Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What can we say October 20? 19th after Pentecost

   Jeremiah 31:27-34 brings us full circle from Jeremiah’s call, where God promised to use him in plucking up and breaking down, and then to build and to plant. Late in his ministry, after the agonies of Jerusalem’s destruction, God promises to “watch over them” (tender image, isn’t it?) to build and plant. I wonder if this is a week for preachers to consider the days of their ministry, from God’s calling until now. What has unfolded? What has God done? Or not done yet? Can we without being trite promise our people that God still has a good work to do? Or are we still at an early-Jeremiah stage, where more plucking up and breaking down is in store? I think it’s entirely valid for the preacher simply to raise questions, and let the people ponder.

   Looking toward the horizon of God’s future, Jeremiah upends a proverb Ezekiel also referred to (in chapter 18). We like to think we are independent and free, but quite clearly parental stuff creeps into the children. Genes determine so much. Adverse Childhood Experiences determine so much of our mental and even physical health. The old saying “Jesus might live in his heart, but grandpa lives in his bones” is hauntingly true. Not to mention historical and cultural impacts. One generation makes a pact with the culture (Let’s have smart phones!) and the next can’t extricate itself (I’m addicted to this thing). One generation indulges in foolish foreign policy, and the next can’t figure out a simple exit strategy.

   Jeremiah fathoms a day when this chain will be broken. That’s the goal of the church’s work, right? Not a little charitable patch or salve here and there, but a generational breaking of the cycle of poverty, or spousal abuse, or injustice in the streets. We don’t seem entirely capable of pulling this off. But God is, and our privilege and responsibility will be to share in God’s labor for such a day.

   The last verse is the fantasy of every clergy person who has tried to educate people in the faith. Jeremiah dreams of the day when we don’t even need to teach. They will simply know the Lord. Is this on this planet one day? Or do we wait around for heaven to happen?

    2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. What is Scripture? Never have we experienced such a huge preaching/pastoral question!!! Maybe need a class (or classes) instead of a sermon. And yet to stake out the beauty, wonder, and life of Scripture in preaching is essential. One time for my sermon I left the pulpit, sat on a stool holding my own personal Bible, gave a little intro to why I love it, and why it's hard, and then flipped through, pointing to some particular passages that matter; you can watch here. I likely will do this again on Sunday!

    “Inspired” means “breathed into.” Scripture isn’t a set of iron tablets, but a living things with dynamism and vitality. And the Bible clearly claims to be human witness to God, even if cajoled and shaped by God’s Spirit. The Qur’an claims to be direct dictation by Allah. The Bible is different – which we can tell from its contents.

   The Bible is a sprawling tome unlike any other book we’ve tried to read. Since we’ve heard this is God’s Word, we expect something eloquent, accessible, moving, simple and memorable. Instead we get a messy hodgepodge, and it’s not exactly a page-turner. Contemplating the dizzying diversity of kinds of material in the Bible, Rowan Williams asks, “How can all of this be addressed by God to us? This is what God wants you to hear. He wants you to hear law and poetry and history. He wants you to hear the polemic and the visions. He wants you to listen to the letters and to think about the chronicles.” This book is the means God uses for us to know God. You can only conclude then that knowing God is a challenge.

   You might also conclude that if God wishes to be known through tales of dysfunctional families, court cases, love poetry, wars and outlandish dreams, then it must be the case that the God in question is right there in the thick of our dysfunctional families, legal doings, romance, battles and fantasies. God isn’t confined in a pretty chapel, or to the times our eyes are closed. With eyes wide open, we see God everywhere, with everybody. If we believe this, then we can begin to think differently about other books we might read. God loves books, and reading – and not just pious stories and books, if the Bible itself is any indication! More on this later.

     Much in the Bible is troubling, not only to us, but also to God. Can it be God dislikes much of what is in the Bible – the very Bible God gave us so we could know God? Williams points out that the Bible tells stories of how people heard God, and their responses to God. But, “we do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses.” Some Bible writers thought God wanted genocide, or ferocious judgment on others. If we look at the broad canvas of Scripture, we get a pretty clear portrait of what is (and isn’t) in God’s heart and mind. Then we have good cause to see what in the hodgepodge of the Bible is out of kilter with God, and we get a glimpse into what breaks God’s own heart. I don’t believe God likes all the war and narrow-mindedness in the Bible. How clever of God to let what breaks God’s heart into the very book that shows us God’s heart.

