Sunday, June 25, 2017

What can we say come July 2? 4th after Pentecost

Attendance will be low - weirdly, as patriotic people prize freedom of religion; I guess it's the freedom not to worship?  I'm being cynical already... Feelings may be at a fever pitch about how July 4 fits into church. And then I’m focusing on - what? - Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac (with a nod to Romans 6).  Below you will find (a) thoughts on our texts, mostly Genesis 22, (b) and the counsel I’ve given regarding how to talk about July 4 and keep people happy without surrendering theologically – excerpted from my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge & Wonder of Preaching (which I see Amazon has marked down to $5!). I also have a blog, “Jesus and July 4,” which went semi-viral a couple of years ago.

So: Romans 6:12-23, which exposes our vapid adulation of freedom as ridiculously misguided (but find kinder words when you tell this to your people!).  “Free” isn’t what we are; “free” is how Paul describes the gift of God, eternal life, not chosen or earned, and despite and in redemption of sin and its wages, death.  When I speak on this, I try not to indulge in mockery, but it makes me crazy: on July 4 people say “We remember soldiers who died for our freedom.”  First of all, deceased soldiers are commemorated on Memorial Day, not July 4… Current soldiers don’t have a day, really – as Veterans Day is about soldiers who are retired.  But regardless: how shameful would it be to suggest that soldiers defend or die so we can be … free?  Free to do whatever we want?  Free to drink beer and roast hot dogs?  No soldier’s life is worth that. 
 Jesus certainly didn’t die so we can do what we want.  Our wills are bound in habitual sin; we pray for Jesus to liberate us – “for joyful obedience.”  I have a signed note somebody secured for me from Mother Teresa.  Her best advice to me?  “My prayer for you is that you allow Jesus to use you without consulting you.”


On now to Genesis 22 – where Abraham certainly doesn’t enter into any consultation or reconsideration with God.  Our high-minded ethical selves recoil at the thought, and we are questioning before we’ve pondered the mood, the pace, the agony of the story that isn’t a lesson but the story of the forefather of our faith.  Rembrandt’s pen and ink profoundly and unforgettably captures Abraham’s face…

More than any passage in Scripture, this one is to be read slowly.  Each word bears so much weight, and the emotion – never stated! – is intense. 

Take your son

Your only son Isaac (underlining the ‘only,’ and thus the whole story of barrenness, and then reminding him of his name… which had just meant joyful laughter…)

Whom you love (again, reiterating the obvious, expanding the interior horizon).

The pace remains slow, rising early, saddling his donkey.

When they get to Moriah, he takes the wood, and the fire and knife.  Then the text lingers: So they went, both of them together.  Absolutely tender, harrowing.  These very words are repeated two verses later.

Isaac calls out to him “My father!” (which is how Jesus would teach us to pray).  Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son” (echoes of Isaiah 6 but with the tender ‘my son’).

I love it that the text never tells us how either of them feels.  The intensity is greater than if the mood had been depicted in a bunch of adjectives.

So we have a startling text.  Abraham is “tested,” not tempted (as is the case for Jesus in the desert).  Russ Reno (in his Brazos/Genesis commentary): “Trials and tests are consistent with divine love.  They work against our hopeless hope that our finite powers can see us through.  To be tested is to be brought back to reality.  It is a spank that awakens us.  Trials and tests not only purify us of delusions, but also prepare us for a proper loyalty to the world and its finite goods.”

The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gifted us with a profound rumination on this text (Fear & Trembling), in which he points out that if Abraham had been heroic, he would have raised the knife and plunged it into his own chest:  “He would have been admired ; but it is one thing to be admired, and another to be the guiding star which saves the anguished.”  Kierkegaard’s best line?  “Only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.”

Clearly we sense that God does not know how this will turn out.  What God seems to be looking for is: does Abraham fear God or not?  There is fear, as in being terrified – and that’s not entirely out of place with God.  Then there is a reverential fear, which Proverbs says is the beginning of wisdom.  Scott Bader-Saye’s fantastic book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, explores kinds of fears, especially those that shield us from God; his best line?  “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good.  When we fear excessively we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good.  Fear causes our vision to narrow, when what is needed is for it to be enlarged…  Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life.”  But Abraham’s trouble isn’t excessive fear, is it?

I feel sure of two observations I have on this chilling, moving story.  The first is: I see this story as God’s way of saying Do not do as the pagans do!  Canaanites and other neighbors did sacrifice their children; but Genesis 22 establishes definitively that “It shall not be so among you.”

