Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What can we say come June 17? 4th after Pentecost

     1 Samuel 16 gifts us with one of the Old Testament’s signature theological texts.  I preached a sermon I felt pretty good about on this 3 years ago, and another 2 years ago.  Although it makes for a longer reading, it is well that our lectionary picks up at 15:34.  Samuel doesn’t anoint David out of the blue, but only in the wake of his grief and God’s sorrow over the debacle that was King Saul.  God, ever true to God’s self, grieves for a time and then unfolds the new thing God will do.

     Samuel’s new mission, to anoint the new king – even though it’s only a proleptic anointing, as Saul will reign for quite a while after David is soaked in oil – must be sneaky, surreptitious, clandestine (it’s fun for preachers to play with such words, isn’t it? – and we have, I always believe, a curious responsibility to keep certain words alive in the English language...).  It’s intriguing that Jesus, too, the anointed one, the Messiah, was rather on the secretive side about his reign during his ministry; Mark pictures him shushing the disciples, and the powers that dominated the world then would have snickered at the notion that Augustus or Tiberius was not emperor, or that Herod (or Herod) was not king for much longer.

     Walking your people back through the story, which is so very vivid, is helpful – if you don’t belabor it for so long…  What were Jesse’s feelings when he learned one of his sons would be king? Pride? Shock? A fearful trembling? He called them together and lined them up by age, height, and brawn. But one-by-one, Samuel dismissed them: the strapping Eliab, the burly Abinadab, the finely-chiseled Shammah. Seven altogether.  The preacher can use hands, standing on tiptoe, gesturing to illustrate the gradually receding bulk of these fine boys.

     The Lord spoke each time to Samuel—but how? Did the others hear? Was it a whisper? An interior voice? The Lord said, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Preachers can expand upon this at length; more on this in a moment. For now, we might want to locate times the meek and unlikely were the game-changers (Rosa Parks?).  We might compare God’s vision to the way Thomas Kuhn spoke of revolutions in perspective: people thought the world was flat until Copernicus explained things from a very different viewpoint – and nothing was ever the same.  God’s way isn’t about ability, strength, IQ, street smarts, agility, or savvy. It’s about the “heart”—although really it’s just about God choosing whom God chooses.

     Puzzled, Samuel shrugged. Only then did Jesse acknowledge that, well, yes, “There is still the youngest one . . . but he’s out keeping the sheep” (v. 11). The obvious deduction is that Jesse didn’t even consider the possibility that this little one might be the one. But could it be that Jesse actually feared David might be the one? That he saw unprecedented potential in him? Or perhaps he was simply the one he loved the most—the unexpected child of old age, the apple of his eye? The writer does take note that David “was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking” (v. 12). Perhaps Jesse wanted to keep this small but handsome one home to shelter him for himself and from the perils of kingship.

     Christian history features so many stories of parents blocking their children’s calling to sainthood. Francis of Assisi’s father, Pietro, was so mortified when his son began giving to the poor with total abandon that he took him to court and disowned him. Pope Francis’s mother was crushed when he reported he was headed into the priesthood instead of to medical school, and she would not speak to him or forgive him for some time. How many women and men never became great heroes of the church because parents restrained them and wouldn’t let go?

     Francesca Aran Murphy points out that there is not one divine miracle in the entire sixteen chapters of the story of David’s rise from obscurity to power. As she puts it, “God’s working has gone underground.” Leaders understand that God’s working generally is underground; rarely does anything remotely miraculous save the day. What matters is trusting that God’s working is still going on, as unseen as water being soaked up by the roots of a tree.

     Or maybe we develop a different kind of seeing. The verb see (ra’ah) occurs six times in the story of David’s anointing; “the Lord does not see as mortals see” (v. 7 NRSV). How does God see? How can we see as God sees? Can we see things as they really are instead of being deceived by what is only superficially visible? As Gandalf wrote in a letter to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “All that is gold does not glitter.” In The Little Prince we find this memorable quote: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Or that Native American saying: “We teach our children to see when there is nothing to see, and to listen where there is nothing to hear.” It’s common to say a leader is responsible for having a vision; 1 Samuel’s take might be that the leader is someone who can see and who sees clearly and deeply.

