Sunday, May 21, 2017

What can we say come June 4? Pentecost

      {to continue to receive these and other material, and to be in conversation with me and others on issues in preaching, email me to join our group}  
     [Here is a sermon I preached on Acts 2 and John 7:37-39 three years ago]

The day of Pentecost.  Various churches have their customs.  In one of my churches, people wore red dresses and jackets.  In another, they hung striking bright yellow and red streamers from the ceiling.  At my current church, we have this swirly thing with colorful streamers someone waves at the front (which you can see in this video).  I always think lighting one of those Olympic torch things (borrowed perhaps from a special Olympics venue nearby?) would be cool – or hot, and maybe a serious fire code violation.

     Mainline Protestants love Pentecost, but suffer a kind of inarticulate reticence about the Holy Spirit.  For me, I’ve heard so much overwaxed chatter in my lifetime about who’s got the Spirit (and thus who doesn’t), where the Spirit is (and thus isn’t), powerful emotional experiences that feel to me to be more about intuition and native-born gushing than a movement of the Spirit – so then, perhaps in the way Protestants have barely spoken of Mary in order not to be Catholic, I’ve shied away so as not to be confused with the emotivism that dominates so much of American religiosity.

     But then, speaking of shy: Frederick Dale Bruner shrewdly suggested that the Holy Spirit is the “shy member of the Trinity,” preferring to stay backstage, deferring to the glory of Jesus and the Father.  Even on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t make a grand, personal appearance.  It’s wind? Too much whisky early in the day? Fire on the head?  [I love the way old icons took this literally.]  It’s the people of God who take center stage, their hair tussled and singed, staggering a little, bolting out into the street, talking a mile a minute...

     …and being understood by pilgrims from all over the place, in all those languages birthed at the Tower of Babel – whose ill effects are now being reversed.  I love rattling off (and I practice ahead of time) the list of peoples present in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9-11) – and can’t avoid chuckling when I get to “the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene” (what about the rest of Libya?).

     It’s not a prideful “speaking in tongues” (which some friends of mine use as a litmus test to see if you’re really saved…); there isn’t confusion or separation, but understanding and unity!  I’ve preached, with validity, I think, on the idea of Pentecost people, God’s Spirit-empowered church, find the language to speak to the people out there.  No more church jargon, and certainly no smug, judgmental declamations.  How do we talk about the best news ever to people who hear nothing but awful news and a jaded and cynical? 

     Wallace Stevens, in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (inspired by Picasso's painting): “Throw away the lights, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark / that it is this or that it is that, But do not use the rotted names.”  I practice this by trying, as often as possible, to talk to non-church people, to Jewish people, to anybody who will listen, about things we believe and why they matter so much.  You can’t quote a verse or use a theological term.  A Pentecost exercise, I think.

     I love it that, in Judaism, Pentecost is the day that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  And don’t be tempted to say We have the Spirit, the law is kaput.  The Spirit enables the fulfillment of the law; have you read Matthew 5??  The Spirit doesn’t unleash a burst of emotion; the Spirit plants and grows holiness in us.  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5).  He/she is the “Spirit of Holiness” (Rom. 1:4). 

      Speaking of growing things:  I also love it that Pentecost was the celebration of a harvest.  The Spirit, when you were sleeping, caused things to grow – and we humbly give thanks to God for the fruit of the earth.  Do you garden? Or do you know someone who farms?  Tell your people about the Spirit moving over the fields.

     At Pentecost, the Spirit rushed, not on this or that individual, but on the Church, on the Body.  It’s the church that is birthed, not a gaggle of solo Christians who happen to be near one another, on Pentecost.  All preaching needs to speak to the Body (a major point in my book, The Beauty of the Word).  Too often we preach as if we have a batch of little direct lines to each individual out there, and the sermon is You, you individual, go do this yourself, or believe this yourself.  But preaching is to the Body, for the Body, and of course even from the Body.  The lectionary’s epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 12, clarifies that the Spirit gives gifts, not for us to relax and enjoy, but for the building up of the church.  We are saved to find our place in the Body.

     This is a more sensible, realistic, and less emotional kind of Pentecost, living into the invisible but impactful wind of the Spirit.  In my little book, The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit, I try to speak of the Spirit and the mundane – which frankly is where we encounter the Spirit or not at all.

