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.


   ** 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 August 6? 9th after Pentecost

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Ordinary time, and now two of the most un-ordinary, extra-ordinary texts in all of Scripture.  Genesis 32:22-32.  I’ll offer some comments, and offer you this sermon I preached on this 3 years ago – and it’s hard to beat Frederick Buechner on this story, vintage Scripture meets vintage Buechner, who’s given us not one but two spins on the story, one called “The Magnificent Defeat,” and the other from Son of Laughter.  Sometimes I think it’s the kind of story you just stare at, and marvel.  I’m not sure there’s a lesson or a takeaway at all.  It’s Wow, what an amazing night for Jacob. 

It’s tempting, and inviting, to psychologize.  I love the song Sara Bareilles wrote for the musical Waitress – of a woman who’s lost her self somewhere along the way, like Jacob:  It’s not simple to say, Most days I don’t recognize myself – these shoes & this apron, this place & these patrons have taken more than I gave them. It’s not easy to know, I’m not anything I used to be, it’s true, I was never attention’s sweet center & I still remember that girl: She’s imperfect but she tries, she is good but she lies, she is hard on herself, she is broken but won’t ask for help… she is messy but she’s kind, she is lonely most of the time, she is all this mixed up & baked in a beautiful pie, She is gone but she used to be mine /Not what I asked for, sometimes life just slips in thru a backdoor, I would give it up for a chance to start over & rewrite an ending or two for that girl I knew.
The Bible doesn't speak of not being the person you used to be.  But it gets at the heart of human existence, is "biblical" without being in the Bible - and the song is the sort of secular song one could use in worship without needing to baptize it....

Edgy and aggressive, yet alienated and floundering: Jacob gets jumped – or did he do the jumping? & he wrestles all night with – God? an angel? A stranger? Himself?  Preachers here can just tease and ask, no need to answer, no need to choose. 

I love his “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”  Is this the exemplary prayer?  The blessing somehow though is the struggle; the blessing somehow is the wound, causing him to limp away.  Buechner understood this so well.  Sort of exposes those “touched by an angel” stories as vapid; if an angel touches you, you’re wounded.
I love to play with Bible names.  Jacob would have been the Hebrew name of Jesus’ brother James.  Did they ever wrestle?  What is it to engage with God, barely survive, and stagger away?  No simplistic prosperity Gospel here, and please don’t then simplify or trivialize it.  Watch Jacob in the shadows, and be lost in wonder.
Then the Gospel – the feeding of the 5,000.  I preached on this at Duke Chapel six years ago; the sermon starts at the 32 minute mark.  I started with some humor about how people at church dinners ask the pastor about multiplying inadequate food… and about a horrible stewardship sermon I heard on this text. 

The text’s better moments are:  when the disciples point to hungry people, Jesus says You give them something to eat!  Love it.  Then a little boy, unlikely – fulfilling once again that “a little child shall lead them” – or in this case, “a little child shall feed them.”

The leftovers simply amaze me.  In my Duke Chapel sermon, I explored this at some length.  Jesus should have dazzled them with precisely the amount of food needed!  Or maybe he should have been like even our churches, giving them just a smidgeon to get by, questioning them sternly regarding why they were out of food….  But there is this lavishness, this bounty, this superabundance.  Sam Wells has written so profoundly on this aspect of God’s nature, and what it means for us as a Church (in God’s Companions, for instance). 

Can we recall any moment of God’s superabundance?  I preached in Haiti a few years back – in a rural, poor-by-Haitian standards place.  We had stuffed two suitcases full of cookies.  When the service ended, my daughter had set all the cookies out.  The children squealed with delight.  Yes, they needed food, which we were working on, and economic stimuli, and education, and lots of other things we were laboring toward together.  But for one moment, there was sheer glee over the bountiful gift, a waste really. 

My daughter painted an image of a little girl from that day, holding her Bible, dressed for church, yet clutching beneath her Bible an oreo, trying to look churchy, barely masking her giddiness over the chocolate.

Other illustrative thoughts I have are contained in the sermon video shared above…

   ** 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 August 13? 10th after Pentecost

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There’s no greater extended drama in the Bible than Genesis 37-50 – but as the lectionary (understandably!) lops off scene 1 (chapter 37) from the rest of the story, it seems to me that to preach on just this will inevitably have to jump ahead, or reduce things to moralisms – or we take the notion of “dream” and launch off into whatever.  I’ll wait until the climax in chapter 45 next week to pick up the thread from ch. 37.