     The Hebrew word for “see,” ra’ah, is one barely distinguishable sound away from ra‘ah, the word for “shepherd.” We might think of shepherds as lowly and despised, poor laborers of no account. Yet there is always an ambiguity to the image of a shepherd. Yes, they spent their days and nights out of doors with smelly animals who tended to nibble themselves lost. Mothers didn’t fantasize that their daughters would marry shepherds one day. And yet in the agrarian, pastoral culture of the world in those days, where sheep were everywhere and they mattered for survival, even the mightiest kings of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt were often dubbed the “shepherds” of their people. David was a shepherd boy, but his responsibilities—to care for the flock, insure they got food and water, protect them from harm, bring them safely home—were identical to those of the good ruler.

     Don’t many of our stories wind up like David’s? Public events and private lives twist, turn, and collide. The pursuit of power and pleasure gets mixed up with efforts to be pious and faithful, and the results are mixed: some success and some disaster. This is life in God’s world: we do our best, but then cruel processes of history steamroll everybody—yet somehow they almost accidentally further God’s kingdom. Does God cause or even superintend all this?  We live, always, with this mystery: where is God in it all? There are hints, clues, guesses, wonderings. But who can be sure?

     The epistle, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17, flawlessly picks up on this vision thing.  “We walk by faith, not by sight.”  Faith is a peculiar way of seeing.  Or I recall David Steinmetz, lecturing the Reformation, explaining how most theologians trusted in what they could see – but Martin Luther insisted that the organ of faith is the ear, not the eye.  “The eyes are hard of hearing.”  What we see can deceive; but the Word we hear is trustworthy, enduring forever, creative of new, unseen life.
     Two little details beg for attention – as details to which we typically under-attend (so I guess they aren’t little details at all!).  Paul suggests that the purpose of life isn’t the be good or do good but to please the Lord.  Want to know how fabulous, significant and powerful you are?  You have the ability to please God – or to displease God.  God opens God’s holy self to the vulnerability of being pleased, or not, by people like us.  And we know we will falter terribly – but I then take heart from the famous Merton prayer, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

     At the same time, it is hard to scare up a mainline denominational sermon that dares to speak about Paul’s insistence that we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.  What we do, and how we live, is deadly serious – and God wants us to envision that day of judgment (as the daily prayer in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer puts it, “Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgments, and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.”

     And yet we needn’t tremble as we enter the courtroom.  God is judge and prosecuting attorney, but God is also my defender, and the jury.  God wants me to be released from bondage more than I do.  God’s is no fair, blind justice.  God is absurdly, intensely, passionately biased toward us.  So yes, humbly approach the seat of justice – and the God waiting for us is the one who shed his blood for us, who healed the sick, who touched the untouchables, who forgave those nobody else would tolerate?

     Notice that in this season, the lectionary adds verses 18-21 – which I like.  This business of reconciliation and reconciling and being ambassadors for God – the universal scope, not merely individual or personal of God’s work and our ministry, is just staggering, and beautiful and hopeful.   I preached on 2 Corinthians 5:14-20 last year, and focused on all this – while our church was engaged in a marvelous and impactful ten week series on Reconciliation, with Christena Cleveland, Ben Witherington, Brenda Tapia, Matt Rawle and more; see videos and other resources here:  I have no doubt that Reconciliation is God’s clearest calling to the church in our day, summoning us beyond simplistic forms of forgiveness, urging us to connect at a deep level with others, in fractured relationships, in a divided denomination, in a broken world, with other religions, in our communities – and in mission, which isn’t the haves doing for the have-notes, but lost people finding one another, sharing their gifts, journeying together.  No one has spoken more eloquently of this than Sam Wells, first in A Nazareth Manifesto, and then in his Incarnational Ministry and its companion, Incarnational Mission.

     And finally we come to the Gospel (Mark 4:26-34), which is fine (of course...) but for me just not as interesting as the Old Testament and Epistle – or the other moments when Jesus speaks of sowing seed (earlier in Mark 4!).  Jesus wouldn’t have known what we smart modern people know (unless you need to attribute omniscience to the earthly Jesus and pit him against farming realities) – that, horticulturally speaking, the mustard seed isn’t actually the smallest; orchid seeds, and maybe others are tinier. 