     Peter’s sermon, evidently, is placed here in Acts as an exemplary early Christian sermon.  It would be tough, in our culture, to preach such a sermon: a pastiche of Bible quotes from obscure prophets primarily, and David looks like a crystal ball prophet.  It is intriguing that salvation comes to – whom?  “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord” (2:21).  Not a set of dogmas or even behaviors, but a crying out, a plea, a calling on the Lord for help.  I love that.  Whom else would such a God save? 

     Of course, the secret to early Christian preaching wasn’t merely the rhetoric.  It was the lifestyle that flawlessly and compellingly mirrored the vision.  Read Acts 2:42-47 and you’ll understand why the preaching worked – and perhaps some of why ours doesn’t.  A radical life of devotion, breaking bread, prayer, sharing possessions in common, insuring there was no needy person.  The emperor Julian the Apostate, trying to shed Christianity from the empire, complained, “The Christians care, not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”  In today’s political climate it is unpopular to speak of caring for the poor.  But this is Christianity.  I’ll take Jesus over political sway or social preference any day.  Preachers (and these are very tough days in which to preach) have to find humble, gentle but direct ways to say “This just is Christianity.”

     The Revised Common Lectionary touches on John 20 – the “Jesus breathed on them,” which we considered back on April 23. 

   (Images are from Colleen Shay, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Picasso, Rembrandt)

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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 June 11? Trinity Sunday

I am fond of the fact that the texts for Trinity Sunday, year A, are not blatantly Trinitarian.  The Baptism of Jesus would have served so well!  These texts ask about the action, the life of our Trinitarian God.  Even my favorite hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” isn’t an abstract analysis of threeness in oneness, but praise, adulation, an awe in God’s being and doing.  I will ponder these texts with the Rublev Trinity icon as my computer wallpaper; I love this idea that God invites us into the eternal fellowship of love that is the Trinity.

Our first text – obviously and always – is creation, Genesis 1:1-2:4a.  Creation happened because the inner relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were so profound, so pregnant with divine love, that an outburst, an overflow made the universe happen; its goodness mirrors the love in God’s eternal triune heart.  Verse 26 says “Let us…” but we know the writer of Genesis didn’t intend Trinity.  It’s that plural of deliberation, or the heavenly court is being envisioned – or it’s as simple as that the Hebrew word for God is elohim, plural in form!  No Trinity in this text – but the Trinity was there; ponder John 1 and Colossians 1.

People still get mired in science questions, although as clergy who’ve settled that way back, we forget…  If you never saw it (or if you did...), I was riveted by Russell Crowe in the Noah movie portraying Noah telling the creation story to his children (watch here!) - a prehistoric guy accounting for science!!!  I may show this in our contemporary service.

There are defenses of the creation story with respect to Genesis, none probably more eloquent than Francis Collins, renowned director of the Human Genome Project (and former skeptic): “Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants and animals.  Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him.”

Or we have C.S. Lewis: “For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of  humanity and the image of Himself.  In the fulness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past...  Sooner or later, they wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’  But there is no such corner.”

My personal favorite thought about creation and science dawned on me when Stephen Hawking published The Grand Design, which was hailed as the definitive proof that we can explain the existence of the universe without resorting to God.  People asked me to respond, but I agree with him entirely.  God would not crush us with a definitive argument; it is not the case that you simply must believe.  You really don’t have to.  Jesus didn’t implant belief/holiness devices in his followers; they could follow, or not.  Love is always like that.  I loved Lisa; but she could have said No.

The preacher’s best theological counsel on Genesis is to advise people to watch Cosmos – or just get outside and let your jaw drop.  Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek continues to move me, as she takes us on a guided tour of the amazements out there, and asks that we simply pay attention.

I think that’s how we came to have Psalm 8.  Something was dazed at the wonder of creation – without the benefit of all we known about galaxies and parallel universes! – and felt simultaneously tiny and yet enormously important. 
There is a statue of St. Francis in Assisi that I love – of Francis lying on his back.  Francis extolled God for creation like no one else – and I think he’d ask us to begin our course in praising by joining him on the ground, gazing at things up high.