Then the second:  We adore our children, and we are positive would never harm them.  But then don’t we unwittingly sacrifice them on this or that altar?  We so cherish our children, but then we bind them onto the altar of money, or alcohol, or dizzying busyness, or our anxiety or society’s false deities.  Plenty of sermon fodder here.  Or more simply and humorously, I think of Pat Conroy’s great line in The Prince of Tides when Tom says to his three children: “’Parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable.  It’s one of God’s most important laws.  I know we’re screwing you up a little bit every day.  If we know how we were doing it, we’d stop, because we adore you.  But we’re parents and we cant’ help it.  Do you understand?’  ‘No,’ they agreed in a simultaneous chorus.”
Or for a little more comic relief... if you're a Family Guy fan, this hilarious clip about the worst dad in the world should elicit a chuckle.  Probably best not to run this particular video on your worship screens though... :-)

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And now: on to How to handle July 4 (excerpted from The Beauty of the Word): 
On the Sunday that looms nearest July 4 (or Memorial Day, or Veterans’ Day), many American Christians yearn for something “patriotic,” whether this means singing “God bless America” or a message on the sacrifices soldiers have made for our freedom, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, perhaps even a Pledge of Allegiance.  How we cope with these requests, which may be subtle and sweet, or shrill and angry, might range from simply ignoring the national day in question, or knuckling under and just letting them have their way, or even waging theological combat against patriotic usurpations of Christianity. 

     But why do people care so much and feel so passionately about these matters?  We can diagnose various flaws in theological formation or in the civic religion that dominates our culture.  But at the end of the day, people (like people in other nations!) have a kind of fealty to America, a pride in their homeland, a deep desire for God to be meaningfully connected to their nation, their society – and the impulse can be lovely, and there must be ways to tap into the more promising side of that impulse without feeding the dark side.  I know that I too often have not reckoned thoroughly enough with the fact that I seem insufficiently patriotic to Church members for whom military and “patriotic” matters are viscerally powerful.  I have preached against wars, against armaments, against an America first mood, against patriotic arrogance, without a robust pastoral awareness in myself that I am talking in front of people who got off carriers and stormed a beach at Normandy and saw friends left and right shot dead, people who sent sons off to the insane jungles of Vietnam and saw them return home mangled, people who served nobly and with little remuneration in the armed forces, people whose sense of self has always been shaped by family and heroes who value what I seem to be trouncing.

     Aren’t there ways to acknowledge what they hold dear without a triumphal acclamation of all Americana, without endorsing a war or political party, without perverting the Gospel’s understanding of words like “freedom,” yet also without appearing to be ignorant or unappreciative or just plain insensitive?  Surely, while treating the text of the day, we can forage about and find some illustration from American history that might faithfully embody what we are trying to say.

     George Washington did not leave his soldiers alone at Valley Forge, but suffered every discomfort they did – and perhaps the incarnation of God’s Word is like that.  Once near Memorial Day my text led me into an exploration of why bad things happen, and I reflected on the memories a friend shared from his experience on Omaha Beach in 1941.  Another July 4, I thumbed through the remarkable correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two longtime enemies who mellowed and became cherished friends before dying on July 4, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  People who adore July 4 felt entirely enfranchised, but I said not one word about the grandeur of America or that God birthed this country for some manifest destiny, but instead spoke of the reconciliation of enemies.

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   Finally, if you’re interested, as I am not so much, in Matthew 10:40-42.  This “whoever gives a cup of cold water” is intriguing – for my money, not quite enough for an entire sermon, but still:  I think of that scene in Ben Hur where Charlton Heston is parched and nearly dead in the desert when a passerby (it’s Jesus, but we only see his shadow) gives him a drink – and then the favor is returned when Jesus is bearing his cross and Judah Ben Hur bolts through the cordon of soldiers and offers him a drink. 

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

What can we say come July 9? 5th after Pentecost

My plan had been to preach through Genesis this summer, tracing the lectionary route.  But while I’m happy to tackle any text, Genesis 24, about this curious courtship, gazing at her carrying water, she spies him lifting heavy things in the field, and then the climactic verse I dare you to make into a sermon: “I put the ring on her nose” (Genesis 24:47).  Plus it’s so long-winded.  I think I will instead pair Romans 7:15-25a with Matthew 11:16-30.  And I think I'm going to position a chair up in the altar area - and find my way toward what Thomas Merton write when he was photographing a Shaker village:  


"The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."