     This parable is utterly uninterested in human efforts (which is required for farming to happen well); I’m reminded of the old joke about the guy who bought an abandoned farm, cleared the fields, plowed, planted – and then as his crops came in the local preacher said to him, “Look what God has done!” – to which the farmer replied, “Well yes, but do you remember what it was like when God was working this farm alone?” And yet Mark’s theology is on target: the real growth, the miracle of the seed, soil, sun and rain, comes from God.  I cannot pass here without directing all preachers to the most moving, helpful sermon I’ve ever heard directed to clergy – from my friend Bishop Claude Alexander (watch here – and don’t miss the music that follows his sermon!).  His way of speaking of God’s hand being on the field while the farmer sleeps: just brilliant, so encouraging, and theologically humbling and hopeful.

 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What can we say come June 10? 3rd after Pentecost

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   Great texts this week! I’ll linger a while over 1 Samuel 8, which is a theologically rich, timely story – one I heard William Barber use shortly after the 2016 election to call the nation to account (read/watch here) in a powerful, unforgettable sermon! Then I’ll spend some time on the epistle before turning to Jesus’ baffling but wonderful thoughts about “binding the strong man.”

   1 Samuel 8. To speak of Saul as Israel’s first king is a bit much; there was hardly any institution at all – it was more of a startup. No capital, no army, no bureaucrats. Saul himself was big and strong, and his dad was rich. He had even a frenzied experience of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:12).

   But how he had become king was theologically a nightmare. The preacher could choose to walk people through the text slowly, with little aside comments: “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old’” (a frank but unflattering opening remark), “‘and your sons do not follow in your ways’” (similarly frank and unflattering). 
“Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us” (they had tried this years earlier with Gideon, who wisely refused – perhaps like Frodo destroying instead of wielding the ring of power) “like other nations” (which was the one thing Israel was not supposed to be). “But the thing displeased Samuel” (another understatement – but why? Perhaps he was displeased that they were so frank and unflattering as to reject his sons. What does his desperate lunge to install his greedy sons tell us about his heart? Was he clinging to hopes they would turn out all right after all? Did he seek some validation through them? Was he, in old age, shortsighted regarding what was required in such tough times? How did the author of 1 Samuel get this peek into Samuel’s sentimental confusion? And how did he know Samuel’s displeasure was shared by God – who if anything felt more jilted than did Samuel?). 
“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘They have rejected me from being king over them’” (1 Sam 8:7). Francesca Aran Murphy's insight intrigues (in her Brazos commentary on 1 Samuel): God does not appear much in the story going forward. Has God withdrawn? Does it seem to wayward people God has withdrawn?

    Mind you, all of us would do as they did. To say We need no government or army, God is our King would be a deeply pious riff, but the Midianites and Philistines wielded real swords and clubs. Dealing with them spontaneously, haphazardly, armed with nothing but a prayer made no sense. And the world was changing. The Bronze Age was yielding to the technologically superior Iron Age. Nomadic, tribal culture was yielding to urbanization and more centralized power all over the world. Israel was under siege, and would likely be squashed within a generation. The Bible’s radical vision of life with God never seems to mesh well with the demands of real societies trying to adjust and survive. The Prussian chancellor Bismarck famously said “You can’t run a government based on the Sermon on the Mount.” Leadership can’t merely close its eyes and fold its hands in prayer. In a frightening, rapidly changing world, leadership has to get its hands dirty in harsh realities. So what’s up with God’s resistance to their eagerness for reasonable leadership?

     Their sensible demand for Samuel to give them a king took a stunning turn, though, when the Lord, nursing feelings of rejection, told Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (1 Sam 8:7). What they were asking was a bolt away from God toward independence, a surrender of their status as God’s chosen, special, elect people. But instead of tossing down a few thunderbolts, God let them have what they wanted. Paul wrote in a similar vein in Romans 1: “God gave them up.” When people insist on their will instead of God’s, God “gives them up,” God lets them have their way.

    And yet the resilience of God’s love wouldn’t let God just abandon them to their own devices. After telling Samuel to let them have their king, God simply added, “only you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Sam 8:9). Pastors warn, as did the prophets – although warnings are rarely welcomed. What was Samuel’s tone when he warned? Snarling and bellowing? Or more plaintive, grievous, tender pleading? Love warns gingerly, lovingly.

    A laundry list of troubles (all of which did eventually unfold in the sad narrative to come) was rattled off: “This king will press your sons into vain military quests, and your daughters into domestic service; he will tax you and confiscate the fruits of your labors.” But the people only hardened their hearts, shouting “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that he may go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). The key word here is “our.” Their agenda, not the Lord’s. We may wonder how many of the Bible’s “holy wars” were really very human wars with God’s name pasted on the outside.