   Bible reading isn’t a spiritual discipline so much as it is finding true north, a way of understanding and living. Allan Bloom could have been describing my own grandparents, whose piety I envy, when he wrote, “My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards; my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it...found their origin in the Bible's commandments, and their explanations in the Bible's stories. I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, with M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning. When they talk about relationships or the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire.”

   When we speak of the “inspiration” of the Bible, it’s more functional than ontological. To say that the Bible is inspired does not mean it has some strange property, intrinsic to its pattern of ink on the page.  Rather, its authority has more of the force of a constitution, something that defines how a community of people will act, where the fences should be put up, how we approach reality in order to continue to be who we have been and must be.  Our text sees Scripture not as a tool to judge anybody, but as “profitable for training in righteousness, so we may be equipped for good work.”

   Our text teases the preacher, doesn’t it – so how do we identify the “itching ears” and the “myths”? Best to avoid grandstanding, appealing to the ideologues who populate our pews! Yet how do the people, including the preacher, have this hankering for what is not of God?

   Our Gospel, Luke 18:1-8, amazes, evoking more than a single sermon needs when it speaks of our “need” to pray, and “not to lose heart.” Simply own that our people, preachers included, lose heart in praying, and in living. The need to pray? Isaac Bashevis Singer said “I only pray when I am in trouble. The problem is, I am in trouble all the time.”

   Our text is obviously not allegory (as St. Augustine pointed out) – or else God is the judge who says “I have no respect for anybody” and gets sick and tired of her bugging him. Of course, there is a bit of a theological wink in pondering God as the unjust judge. God isn’t fair. The courtroom is rigged, for the judge is also the defense attorney, not to mention the victim who will bear the penalty.

   God will grant justice though. The languages behind our text intrigue me. It’s not that God “grants” justice, so much as God “does” justice: the Greek is poiēsē. Our minds flit, rightly, to Micah 6:8, where we learn that God desire that we too do justice (the Hebrew Jesus would have had in mind was mishpat). In my book on Micah 6:8: “It seems that God does not merely want us to want justice, or to wish justice would happen. God doesn’t say ‘Think about justice’ or ‘Campaign for justice’ or even ‘Pray for justice.’ Justice reveals what is in the heart of God. Mishpat is God’s dream for a special kind of community… A thumbnail summary of what mishpat justice is about in Israel would be this: justice is when the poorest are cared for. A just society is not necessarily the one where fairness reigns and the diligent are rewarded. A just society is the one where everyone belongs, where the neediest are taken good care of, where no one is hungry or disenfranchised. Walter Brueggemann suggests that justice requires us ‘to sort out what belongs to whom and return it to them.’” It’s all God’s – and so the Haitian proverb applies: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.”

    Fitzmyer leans toward “vindication” (or even “vengeance”) for ekdikēsin. The widow has been wronged, and God will vindicate her, and all who have been wronged. Paul told the Romans, “Never avenge yourself, for vengeance (ekdikēsin) is mine” (12:19). We’re glad – but then the counter-question in v. 8 is haunting: Yet will Son of Man find faith on earth?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What can we say October 13? 18th after Pentecost

   Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 bears witness to what so much of Scripture actually is: as Richard Hays put it, “reading somebody else’s mail.” Jeremiah writes a letter – as so much of the Bible oddly is! – to the exiles in the 6th century in Babylon, and basically urges them to do what they’d prefer not to do, and what theologically they believe they will not need to do: build houses, plant gardens, take wives and look for grandchildren. Notice how the perspective elongates the longer he dictates his letter!

   For our people, who want quick fixes, whose horizons are embarrassingly short, we need as best we’re able as preachers to introduce the long view, not minutes or hours or days but decades, even centuries. God’s work is long-term, not American-ish quick stuff. Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.” How does the preacher invite people into a time sequence beyond their own fantasies or even lifetimes?

   Where I live we have a coalition of churches called “Jeremiah 29:7” – alluding to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I like that. At one level, it’s just common sense. If the city you’re in thrives, you’ll thrive – and that surely applies to work God calls us to in affordable housing, educational equity and more.
  But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s the work for the city, for us as what Hauerwas and Willimon called Resident Aliens, that is our welfare. This is big, Gospel-stuff, inviting people into work that roams beyond their personal existence, that is our labor for God in the place that has forgotten about God. How can the preacher not nag but invite into such life-giving ministry? What does this look like where you are?