Parenthetically, the Revised Common Lectionary always lists “alternate readings,” and this week’s are lovely.  The Psalm has that poetic, picturesque verse 10: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”  And then 1 Kings 19:9-18 – God not coming to the shattered, lonely and forlorn Elijah in the storm but in the sheer silence/still small voice.

So this week I’m tackling the Gospel.  Frankly, Matthew 14:22-33 is a text I always avoided until, given no choice at all as a guest preacher, I spoke from this text at Duke Chapel three years ago.  My avoidance could be chalked up to two things: (a) the dreadfully trite “when the storms of life are raging” sermon is so predictable and corny – but maybe you can make it work; and then (b) the mentally awkward image of walking on water; I’m sure the pious happily devour such texts, but cynics (like me) just get derailed.  We can make it into a cute image (a la John Ortberg’s If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat – which has a fair amount of wisdom, actually, but just isn't my style). 

But I like to ground things in hard reality.  I love taking groups to the Sea of Galilee, where we experience two moments sequentially.  I take them to see the “Jesus boat,” that amazing underwater archaeological find of a real wooden fishing boat from the time of Jesus, now housed attractively at Kibbutz Ginnosar.  I joke that I wish the boat had “S.S. Simon Peter” carved into the brow… but here is a boat Jesus surely saw, perhaps stepped into, or even fished from.  Jesus, the fishermen, the sea: real things, real places, God in the flesh.

Then we sail out onto Galilee, and I love it when the captain turns off the motor, and we just feel the quiet, the waves lapping against the boat, the breeze.  

One time we did have a storm rage upon us suddenly – high drama.  I love in that moment to read a miracle story that’s tough enough – where the storm rages, Jesus is mystifying asleep in the stern, and the disciples wake him, asking if he even cares if they perish.  Calmly he says “Peace, be still” – and although I know he’s addressing the storm, I wonder if he was always speaking to the disciples.

We tend to make this story symbolic, and the author has symbolic intentions – and yet I am sure if you could ask Mark, Did this really happen? he’d say Of course.  Maybe ditto for the Walking on the Water – which is tougher, as it’s not Jesus and nature, but a human being defying the laws of physics, albeit with divine aid.  Peter in the story evidently had precisely the same doubts I have just voiced!  What’s the preacher to do? 
I have let the questions be, even in the preaching moment – and have occasionally asked a different kind of question.  Want to see miracles in this story?  It’s not the walking on water.  It’s barely noticeable, right before the storm: “Jesus went up on a mountain by himself to pray” (14:23).  Jesus did this often on the hills by Galilee, maybe under some discipline or obligation, but probably out of a hunger to be alone with God.  We fear being alone; we aren’t sure how to transform loneliness into solitude.  We are always connected, always available – and so we are never available or connected to God, or even to other people.  So explore the wonder of quiet, prayer, contemplation, etc.  Once I even gave my people the last ten minutes of my sermon time just to sit and be totally still and quiet.  They seemed to like that sermon more than when I’ve filled the time chattering away.
The other strain on credulity?  Jesus says “Have no fear,” or “Be not afraid,” or “Do not be anxious.”  This is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Bible – and it feels like theological piling on, as we are anxious, and God demanding we not be only makes it worse; we are clueless how to ‘obey’ such a command.  And yet there it is.  Maybe we learn, we grow, we stretch, we engage in a program like Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, you get a breathing app for your phone (as deep breathing seems to help – and this strikes me as biblically sensible!); we ponder Scott Bader-Saye’s wisdom in his great book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: “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 and right. Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.”

I am fond of Madeleine L’Engle’s recollection (in Walking on Water) of swimming in and then sitting on a rock overlooking Dog Pond, and thinking of Peter: “As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”  I think this text does invite us to dig deeply into our notions of what is possible and impossible (a consistent scriptural theme, as in Gen. 17-18, the Annunciation, etc.).  Ponder with me that Aristotle quote: “That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.”  Or the great moment in Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale: “Miracles come to those who risk defeat in seeking them. They come to those who have exhausted themselves completely in a struggle to accomplish the impossible.”  He explains that such “defiance” is “moved by love.”