    In March, I was present for a scintillating lecture by 85 year old Walter Brueggemann in which he articulated how history has been a history of economies of "extraction," the wealthy extracting from the poor.  Egypt obviously did this - but then so did Solomon, by taxation, seizing property, and for nefarious purposes (war, oppression, etc.).  It is haunting to realize this is what we have in the U.S., and how so many in our churches benefit from it - and yet how unholy it is.  Brueggemann suggests that the Bible envisions a very different economy - one of neighborliness, where we don't seize all we can, where we might resist gentrification, where we lift up the needy and perhaps have less ourselves.  Samuel's warning resonates across the centuries to... us.

     God lets them have what they want. The name Saul means “asked for.” The rich irony of this! The people ask for a king, and after dire warnings, God gives them literally what they asked for: Saul, the asked-for one. Poor Saul. He is inserted into the middle of a fractured relationship between Israel and the Lord. He is immensely gifted, tall, strong, smart, and zealous. Maybe too zealous. We almost sense that he tries too hard. Leaders do, especially in sick systems.

     Saul had his faults – but the preacher might ask if he simply was the one God wanted for that moment – as if it suited God to put a weak one on the throne in order to drive the hidden plot of God’s story.  Much has been written about Saul as a tragic figure. The plot of his story is kin to those Greek dramas in which the main character (like Oedipus), no matter what he actually does, is fated into a destiny not of his own choosing. The moment in time is what is flawed; the people seeking a kind are flawed, not just Saul. David Gunn suggests that Saul is “vulnerable as an object-lesson,” which the Lord wanted to teach a wayward people; he is “kingship’s scapegoat.”

     And then, shock of all shocks, miracle of all miracles, God winds up sing the very kingship God didn’t want the people to have, which emerged out of idolatrous and rebellious motives, and established his own son, Jesus, the Messiah on Israel’s throne forever.  God is, once again, more amazing than our wildest imaginings.

   By the way, my new book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, explores the Saul story in more depth, with connections to leadership today.

     2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Our epistle lesson, from a very different angle, explores and celebrates this craziness in God’s way.  The lectionary weirdly lops a logically tight section off before it’s done – this lovely text we often read at funerals.  The text explains itself, and should be read slowly, lingering over words and phrases – even in the sermon.  Preaching at Oxford during the dark days of World War II, C.S. Lewis picked up on “The Weight of Glory” and spent what must have been fifteen startling, wonderful minutes preaching on that phrase – one of the truly great sermons in Christian history.  Read it in preparation to preach, or just to expand your soul.

     Henri Nouwen similarly went deep on the notion of momentary affliction preparing us for a weight of glory.   In Our Greatest Gift, his thoughtful book about dying, he tells a story about fraternal twins talking with one another in the womb: 
“The sister said to the brother, ‘I believe there is life after birth.’ Her brother protested vehemently, ‘No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing to do but cling to cord that feeds us.’ The little girl insisted, ‘There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light, where there is freedom to move.’ Still she could not convince her twin brother.

   After some silence, the sister said hesitantly, ‘I have something else to say, and I’m afraid you won’t like that either, but I think there is a Mother.’ Her brother became furious. ‘A Mother!?’ he shouted. ‘What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let’s be content.’

   The sister was quite overwhelmed by her brother’s response, and for a while didn’t dare say anything more. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and since she had only her twin brother to speak to, she finally said, ‘Don’t you feel those squeezes once in a while? They’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘What’s so special about that?’ ‘Well,’ the sister said, ‘I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our Mother face to face. Don’t you think that’s exciting?’
   The brother didn’t answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk of his sister and felt that the best thing would be simply to ignore her and hope that she would leave him alone.”

   This story, if you’ve never used it, works on Sunday morning, but especially powerful at funerals.