   2 Timothy 2:8-15. Paul is chained, but the Word is not. How many prison experiences (Bonhoeffer with the Nazis, Paul and Silas in Philippi, Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail?) illuminate this truth? Paul’s poetic riffs in this text are startling, eloquent, and best repeated, recited, not explained: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will reign.. if we are faithless, he remains faithful – this last one being huge, our only real hope. We indeed are faithless, even the church’s best faithful, even the holiest among us, and surely the rest of us as well! – and yet it is God’s faithfulness, not ours, on which the future hinges. This is the fulcrum of Karl Barth’s remarkable Epistle to the Romans. Faith, faithfulness in Romans is God’s not ours! – thankfully!

    Luke 17:11-19. I love the observations of Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington: “Illness does not stop at political borders; neither need healing stop at the borders.” The whole translated image of “ten lepers” misses the nuance: leproi andres means leprous men: “Their humanity is not swallowed up by their diseases” (at least to Luke, and to us Christians).

   I love this: these ten are ostracized, as so many are (who are they where you minister and preach??) – and yet they have one another! Ten are together – and maybe we think of the function of gay bars, or deaf bars, where those who don’t collude easily with others find good company. In such a group, Samaritans and Jews were totally fine being together! How often do the broken figure out how to be together when the allegedly “together” religious people can’t? AA meetings?

   Joe Fitzmyer (in his Anchor Bible Luke commentary) reminds us here that Jesus “lavishes his bounty on those who need him most.” The text opens up a vapid, disastrous option for the preacher. I once heard a sermon on the virtues of gratitude (which are many!) – with the illustration of one who, in the hospital, groused and complained versus the other patient who was grateful. This isn’t Miss Manners on how gratitude, writing thank-you notes and saying Thanks! incessantly forges a better path.

   The text intrigues. Jesus heals these guys – but they don’t or can’t notice until they are on their way to the priest (as they have until then been excluded from worship in the temple!). They are grateful: the Greek is eucharisteo – implying to early Christian readers the Lord’s Supper!!! Only one turned back – but we dare not divert into “exceptionalism,” the way people who speak of race talk of the one African-American who did well, implying the others didn’t but could have! No moralism here – as if, could we only be grateful, Jesus would heal and be pleased with us! Jesus heals the unhealable, and the Gospel is about realization of that healing and then joining in the Eucharistic table of love and the extension of this healing power to others.


*****
 You might appreciate my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching. It's not an intro, here's how to preach book, but more on the preaching life, the ongoing task of keep the Word and yourself fresh and on point.

Monday, December 10, 2018

What can we say October 6? World Communion

   How strangely fitting that our first lectionary reading on this Sunday when we ponder God’s worldwide church is Lamentations 1:1-6! This sorrowful dirge over Jerusalem, devastated by the Babylonians, portrays God’s church in haunting ways. “How lonely the city once full, how like a widow, the princess has become a vassal, she weeps bitterly…” The lost majesty, the bitter lot: has the world simply crept long enough to finally squash us? Or does verse 5 explain things: “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”? I can’t be sure, and I don’t think the preacher needs to pick. Lift it up, as a tease or open question: the church is in considerable demise? Is it the world, the culture, the media, materialism triumphant? Or is it on us for our timidity, our bungling, our self-serving vapidity?

   I love Claus Westermann’s summary assessment of the whole book: “Lamentations did not arise in order to answer certain questions or to resolve problems. These songs arose as an immediate reactions of the part of those affected by the collapse. The ‘meaning’ of these laments is to be found in their very expression. Questions of a reflective sort arose only secondarily; they are of subordinate important to the lamentation itself. The real significance resides in the way they allow the suffering of the afflicted to find expression.” Then he adds, “That sufferers have been given the opportunity to pour out their hearts before God is seen in the Old Testament as itself an expression of divine mercy.”

   While the crushing defeat and destruction of Jerusalem makes our small, “first world problems” look meager, we do experience a similar collapse of the known world. Jerusalem was the holy city, the channel of blessing, the tangible presence of God, memory and hope on earth. Our people similarly experience something like this collapse – and can we as priests and preachers help them rediscover lament, not to explain things or fix things, but to give people the opportunity to pour out their hearts before God? 