Maybe the sermon simply invites people to move in whatever risky, uncertain way toward Jesus.  St. Francis tried to take each step of his day with Jesus’ actions and stories as his map, his blueprint.  Peter got chided for failing – but at least he tried.  I may trot out that old but never worn out prayer from Thomas Merton (in Thoughts in Solitude): “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 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. I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I will 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.”


   ** 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 August 20? 11th after Pentecost

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     I cannot imagine why a preacher would forego the Old Testament lection for this Sunday – ever, but especially now, given the severe splintering we’re experiencing in society, and in the church.  Genesis 45 is the theological high water mark of the Old Testament, and is a peer of even the best the New Testament has to offer.  Reconciliation should be the fixed point in all our thinking, imagination, labor, and prayers. 

     I would commend to you the resources we pulled together back in the winter as our church engaged in a two month long, intensive series on Reconciliation, featuring Christena Cleveland and her investigations into the hidden forces that keep us apart, why African-American spirituals still speak across the racial divide today, how a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird can help us, ways to understand people who are different, paths to interact on politics, and more – as we fulfill Paul’s commission to us to be reconcilers, just as we are reconciled (2 Corinthians 5), as individuals, within families, communities, our denomination, and the nation and world.

     I would also commend to you a stunning Ted Radio Hour podcast featuring J.D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) and most profoundly, Suzanne Barakat, a Muslim striving for reconciliation after her brother and sisters-in-law were brutally killed in Chapel Hill.  I was listening in my car, and had to pull of the road until I stopped crying.  This could work in a sermon on this text well; further down I’ll get to the climax of Lord of the Rings and Good Will Hunting – but the text really doesn’t need any help.

     No biblical story narrates the grief, time, joy and miracle of reconciliation as powerfully as the drama of Joseph.  The emotional intensity of the climax in chapter 45 is intense, and you have to let it be intense, and feel it in your bones; let the story take your breath away or they won’t feel it either.  The Egyptians overheard Joseph’s sobbing in the next room; people in the pews had best hear it in the sanctuary.  The weeping and embracing are just astonishing, and so beautiful – and I can’t help at some point racing ahead to the riveting moment when Joseph is reunited with his father; “he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a long time” (Gen. 46:29).

     You can’t just plop down in chapter 45 either; the backstory matters.  Without over-explicating every detail, the preacher has to pick up where the story begins, in chapter 37, with a pathetically dysfunctional family, Joseph’s dream that was from God but felt like sham arrogance, the brothers’ cruel dispatching of him and then the wretched way they shattered their father’s heart, Joseph’s rise, and then fall, and then rise in Egypt.  Don’t assume people know the story, but then don’t expend twelve minutes retelling it either.  Urge your people to read it at home, promising it’s better than House of Cards or Game of Thrones.

       Here’s an interesting detail from the Hebrew: of all his sons, Jacob loved Joseph best – because his deepest affection was for his mother Rachel, not the other mothers of his other boys.  And so, Jacob dressed this son, not in an “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” (as in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical - which is such silliness compared to his other work!), but (as the Hebrew puts it) in “long sleeves.” The other brothers wore short sleeves, meaning their labor was in the fields, in the heat, where briars would get tangled in long sleeves. Joseph was established in the house with those long sleeves, in a position of comfort and power over the brothers.  It was that long-sleeved garment of privilege denied them that they bloodied and handed to their father.

     To focus on chapter 45 I wouldn’t spend too much time on Joseph’s character – which isn’t really the point.  He has considerable brilliance, and a moral compass we do not see often in our days.  But that would be to moralize a theologically robust story.  The shock of God’s way comes when the famine compelled the brothers to go down to Egypt, the breadbasket of the world. In a stunning plot twist, it was Joseph from whom they had to ask for food. He would give them far, far more. Naturally they didn’t recognize him; but he recognized them. After dallying with them a bit, he dismissed his entourage from the room, let loose long pent-up emotions, gathered himself, dried his tears, and revealed his secret: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

     When I preach on this, I let the emotion drip, I leave time for it to flow around the room and into the souls of people.  His next words?  “Is my father alive?”  Again, in a pre-cell-phone era, he did not know, and hoped against hope; the brothers, who had despised father and brother, had to feel the gut-wrenchingness of his question.  Mind you, the Bible doesn’t tell us how they felt!  So we have space to find our own emotions from our own life stories in there somewhere – without reading in so much you don’t hear Joseph’s story any longer.  The brothers had to be stricken with shock, horror, guilt, trepidation, remorse.