     And then our Gospel, Mark 3:20-35.  Verse 20 feels a bit abrupt, so if we back up we’ll recall that Jesus has just called disciples, and then “he went home” – presumably to Nazareth, since his mother and siblings appear straightaway. How odd: it’s so jammed “they could not even eat.” A deep hunger underwrites the confusion and tension to follow. Jesus’ own family – out of great affection, and yet also from the misunderstandings loved ones often have when their beloved go out on a limb for God – restrains him, fearing he is mentally disturbed. In this way, they join ranks with Jesus’ critics in the following verse, who interpret his startling feats as demon possession.
   Opening with the family, and then closing this pericope with them again, forms a neat “sandwich” or inclusio. Jesus has siblings – posing a quandary for Catholics adhering to Mary’s perpetual virginity; Martin Luther clung to this belief as well. I love to ponder the role these siblings play, including James, who knows Jesus well, who got dissed in this very scene, and yet who became a great believer and leader in the early Church. What greater evidence could there be that Jesus really was whom the Gospel writers claimed he was?
    We also see how Jesus relativizes and then radicalizes “family,” one of those sneaky, curious idolatries in our society.  Do Mary and her children get ushered to the front?  No.  Jesus embraces everyone standing there as his family.  In God, we are a new kind of family, where water is thicker than blood.  Christianity is a process of re-familying.  We may be from strong families; but God’s call can disrupt that as the ultimate priority and place us in a weird family with very different people. We may be from dysfunctional, painful families; and God then gifts us with the family we always wished we’d had.  Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality project presses us to delve into our family lunacies and then in the church to discover people who then become our new home.
    My friend Bishop Claude Alexander and I recently preached together ondomestic violence – and found ourselves speaking to men about how to treat women. Claude said “You may have grown up in a family where kindness and generosity and verbal encouragement didn’t happen. But you’re in a new family now, the family of God, where love is the thing.”  Lovely.

    It’s fascinating Jesus’ critics didn’t say he was boring or ineffective. They fully recognized amazing events were mysteriously unfolding – and perhaps being terribly mixed up, but perhaps also reticent to acknowledge that this might really be the God they had gotten under good control for so long, they saw the devil’s hand. The alias for Satan they use, Beelzebul, means “lord of the house.” When Jesus turns their argument on its ear, his implication is well-articulated by Joel Marcus: “Before Jesus appeared on the scene, Satan was the head of the household of this world, an identification perhaps already implied by the epithet ‘Beelzebul’ = ‘lord of the abode.’”  Jesus’ rhetoric here is brilliant, as Joel Marcus explains: “Jesus compares his own actions to those of a transgressive character, in this case a thief who breaks into a strong man’s house, ties him up, and steals his goods.”  That’s our Jesus indeed!.
    Binding the Strong Man is the title of Ched Myers’s remarkable and powerful ruminations on Mark’s Gospel.  According to Myers, Mark was written “to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves.” It is “a manifesto for radical discipleship.” Indeed, “Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myths. From the very first line, Mark’s strategy is subversive.” Myers complains about much of what we often hear nowadays – “”bourgeois hermeneutics trivializing apocalyptic narrative” (Ouch!). Jesus, according to Mark, who is sneaky stronger, intends to overthrow the apparent strong man (the establishment) to liberate the strong one’s prey. “Imperial hermeneutics, ever on the side of law and order, will of course find this interpretation offensive, shocking.”
   Of course, as Marcus reminds us, when Jesus is spoken of as insane, and alienated from his own family, we should recall that Mark’s first readers, and all early Christians, were thought out of their minds, and many were grievously abandoned by their kinfolk.  This phenomenon likely goes on in our day as well.
   And then this text provides us with that worrisome idea that there is one unforgivable sin. John Bunyan (Grace Abounding) shared with a friend his worry he has committed this sin, and his friend answered he thought he might have as well.  Pastors counsel fretting souls by suggesting that, if you are genuinely worried about having committed this sin, you probably have not done so. Mark’s context indicates this sin would be “a total, malignant opposition to Jesus that twists all the evidence of his life-giving power into evidence that he is demonically possessed” – and so, as Marcus continues, “Those guilty of such blasphemy would not be overly concerned about having committed it.”  I’d turn this and ask Why worry so much over Did I commit that one that’s unforgivable? What then about the mass of quite forgivable sins I’ve committed – and been forgiven?
 My new book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, explores the Saul story in more depth, with connections to leadership today.

Monday, November 13, 2017

What can we say come June 3? 2nd after Pentecost

    For me, flexibility is the beauty of Pentecost/Ordinary Time/summer time.  I’ve done whole summers on the Psalms – and it’s a great time to delve into the Old Testament.  Interestingly, this week’s epistle and gospel lections do this themselves: they preach (if you will) on an Old Testament text.   I’ll comment on those – but this Sunday I will personally preach on 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (the lectionary seems to leave you the option of stopping at v. 10, which would lop off key moments in the drama!) – and lean into the Epistle as well.