   Here’s what conservative and progressives surprisingly share in common: the crumbling of their world; I heard Walter Brueggemann voice a similar thought on Krista Tippett's On Being a few weeks back. Conservatives fear when they see their familiar, tried and true world they’ve known and loved crumbling around them – and progressives fear that the world they dream of will never become reality. Conservatives fear the loss of the church they've treasured; progressives fear that the church they yearn for will never come to be. Can a sermon unite them in their shared loss? Is our fractured state the real locus of who we are on World Communion Sunday as we fracture the bread? Can the preacher, in this very simple way (by naming both losses and fears), build a bridge?

   In such agonizing circumstances, relationships matter. Writing from prison, Paul expresses immense tenderness and an overflow of love for his colleague, his friend, closer than even a son, in 1 Timothy 1:1-14. In a situation every bit as forlorn as that of ours or the ancient Judaeans, Paul dwells on tears, his and Timothy’s. He is gravely concerned that what he and the early Christians are enduring will feel like shame – which is so often the case. 

   Paul offers a profound, shocking alternative to shame – inviting Timothy to be rekindling of the gift within you from the laying on of hands. The Greek (maybe better rendered “re-igniting”) is anazopureo, which echoes anamimnesko, to recall. Reigniting is rooted in recollection. Do clergy preach this? Or simply reignite their own hopefulness? 

Recalling my calling, and all that ramped up to ordination is a healing salve for me. When we graduated seminary, I do not recall thinking I want to go to meetings, or I want to make budgets, or even I want to preach sermons. Way back then, I really just felt an intense love for Jesus, and wondered if he had any errands I might run for him. Period. Recalling that somehow re-energizes me, at least for a little while. I wonder if the world church... if we can envision such a real entity... might do well to do some recollecting and reigniting, not by digging in institutionally, but by getting younger, freer, nimbler?
   We do what we do, not so much by choice, right? Paul is an apostle “because God wills it” (v. 1). God’s spirit isn’t my spirit but God’s – and it isn’t cowardice but power and love. We preachers have a holy calling – “not according to our works” (and dang, have I been working hard!) “but according to his purpose and grace.” Verse 12 clinches it: “God is able” – not “I am able.” How often are we clergy like those vapid disciples, when Jesus asked if they were able? The hymn, “Are ye able?” gets it so very wrong. “Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered… Lord, we are able!” But we are so not able, and there’s no reigniting and lifting of our exhaustion until we own and relish that we are not able. I'll never forget my theology professor, Dean Robert Cushman, declaring this his least favorite hymn.

   A word of caution, if you preach on 2 Timothy: I’ve heard some sermons playing on Lois and Eunice – sort of Ahh, we received such great faith from our mothers and grandmothers. But some in the room most certainly did not. And some of the great faith of our forbears was deeply flawed – just as the faith we hope to pass on to our families, or to our church people, is similarly flawed.
   And if you’re like me, you’ll have to work not to giggle over the name Lois – as I can never get that famous Family Guy scene where Stewie is trying to get his mom’s attention…
   I am unsure how to warm into the Gospel reading, Luke 17:5-10. Increase our faith – implying it’s quantifiable. Who has more, and what is the measure/evidence? Casting trees around? Is Jesus’ point Do your duty?


*****
 You might appreciate my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching. It's not an intro, here's how to preach book, but more on the preaching life, the ongoing task of keep the Word and yourself fresh and on point.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What can we say September 29? 16th after Pentecost

   Three great texts, thematically interrelated too. I wouldn’t try to preach on 3 texts… but sometimes an allusion to one, or at least probing deeply into a text I’m not preaching on actually enriches the preaching. I think.

   Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. The precision of dating (the 10th year of Zedekiah, and the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar) provides essential background, and also reveals how God’s Word comes into and is intimately responsive to real politics in the world. And the mention of the world’s most powerful guy, Nebuchadnezzar, suggests that God and his seemingly powerless emissary, Jeremiah, are not intimidated; they won’t be bullied (in the same way that Israel escaped under the mightiest of the pharaohs, Ramesses II, and Jesus was born under the mightiest of the emperors, Augustus).