     But how did Joseph deal with those who had treated him and his father so cruelly? His words must have taken light years to sink in: “Do not be distressed; don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me here to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). Even after the glorious reunion with his father, and then even after Jacob’s death, Joseph said the most remarkable thing: “Do not be afraid. You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, so that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20). Joseph forgave; he cast their common, broken life into the hands of God’s larger intentions. Testimony to God’s miracle – in the big story, but then also in Joseph’s gentle disposition.  Who is capable of what he just said to them?

     Notice the brothers weren’t given a “second chance,” another crack at getting it right. They never got it right; they never made up for what they had done. God did not depend on any attitude change among the brothers. God quite simply used the evil they perpetrated and transformed it into good.

     Not that God caused them to do evil: God did not make them sell their brother or break their father’s heart. But God gathered up their misdeeds, the broken will of God, and pieced it all together for God’s good purpose. Joseph’s leadership was defined by seeing, understanding, and then articulating this. He brought healing to the fractured family, and food to a hungry world – or rather, his leading was God’s imperceivable, mysterious use of his life, and then his awed witness to it.  It’s so important to get this nuance: in my Will of God book, I carefully distinguish that God uses evil but doesn’t cause it; and we need to say God uses every evil for good.  Some evils are just evil, and it eviscerates and trivializes the suffering to try sunnily to claim God brings some good from it.

     Leadership expert Ron Heifetz speaks of the need for leaders who climb up into the “balcony” and see larger patterns in the workplace.  Joseph was caught up far higher than the balcony; he was granted a view from heaven itself.  Claus Westermann (in his Genesis 37-50 commentary) wisely noticed that God did not merely use the evil of the brothers; God could have done that without the brothers ever meeting up with Joseph. No, “God’s plan is to bring the evil devised by the brothers to good in such a way that there can be forgiveness.”

     So many threads to follow.  Reconciliation takes time, a long time.  Reconciliation isn’t forgive and forget; it’s genuine healing – for everybody involved.  Joseph needed the healing as much as the brothers and their father did.  The beneficiaries of this reconciliation?  Not just this family, but people who had never known them!

     If ever a text shouted to the preacher “Trust me!” it is this one.  You don’t need to make it relevant; it’s more relevant than anything you can devise.  You don’t have to make it interesting or funny; it’s the greatest story ever told.

     I might touch on “Joseph could control himself no longer.”  We are control freaks – but the healing comes when we yield control and let the emotions roll.  The emotion isn’t Oh, I feel God! but rather, Wow, God is releasing, and healing my emotions!  Think of the joy when the hobbits are reunited in Rivendell after the ring is destroyed at Mordor (The Return of the King); J.R.R. Tolkien told a friend that when he wrote this scene, his tears kept smearing the ink.  He never saw the video of course, but Peter Jackson handled this so well.

     Or the scene in Good Will Hunting where Sean embraces Will and keeps repeating, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”  Very Genesis 45ish.  Of course, the climactic scene of all climactic scenes is the cross (“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”) – or is it the resurrection? Or that breakfast reunion by Galilee (John 21)?


   ** 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 August 27? 12th after Pentecost

  If you’re like us, we have big back-to-school emphases on August 27.  So I find myself drawn to the OT, Exodus 1:8-2:10, a good Bible story (with children involved!), and also the Epistle, Romans 12:1-8, whose opening verses portray an alternate view of what we’re about with school – and life: it’s not education per se, or getting ahead, and thus it’s not about conformity!  The Christian gig is Transformation.  My college roommate’s girlfriend cross-stitched Romans 12:1-2 and hung it in our dorm room – perhaps a favorite verse, maybe as a bit of a warning to sophomoric college dudes… but it’s thus been an important, memorable passage to me. 