Scholars argue over the main point of Romans 7.  Who is the “I” who is speaking?  Is Paul speaking autobiographically?  Representatively? Is he speaking of his Jewish experience outside of/prior to Christ? Or his life in Christ?  To me, the pre-conversion Saul/Paul strikes me as a man utterly devoid of struggle; I’m fond of the idea that faith isn’t the resolution of struggle, but the introduction of, the inducement of newer, deeper struggles. 

Michael Gorman and many others may be right when they conclude that the “I” in Romans 7 is simply unredeemed humanity.  But really, for me as a Christian, and as I try to serve as a pastor, it rings entirely true that “I do not understand my own actions; I do not do what I want, but the very thing that I hate.”  Oh, I suppose we all preach to those who feel confident, have a sunny disposition, and find ways to justify themselves.  But the serious, biblical Christian, striving for holiness (inner and outer) in an unholy world and with what T.S. Eliot called our moral “shabby equipment, badly deteriorated,” will get it.  How does the pastor gently but surely invite the sunny, self-justified into Paul’s struggle?

Romans 7 is a text that is probably better read aloud, slowly, that explained.  And yet little asides might assist.  “Nothing good dwells in me.”  I love Winston Churchill’s bon mot: on hearing a sermon on “I am a worm,” Churchill mused, “Yes, and I am a glowworm.”  We are worms indeed, but depending on your theological, denominational foundation, you may be able to see that the experience of “Nothing good dwells in me” is only possible because there is a glow in there, the image of God hanging on by a thread but not entirely vanquished, or we would never imagine that “nothing good dwells in me.”

 “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”  Sin isn’t rule-breaking or being human.  Sin is a personal, aggressive vulture-like force.  Surely Paul would have imagined that tragic moment in Genesis 4: when Cain’s jealousy was kindled, the Lord said to him, “Why are you angry?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  Walter Brueggemann, probing this moment in his Genesis/Interpretation commentary, draws our attention to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which discusses this very text, then concluding: “It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’  But think of the glory of the choice!  That makes a man a man.  A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey.  There’s no godliness there.”  Steinbeck is perhaps more confident than Paul in the human ability to choose well.  The preacher is wise to explore the ambiguity – which people feel, surely.
 Of course, as a Lord of the Rings fan, I am drawn to the flashback scene in The Return of the King where Sméagol kills Deagol over the ring of power (watch here!).  Tolkien was surely envisioning not just Cain and Abel but also the bondage of the will according to Paul.

I love the way Paul narrates his mounting frustration, building up to this exasperated yelp: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God…”  This will preach.  Once we plunge deeply enough into our abject inability to do God’s will or to be whole people, then at the bottom of that pit we cry out… and then have good cause to give thanks to God.

This kind of spiritual labor is exhausting.  Perhaps it is only once you have exhausted your own resources, once you realize how weary you are of your muscular, self-reliant, grittily determined, Atlas-like life, can you finally just rest and be delivered.  Here is Jesus’ reply to the people who understand Romans 7.  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Brueggemann (in his fantastic Sabbath as Resistance) wryly says that Jesus is speaking here in his “sabbath voice.”  We don’t know tone of voice or facial expression, but it’s worth trying to depict Jesus’ immense mercy and gentleness, his profound, inviting affection for worn out people.  Go deeply with this.  I sometimes report that, in counseling, I often ask people, “Tell me one adjective to describe how you feel.”  The #1 answer I get is “I am tired.”  No wonder.  Our culture is a rat race, a constant press of busyness and never doing or having or being enough.  Sometimes church contributes to the tension and weariness… 


Back to that Shaker chair.  A chair, a bench - all kinds of images suggest Come and rest, come and sit.  When Pope Francis began his work, he brought a chair out to the Swiss guard posted outside his office and invited him to sit down.  Lovely.  Rest is so elusive.  It's not about more vacations, or more time off.  It's something deeper inside; Lincoln once said he suffered from a weariness that many good nights' sleep wouldn't cure.  We need solitude, togetherness with God, making ourselves unavailable so we might be available to God.  During the Montgomery bus boycott, somebody offered a ride to an elderly woman named Mother Pollard.  She refused, saying "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested."