   Jerusalem is under siege. The preacher can paint the picture of the armies arrayed along the hillsides and valleys around the city walls, the sense of gloom and sheer terror among those peering over the towers. In this bleakest of all moments, Jeremiah (under something of a house arrest?) manages to slip out to purchase a field in Anathoth, 6 or 7 miles away. The adage Buy low, sell high doesn’t quite apply: no fool purchases a piece of land when the Babylonian army is swooping in for the kill. The land will be theirs any day now.

   The 17 shekels of silver is a dramatic investment in the future – one no one else could see. Jeremiah made a big show of signing the deed, displaying the papers in public, and then storing them in an earthenware jar. God’s future, and the future of the nation, was what Jeremiah was declaring his firm, if foolhardy belief in. He would not personally benefit from or even be around for the eventual turn in value, decades away. Reinhold Niebuhr’s words apply: “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore, we are saved by hope.”


   It occurs to me that the story of Clarence Jordan founding Koinonia farms is precisely the same sort of contrarian investment in land: a farm where blacks and whites share all things in common - in rural Georgia in the 1940's! Jordan's life is full of fabulous preaching material: check out my blog summarizing his life and such stories.

    1 Timothy 6:6-19. I preached a sermon I think I titled “Love Your Money” a while back – benefiting from Scott Bader-Saye’s distinction between good and bad fear: there must be good and bad loves of money. Good love of money is like good love for your children: it’s not about or for you, but it’s about their thriving and finding their God-given purpose. Preachers can bore, if they do what people predict (which in this case is a harangue about greed) – so you can surprise them by encouraging them to love their money even more, and more truly.

    I preached on this text 3 years ago just days after a police shooting in Charlotte (where I live). Amazing how texts lend themselves to varying contexts and timings.
    We are doing a series this Fall on “Enough” – weighing the work of Doug Meeks (God the Economist) and Sam Wells (God’s Companions), hopefully helping our people think about the unending reach of creeping necessity, and what “godliness with contentment” (as in this Sunday’s text) might be (and in Scripture, it’s pretty minimal, food and clothing). On "contentment" - check out InLighten, some short films geared to lectionary readings (including this one!) and theological themes; they are fantastic and speak in a dramatic way to people - so the uses for the pastor are many. The film on this text speaks deeply to the emotions, and in theologically wise ways.

   Paul shrewdly diagnoses the inner entrapments of the soul the desire for money enmeshes us in. Desire for money and what money can purchase is addictive and deceptive. It really does lure you away from true faith, and your very self is “pierced” by many “pains.” Allowing that some are just rich, Paul urges them not to be “haughty” but to be “rich in good works.” I wonder if you have a story of someone with very little who was generous and at great peace – or the flipside, someone with much who’s rattled and prickly about it. As if to illustrate the point, the lectionary pairs this Epistle reading with the Gospel:

   Luke 16:19-31. Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, got hauled off to jail in 1949 for advertising his sermon title “Segregation After Death” on the church marquee. His text? The parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Under interrogation, Johns was required to preach the sermon to the police. Dives, gazing across the great gulf of prejudice, is blind to the humanity he shares with Lazarus; he thinks of him still as a servant, demanding that Abraham “send” Lazarus with water. Dives has been condemned by his insistence on segregation, which he perversely maintains even after death. Johns not only draws our attention to the disdain in Dives’s assumption that Lazarus is at his beck and call, but he also embodies in his own arrest and harassment that very kind of disdain in a modern context.
   The name Dives isn’t in Scripture, of course. The rich, purply feaster remains nameless – illustrating God’s great reversal of the way things are in this world. As Jesus tells the parable, the rich guy does know the poor man’s name. Had he simply stepped over him often enough to have heard his name? The entire parable is a little dicey if we try to get literal about it. Jesus is not giving a photographic portrayal of what things will be like: hollering across a massive chasm, Abraham leading the conversation, etc. It’s a story, brilliantly making its point. And you can’t miss the irony in “If someone from the dead goes to my brothers, surely they will repent” – but the risen Christ has failed to persuade millions, who might give mental assent that Okay, he arose! but live unaltered, unrepentant lives, jammed full of sins of commission and omission.
   The preacher will be wise to anticipate objections to the obvious suggestion that he should have helped the guy. Should we really just give to anyone who asks? People should be responsible! Dependence on charity actually ruins people’s chances of rising up to self-reliance. In the churches, we’ve been warned “toxic charity,” the way our holy efforts to help those in need are either wasteful or counterproductive.
   Fascinating how our awareness of toxic charity can underwrite cold hearts – and so avoiding toxic charity leads inevitably to toxic lack of charity. We are Christians after all. Check out Paul’s great fundraising campaign for the poor he didn’t know (2 Corinthians 8-9, Romans 15:14-32, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). How might we conceive of our offerings for those in need? “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov 19:17). Recall the complaint about the Christians from the emperor Julian the Apostate: “Those impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
   Whatever our political ideology might be, Jesus and Paul established giving as a holy obligation. Never forget that for Paul, the poor also are required to help the poor! Some of the most courageous, impactful ministries for the poor I’ve seen in my lifetime are fully carried out by people we’d think of as poor. I have a friend in Lithuania who engages in startlingly effective ministry with the poorest of the poor – while she herself is poor. And when I’ve preached in Haiti, we take up a collection for, yes, the poor.
     As Christians we pursue a peculiar kind of charity that doesn’t stop when we put a check in an envelope. Charity without relationship really is toxic. How much church charity drills home the demeaning message that You are a problem, We are the answer, You have no worth, We will provide worth and you can thank us. Wesley was right: it is always better to deliver aid than to send it. Dives could have sat on the step with Lazarus and shared a meal, or invited him in to sit at his own table. Jesus did say “When you have a dinner, don’t invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor…” (Luke 14:7-14). The daunting but achievable and joyful goal is described by Stanley Hauerwas: “To know how to be with the poor in such a manner that the gifts the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient. For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us.”