     Matthew 16, as demarcated in the lectionary, lops off the whole point, which unfolds after verse 20 – so we shall return to that the next week!  Check the blog below for Sept. 3.
     I preached on the Exodus text 3 years ago; you can view this sermon here, punctuated with illustrations from Mother Teresa, Alex Fleming, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and more:

It’s tempting but ticklish to open with a salvo against “empire” (as I was trained to do) – as people have such sensitive political antennae.  At the same time, Exodus clearly exposes with clear hints of mockery the massive yet anxious power of the Pharaoh.  Walter Brueggemann, in his lovely recent book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which I reviewed – glowingly! – in Christian Century), shows how sabbath is not merely a spiritual discipline, but an alternative to our busy, frenetic, workaholic consumer culture.  What socioeconomic system did the Pharaoh legitimate?  One different and yet scarily like our own…
     – and the preacher can speak of this in ways that people will comprehend, and feel loved and understood.  It’s about obsessive work, requirement for ever more production, money flowing upward toward the top.  With Egypt’s deities, like our society’s, work is never done.  I love his way of phrasing it:  “It is not accidental that the best graphic portrayal of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”  Who is the most anxious one of all in this anxious system?  The one at the top – which tells us something about that whole upwardly mobile pyramid.  He “dealt shrewdly with them” – and we have to laugh out loud, which the Hebrews couldn’t do back then.  He provides less straw, and wants to kill off the males – his labor supply, and also those who will father the future labor supply.  His nervousness makes his behave in self-destructive ways.

     But God knows, God hears, God comes down.  The saviors in the early portions of Exodus are the unexpected – following the Bible’s quirky logic.  Two young women, Shiphrah and Puah (whose names mean “little flower” and “lovely”), do not mind disobeying the law; civil disobedience has an honored place among God’s people, although for church people, one person’s civil disobedience is the other guy’s lack of patriotism or troublemaking.  I love the way they defy Pharaoh with a sassy impertinence: Why didn’t they kill the babies?  “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are so strong they give birth before the midwives can even get there!”  Revolutions – and God knows we need them today – require some pluck, and a bit of subtle braggadocio.  We are not merely victims!  Jonathan Sacks, in his wonderful Lessons in Leadership, commenting on the midwives, reminds us, “There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that ‘I was only obeying orders.’”
     Preachers can explore the heroic – in society, and certainly in the church.  I like to introduce this theme with Charles Dickens’s great line from David Copperfield (and used to great effect by John Irving in Cider House Rules): “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Your life must show whether you will be heroic.  So I’ll rattle off some instances.  Huge stories – like Albert Schweitzer, ridiculously brilliant, Bach scholar, consummate organist, the world’s leading New Testament scholar – and then he left Europe behind, became a doctor and moved to Lamparene.  Why?  “I wanted to make my life my argument.”  See preaching stuff here?

     Then I try to find simpler things.  Rosa Parks just sitting there is something really anybody could do, no muscle power or unusual IQ required.  Find examples in history (my little summary of heroes in church history, Servants, Misfits & Martyrs: Saints & Their Stories is my packaging of my favorites, all of which I’ve used in sermons) – and maybe some close to home.  Maybe it believable, doable, and even joyful.
Jochebed defied Pharaoh in her own way by hiding her son. But this gambit could not last long. In desperation, or in faithful hope (and we may ask how different these really are), she placed her three-month-old son in a basket and set it afloat on the Nile River.
The Hebrew word for this basket, tevah, occurs only one other time in scripture: and that is to describe Noah’s ark. Both ark and basket were rudder-less, lacking locomotion, carrying the future hope of humanity toward who knows where. This tevah floated right up to the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter happened to be bathing. Nothing is explicit, but we sense God somehow brought basket and princess together.  You could say she “cast her bread upon the waters” (Ecclesiates 11:1).

     I like to tease people toward the coming Sunday, or Sundays – so in this case, build a little anticipation, reminding your people that they didn’t know how things would turn out; even those who clung to hope had to teeter on the brink of despair.  Things certainly got way worse before they got better…  But then we do have the larger perspective to know the end of the story.  That Pharaoh, if we calculate the way many historians do, was Rameses II, the greatest, longest-ruling and most powerful of all the Pharaohs!  How cool – that the deliverance came not under a wimpy excuse of a Pharaoh, but under the biggest dog of all; in much the same way, Jesus was born, not in the reign of one of the measley, impotent caesars, but when Augustus, the greatest of them all, ruled from Rome.
     The fate of all the scary powers is destruction.  All empires, the ones that loom through history and even today, including our own great nation, will eventually crumble.  I like to remind people of that poem about Rameses (whose Greek name would have been Ozymandias) penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley:  "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read, / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, / The hand that mocked them, & the heart that fed / And on the pedestal these words appear: / "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."