   Back on January 14 of this year, we had the same text!  My comments (click here for them, and images) focused on several things: (a) how hearing God didn’t happen randomly, just anywhere, but in a sanctuary, with daily readings, lightings of candles, prayers, oblations, etc. – so practices of devotion and worship matter if you hope to hear God; (b) how prayer isn’t so much “Hear our prayer, O Lord,” but “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”; and then (c) how the hearing and advent of God’s Word isn’t comfort and light, but drastic change, downright destruction of what is awry – and there I cited Marianne Williamson’s lovely thought that if you ask God into your life, God doesn’t show up to do a little interior decorating or sprucing up, but God arrives like a wrecking ball to tear your world down to its foundations and start over.

   In addition to those crucial thoughts on 1 Samuel 3, I want to explore Eli a bit further – partly because it occurs to me you could do a lot with maybe my favorite post-apocalyptic film, The Book of Eli ("the word of the Lord was rare," he's blind, a young child figures prominently, etc.) - but then also because a good friend, Rev. George Ragsdale, spoke on this recently, and I was moved and stirred by what he did. Speaking to clergy about to screen candidates for ordination, he raised the question of how Eli understood (or didn’t!) that Samuel was being called by God.

   Eli’s ability to figure out what was going on was compromised – first by his own physical frailty. He’s old, tired, visually impaired. How often do our aches and pains, or our own physical weariness, keep us from hearing God, or from realizing what God might be doing? How often, simply being tired, do we go back to bed and assume it can’t really be God speaking or doing a new thing?

   Eli’s mounting blindness isn’t just physical; it’s symbolic of his leadership. He’s blinded by love and attachment to his own sons (as was Samuel, and David) who were scoundrels, who “had no regard for the Lord,” and abused their priestly prerogatives. As I explored in my book, Weak Enough to Lead, all leaders show up for work with whatever they left at home still rattling around in their heads. When you preach or pastor, you carry, probably hidden in silence, a struggle you had with your son, a spat with your spouse, a harsh word from your mother – and it impacts what you do; the people to whom you preach experience the same thing in their worlds. And so we name these Eli situations – the recognition and naming offering some mercy where there isn’t much other mercy to be had. And then, of course, God might use that hidden brokenness – which can become compassion for others…

    And finally, doesn’t Eli suspect that if he helps Samuel hear God’s Word, that would prove to be the final blow against him and his own family’s failed leadership? As George put it, might it be that God will even call the church to something we don’t recognize, as much as we love the place, and that we’ll be the ones left behind? Can we help the church hear even that calling that will cost us plenty?

   George concluded his sermon by quoting Barbara Brown Taylor to great effect: “Does anyone really want to hear the voice of the living God? I wonder. I wonder, as I said before, which is worse: to hear it or not to hear it, to face fainting at the power of it or to live oblivious to it, eaten up by the thousand little fears that may prevent its ever getting through…. Sometimes I think all my worrying about the bills, my health, my family, my life, death, and the universe—all that is what I worry about to avoid saying, in the middle of the night, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' I am so afraid that I will hear something, or that I won't. But all the evidence points toward hearing something, at least eventually. It is our faith and our hope that, since the beginning of time when God's word created heaven and earth, through the word he gave to Abraham and our forebears forever, through the word made flesh in Jesus, God has been speaking to us and is speaking to us still. But he has never forced us to hear.”

   To me, this narrative drives us directly into the non-narrative arms of the epistle. In 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Paul clarifies what we know but don’t put on resumes or admit to pulpit committees: “We have this treasure in clay jars” (or a Victor Paul Furnish translates, “earthen pots”). Many understand these to be vessels used for the offering of sacrifice – so they could then be broken up and disposed of it they became ritually unclean. Like Eli, we are such earthen vessels… and the image of the broken, breakable, sacrificial pottery piece can be probed endlessly. Wasn’t it Leonard Cohen who wrote “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”?

   And then we have Lillian Daniel’s moving story from her childhood: her father would go on long trips, and then return with collectible pottery pieces from around the world. As the years passed, she kept noticing, next to the fabulous samples of artful pottery, there was one shabby piece that looked like it had been glued together by an amateur. While the other pieces were labelled with indications of their provenance, this one simply said “Precious.” Lillian asked her mother about it – and learned the story. Her father came home after an especially long trip. Little Lillian saw him pull up in the driveway, bolted out of the house, and ran to her dad – who was holding his pottery treasure but could do nothing but let it fall to the pavement as he embraced and lifted up his little girl. Precious. The broken one.

