Sunday, August 13, 2017

What can we say come October 8? 18th after Pentecost

I love Ordinary Time, and what feels to me like an expanded opportunity to explore Old Testament, Psalm or Epistle texts we might veer from during the Jesus-focused seasons.  The need to preach wisely on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 (but I wouldn’t skip 5, 6, 10 or 11!) is self-evident.  What more contested, politicized, misunderstood and trivialized text could there be?  Most Christians mis-spin Paul and take a negative view of the law; but then other Christians lean strongly into the commandments, wishing for them to be posted in public, but always in judgment of others, rarely in critical self-reflection.

  {I preached on this text 3 years ago; you can watch it here}

Christians should converse with Jews about the Torah, and immerse themselves in texts like this week’s Psalter.  Psalm 19 does not chafe under the law, but in a multisensory way relishes and delights in the law.  Sweeter than honey!  Reviving the soul, rejoicing the heart, more desirable than gold.  I think of the fabulous moment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses:
“Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. It comprehended the world.  Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. “Joshua, I have laws. Israel is going to know peace and justice.”

This path to freedom was well-understood by Martin Luther, who noticed the immense grace of God in each commandment.  Certainly they stand before us as a mirror, revealing our sin – which then is the beginning of grace.  And the mercy hidden in each command!  What better sermon could you preach that to narrate the way God in mercy relieves us of our burdens by declaring “You don’t have to have other gods, you can rest, you don’t have to covet.” 

Preaching Exodus 20 begins (and ends) in directing people’s attention to the context.  These commandments didn’t float down chiseled in stone into courthouses or houses, universally applicable laws God has decreed absolutely.  The commandments are the first of hundreds – and all of them are part of a longer story of people crying out under oppression, God hearing (and caring!), sending Moses, the miracles/signs (a la Jesus in John’s Gospel), the deliverance at the sea, and even the extraordinary patience of God in the wilderness, showering the people with manna when they deserved lightning bolts.  God’s commands come after, in the thick of, and as a prelude to the merciful gift of salvation; obedience to the commandments isn’t a credential to qualify as a good person, or a way to curry God’s favor, but the reflexive, grateful life in startled reply to God’s abundant gift of love.

The Gospel isn’t the end of the law (as in, it’s over and irrelevant) – or we might finesse the word and say the Gospel actually is the end (as in the goal/purpose) of the law (Romans 10:4’s tantalizing ambiguity!).  God did tender these laws with a fair expectation we could follow them or at least get in the ballpark.  There is such a thing as holiness, as a deep desire to fulfill God’s will/wishes.  Brevard Childs: “The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.”

The preacher could pick one command and zero in – or you could do what I plan to do, just a quick, breezy touching on each one with an explanatory note or two.  No other gods?  Luther clarified that our god is whatever motivates us, changes your mood, embodies the good life… so who is your God?  No images of God?  We are made in God’s image, and Jesus is the flawless image of God – so other creature-like images (the Egyptian or the Wall Street golden bull, you name it…) mislead.  Do not take the Lord’s name in vain?  The worst offenders are our politicians who paste God’s name on much that is not of God, all posturing; and we church folk do the same, attaching God to much that is grievously not of God.  Remember the Sabbath?  Can we switch off our gadgets and actually rest?  And did you notice the lectionary lops off the longer explanation of the Sabbath?  There must be good reason it gets “more air time than any others” (Brueggemann) – as if we’d miss the comprehensive nature of it or wriggle our way out.

Don’t kill – and Jesus went deep, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder (and in our rancorous culture, where anger management is a big thing, aren’t we rabid killers?).  No adultery (in a culture where sex as impulse, pleasure and self-fulfillment is all over the media)?  Jesus said if you harbor lust in your heart, you are an adulterer.  No condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters an adulterer in order to set her free.  No stealing?  What did John Wesley say about a lack of overabundant charity to the poor – that it’s theft?  No coveting?  Coveting is the engine of capitalism!  But God would liberate us from the stranglehold of always wanting more – or really, wanting what is new and different.  I don’t want more iPhones.  I want the latest iPhone – largely because I saw one in my neighbor’s hand.

The purpose of the commandments is stated right there in Exodus 20 – “to prove you.”  We avert our gaze from the fact that the Bible repeatedly suggests we are being tested, we are being proven; the so-called “temptation narrative” (Matthew 4) really is a testing, just as Abraham was tested/proven (Genesis 22).  Beyond the proving, the simple dream of the commandments is “that you may not sin.”  Not “to uphold civil society in America.”  God sincerely wants to help us not to sin.

Philippians 3:4b-14 is similarly an extraordinary text.  Paul does his boasting thing – while clarifying he’s not boasting! – but with the clincher: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss.”  We sing “My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”  We sing this hymn – but do we get the depth of the sentiment expressed?

Paul’s counsel is Lose anything, everything, for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  We Americans think we can have our cake and eat it too; we can keep all our stuff and also know Jesus.  But there is inevitably a sacrifice, a loss, an emptying before Jesus can be known – and once he’s known, there is an emptying.  And why?  In the prior chapter, Paul spoke of having Christ’s mind – which was one of kenotic self-emptying.

Paul’s abiding goal is “to be found in him.”  Paul was found by Jesus – interrupted on the road to Damascus.  The notion is We are lost, we are wanderers, we are on the run – like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”: “I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the mist of tears I hid from him……”  I love Stephen Fowl’s phrasing: “Christ is no longer a commodity to be gained but a place, a home where the lost Paul is found.”

We like “know him and the power of his resurrection” – but then Paul adds “and may share in his sufferings.”  To desire Christ’s sufferings?  We hope his suffering will shield us from suffering. 
But ponder St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer before the crucifix:  “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: one is that I might feel in my body, as far as possible, the pain you underwent in your hour of passion; and the second is that I might feel, as far as possible, the love with which you were inflamed so as to undergo such a passion for us sinners.”  Mind you, Francis’s prayer resulted in the stigmata, in constantly bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side.  Do we fear Jesus might actually join with us in his sufferings?

Karl Barth (along with others) is vigilant to be sure we don’t make faith into a work:  “Paul has no intention of supplanting the Pharisaism of works by the far worse Pharisaism of the heart… There is no bridge from here to there, but solely the way from there to here – the way that from beginning to end and all along is God’s way.” 

Paul in a picturesque ways conceives of this union with Jesus as a runner pressing hard toward the prize.  Fowl’s rendering is helpful: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me.”  Let the preacher take his or her own risk at athletic metaphors.  I heard a preacher once tell about running in the state finals of the 100 yard dash, starting poorly, but rallying and winning.  I wasn’t inspired…

The Gospel, Matthew 21:33-46, is another that feels harsh and simplistic.  Probably Jesus had his in your face, utterly simplistic preaching moments – as we all do.  The most promising moment in his tirade is his quotation from Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone…

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