It is for this reason then that we cling to God, to Christ – and don’t vest ourselves in this world, no matter how shiny or scary it might be.  Which brings us to Romans 12.
N.T. Wright (in his New Interpreter’s Bible commentary) says “The opening 2 verses of this section are as dense as any passage in Paul.”  Agreed.  Read slowly.  Preach a whole series on the thing.  I won’t attempt every detail, but here are a few that leave me thunderstruck and appear to be fertile preaching ground.
The “Therefore” is huge!  Paul assumes you’ve just been listening to somebody read out loud chapters 1-11 – so remind yourself about grace, faith, the Spirit, baptism.  Paul seems to be shifting from faith to action – an unfortunate “seems,” as Christians forever focus on belief and then forget to get to ethics, simultaneously forgetting they are one and the same.  N.T. Wright again: “Belief and behavior are inextricably woven.  They are the breath and blood of Christian living, the twin signs of life.”

Paul gets at the nucleus of what the “therefore” is picking up from chapters 1-11 with the phrase “by the mercies of God.”  Notice the plural: mercies!  

Pope Francis has rightly catapulted Mercy front and center as the essential theme of what’s in God’s heart, what the Christian life is about, and how to be the church; I’d commend his favorite book on mercy to you: Walter Kasper’s Mercy.  Profound, wonderful.  On this topic and passage, John Calvin wrote, “Men will never worship God with a sincere heart, or be roused to fear and obey Him with sufficient zeal, until they properly understand how much they are indebted to His mercy.”

Mind you, in our culture there is so little mercy, and we even forget our need for God’s mercy – so some considerable re-education is needed.  Although… I find in preaching that when I pause and explore our hunger for mercy, and how hard it is to find it (I’ll say things like “There’s not much mercy at work, none at the mall – and lots of people don’t find a lot of mercy even at home” – and quite a few people flinch, or nod).

Paul “beseeches” (the Greek, parakalo, is an exhortation of intense urgency and earnestness!) them/us to “offer up your body as a living sacrifice.”  I remember playing football and our captain repeatedly shouted “Give up your body.”  Okay, not a brilliant illustration…  I admire Wright’s observation that Paul strikes “a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery.  Even the self-discovery, however, is the discovery of the new self one is called to become in Christ and by the Spirit.  Grace fulfills nature.”

We all worship some deity with our bodies all the time.  Paul blazes a path along which we might “please God.”  “Pleasers” are regarded dismally – but pleasing God is a profound, ennobling thought.  I tell my people: you can please God.  How cool is that?  How cool are you?  God made you with that ability.
But of course, we more typically fail to please God, or we displease God.  And it’s not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying harder.  Paul says it’s a matter of “being transformed.”  Ponder this:  the Greek metamorphousthe (do you see metamorphosis in there? does the preacher describe the caterpillar to butterly morphing?) is a passive imperative.  Amazing.  Imperatives imply Go do this – but the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, or don’t go actually, just let it be.
This metamorphosis goes hand in hand with the decision to abandon conformity.  The passive imperative is all about God’s doing; and yet we are responsible.  We need not be victims; I’m only human?  Humanity distorted is humanity in conformity.  I wear, buy, act and think in ways that are dumped into me by this vapid culture; I’m barely cognizant of it going on. 

But a good starting point is the way J.B.Phillips, in his perennially popular paraphrase of the NT put it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”  And then I dig C.E.B. Cranfield’s remark (in his fabulous ITT commentary on Romans): “There is only one possibility open to us – to resist this process of being continually moulded and fashioned according to the pattern of this present age with its conventions and standards of values.  The good news is we are no longer helpless victims of tyrannizing forces, but we are able to resist this pressure which comes both from without and from within, because God’s merciful action in Christ has provided the basis of resistance.”

Tying Romans 12 to Exodus 1-2?  Moses in that basket is obeying a passive imperative of sorts; and doesn’t being transformed, being metamorphosised, involve things like civil disobedience, not conforming, embracing the risks of faith, giving up the security of what we can control and manage?

And then every good sermon asks What kind of church does this text asks us to be?  To what degree do our churches conform to the paltry habits of society?  We baptize political ideologies, we pander to people’s self-interests and conformity, and we hardly look like a butterfly that used to be a caterpillar; we dare not disobey civilly.  Lord, have mercy on us.  It is worth pressing a little further into Romans 12:3-8, where we see that when I give up my body, I become part of the Body – which is what God intended for my body in the first place.