I wonder if the whole notion of Sabbath is the best gift we can give our people – and to ourselves.  Not the “take more time off” or “go on more vacations” or “maintain your boundaries” kind of faked sabbath.  Genuine sabbath, that is a robust time of rest and joy, time for God and each other, time to get disconnected from our gadgets so we can get connected to God and others.  Eugene Peterson, in his memoir, The Pastor, provided me a wake-up call regarding what I do day by day as a minister, and as a person.  Here are two excerpts that may or may not help your sermon preparation, but will embrace you with Jesus summons to you, as a person and as a pastor, to “Come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – which is more important than this Sunday’s sermon, and without which, this Sunday’s sermon won’t matter much.  Listen to Peterson: 

“Instead of calling people to worship God, pastors all over the country were inviting people to ‘have a worship experience.’  Worship was evaluated on the ‘consumer satisfaction scale’ of one to ten.  It struck me as a violation of the holy, a secularization of the sacred.  Taking the Lord’s name in vain.  I determined to reintroduce the rubric ‘Let us worship God’ for my congregation, and then really do it.  I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  The entertainment model for worship in America was pervasive.  And community.  The church as a community of faith formed by the Holy Spirit.  Church in America was mostly understood by Christians and their pastors in terms of its function—what it did: build buildings, become “successful,” change the neighborhood, launch mission projects, and create programs that would organize and motivate people to do these things.  Programs, mostly programs.  Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of ‘doing church.’  Far more attention was given to organizing and giving leadership to programs than anything else.  But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently nonpersonal.  A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are.  The more program, the less person.  Church was understood not in terms of personal relationships and a personal God but in terms of ‘getting things done.’  This struck me as violation of the inherent personal dignity of souls.  The abstraction of a programmatic approach to men and women, however well-meaning, atrophied the relational and replaced it with the pragmatic.  Treating souls for whom Christ died as numbers or projects or resources seemed to me something like a sin against the Holy Spirit.  I wanted to develop a congregation in which relationships were primary, a household of hospitality.  A community in which men and women would be known primarily by name, not by function.  I knew this wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t.”

And then this:

“I realized that I was gradually becoming more interested in dealing with my congregation as problems to be fixed than as members of the household of God to be led in the worship and service of God.  In dealing with my parishioners as problems, I more or less knew what I was doing. In dealing with them as a pastor, I was involved in mysteries, mostly having to do with God, that were far beyond my understanding and control.  I had been shifting from being a pastor dealing with God in people’s lives to treating them as persons dealing with problems in their lives.  I was not being their pastor.  I could have helped and still been their pastor.  But by reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as pastor.”

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

What can we say come July 16? 6th after Pentecost

Ordinary Time, Extraordinary Texts.  Genesis 25:19-34 plunges us into the quandary of what seems to be God’s confusing relationship to infertility, and fertility too.  For many, the Bible’s oversimplification that God plants pregnancy here and there, but ‘closes’ the womb of others feels cruel, and right when God is needed. 

The preacher has to handle a text like this with a deft sensitivity.  Surely even in Bible times, the notion seemed harsh; consider Hannah’s tears.  There are ways to fathom why people get pregnant… and beyond that, why people turn out the way they do.  Genetic mixes, family dysfunction, societal craziness, and even garden variety sinfulness: all these make the person.  And perhaps we use this occasion to help church folk think how to love one another.  A mom says "God blessed me with this child!" - but does so in earshot of a woman who has miscarried twice and can't get pregnant again.  Can we find ways to share that embrace without excluding?

Back to Genesis 25: These utterly unidentical twins struggle in the womb.  Does a mom delight in the kicking she feels? Or is it a “struggle”?  From the Bible’s writer’s panoramic lens, this pre-partum agony is a natal prophecy of things to come – reminding us of John the Baptist’s fierce kick into Elizabeth’s belly when Jesus showed up in Mary’s womb (Luke 2). 

It’s easy to moralize a story like this.  Genesis does, and we inevitably do.  Delayed gratification wins out over the insatiable demand to have what I hunger for now.  But the Bible’s greater interest here is the way that it is the younger one, the one least suited to the rough, jagged edged world is the one God will use.  Although that’s not quite right – as we need not imply God can’t or won’t use Esau, or any of the Esaus in the world.  This story is about the promise of salvation through the one family line.  I think the text doesn’t want us to affirm or moralize at all, but rather just to ponder the curiosity and amazing weirdness of God’s way in the world.  The Creator promised to have a people whom God would use as a light to the nations – and that promise was never fully kept until Jesus, the most unlikely one ever, was born.  1 Corinthians 1:18-31 is as eloquent a commentary on God’s way as we could have. 

Maybe today we weigh in humility and awe that God’s way now to redeem the world runs through the Church, wobbly, shrinking and laughable as we may be.  Jacob didn’t look or really behave like a holy hero, and neither has the church.  But it’s God’s church.