   Paul’s poetic cadence (“afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed”) requires no explanation at all. The preacher can just repeat it, reiterate it, maybe invite the people to stand and declare it out loud with her.

   And I’m dumbstruck by Paul’s daunting brilliance in adding “Always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus.” How do we make sense of suffering? You bear it, you pray for God’s healing, etc. – but what if it feels and is interpreted as a carrying within our own bodies the death of Jesus? Oh my. St. Francis of Assisi sought this and an even more intense kind of solidarity with Jesus. Two years before his death, Francis withdrew from the crowds to rocky Mt. LaVerna.  It was September, 1224, when the Catholic calendar featured the “feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.”  He prayed intently, with words of unmatched theological power:
   My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.

   In my Conversations with St. Francis, I spend some time on this remarkable prayer, talking about the place where it happened and how Francis then experienced the greatest or the worst miracle ever: being wounded in his hands, feet and side. The “stigmata” – as Paul put it, “carrying in the body the death of Jesus.”

   I’m so taken with 1 Samuel 3, and then 2 Corinthians 4 that I don’t know if I’ll get to the Gospel, Mark 2:23-3:6 at all. On the Sabbath, I cannot recommend highly enough what may be Walter Brueggemann’s best little book, Sabbath as Resistance. Stunning, profound, devotional, political, liberating, challenging. And Jesus: wasn’t the Sabbath his best day of the week? Not because of his own rest, but because he cut to the heart of the thing, healing, letting the disciples eat, spinning it all not as antinomianism but a robust sense that the Sabbath was made for people… We are totally loose on Sabbath observance, so we actually need the opposite lesson that the Pharisees needed.


 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

What can we say come May 27? Trinity Sunday

   It’s Trinity Sunday.  I always think it's best to preach the Word straightforwardly instead of trying to offer up a little lecture explaining why the Trinity is a thing – which will only create classroom banter and intellectual quizzicalness (in my view).  I teach sometimes on the Trinity – but in a class setting.  Mind you, there are texts that assume God’s Threeness and the lovely, moving interrelatedness that is the heart of God.  Romans 8:12-17, our epistle for the day is one of them.  The Spirit leads and speaks in our spirit so we know we are, just as Jesus was, children of the heavenly Father – whom we are invited to speak to intimately: Abba!

   I'd bet a lot of your people saw Bishop Michael Curry's marvelous sermon at the royal wedding on Saturday. Imagine: the beauty of God's Word outshone even the marvelous royal couple and the splendor of Windsor Castle. He spoke of "the redemptive power of love," which "will make of this old world a new world. There's power in love. Don't underestimate it" - and then he launched into a cascade of what could be transformed by love. What is the Trinity, but the love that is in - no, the love that is the heart of God?

And if you do speak of the Trinity (I will, but hopefully with not too much explaining going on), here's an approach: when I was in seminary we had a talent show each year. A favorite moment came when students would do impersonations of professors, and we'd guess who was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he began incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.

   The Gospel, John 3:1-17, works any Sunday of the year, as we see the fleshing out of the heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I’ve commented on John 3:1-17 recently in this blog series (March 11, Lent 4). 

   And then, to complicate everything, it’s Memorial Day weekend! – which creates a kind of pressure you may or may not enjoy.  Six years ago, after dodging, coping with and responding to criticism for being… insufficiently patriotic? I preached a whole sermon I’d commend to you explaining a Christian viewpoint on Memorial Day, which was semi-well-received.  If it helped no one else, it helped me to work through what I will do and won’t do on Sunday morning regarding patriotic holidays.  How do we own it, honor our people, but not enfranchise an excess of patriotism and a hawkish spirit?

   Isaiah 6 is tabbed for the lectionary surely because the seraph called to the other seraph, not crying “Holy!” but “Holy, Holy, Holy!”  I once heard a sermon where the preacher bore in on this for a 3-point sermon on the three aspects of holiness: being set apart, being pure, and then social holiness (a profoundly Wesleyan emphasis! – works of mercy, advocating for peace and justice, visiting the prisons, etc.).  Tempting and a helpful trellis on which to grow a sermon! – but not what the seraph was thinking.  The preacher could paint some personal images of what holiness looks like – and I’d look for the non-traditional, not-so-pious examples from people I’ve known.

