water onto his forehead, he began to shake, then to cry – and then as he became supremely calm and at peace he said to me, “I feel younger. I feel lighter.” I’ve renewed Baptism in the muddy creek called the Jordan – and describing what it looks like invites people into the moment.

   I love (wrong word, since it’s harrowing) Flannery O’Connor’s story “The River.” A young boy, Harry, hears a preacher, named Bevel, who’s baptizing people in a stream, say “Leave your pain in the river.” The boy has much pain indeed, and the story ends tragically. Well worth the preacher’s time to ponder – even if it’s not used in the sermon! We need to experience, know and feel more than we tell.

   There is an ominous tone here. Jesus, after all, is headed out to the wilderness to engage in combat against the devil. Justin Martyr wrote that just as Jesus was baptized, a miraculous fire was ignited right in the middle of the river! Davies & Allison say this: “Jesus interpreted his prospective dark fate in eschatological terms… so, Jesus could have gone to the Baptist not in order to obtain forgiveness but rather to receive a pledge of ultimate deliverance, a seal of divine protection.”

   Jesus, dripping wet, climbing the bank, an echo of creation as emerging from the watery chaos, or the people coming up out of the muddy Red Sea – or even an infant plopping out all wet from the mother’s womb. And the dove, maybe a descendant of the one Noah sent out from the ark. The text is about Jesus, not us – so while resisting this perennial temptation to think the text is about me (reminding us of Barth who reminds us that to speak of God is not to speak about us in a loud voice!), we might touch on the way Jesus becomes one with us, and so when he is declared “Beloved,” we are as well. Never forget that your people just don’t feel all that beloved. They are Americans, earning their way, feeling entitled, or lonely or just plain hardened to life. Clergy, maybe you included, are a bit numb and weary, not sensing your belovedness. With Jesus, you are beloved. Like a newborn infant.

What can we say January 19? 2nd after Epiphany

   What is the lectionary to you? Is it a map on which you try to locate a sermon? Are the readings like guardrails to keep you from flying off and saying whatever? Or can they feel like shackles? I have seasons when I think of the readings as God trying to say something to me – which I need to hear, whether it finds its way into a sermon or not. Thomas Merton said that the peril for the priest or teacher is that if you notice something amazing in Scripture, you immediately hand it away to someone else instead of letting it do its thing in you.

   This week’s readings are like that – although if they do a thing in me, I could still work some of it into the sermon. Maybe. Isaiah 49:1-7 is, according to Christopher Seitz, not so much a call narrative as a recommissioning. This prophet bears in his person the role Israel is to play for the nations, although Israel has lost its way. So has he. “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing” (v. 4). If you’re a clergyperson with a pulse, you’re nodding right now. So what is this recommissioning? It begins with a reminder of the first calling – which, like Jeremiah’s, came “from the womb” (v. 5). I love the fact that infants in utero can hear. They hear mom, and other voices and sounds. Is God already calling? Are the sounds they hear a calling? 

   Joan Chittister reminds us that “the times we live in are themselves the call to courage.” Her lay-focused book, The Time Is Now, stirred up a recommissioning in me; her simple thoughts reawakened a sense of why I went into this line of work: “The prophet is one who speaks truth to a culture of lies.” “Prophets are more committed to new questions than to old answers.” “Prophets are about something greater than ourselves.” I love it when she speaks of “the grace of holy audacity.”

   We clergy get weary, and chicken. This doesn’t mean I steamroll my people in anger on Sunday. Isaiah’s tone is gentle and lovely. Read the text. Remember why you went into ministry. Be comforted and emboldened that you are “hidden in the shadow of God’s hand,” that you are “a polished arrow hidden in his quiver.” How does polishing happen? By friction. Polishing is loss. And it’s all hidden. The grace of your ministry may now be hidden – even from you.

   And then I feel something in this “coastlands” and “nations” business. I wonder if, in this culture, and with the sagging demise of the church, if our ministry isn’t increasingly beyond the walls? Psalm 40 similarly speaks of waiting “patiently” (the root word means to bear, to suffer). God “heard my cry” – and we do cry, don’t we? Can we live into the psalmist’s report that the Lord “drew me up, set my feet secure upon a rock, and put a new song in my mouth”?