The image of God is endlessly fascinating, and less than clear – which again is good.  You are a mystery to yourself, and so are the other people.  This image is what it is to be human, and yet that humanity is somehow an image of the holy Trinity.  R.R. Reno, in his fabulous Brazos commentary on Genesis, captures things:  “The image of God imprinted on human nature provides the basis for our supernatural vocation, the life in Christ that is greater than any possibility resident in our natural powers, but which is nonetheless a genuine exercise of our natural powers.”

In our tawdry, misinformation, fake news culture, the preacher needs to be careful with words, and to remind our church families, repeatedly, that words matter.  How did God create?  God simply spoke.  Words call worlds into being – and you know this in your own small existence, and can illustrate this easily.  Watch the world turn on its axis when someone says “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” or “I never loved you” or “It’s malignant” or “I’m coming home.” 

Parenthetically, there is a powerful word at the heart of the Trinity.  In our culture, we are wise to lean into Jürgen 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.

Back to Genesis: the preacher has too many avenues to walk with Genesis 1.  Pick one or two – or try my “dropping” technique.  I don’t allow myself, for instance, enough time to talk about “Dominion,” so I just mention it: “Gee, we don’t have time to talk about dominion, but I love the way Walter Brueggemann suggested (in his Interpretation Genesis commentary) that we are asked to take care of God’s world, not take over God’s world.”  Done.  Sixteen seconds top – but somebody will pick up that stray idea and ruminate on it.

How interesting is it that sex is in there from the beginning!  Without dabbling in controversies, Genesis thinks of sex as existing for procreation – which incites Reno to recall that the Old Testament constantly compares idolatry to misdirected sex:  “The idolater is like the man who visits prostitutes.  He wants to discharge his need for worship while reserving power to live as he pleases.  The silence of idols is no disappointment… Idols are charming in their convenient emptiness.”  That’s good.

For me, Genesis 1 exposes this weird ambivalence about the world.  It’s good, even “very good,” and yet we find fault with it at every turn, and there is a desperately need, theologically, for sanctification.  Thomas Aquinas pointed the way: “Grace perfects rather than destroys nature.”  We play a huge role in this perfecting of nature, this spreading grace around in the world, a task articulated in the day’s Gospel lesson.  Like Moses on the mountain, Jesus commissions his people to go into the land and teach, and baptize. 

We’ve done this so badly through history: just read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, about a fool preacher dragging his family to the Congo, determined to baptize the local heathen in the river – which they won’t go near since there are crocodiles.  Tracts don’t work, street preachers are mocked, and old timey evangelism programs have grown mold all over themselves.  The only way has to be the way Jesus showed us in the beginning: to go into the world and love it, to find people and love them, to walk alongside them, to be with them, just as Jesus was with us, and promised always to be with us. 
Sam Wells’s A Nazareth Manifesto is indispensable reading for clergy, and maybe even lay people; he shows us how to be with God’s world and people, not fixing them, not even helping them, but sharing in the journey together with them.

The purpose of creation is the same as what is at the heart of life in creation:  Sabbath.  The preacher could profitably speak on the importance of Sabbath – so alien to our busy, frantic, connected, gadgety, productive, anxious culture. 
Of many stellar books that explore the beauty of the Sabbath, most adore Abraham Heschel – as do I.  But two others are rivals.  Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistence: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which might just be his best book ever…) is profound and provocative, deftly moving from sabbath as devotional practice to social, political and economic implications; a short, holy, prophetic wonder.  Some nuggets: Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness.  Such practice yields a divided self.”  “It was the deities of Egypt for whom work was never done.”  “God isn’t a workaholic, God isn’t anxious, creation not dependent upon endless work.”  His verbal and visual capture of Scripture itself can be breathtaking:  “It is not accidental that the best graphic portray of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”  But then who is the most anxious person of all?  The one at the top of the pyramid!

If you think he’s making too much about “Keep the Sabbath,” Brueggemann points out that this commandment gets the “longest airtime” of then ten, and does explore property and economics.  Claiming the Sabbath as the “linchpin” of all the commandments, he suggests it is no different from the first (“No other gods!”) and the second (“No images,” life is not about objects and commodities).  Coining the felicitous, memorable phrase, Brueggemann avers that “YHWH is about restfulness not restlessness.”  Sabbath breaks all the interlocking cycles.  Parents don’t have to rush their kids into ballet, you don’t have to buy the newest gadget, you aren’t compelled to get prettier.