   ** 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 September 3? 13th after Pentecost

     For us, Labor Day weekend attendance sags – and I hate it for the people, as we are treated this week to not one but two of the most fantastic texts in all of Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15, and Matthew 16:21-28.  I am startled by the way these 2 texts coincide and perhaps mark the revelatory turning point in both testaments respectively – sheer luck, evidently, as the lectionary is plodding through Exodus and Matthew.  Maybe God is good after all…

     In The Beauty of the Word and everything else I’ve written on preaching, I try to remind myself and others that sermons are to be about God, and then about us only secondarily.  These two texts make this clear.  We see with striking brilliance who God is; so preachers, focus first on God and don’t rush quickly to moralisms or takeaways, which in these cases can be as silly and trite as “If you see a bush on fire, take off your shoes.”

     Exodus 3 reveals to us a God who hears, who cares, who calls, who comes down to save – and not merely pie in the sky afterlife saving, but real, physical, socio-economic saving.  The Israelites’ need for saving is so fitting for Labor Day.  Our taskmasters are gentler than Egypt’s, but no less impersonal and depersonalizing.  Walter Brueggemann, in his jewel of a book, Sabbath as Resistance, shows how labor/economic systems look like pyramids, with the insecure potentate at the top, and all other subservient to his whims, existing only to produce for him.

     God asks Moses to go down (could your choir or somebody sing “Go Down, Moses”? – which, incidentally, originated during slavery; Harriet Tubman was nicknamed Moses for her leadership in the Underground Railroad, which went way down to let people go).  The pattern of Moses’ call is typical of Scripture – and of our lives.  God appears, usually uninvited, surprisingly invading someone’s space.  God asks for something huge.  The mere mortal responds with reasons why it’s not going to happen: Moses can’t speak, Jeremiah was too young, Mary hadn’t been with a man, Isaiah was unholy, Jonah loathed the would-be recipients of God’s mercy.  But God counters with a sign, with divine reassurance. 
Gerhard von Rad pointed out that “Neither previous faith nor any other personal endowment had the slightest part to play in preparing a man who was called to stand before Yahweh for his vocation.”

     A helpful preaching tactic can be to say God isn’t looking for ability, but for avail-ability.  Oddly, this is a key preaching point, as we do spiritual gifts inventories and strength finders – yet in Scripture God just picks people, usually and apparently precisely because they don’t have the gifts or native abilities!  The preacher may well want to explore these matters – but in a way that continues to hammer home the truth that it’s about God, not us.  As long as I’m the center of things, even the sermon, I’ll never discover that mere availability can be the entrée to the miraculous.

     This text is about God, and God is what our lives are to be about.  Here we see that God will save – for what purpose?  “So that you will worship me on this mountain.”  We exist to praise, notice, admire, be in awe of and simple be astounded by God.  An expansive mind, blown wide open by such a God, isn’t baffled by questions like Moses’ – how a bush could burn but not really. 
There are naturalistic explanations: the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna explained that the bush in question was the prickly rubus sanctus, which grows beside wadis, with lowers resembling small roses.  Was it a common bush that moved Moses somehow?  Doesn’t the story suggest something far weirder?  I’ve quoted it, but would ask preachers not to resort to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Lee” (unless you’re making my point here…), which closes with this:

   Earth’s crammed with heaven
   And every common bush afire with God;
   But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
   The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

God could use any common bush, or God could dazzle briefly; the point isn’t the bush, but that God got Moses’ attention when he is far from Egypt, deliberately avoiding the place where his destiny would play out.  The early rabbis, interestingly, saw in the bush an allegory of Israel’s life, sorely oppressed but not consumed.  Allegory is despised by modern scholarship – but as Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were great allegorizers, I’m sure God wouldn’t mind if a preacher saw the church in this bush – under fire yet not destroyed.

     That this text is about God is reiterated when Moses asks, with naïve innocence I think, What is your name?  God’s answer is – evasive? teasing Moses and us into a deep mystery? Or is the name and hence the divine nature just too overwhelming for a mere Hebrew word?  Jews rightly omit the pronunciation of the name, which must be something like Yahweh (which seminarians utter with total abandon, gleeful in their thin knowledge of Hebrew, discounting the historic Jewish reverence for the name!). 
What can it mean, even if shrouded in mystery, this “he who must not be named” (and yes, as a Harry Potter fan I’ll probably play off Voldemort…)?  