   In 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, Paul recalls that he was called “by the will of God.” Were you? Paul writes loving words, “grace and peace!” – even to this cantankerous Corinthian church! Paul “gives thanks” – for them? Can I back out of my exasperations and weariness in ministry and live into Paul’s courageous, contrarian theological posture?

   These ruminations for me, and for clergy, have value in themselves. I won’t preach on the Old Testament, Psalter or Epistle. But there’s a sermon that can be wrenched from living in these thoughts. Our people are weary and jaded too. They have lost their way and don’t feel much that God called them from the womb. Can they do be invited to a liberating life of truth, to sing a new song?

   John 1:29-42. Paint the scene, on the ground: heck, it’s 4pm! Where’s the sun at 4pm? How do people feel by then? If you’ve not been to Bethany beyond the Jordan, google some images so you can tell parishoners what the place looked and felt like that afternoon.

   In this place, at this hour, John saw Jesus coming. He had to be looking. It’s a guy, but then Oh, it’s him, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Not just the sins of people in the world, but the sins of the world! What are the world’s sins? 
Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society underlines how people are morally upright but are immersed in and unwittingly contribute to an immoral society. Can we name the sins of the world, and how they grieve God, and harm not just others but all of us?

   I love it that Jesus, who really is The One, isn’t a royal, mighty stud strutting about. He’s a lamb, humble, not fearful, ready to be shorn and slaughtered. God’s way: confronting the battallions of Caesar with a little lamb. John reflects back on the Baptism (or is it now being reported?). He saw the dove.

   So two disciples start following (literally, like on the road, not staying home but venturing out – like those fishermen in the Synoptics who throw caution to the wind, drop their nets, and traipse off after this total stranger). Jesus doesn’t spin on them and issue orders. Instead he asks the question they likely weren’t sure how to answer: “What are you looking for?” I’ll build my whole sermon around this question, understanding that the first blush answer people give to this isn’t their final answer. They have to bore deep in someplace to get to what they are profoundly and confusedly looking for.

   Jean Vanier points out that “These are the first words of Jesus in this gospel. Perhaps they are the first words of Jesus to each one of us. Jesus does not want to impose on us an idea or ideology. He wants people to follow him and his path of love freely. He calls us to look into our own hearts and to become aware of our fundamental desires. What do we really want for our lives?”

   Like Jesus does so often, they answer a question with a question: “Where are you staying?” Maybe they didn’t know how to answer yet, but they suspected he was somehow implicated in the final answer. Or maybe what they are looking for, it’s vaguely dawning on them, is simply to hang close to him.

   Finding where Jesus is staying, and staying there too, can change your life. Millard Fuller was a wealthy businessman, but his life was hollow and his marriage was falling apart. A friend advised him to visit a rumored saint in rural Georgia, Clarence Jordan. Fuller came for lunch, and stayed a month, and really for the rest of his life. For stories about Jordan, which work in this sermon and many others, check out my blog about him. Jordan himself stayed where Jesus was when the KKK tried to run him off his Koinonia farm!

   Jean Vanier left the Navy in 1950 and was advised to visit Pรจre Thomas Philippe. He did, and he stayed, and because he stayed, Vanier discovered his life’s calling, L’Arche. Later, Henri Nouwen visited L’Arche – and stayed. Often when I visit our mission partners, there’s a worker or leader there who, when I asked How did you come to be here?, narrates that she came to visit, and just stayed.

   Here’s another thing: when they ask “Where are you staying?” Jesus doesn’t give them the address. He says “Come and see.” That is, come with me and see. Again, it’s not overly precise, like Jesus inviting the fishermen to “Follow me.” You go, you get moving, and you see what you see. Church people need to come and see. Maybe we invite them to come with us, out there, wherever – and then to name that if they come, we’ll all being coming and seeing with Jesus together.