And then I have savored Christopher Ringwald’s riveting A Day Apart, a rich, personal exploration of Jewish, Christian and Muslim habits and joys derived from a sacred day: “The Sabbath remains the dessert most people leave on the table.”  What are we missing? 

Ringwald’s Jewish friends, the Kligermans, do not drive on the Sabbath, since making a fire was prohibited by God on Mt. Sinai, and an automobile engine requires a spark.  So the Kligermans stay home, or they walk, kids gambol, the adults visit.  “It’s a joy derived from a restriction.”  After listening to the Kligermans describe their Sabbath, Ringwald hung up the phone, and told his wife their observance of Sunday had gone awry; so they turned the TV off, played with the children, and had dinner with neighbors.  His clinching remark?  “Thus the Jews save another Gentile family.”

“A God of love invites us into the day.  We are admitted by our humanity, not our perfection.  The day calls us to a banquet of time, not a prison of gestures and abstinence.  An omnipotent God needs not our perfection.”

A Day Apart is replete with history, from Pompey’s invasion of Palestine to Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the World Series.  “We fight for the Sabbath: against ourselves, perhaps against other believers, and certainly against the claims of the world.  The day apart pits the believer against all his or her worldly intentions.”  “I now see the unfolding opposites of the day.  We do less and are more, we stop earning and grabbing and have more, we cease from making and make more, we let Creation be and in our repose we see it to be more than we ever knew.” 

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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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What can we say come June 18? 2nd after Pentecost/Father's Day

     {to continue to receive these and other material, and to be in conversation with me and others on issues in preaching, email me to join our group} 

      Father’s Day.  Hardly noticed, at least in the churches I’ve served – versus the intense sentimentality (and far higher attendance!) of Mother’s Day.  The lectionary texts, of course, aren’t geared toward the Hallmark holiday.  But they are intriguing – and profound on the subject of hope.

     Genesis 18:1-15:  on Father’s Day we hear the story of the least likely father in history.  With the complex composition we find in Genesis, the issue of barrenness, and God declaring Abraham and Sarah would have a child have been introduced in chapter 17 – with that lovely and poignant wordplay:  hearing this news, Abraham “laughed” (which, as Robert Alter suggests, is “disbelief, edged with bitterness”); the Hebrew verb is yitzhaq, which is identical with the Hebrew name Isaac.  Like a delayed echo, Sarah blurts out the same chuckle in chapter 18 when, lurking at the tent door, she hears this same news.  This laughter is so theologically suggestive, and well worth probing and pondering for the preacher.  The redemption to come is one of great laughter, minus the edge of bitterness and disbelief; the transformation of the laugh from cynical to delight is the fruit of God’s greatest labor.

     Almost as if the prior conversation hadn’t happened, though, Genesis 18 opens (as all transformation seems to begin) with hospitality.  Three men (or are they angels? Or God?) wander up to Abraham’s place under the oaks of Mamre (and I believe it’s well worth painting a picture of the locale, the shade of the trees, welcome during a hot day of travel; a compelling image with some history is the astonishing 5th century mosaic from Ravenna).  Abraham doesn’t respond to their plea for hospitality; he rushes to offer before they have even spoken.  He asks to wash their feet (can you feel John 13 coming on here?); and then he asks Sarah to bake some food (although it’s less patriarchal than we expect, as he fetches curds and milk and a calf – a pretty sumptuous feast, causing us to fast-forward, perhaps, to Jesus’ best story about the grand feast prepared for the prodigal son come home).

     This trio shocks Abraham with their knowledge, declaring Sarah will have a child.  She laughs, is overhead – and then she denied laughing.  Politeness?  Or a holy sense that it was unfaithful to question God, even in such circumstances? 

     Verse 14 encapsulates the Gospel – in a question!  “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  How much better than “Nothing is too hard!”  It’s a question, leaving her space to live into and own the answer she struggled to cling to. 

     So much for the preacher to play with here.  Gerhard von Rad noted the suddenness of the men’s appearance: “Abraham did not see them coming; divine events are always so surprising.”  He wasn’t paying for help, or expecting anything at all that day.  God just showed up – and was welcomed in the mundane, in a simple act of hospitality.  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).  And as Jesus said, “He who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40).  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" (Revelation 3:20).