     Yahweh looks like a verb.  I like this a lot.  God isn’t a static thing, but an action, a movement, a happening.  The vowels intimate that this verbal form is causative:  God is the one who causes things to happen.  So God happens; and God makes things happen.  Thirdly, this verb’s y prefix implies a future, an as-yet-incomplete action.  God is the one who above all else will be.  What was Jesus’ parting promise?  “I will be with you always.”  Whatever future we envision, God will be there; it will be about God, and for God.  2 Corinthians 5:7 says we “walk by faith, not by sight”; Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the conviction of things not seen.”  What is unseen?  Not invisible things, but future things.

     This business of naming God correctly fascinates me.  We pray “in Jesus’ name,” but what is his name?  Jesus, yeshua, means “Lord, help!”  Did Mary cry these words during her labor pains?  Isn’t Jesus the one who cries out for help with and for us, and simultaneously the one who is our help?  Of course, this “I am” tease by God in response to Moses’ query drives the Christian forward toward Jesus’ way of speaking in John’s Gospel – which clearly is playing on this passage. 

     Everything in our nature and in society drives us into the self, to ask Who am I?  The riddle is only answered by learning the answer to Who is God?  Shortly before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “Who am I? This or the other?” – taking note of his cheerful disposition he presented to his jailers, while knowing inside he was impotent and weak.  The only way he could resolve the dissonance, and the struggle to be in horrific circumstances, came like this: “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

     Brevard Childs, in his definitive commentary on Exodus, summarized what Exodus 3 is about: “Revelation is not information about God and his nature, but an invitation to trust in the one whose self-disclosure is a foretaste of the promised inheritance.  The future for the community of faith is not an unknown leap into the dark, because the Coming One accompanies the faithful toward that end.”

     The God who hears, cares, and then comes down takes on flesh in Jesus – and this dramatic hearing, caring and going down is nowhere more puzzling or wonderful than in Matthew 16:21-28.  
Years ago I stumbled upon an audio recording of Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Waiting (which I can’t commend highly enough… just hearing his voice…)  In it, he expanded upon the work of W.H. Vanstone’s profound book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he directs our attention to the peculiar plot of the Gospels.  In the opening chapters of each Gospel, Jesus is in control, he is an actor on the stage of history, dashing off miracles, wowing the multitudes.  Then, in the middle of the story, everything changes.  At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has ventured far to the north, then turns his face toward Jerusalem, explaining he will be “handed over” and suffer and die.  From this point forward, Jesus is pretty much passive, with only a minor miracle left to do, one now acted upon, no dazzling (except by the powerful vision of compassionate, suffering love).

     This stuns Vanstone and Lewis (and me too) – as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence – and we loathe any turn toward dependence.  I had a close friend with colon cancer.  A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.”  We shudder; we pity – but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life.  Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry.  But the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them.  Even his resurrection was passive:  he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him.

     Everything in us, especially as can-do Americans who cherish our independence above all else, rebels against and shrinks back from this.  But this is God.  Peter, like us, chides Jesus for even thinking of such a path.  But Jesus says “Get behind me” – which, ironically, is precisely where we need to be.  We follow Jesus – and you can only follow from behind.

     Exodus 3 and Matthew 16 both benefit from listening to Philippians 2 as background music.  Paul explains God’s ultimate nature:  “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself” – and I concur with those who translate this not as although he was God he did this humbling thing, but rather because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself.  Jesus isn’t play-acting or pretending for a short time to be humble, vulnerable, and suffering.  Jesus shows us the very heart of God, God’s truest, most core nature when he turns his face to Jerusalem and gets mocked and gruesomely killed.

     You see, Jesus uttered these words about turning his face to Jerusalem to be passive, vulnerable, and to die, not in a church or with a beautiful sunset in the background.  He was in Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to pagan deities for centuries, then more recently dedicated to the emperor, who was increasingly viewed and treated as a deity strutting the earth.  This artist's depiction of the city in Jesus' day shows temples to the Greek gods, to the emperor, affixed to the cave dedicated to the nature god Pan - which was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld ("and the gates of hell shall not prevail...").  Painting the physical place might help in a sermon; and the theology of the clash between the world's gods and the humility of the true God must be clarified.

   {the images are Rouault's "Mocking of Christ," and an artist's rendition of Caesarea Philippi during the time of Jesus}


   ** 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.