Saturday, November 10, 2018

What can we say March 24? Lent 3

  Two terrific texts for Lent 3! Oh, and we also have Paul’s 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. His typological use of the Old Testament leaves me cold somehow. It’s instructive to see Paul not being a full of laid back grace here. Plenty of Don’t!s. You have to wonder how the Don’t!s, surely needed in cosmopolitan Corinth which earned its dubious party reputation, actually played there, especially with the nuanced reading of an old Israelite wilderness tale.

   I’m a little bit bugged too by verse 13, which resembles the awful “God won’t give you more than you can handle” silliness church people trot out when sorrow strikes. Kate Bowler (Everything Happens for a Reason), among others, has assessed the futility and theological weirdness of such a notion. If we pay attention to Paul, he’s a little better than what we presume. He chides the Corinthians who must feel their tests are so great; he’s saying Hey, it’s common to humanity to struggle to be holy. If there’s strength required, it’s God-given, God-inspired, not just strength you happen to wield. 

   More importantly, the “you”s in verse 13 are plural. Paul Sampley wisely clarifies that testing “is never presumed by Paul to be borne by an individual alone… So the text supposes that God will not test us beyond what all of us can bear together.” I like that. Being holy is tough; bearing suffering is harrowing. We do these things together, or not at all.

   Now, the lovely, picturesque, moving Isaiah 55:1-9. You can almost hear the prophet imitating the peddlers and shopkeepers on the street, hawking their wares. What the Lord is selling is water and food – sounding almost Eucharistic! A Christian rushes to Jesus, the living Water, Jesus, the Bread of the world. Before anybody’s heard of Jesus, we hear God offering to quench our thirst and fill our emptiness. Spiritual stuff – although what God offers is the Covenant! The covenant isn’t something we make happen on our side either. God says “I will make with you a covenant.”
 
   It’s all free. You who have no money? Come. Buy. And not the cheap, blue light special stuff. What is fabulously precious. Steve Shoemaker preached a brilliant sermon years ago playing on Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Ezra Tull takes over Mrs. Scarlatti’s restaurant, and decides to make whatever food people are homesick for. Then Steve wound up the sermon by inviting the listener to imagine coming into God’s very fine restaurant. You survey the menu – and realize there are no prices listed. You assume therefore it’s absurdly expensive, and you’re in trouble. Just then the waiter asks you what you’d like, what you really want. You pause, then take a leap… but ask how much it costs. The waiter says, Nothing, it’s on the house.
   Via the prophet, God asks why we spend so much for what doesn’t satisfy. Walter Brueggemann speaks of the “junk food” of the empire. The Rolling Stones sang it: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” William Temple suggested the world is like a shop into which some mischievous person has sneaked during the night and switched all the pricetags around – and so our tragedy is we spend ourselves on what has little to no value, while the precious things are quite affordable or actually free.
   There’s so much in this short text! “Seek the Lord while he may be found, while he is near.” Is the Lord going away soon? Or is the “while” always? Claus Westermann translated it “Seek the Lord since he may be found, call on him since he is near.” The language of return, “abundantly pardon,” and God’s thoughts being so much higher than ours. Let these thoughts rumble around the room. Don’t over-explain.
 
    Then the Gospel, Luke 13:1-9. Fascinating: Jesus alludes to two recent stories in the news. Galileans slaughtered by Pilate while offering sacrifices! – and Eighteen died when a large stone tower fell adjacent to the Pool of Siloam (where I am taking a group in two weeks! - and here's a photo of my daughter preaching to young clergy I took there). Some suspect the tower was part of an aqueduct Pilate was building with pilfered temple funds. Even if not, you would think the faithful would rally in sympathy to those who suffered so unjustly. 

     But instead, they play the blame game we hear nowadays in our churches. Someone suffers? They must have done something wrong; they must deserve their lot somehow. They echo the monstrous counsel of Job’s friends. Dorothee Soelle (Suffering) dubs this “theological sadism.” We do it to ourselves, don't we? A bad turn: why is God after me? Marital failure: what did I do wrong? Mental health struggles: Why isn't God helping me?

   Then Wendy Farley (in her eloquent Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion) picked up on that image and wonderfully pointed out how “The association of suffering with punishment denies even the right to resist suffering. This sadistic theology conspires with pain to lock God away from the sufferer.” Pastors have to help our people understand and live into our solidarity with others in suffering, and never to impugn God as one who tosses down thunderbolts of misery on some but not others. Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, “The Masque of Reason,” imagines God thanking Job for setting God free from moral bondage to the human race – a way of saying that Job opens the window into the truth, that suffering and human goodness or badness are not cause-and-effect related.  Jesus, in his mercy, wanted us to know how to respond to any and all news stories – public stories, and those shared by someone you love.