   My favorite hymn, which people had better sing at my funeral, is “Holy, Holy, Holy” – which I fell in love with as a child because of its repetitive simplicity.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s line (not Shakespeare's!!!) – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways – might work with God’s holiness.  What about a sermon that simply meditates on the holiness of God?  I love the sermons that don’t have obvious “points” or “takeaways,” but that fixate with devoted clarity on the wonder of God.  There are implied takeaways (like You be holy too – very biblical!) – but leave them as implied. 

   A marvelous guide to the holiness of God is A.W. Tozer’s less well-known little book, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life.  Chapter by chapter (23 of them in just 117 pages) he explores some holy attribute of God, from God’s mercy to God’s incomprehensibility, from wisdom to justice, from self-existence to omniscience.  Like turning a precious diamond in your hand, holding it up to the light, awestruck: we ponder God’s holiness. That alone would make a terrific sermon.

   Isaiah resonates in so many ways.  The text seems ethereal, metaphysical, this report of being transfixed and transported into the utterly unspeakable presence of God – and yet it is entirely nailed to a moment in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died” – a time of political uncertainty, confusion, threats within and without.  At such time, God still speaks; God is still God.  Do we not suffer from political chaos and instability?  What does the Holy God speak to us during such a time?

   The hotness, the unfathomable mind-blowing that is God’s presence in the holy place elicits awe – which we don’t know much about.  I admire what Amos Wilder tried to help us see about worship: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.

   And then we have Annie Dillard’s suggestion (in Teaching a Stone to Talk): “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” Mind you, no one will walk in the door looking for the sparks or wearing crash helmets… But somehow, naming it may foster some dim realization in at least a few who’ve shown up.

   Isaiah 6 is yet one more of the Bible’s call narratives that all fit the same pattern: God unexpected calls, the one called explains why he or she is insufficient, then God reassures – not that he or she is sufficient, but that God will use whom God will use.  In Isaiah’s case, he senses his unholiness, rendering him unfit for holy use.  When we interview candidates for ordination, they generally speak of their abilities, education and cool experience; not many speak of their unworthiness, their unholiness – which seems to be what this God is looking for, not ability but availability, and maybe even disability.  These thoughts and others led me to write Weak Enough to Lead – which explores the Bible’s thoughts on leadership, which are vastly different from, and almost antithetical to ours.

   And for anyone preaching, the bizarre interaction at the very outset of Isaiah’s ministry should humble us, discourage us, and bequeath to us great company.  They won’t understand, their hearts are fat, their ears heavy, their eyes are shut.  It will turn out that they won’t get your message – at least not for a very, very long time.  And so it is with preaching.  We preach, not to get results, not to grow the church, not to gauge my worth or their worth, and certainly not to roll up big numbers.  We preach because God says preach.  We preach, not to see if they like to respond to our preaching, but to please God.

   Parenthetically, there is a powerful word at the heart of the Trinity.  In our culture, we are wise to lean into J├╝rgen Moltmann's perspective in The Trinity & the Kingdom.  Some excerpts: "The triune God reveals himself as love in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  His freedom lies in the friendship which he offers; his freedom is his vulnerable love, his openness, the encountering kindness through which he suffers with those he loves."  If we reduce God to a single, absolute personality, we wind up with "justification for the world's cultivation of the individual" - an individualism God grieves and counters.  And there are political/social implications as well: "It is only when the doctrine of the Trinity vanquishes the monotheistic notion of the great universal monarch in heaven that earthly rulers, dictators and tyrants cease to find any justifying religious archetypes any more."  Wow.

   Clergy are fond of showing and talking about the lovely Rublev icon.  Once I spoke of it and imagined three bridge players very much wanting to play, waiting for a fourth – you, me, the church, maybe the stranger.  Makes me a tad uncomfortable, but hey – it’s better than a three-leaf clover!  I wonder about inviting people to imagine a family of four, but one is missing. They aren’t content, like Hey, we got 75%! That’s pretty good.  No, you crave the whole family being together – especially is one of the four is never coming… God’s Threeness yearns for the one who’s not yet there, maybe like that shepherd leaving 99 sheep to seek out the one.


 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.