We squander this identity, or put it at unnecessary risk, when we fail to delve into the clear message of the Epistle reading:  Romans 8:1-11.  “Therefore, there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.”  And yet, in the church, there is so much condemnation.  Don’t leap to judge the judgmental Christians you may be thinking of at this moment – for in doing so, you too are saying “There must be condemnation in Christ Jesus.”  Ours is not to condemn; ours it to be, to be humble and hopefully holy.  There is a judgment, an accountability for us all, but that work is reserved entirely for God – as the novelist Robertson Davies put it in A Mixture of Frailties:  “It is part of God’s mercy that we do not have to undertake that heavy part of his work, even when the judgment concerns ourselves.”  I won’t focus on Romans 8 any further than that – but Paul’s logic, which feels tangled, actually weaves together a beautiful tapestry of mercy.  “God has done what the law could not” – but God gave the law!  To humble us?  It’s working.  To plow the field for grace?  We sure need it.

Which leads me to the sermon I will preach – on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.  When I was a summer intern during seminary, the preacher I worked for began his sermon by singing (to the tune of “What kind of fool am I?”) “What kind of soil am I?”  Am I rocky? Thorny? Or fertile?  I’ll try to be fertile.  I filed that away, and used it my first summer as a solo preacher.

But I was serving a rural church whose parsonage came furnished with a plot for a vegetable garden.  City-slicker that I was, I assumed that patch of earth would enjoy a few years of the cure God provides quite naturally when a field lies “fallow.”  I would help the earth by leaving it fallow!  But no, Paul Eagle showed up on the day prescribed by his Farmer’s Almanac and plowed my garden – and then put me in his truck.  At the feed store we scooped up seed, fertilizer, and some tools; he paid, so what could I do?  Instructions followed – but then he left me alone.

I can do this.  My notes say plant one green bean seed per three inches, and two inches down into the ground.  I had a little ruler…  Strew this much fertilizer per square foot.  Again, careful measurements.  Watering, weeding, sowing marigold and tying aluminum plates to stakes in the ground to keep the varmints out.  I would have the perfect garden, and thus prove my worth to my parishioners.

But the beans didn’t thrive; corn was a struggle.  My best results?  I planted some squash, very carefully as always.  But then as I walked away from the little hills with the appropriate number of seeds, my bag wasn’t shut tight.  Seeds spilled out on the ground Paul hadn’t even plowed.  Too tired to pick them up, I just let it be.  Turned out those unplanned squashes (is that plural?) produced mightily; my neighbors called this “volunteer squash.” 

Before I share how I preached on Mark 13 the next time around:  always, if at all possible, interview somebody, somewhere about a text.  Find somebody who grows things, and ask them what it’s like.  I did this on the “God as potter” text a few years back, and an agnostic potter not only made my sermon rich and full; I had her come, turn a pot right in front of the congregation, while we talked about the text.

Back to my squash.  Paul explained to me that seed has amazing power inside, and there can be, for even the most seasoned farmer, a randomness to what grows and what doesn’t.  About that time, I was reading up to teach a class on the parables of Jesus.  I read Joachim Jeremias, Bernard Brandon Scott, and the quirky and eloquent Robert Farrar Capon.  I realized the better question isn’t “What kind of soil am I?” but “What kind of sower is this?”  This fool sower Jesus depicts is the antithesis of farmer James: he’s throwing seed any and everywhere, knowing full well loads of it would be wasted.  What is this profligacy about?

Duh…  God is the sower, the seed then must be grace – which God flings around any and everywhere, not wanting to miss a spot.  Some springs up; some doesn’t; some springs up in the most unlikely places.  I was digging the sermon possibilities now.

So I went to the feed story, bought a big bag of green bean seeds, and took the bag into the pulpit with me.  As I reflected on my careful sowing, and turned then to this crazed flinger, I stepped out, and started hurling seed all over the sanctuary.  It clattered against the pews, hit a few people on their legs and feet.  Shock.  Amazement.  Furrowed brows.  And much delight.  I’ve repeated this at other churches and events – and will do so come July 16.

The message, which I’ll have to articulate eye to eye without manuscript or notes, is that God’s grace isn’t measured or careful; God loves with total abandon – and there is surprising growth because the seed, the Gospel, has powerful life in it.  You never know where grace and mercy might take root.  Like it did in me, for starters.

Jeremias, Scott and other commentators dislike vs. 18-23, and all the “explanations” of the parables, believing Jesus just did the seed thing, or the wheat/tares thing – and then the early church cobbled together interpretation, which chilled and ossified the thing unhelpfully.  In this case, I’d say we do need to notice the way “the cares of the world and delight in riches” can choke the life out of the Gospel’s working in us.  I’d reach back to Romans 8 and remind people that this sower isn’t weaponizing the seed, hoping to hurt somebody; the seed isn’t condemnation; to imply there is condemnation in Jesus is the way to kill the potential crop.