   I love the story of a wealthy woman who found Mother Teresa in Calcutta, whipped out her checkbook and started to write a check. Teresa waved her off and said “No money.” “No money?” the shocked, and unfawned over woman replied. “No money.” “Then what can I do?” Teresa smiled, reached out her hand and said “Come and see.” She walked with her into an impoverished barrio, found a poor hungry child, picked up the child and put her in the woman’s arms. “Care for her.” The woman reported later how transformative this was, of course.

What can we say January 26? 3rd after Epiphany

   Isaiah 9:1-4 pulls my heart back toward Advent. Walking in darkness, seeing a great light: we ponder the magi, Jesus’ birth, the Gospel of John’s vivid imagery of light shining in the darkness. Isaiah, back in the 8th century, was not foretelling the future. But how intriguing is it that he names the historic degradation of Zebulun and Naphtali – the very tribal areas where Jesus grew up and ministered as an adult! The “way of the sea,” the Via Maris, was the great road connecting Egypt to Mesopotamia. I’m not sure the heavy trade that made it a profitable route was what Isaiah had in mind; but Jesus did take up residence along this road, where moneymakers and tax collectors stayed busy.

    Isaiah dreams God’s dream of a day of greatness and joy, when the yoke of oppression is broken. How poetic his words: “There will be no gloom (mu’af) for those who were in anguish (muzak)” – rhyme and assonance, making it more memorable in Hebrew even than in English! God’s character as one who keeps promises and ultimately brings immense blessing to God’s people and the world is eloquently declared here. No sunny optimism here, no Try harder! counsel here. God will bring God’s good creation to its ultimate, promised purpose.

   Psalm 27 will be the focus of my sermon, linking it to Jesus and the fishermen. The Psalm, like Isaiah, fixates on the light. Because “the Lord is my light and my salvation,” then “I will not fear” – an echo of Psalm 23. You can almost picture someone with good cause to fear repeating to himself, “I will not fear, I will not fear.” Don’t the words, when coupled to trust in the Lord as light and salvation, actually scuttle some of the fear?

   Mark Smith, in his lovely book Psalms: The Divine Journey, demonstrates that this Psalm emerged from the Israelites’ experience of worship in the temple. It was oriented toward the east; so as the sun rose over the Mt. of Olives, the blazing light would strike the eastern wall of the temple, creating a brilliant glow on the outside. But the inside: high windows were designed to let that rising light in (after a night of watching and praying), and the bright light would then glisten off the golden interior creating a nearly blinding display of radiance. Other nations worshipped sun gods. In Israel, the sun was a vivid illustration of God’s bedazzling nature – and they knew as well as we that the sun is God’s instrument of life, light and warmth. This light symbolized God’s immanence and God’s transcendence all at once! As Smith puts it, “In the temple experience, internal and external perceptions merged, and thus there was experienced the God of superhuman size and brilliant light giving joy and perhaps even healing to those who trust in his name.”

  As always, Ellen Charry's fabulous Brazos commentary is rich with insight. She notices that Psalm 25 pleads for forgiveness; Psalm 26 proclaims that the speaker has relocated himself to a cleaner place; then Psalm 27 "takes the protagonist's reconstruction of his life a step further. These 3 Psalms provide snapshots of progress in the spiritual renewal of life." Wow. Then this: if you're attentive to Psalm 27 you'll notice "the speaker moves rapidly back and forth between his local hearers" (fellow worshippers) "and God.. One can almost see his human audience watching expectantly as he turns his body now toward them, now away from them, toward God, and back to them again." Prayer, witness, community. Just lovely.

   “One thing have I asked of the Lord.” When Jesus visited Mary and Martha, just across the valley from the temple, Jesus dissed Martha a little for being obsessed and “distracted” by “many things.” “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:38-42). That one thing was sitting at Jesus’ feet. In Psalm 27, it is simply being present in the house of God. We can resonate to the Psalmist and reflect on the privilege and joy it is today to be in a sanctuary. It is the house of God, God our salvation is there.

   The Psalmist asks “to behold the beauty of the Lord.” Dostoevsky said “The world will be saved by beauty.” We do not think of beauty nearly enough, and simply to ponder the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the story, the beauty of the Church, the beauty of holy lives: isn’t this the antidote to fear?

