Sunday, July 23, 2017

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

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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.

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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.

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