And then: one of my preaching principles in my book, The Beauty of the Word, is that sermons should talk about God more than us – hence, What kind of sower is this? not What kind of soil am I? – and then we should talk about the church, the Body – So then the question isn’t Hey, receive the Gospel seed, you individual you, or Go share the Gospel seed, you individual!  Rather, What kind of Church are we?  Are we careful, measured?  Or do we fling it around with abandon? 

Kennon Callahan, years ago, when church consultations were coming into vogue, commended a church culture where we try lots of things, knowing a fair percentage will fail; as in baseball, if you fail 5 out of 8 times at the plate, you wind up in the Hall of Fame.  How much better to try 8, and succeed on 3, than to be super careful, try 1 and it works? 

And he suggested we celebrate the failures, to keep the idea alive.  Every year, call attention to “the failure of the year”; give a prize.  When I was at Davidson United Methodist, somebody came up with the idea of having a small group for older parents – like post-40’s getting started, as there were so many young parents…  They decided to call it “The Abrahams and Sarahs.”  I shuddered…  First meeting?  Nobody came.  Good failure, though:  three people who didn’t show made a point of explaining to me why they couldn’t come, but how much they appreciated the acknowledgement.

Back to my summer internship supervisor: I’ve got to give him credit.  He sang again at the end of his sermon – not “What kind of soil am I?” but the original he’d stolen from: “What kind of fool am I?”  And he did something with that “fool for Christ” image.  Loved it.

PS: if you want to explore further that “cares of the world” issue:  C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, reflected on Paul’s reticence about marriage, believing that “what he fears is pre-occupation…  If I may trust my own experience, it is (within marriage as without) the practical and prudential cares of this world, and even the smallest and most prosaic of those cares, that are the great distraction.  The gnat-like cloud of petty anxieties and decisions about the conduct of the next hour have interfered with my prayers more often than any passion or appetite whatever.”  Then in Screwtape Letters, old Glubose speaks of the value of that “gnat-like cloud of petty anxieties, and prosaic cares” which can undo the Christian:  Build up in that house a settled habit of mutual annoyance; daily pinpricks.  When two humans have lived together for years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.  Work on that.  Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of the eyebrows, and let him think how much he dislikes it.  Let him assume she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy.  Never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her.”

  {the "Sower" paintings are by Millet, and van Gogh}
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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

What can we say come July 23? 7th after Pentecost

My strategy this week will be to have Genesis 28:10-19a and Matthew 13:24-30 read.  I will begin with Genesis, and ponder “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” – which is the story of our lives, isn’t it?  Here is a sermon I preached on this 3 years ago.  Then I will explore one of the ways the Lord is present in ways we do not realize or comprehend – in the church, this field of wheat and tares (more below).  We won’t read Romans 8 at my place, but I will touch on Paul’s image of what it means to call God Abba (more below).

So first, Genesis 28.  Paint the physicality of the scene: Jacob is in a desolate place, sleeping out of doors, a stone for his pillow.  I may allude to St. Francis sleeping on rocks and in caves – which he loved doing, believing it put him closer to God’s most enduring creation, and also in solidarity with Jesus, our ‘rock,’ who slept (or tried to sleep) on that Maundy Thursday night in Caiaphas’s prison.

I don’t think it’s eisegeis to speak of finding yourself in a hard place.  I envy people like Franklin Roosevelt – who, as President during the Depression and then World War II, said he did the best he could all day, then turned in and slept like a baby.  I struggle – and so do many of our people.  Can it be that, during such agonizing, sleepless nights, “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it”?  Psalm 56 says “Lord, you have kept count of my tossings” – in the night, when God seems absent or silent or both. 

Obviously, this text begs the preacher to use “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” as a cadence, a refrain, repeated at the end of each “move.” 

During the night, Jacob sees a – ramp?  This might be a better translation, but “ladder” works, and is familiar (from “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”) – and enjoys the benefit of Thomas Merton’s wisdom when he said We spend our lives climbing the ladder of success, but then when we get to the top, we realize the ladder is propped up against the wrong wall.

I’m tempted to play with an idea that the Church is the ladder, at least for us, the way to God, or the way angels come down to us.  There’s some agitation in that, right, that an angel might show up?  Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.”

Thomas Traherne, in the 17th century, declared that the Cross is our ladder from earth into heaven, from our heart into the heart of God.