   I spoke at a Pentecostal conference years ago. During the opening song (which took at least 20 minutes!), the guy next to me stopped singing the song, raised his hands toward the ceiling (or toward heaven?) and muttered, over and over and over, “Oh Jesus, you are so beautiful.” I want to grow up to be like him. We sing “Fairest Lord Jesus… Beautiful Savior.” Didn’t Jesus say his body was the real temple? The ultimate dwelling of God on earth? Didn’t Jesus have to be beautiful, or maybe magnetic or charismatic or beguiling, as total strangers dropped everything to traipse off after him, with no idea where they were heading?

   The Psalmist probed deeply into his own soul and then reported on what he found there to God: “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Ancient Israelites had a profound sense of coming face to face with God in the temple. The disciples looked on Jesus’ visible, tangible face, and saw the face of God. I think of the blind in Scripture being cured; the first thing they saw? The face of Jesus, who had just given them sight. Such a lovely emblem of Jesus' desire that we see, really see, perceive, in order to glimpse and know him face to face.

  There is no shortage of sentimental thought about the “face of God.” The World War II pilot John Gillespie Magee wrote “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; sunward I’ve climbed… With silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God” – words Ronald Reagan made famous in his eulogy after the Challenger disaster (thanks to his great speechwriter, Peggy Noonan!). Christian art has tried its darnedest to get the face right; the Christ Pantocrator at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai is awfully good. Jesus was and is the literal, human face of God. The disciples saw, and were transfixed, and followed.

    And so, Matthew 4:12-23. Jesus, walking out of Zebulun and Naphtali, on the Via Maris (did he look around and think, Wow, Isaiah is resonating in my soul right now? He saw fishermen. Not Andy and Opie fishing as a hobby, but a business (was it called Zebedee and Sons?). Little details have figurative import here. Jesus wait in the synagogue for them to come. He went to them, to their place of business (a very John Wesley-ish thing to do). He didn’t have a nice visit, and say “See you when I’m back” as he waved goodbye. They had to leave plenty behind to follow: business, family, home. We sometimes diss the disciples for their slowness – but geez, they left everything.

   Hard for me to ponder this text without thinking of the “Jesus boat” archaeologists found – dating to the time of Jesus! I wish it said “S.S. Simon Peter” on the prow! But this is a boat Jesus surely saw, maybe stepped into or floated in. We forget the realities of Bible stories – so this salient reminder of the tangibility of the life of fishermen is astounding. I wonder if, just maybe, when they saw the face of Jesus, they ventured in their minds to the 27th Psalm and this seeking the light, the face of God.

What can we say February 2? 4th after Epiphany

   Not one, not two but three texts this week that might land in anybody’s top ten of preachable, powerful texts! Sometimes I think toward a sermon by hearing music kin to the text – so I’ll start with “Blest Are They,” the great David Haas hymn and chorus. I also like to ponder art – so spending time just gazing at the folly of a crucified God will bring healing to my soul, and hopefully to my sermon, even if I don’t speak on the epistle! Speaking of which, I explicated 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 in my March 4, 2018 blog post, weighing the absurdity of the cross, various portrayals of the crucifixon, St. Francis’s prayer (the real one, not the popular one), and a great reflection from Michael Knowles on the folly of preaching that may be the greatest single word of encouragement written for preachers I have ever read.

   Familiar texts are surprisingly hard to preach on though – because they are so… familiar. It’s tough to capture the shock and awe that Micah’s first hearers, or Paul’s first readers, or those gathered on a Galilean hillside must have experienced. Maybe naming the surprise that was theirs might help pew-sitters this Sunday.

   Quite oddly for me, I have written a book on both texts.  Doesn't guarantee a good sermon though, does it?  Micah 6:1-8 turned out to be more intriguing than I’d imagined. Micah (meaning “Who is like the Lord?”) was from rural Moresheth-Gath – and in those tumultuous 8th century days, the rural towns bore the brunt of foolish policy-making in the big city of Jerusalem. Would a rural church pastor dare join in with Micah complaining about policy in urban places?