*****
 The feast day of St. Francis is this coming Thursday/Friday. You might be interested in my little book, Conversations with St. Francis!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

What can we say September 22? 15th after Pentecost

   Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. I preached on this exactly three years ago; it went well, but now I’m hunting some fresh angles so as not to bore myself (much less them!).

   I’m struck by Jeremiah’s lament that “My joy is gone.” Jeremiah has never struck me as someone ever exhibiting the slightest joyfulness… and what was joy, after all, back in the Iron Age? Hardly a comfortable, satisfying life full of fun and relationships. His joy “has gone up” (as in “flew away”), and if that weren’t bad enough, grief “has come down.”

   Such famous lines! “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Christians who want quick turnarounds might attend to Jeremiah’s timeline, where hope is assured – in a few decades, not years or weeks or days.

   Our choir will surely sing “There is a balm in Gilead,” but the hymn/anthem turns Jeremiah’s intent into something sweeter than it should be. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” – a region known for its healing ointments. The answer? Of course there is a balm in Gilead – but it is of no use. The problem is deeper, down in the very marrow of the national soul. 
I think of Gore Vidal's novel about Lincoln's life - so is this historical or made-up? Lincoln, after expressing weariness to some friends, was told to get some rest, to sleep more, to get away for a few days. His reply was that his exhaustion was deeper than that, not the kind that yields to a few more naps or a day at the coast.

   Jeremiah’s grief is to be pondered. He not only grieves. He yearns to grieve even more. He wants to weep. “Oh that my head were a spring of water, my eyes a fountain of tears.” Who wants more sorrow? The one in sync with God; the one who gets Bob Pierce’s wish: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.” Preaching should perhaps begin with some sorrowing, even tears over our people and the world.

   Tears may heal or purge in some way. For Jeremiah, it’s all about solidarity with God. If you do not know Maggie Ross’s The Fountain and the Furnace, I commend it to you as one of the wisest, most provocative and profound books on life with God and ministry ever. Here is just a small sample of what she says about weeping: “God baptizes us with tears. God loves creation enough to weep over it. As the divine breath still moves over the salted water of creation, so with tears Mercy bathes and mothers us into new life with her life. It is strange that we have repudiated our tears… We have lost the understanding that the salt of tears is the savor of life. We need to recover our understanding of the life-flood of tears, God’s and ours, that mothers the fire of our life.”

   Is there a sermon where we pause and simply weep together?

   1 Timothy 2:1-7. Paul presses for prayers “for all men.” Luke Timothy Johnson points out that the noun here is anthropos, not anēr, so it’s not males but all people; Johnson calls this “a leap forward in early Christian consciousness.” I like to think he’s right, given how paternalistic and male-centered Scripture seems to be.