     Claus Westermann wisely suggests that Sarah’s denial of having laughed is really a desire to cancel it, to get a mulligan on it.  “But the messenger says, No, the laughter remains – and he mans: you are to think further on it.”  I love that.  Yes, she laughed in bitter ridicule.  Stick with that, never forget it; then when the redemption dawns, you will relish it all the more for the bitterness you once knew.  Toward the end of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, we find John Ames, discovering the marvel of forgiveness between fathers and sons, saying “I felt grateful for all my old bitterness of heart.”  Forgive and forget?  No, forgive, remember, and be awed by the way the woundedness is matched by but then exceeded by the healing to come.  How much more gleeful and giddy was the laughter when Isaac was born because they remembered their laughter months earlier?

     The RCL lists Exodus 19:2-8 as an “alternate.”  What a fabulous passage.  The moody Israelites finally arrive at Mt. Sinai.  Moses ascends to the heights, and Yahweh asks him to tell the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians” – expected! – 
but then God offers up a beautiful, vivid image: “how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”  Of course, the lovely “On Eagles’ Wings” suggests itself, as does the marvelous moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where the imperiled and exhausted hobbits see the eagles, who carry them home to safety.

     Then Exodus 19 offers a fair, trifold prescription of what the people of God are to be about: “God’s possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”  Three part sermon??  And then my favorite moment:  Moses calls the people together, and before they even hear it all or ponder the implications, like young lovers or eager but naïve students, they say “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  This is the birth of faith, the willingness, eagerness to do whatever God might speak – what Maggie Ross called “a willingness for whatever.”

     Romans 5:1-8 plays perhaps the pivotal role in Paul’s plot of redemption.  I wonder sometimes if it’s the kind of text we should just read slowly, and repeat it, letting our people savor the words.  Trying to explain them is kin to explaining a joke; once you explain you’ve lost the point.  And yet, thoughts stir in my head.  For Paul, Christianity is hardly about being saved; justification necessarily involves reconciliation – with God and others.  We were God’s enemies, but totally by grace we are beyond lucky to discover we are God’s friends.

     My favorite story on Romans 5, which I will retell on Sunday, happened when I was working one of my seminary summers at a “helping hands” ministry where a coalition of churches aided people in need.  One client was particularly obnoxious, squandering all we had done for him, quitting jobs we’d gotten him, taking groceries back to the store for a refund so he could buy quaaludes…  The leadership group met, and the suggestion was made that we cut him off and banish him from the program.  But then the suggester mis-stepped.  He quoted the Bible – but not really.  “After all, the Bible says ‘God helps those who help themselves!’”  A little woman well into her eighties, countered: “That’s not in the Bible.  That’s Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack.  What the Bible says is in Romans 5:6: ‘For while we were lost and helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.’”  She had that kind of moral clout people can’t quite argue with – so he stayed.  I wish I could say he got on his feet and became a banker.  But we kept working with him for another month of frustration, and then he just disappeared one day.  About three years later, somebody saw him by the side of the road.  I love it:  he didn’t satisfy our need for results; but he compelled us to be Christ to him.  He didn’t become a banker; but he was alive, at least for a few more years, and that’s God’s great gift to all of us:  time.

     Fascinating: what we hope for, or what God liberates us to hope for, according to Romans 5, is “glory.”  I would commend to you, enthusiastically, C.S. Lewis’s best sermon: “The Weight of Glory.”  {Here's a pdf posted online!} Eloquent, moving, and a substantial invitation to a twofold kind of glory.

     The grandest wonder of Romans 5:1-8 though is the cadenced sequence I don’t know how to comment upon; I think we just read, slowly, and then repeat, and marvel, letting the sermon marvel with the people.  How revolutionary, how beneficial, how healing are these words?  “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”  Don’t preach on this.  Just let it linger.  Cross-stitch it and hang it over the mantle.  Get it tattoed on your forearm.  Stick it on the dashboard of your car.

     The Gospel reading, Matthew 9:35-10:8, is (to me, somewhat irreverently) the least intriguing and pregnant with possibility among all of the day’s texts.  Plus, I like in the summertime to explore other portions of the Bible.  Take a run through Genesis, or a walk through Romans, let Jesus have his own season from Advent through Easter/Ascension…

  (images, in addition to the Ravenna mosaic, are: Henry Ossawa Tanner, "Abraham's Oak," Marc Chagall, "Abraham and the Angels")

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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.