   The question, “What does the Lord require?” needs parsing. The verb, require, is a translation of darash, which is not like a teacher requiring homework or a judge requiring punishment. Darash is the way a child requires its mother’s love, a flower requires sunshine, a lover requires the beloved’s presence. And God darashes 3 things, which may really be 1 thing viewed from 3 perspectives.

   1. Do justice, not think about justice or believe in justice or hope for justice. DO justice. And “justice” is our rendering of mishpat, which isn’t fairness or getting what is deserved. Justice, mishpat, is when the poorest are cared for.  There’s that statue of justice outside the Supreme Court – showing that “justice is blind.” God’s justice isn’t blind at all. God sees, God cares. God isn’t unbiased. God is immensely biased, toward us, hoping for the best conceivable outcome for our lives.

   2. Love kindness. Kindness seems vapid, although we should be kind, especially in such an unkind era.  The Hebrew is hesed, steadfast love, covenant loyalty.  Really it’s about mercy. Pope Francis proclaimed 2016 as “The Year of Mercy” (and he showed mercy to any and everybody) – but God knows we still need it in 2020. God is all mercy. We are called to be merciful (as the Beatitudes will show!).

   3. Walk humbly. In a cocky world, we are asked to be humble – not humiliated, but humble, which really is nothing other than the truth about ourselves. We are weak, vulnerable, in need, dependent upon God, not all that brilliant or strong after all. And we walk, not standing still. You go – for God.

   Matthew 5:1-12. Jesus, as full of desire for the wholeness and love of people as God speaking through Micah, began his sermon to a bunch of nobodies by blessing them. The Beatitudes aren’t commandments: go be these ways! What we see is that God blesses what the world despises. Matthew has “poor in spirit,” but Luke 6’s version has just plain “poor.” Most Americans will want to keep “in spirit,” but it’s both, always. Jesus blessed those who “mourn.” We pity them – but in God’s heart they are blessed. Jesus admires the “meek.” Put that on your resume and see how swiftly you lose an interview! But with Jesus, meekness is holy. Help your people feel the shockingly counter-cultural feel of all this! No conventional wisdom or trite soundbytes here.

   Jesus blessed those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Not those who ARE righteous, just those seeking it, craving it, grabbing what they can and discover then they really want more. Then we see his blessing of the “merciful” – and it’s reflexive: they receive mercy. We could spend our lives well just striving for mercy; we’re all desperate for it already. Jesus knows – and simultaneously blesses the peacemakers, and those who suffer for righteousness...  So much in this rich text.

   What fascinates me is thinking of people whose photo you might attach to each Beatitude. St. Francis? Dorothy Day? Your grandmother? I suspect though Jesus didn’t think of these as eight distinct things. They are, again, really one. The meek can be merciful; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness make peace. And so forth. Stories of holy, courageous, blessed lives always work well in preaching!

   The real picture to attach to these Beatitudes is Jesus himself. It’s virtually autobiographical. Jesus was all these things. He’s showing us what it’s like to be close to his heart.

   So to preach these texts:  I think I'll begin by inviting people to imagine what God is like - and some mix of that darash-kind -of-God, and Jesus looking with deep care and compassion at people on a hillside above Galilee. That's the kind of God we're talking about. He dreams holy dreams for us. He longs for the happiest, most joyful life for us. He's not a commander so much as he's a yearner, and is willing to show the way by being our best selves so we could see and believe. I might rifle through each thing (do justice, hunger for righteousness, etc.) or pick a couple. Maybe meekness, which is so out of style (and fits walking humbly): where have I seen this around our church or in the world? And the merciful, or peacemakers: where are these guys needed in a clashing society? Can I find a story where mercy was enacted, and the world changed?

   What about the church?  Is the church poor, meek (yes?? - in this declining culture), merciful and a doer of justice (not so often)? When has the church looked like Micah 6 or Matthew 5? Can we dream of such a church? This is a church that does justice because it has received mercy, that loves hesed because this is what we hunger and thirst for, and walks humbly because we acknowledge joyfully our meekness.

   So it's not Go thou and do likewise! but painting a beautiful image of what holy living looks like, so we'll be attracted, so we'll discover we already have more meekness and mourning than we let on in public... How good of Jesus to bless them and us with such a humble, holy, soaring vision of life with him!