Whatever the ladder, the large point here is that “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it.”  I love the way God is there when we aren’t aware, when we aren’t praying or seeking God at all.  I wrote something of a memoir called Struck From Behind: My Memories of God.  It’s not a dull account of my career or life, but a collection of memories, of ways God was there when I didn’t realize it at the time, but only in retrospect, years later (playing on Thoreau's "Truth strikes us from behind, and in the dark").  I love inviting people into this kind of exercise:  think back in the memory of your life.  Where was God when you didn’t seek God or realize at the time God was there?  A preacher could play with this one all day.


If you delve into memory, you find family weirdness – or most of us do.  Notice God doesn’t say to Jacob “I am your God,” but rather “I am the God of your father, and your father’s father…”  A premise of Peter Scazzero’s wonderful Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (which we did as a whole series with videos, books and emails – and I’d commend this to you and your church) is that we are never healed or one with God until we probe our family history and discover who’s there and what therefore we carry around inside:  trace your family tree and you find horse thieves, alcoholics, workaholics, philanderers, depression, strains of cancer or heart disease.  We don’t mind inheriting family money – but inheriting family depression or health or personal issues?  It’s all there – and “surely the Lord was even in that place, although we did not know it.”

If the Lord is in such places, even when we are unaware, then we are invited into the other great prayer Merton offered:  whatever the circumstances, whatever happens, “Lord, let this be my consolation – that wherever I am, You are loved.”

God may as well be loved, for God is our Father, our Abba.  Romans 8: the heart of it is that Jesus’ surprising and alluring habit of addressing God as Abba, Father, is picked up by Paul.  It isn’t that you just decide, Oh, I’ll call God Abba.  It is the Spirit that enables and empowers this “cry” (so it’s a plea for help?).  It’s not the word Abba that carries any magic; it’s the deep sense of the intimate relationship.  We are children of God, no small thing… and then heirs (getting better…) – but then Paul has to add “provided we suffer with him.”  Not “in case, by some remote chance, we suffer.”

But I’m planning, for the second half or third third of my sermon, to think of a way the Lord is present and we do not realize or understand it:  in the life of the church, broken and riddled with lunacy as it may be.  Matthew 13, the wheat & the tares:  I hope that the scholars who say the ‘interpretation’ in 36-43 doesn’t emanate from Jesus but is spin from early church leaders are correct.  Jesus’ lovely, realistic, merciful parable is twisted into something ominous and threatening.  The question in Jesus’ simple, unexplained parable isn’t Am I wheat? Or tares?  You’re both, of course – The story is about the community, the people of God.  The Church is wheat, and tares, both, and we like to think we know who’s who, as if you could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify who’s who.  Tares?  Sit in the back on the left… Wheat?  Up front, on the right…

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

Churches divide – grieving Jesus’ heart, who prayed for unity on the last night of his life (John 17), and still does.  I’d commend my blog on why unity is required of us as United Methodists; all churches tend to want to separate wheat and tares, which Jesus said we keep them together.

Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of evangelicalism, wrote about the way we fail to love within the church: Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.”  We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”


Ephraim Radner, in his dense but wonderful A Brutal Unity, speaks of the solidarity to which we are called: “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.” 

I love this scene in Stephen Bransford's novel, Riders of the Long Road.  Silas Will, a circuit rider back in the 18th century, was grilled with hard questions by a young man about God, evil and suffering.  His response? 
"'God sees much more than we see.  He sees the beginning and the end of things and He is doing what is best from all that He sees.  God would never kill a child.  But there is an invisible war that goes on around us while we live here on earth.  God promised to destroy the Devil.'  The young man asked, 'Why won't God finish it now?'  Silas was thoughts for a moment, and then suddenly leaped up, bent over with excitement.  'They asked Christ the same question.  Look here, watch down here.'  He bent over.  'Christ said the Kingdom is like a sower who sowed good seed, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.  See, here are the good grasses' - his hands stroked the grass - 'and this pennyroyal here is like the weed.'  One hand closed upon a large mint-leaves pennyroyal stem.  'Look at it, and look what happens when I pull it out.'  Silas yanked the pennyroyal up by the roots.  It exploded from the ground, showering both of them with dirt from its spreading roots.  'This is what Christ said.  The people urged Him to pluck all the weeds from the wheat field, but He said, no, let them grow together because to pull them out now will destroy much innocent wheat.  See the grasses that have died here because I pulled up the pennyroyal?  We know pennyroyal roots grow under ground, tangled beneath the other grasses.  God knows the roots of evil grown around every sickness since Adam and Eve.  Yes, God can purge the world of sin and death right now, but He doesn't because all have sinned and we are all so tangled with the corruption of sin that He would destroy us and the whole world in that selfsame moment.  What kind of God could do that?'"