   Preaching could devote itself properly to the idea that we pray “for kings.” Most people either grouse about the President – or mindlessly fawn over him. What if we expended these energies in prayer for the one in power? The prayer itself is dicey, as it’s not a blessing of or divine endorsement of the powerful. Johnson again is helpful: “The prayer for rulers is the Jewish and Christian way of combining a refusal to acknowledge earthly princes as divine and the duties of good citizens of the world.” He claims there is “an implicit critique of any claims they might put forward concerning their absolute authority” when we place them in God’s hands.
   And then it’s hard to escape what seems plain here: Paul prays, yearns for, and believes in the possibility of all being saved. Christians have their gnostic tendencies, wanting to feel they are among the elect, while others (even fellow-Christians!) will be consigned to perdition. David Bentley Hart – this month! – has a new book out: That All Shall Be Saved, in which he explores the long-held belief by many of our greatest theologians through history that none will be lost. The preacher would need to process and communicate such an idea with delicate care.

   Perhaps we can always remind our people of the wideness to God’s mercy – and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s incontrovertible wisdom: we can and must at least hope that everyone will be saved. I’m not the judge, but if I love, and rank God’s love and power highly enough, I will never settle for believing that Yes, these guys are doomed and that’s fine with me. We yearn for, we hope for the salvation of each and every person.

   Luke 16:1-13 is just so hard to dissect and to get inside Jesus’ head. In a Bible study, I have time to probe and get there. But in a sermon? If you’ve preached well on this text, send me what you’ve done! Jesus certainly isn’t all about goodness and being nice! The dishonest manager is commended. It’s not a “go thou and do likewise” though, is it?
   Joe Fitzmyer (Anchor Bible on Luke) points out that the parable (verses 1-8) is puzzling enough, but the situation is compounded by the lectionary attaching the next 5 verses, as if they resolve the enigma. Augustine saw in the manager “foresight for the future,” and Wesley appreciated the craft of the man and his stellar use of money. But what kind of sermon can you cobble together from that? And Wesley’s views on money would annoy my people. Jesus, wonderfully, turns our cozy expectations on their back ends. I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer’s provocative thought – that we often prefer our own goodness to doing God’s will. We want to keep our hands clean, when doing what God asks is about getting our hands dirty.

*****
 You might appreciate my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching. It's not an intro, here's how to preach book, but more on the preaching life, the ongoing task of keep the Word and yourself fresh and on point.

Friday, December 7, 2018

What can we say September 15? 14th after Pentecost

   The selection of texts. I love (vainly?) to say the lectionary imposes discipline on me – but then do I select the easy one among the weekly offerings? Luke 15 is far more palatable to preach on than Jeremiah 4. Does God want us to preach the tough one – tough for our people but even tougher for the clergy? And then I wonder, when weighing texts, if God doesn’t want one of them to be one we linger over and ponder, but don’t actually preach upon? 1 Timothy 1 might be a great gift to the preacher personally, not to be skipped over but relished. We're doing Luke 15 at my place - and we've come up with a cool idea of how to make it vivid for our people (see below).

    Jeremiah 4:11-28. I continue to wonder how to preach these texts (and both testaments have them, including right from the lips of Jesus!) which are straight up, severe judgment. I could just blast my people – and some days they tempt me sorely! I wonder about teasing out what happened back then (so, Judeans were going through the motions, didn’t parse their own waywardness or their external threats, so here’s how Jeremiah reported on what was in God’s aggrieved heart) – and then (1) get a tad sarcastic, like Thank God none of this applies to us! or (2) find the way to tremble and with utter humility and solidarity with the people say Friends, I’ve been lying awake this week, wondering if we aren’t grieving God’s heart in just this way.

   What a vivid image Jeremiah employs when he speaks of the hot, burning east wind. The theological nuance of the Hebrew is inescapable: it’s a ruach, same word as God’s creative wind, same word we render as God’s Spirit. In this case, God’s Spirit is dry, harsh, unbearable. Jeremiah is thinking of the sirocco, the violent wind that scorches from the Arabian desert to the east. George Adam Smith described it in his diary: “Atmosphere thickening. Wind rises, gale blowing air filled with fine sand, horizon less than a mile, sun not visible, grey sky with almost no shadow.” Thinking of this ungentle breeze, David Grossman entitled his harrowing book about the destructive violence of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis Yellow Wind.