  {the image of Jacob's ladder is one of several painted by Marc Chagall}

What can we say come July 30? 8th after Pentecost

Most preachers can easily expostulate on Romans 8:26-39.  An interesting approach to preaching can evolve if you have a memory of hearing a text in a certain time and place – which curiously interprets the Scripture for you, and provides an illustration that isn’t illustrative so much as real life, a direct connection.  For me and Romans 8, it’s easy.  I had travelled to Fuzhou, China, with one of my seminary professors, Dr. Creighton Lacy.  He had grown up there, but his mom and siblings were banished in 1948 when the Communists overran the country.  His father, the Methodist bishop there, was not expelled, but imprisoned.

Forty years had passed, and Cork (as we affectionately called Dr. Lacy) had never heard what happened to his father.  One night I was with him when a man knocked on the door.  He came in and said grimly, I was with your father when he died.  They had been imprisoned together for being Christian – and he told how Bishop Lacy had been beaten and mistreated, and finally died in the stone prison cell.  After a time of sorrow and love together, we left the hotel for the worship service we were attending.  Cork read Romans 8:26-39 in English, and the longtime, loyal friend who had died with his father, read the same words in Chinese.  Indeed.  Nothing can separate us from Christ Jesus.  Neither persecution, nor famine, nor peril nor sword.

The clump of parables in Matthew 13 which the lectionary prescribes for this Sunday:  hard to know how to handle this.  Typically I have fixed on one, maybe the treasure hidden in the field, or the pearl of great value.  I’ve speculated about what it would be like to try to preach on the whole set.  Maybe Jesus taught that way; his listeners had to be dumbfounded, scratching their heads, not having digested the mustard seed before he was blowing their mind with the fishing net. 

We wrongly allegorize the parables.  Jesus painting astonishing word pictures without explaining or preaching on them.  They are mind-boggling, surprising – and I really wonder about sharing them as they are and letting people do what Jesus’ listeners had to do:  scratch their heads, wonder, and maybe be befuddled and maybe then moved.  Risky preaching – but then I wonder about trying it.  These little parables are the antithesis of business as usual; there is no conventional wisdom here.  As Clarence Jordan put it, a parable is like a Trojan horse.  You open the door, let it in, and then – wham!  A whole army is pouring out and they’ve got you.

I plan to focus on the unlikeliest of texts:  Genesis 29:15-28.  Sort of on a double-dare, I preached on this six years ago: you can watch/listen here.  A saga of sheer lunacy: Jacob works 7 years – 7! – to marry Rachel.  But then on the wedding night, all seems consummated until he wakes up and – Behold, it was Leah!  You can see from my sermon I used this as a cadence, as I sampled various ways in life we think we’re getting Rachel, but wind up with Leah.  In short, it’s a sermon on disappointment.  Raymond Carver said the predominant mood in North American culture in the past fifty years is disappointment; could be the fruit of a media culture, increasing standards of living, bloated promises from politicians… Who knows?  Work, marriage (picking up on Stanley Hauerwas’s cheeky thought that “you always marry the wrong person”), neighborhood, your very self, your church, and even God:  all wind up disappointing.  We want the girl with the lovely eyes…  but it’s the one with the weak eyes you get.  Unsure how to wind this thing up – but maybe instead of saying Hang in there like Jacob, you eventually get Rachel! I might want to say that the Jesus who saves us isn’t the pretty one we thought we wanted, but the surprise insertion, the one we didn’t really think would deliver.

Richard Rohr I think has a lot of wisdom about disappointment (for instance, in Falling Upward), and the secret of learning to live with and love the life you have. 

But that can get bogged down into a secular, psychologizing talk you could hear anywhere.  One approach is Jean Vanier's:  in his lovely "On Being" interview with Krista Tippett, he said,


"I have my weaknesses and I have my fragility, physical ailments of the heart, I have to take things quietly. And intellectually, I get tired much more quickly. So it’s just the acceptance of reality. And you see, the big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be to this reality, and somewhere to love reality and then discover that God is present in the reality."

Another approach, though, which clings fiercely to the Gospel edge, I think, is maintained when we fix on Jesus as perhaps portrayed in the words of Isaiah 52-53: “His appearance was marred… He was despised, as one from whom men hide their faces; it was the will of the Lord to put him to grief.”  I mean, Jesus is the unlovely one, like Leah – and what was Leah’s grief like after Jacob’s realization??  Or in all this do we re-learn what beauty really is – as Dostoevsky suggested, Jesus crucified is the one truly beautiful face.