    Is God like this sirocco? Does God unleash horrors on us out of the swirl of God’s wounded, grieved heart? Or is it that God created the world with an order that isn’t flouted without consequences – and so when we get sideways with God, there are terrors? Martin Luther distinguished between God’s proper work and God’s “alien work.” Wrath is simply the goodness, the grace of God, but how it comes at us when we are at a bizarre angle or entirely out of sync with God. If we pray for God’s Spirit, will it be a cool, life-giving breeze, or a harsh, burning wind of judgment? Are our social anxieties, our political issues, fretting over security, family division, international strife and injustices abounding all instances of the harsh east wind of God’s sorrowing over us? Can I tell this in a way that moves my people to repentance (which Jeremiah himself didn’t get done!)?
   1 Timothy 1:12-17. I have a curious attachment to this text ever since I was on a retreat years ago and somebody handed me a little card saying “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me trustworthy in making me his minister” – 1 Timothy 1:12. My gut reaction was “This translation must be out of kilter, or tendentious in some way.” But the sense is Paul’s, expressing surprise and gratitude that, yes, God chose me to be God’s minister. I have had hundreds of these printed over the years. I stick them in notes written to clergy, I hand them out when I speak at clergy events, and I keep one in my car, one on my desk, and one in my sock drawer just to encourage and remind me.
   I did hear a clergyman attempt what Paul attempts here. I didn’t know him at all – but heard him declaring at some length “I am a worse sinner than any of you.” Hard not to scratch your head and wonder what he was harboring inside… Sermon didn’t go anywhere good. I think Luke Timothy Johnson’s summary of the glory hidden in Paul’s manipulative language is helpful: “The mercy shown Paul was not simply forgiveness of past behavior, but the gift of power that enables him to live in a new way.”

 
   Luke 15:1-10 (which I preached on last time around): is this really the easy one? Jesus’ signature is all over this short text. On this text, check out InLighten, a series of short, outstanding, thoughtful films geared to lectionary texts. The video on this text is moving indeed: the story of a courageous woman seeking out God's children lost in trafficking.

I’ll never forget the evening we had my former coworker and constant friend Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor of Capitol Hill UMC in Washington, back for a program. I opened by asking her a question she didn’t know I would ask: Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story –that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us. 

    The sheep story echoes this. It’s not sufficient in God’s Kingdom to say, Hey, we have 99, that’s not bad. No, we even risk losing the mass in hand to search out the one that’s lost. 
I chuckle over the Mitch Hedberg comedy routine: you’re in a restaurant, and they call for the Dufresne family – but no reply. They move on to the next name – but Mitch wants to hunt for the Dufresnes: “They’re not only lost. They’re hungry.” The one sheep is lost, and hungry…

    Of course, this little parable tells us how to be the church. And it tells us about God – and we dare not miss the note of Joy in God’s heart featured so prominently. Years ago I heard someone I can’t recall preaching (isn’t this the way? – and a humbling realization for us who preach!) who used this evidently true story as an illustration. Several families were camping out west someplace, and as it was getting dark, when getting ready for dinner, they noticed a little girl named Cathy wasn’t there. Their search gradually became increasingly frantic as night began to fall. “Cathy! Cathy! Cathy!” everyone was shouting as they fanned out. Hours passed as their terror mounted. Finally, almost at dawn, someone stopped shouting “Cathy!” and got really quiet – and heard the soft sound of a whimpering child. There was Cathy, suffering from some bruises, scrapes and exposure. They took her to the closest hospital where she was treated, and then her family was home that night. Her dad tucked her into bed, kissed her goodnight, turned out the light and was about to close the door when he heard her voice. “Daddy?” “Yes, sweetheart?” Perched on her elbow, she smiled and said to him, “I bet you’re glad you found me.” He replied, “Oh, if you only knew.”

   Our idea for Sunday morning: we're going to hide (or semi-hide...) pennies all over the yard, parking lot and building for people to find (or not) - as in my sermon I'm going to tell what Annie Dillard reported from her childhood in Pittsburgh. As a 7 year old, "I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find.  I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk.  Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions.  After I learned to write I labeled the arrows:  surprise ahead or money this way.  I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe…  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?…  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days." 

*****
 You might appreciate my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching. It's not an intro, here's how to preach book, but more on the preaching life, the ongoing task of keep the Word and yourself fresh and on point.