Friday, November 9, 2018

What can we say March 17? Lent 2

  We have great readings for Lent 2. Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 is the most quoted, theologically pregnant and productive text in all of the Old Testament, with its “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” But did Genesis mean what Paul had in mind in Romans?

   Genesis 15 begins with “After these things” – meaning chapters 14! First, Abraham led 318 (an astonishingly exact number) men from his home far in the south to the far north to Dan. When I take folks to Israel, I love to show them the Bronze Age gate in Dan – as a place where Abraham came! Not many places in Israel do this. And then we have the curious Melchizedek passage – much beloved in the New Testament and early Christianity, and entirely mystifying to us.


   God reiterates the promise God made in Genesis 12 – and Abraham asks, like Mary centuries later, “How?” God here is a promiser. Americans love God-as-promiser – but they are thinking what God will do for me this week. God’s promise in the Scriptures is centuries – centuries! in the fulfillment.

   Abraham is asked to look up at the stars and count them. We can actually do this today, pervaded as our night skies are with so much ambient light. But Psalm 8, Job 38ff and Genesis 15 know of a darker – or brighter – sky, with countless stars, maybe like the sky I saw as a child, or the sky you can see if you go out West someplace.

   That key verse 6, quoted as manifest proof of the life of faith vs. works in Paul: Abraham believed. His “belief” was trust, consent to God’s future, a commitment to stick things out, fixing his life on God’s direction. This was “reckoned” (imputed?) to him as “righteousness.” Certainly for Paul, and even in the Old Testament, righteousness is relational. Even when you live out the regulations of the Torah, it is because of a trusting, grateful, intimate relationship with God.

    You have to admire Abraham for taking God’s promise into his own hands, for making it happen – by adopting Eliezer. Rational, practical – but not God’s plan!  The promise of the land has been hugely problematical through history.  We might wish God had promised a great people, and a blessing – but the land pledge has precipitated so much conflict. Walter Brueggemann’s new, short, and incisive book, Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, is so very helpful in sorting out the issues.

   The vision here of birds swooping down on bloody carcasses might make you shudder; the gauntlet of fire between the slaughtered heifer, goat, ram, turtledove and pigeon feels like an ancient agrarian hazing… but it was an ancient covenant ceremony of immense purpose.

    Psalm 27. So eloquent, the shining gem of all the Psalms, I would say. What do we desire? God’s presence? The “Beauty of the Lord” is undertreated in preaching – and I wrote a whole book on preaching called The Beauty of the Word to try to capture why the beauty that is God figures so prominently in preaching.

    Our Epistle, Philippians 3:17-4:1, is rich in theological implications. Paul, not bashful at all, invites imitation! I don’t do this so often, out of humility, and a frank realization that my people should not imitate me. I wonder if we clergy should dare to hold ourselves up, in some humble, self-effacing way, as exemplary of a life with Christ.

    How odd for Paul to speak of religious, spiritual people who claim to follow Christ as “enemies of the cross”! Back then, Paul saw grave danger in those who believed Christianity was all about the mustering of good deeds. Today it’s more about feeling and emotion – or maybe what Paul says: “Their god is their belly, their glory is shame.” We are first and foremost consumers: we buy, we eat, we collect, we shop more, we drink more, and it’s all about me, how I feel, my sense of fulfillment. We even enlist God to help us consume, to feel full – but can’t we see how our minds are really stuck on “earthly things”?

     What once was shameful we now glorify: the “seven deadly sins” (greed, gluttony, sloth, lust, anger, envy and pride) now describe the good life in America! We fantasize about and are intrigued by what is shameful – because we’re after a rush of feeling, a higher high. But God isn’t a feeling more titillating than any other: God is a stable rock enduring every oscillation of feeling. God you cannot buy or consume. God calls me out of self-indulgence, away from it being all about me, and into the adventure of God, far grander than me and my small satisfactions. Preachers have to help people with this…..

    Citizens of Philippi took great pride, as settled military veterans, in their membership in the commonwealth that was the Roman empire; their citizenship (politeuma) wasn’t Greece where they were located but Rome! Paul plays on this: for Christians, our true citizenship is in heaven: it was to God’s kingdom we belong. And try as they might to straddle both worlds, you have to make a choice, a big choice but also a lot of little choices – just as we do as Christians who belong to heaven but are pressed to get too enmeshed in the habits and ideals of our culture. 

    “We await.” We live in anticipation of something that has peeked out from behind the veil but is not fully revealed: our mood is Advent-ish, waiting, longing – and not for just any Savior! The emperor claimed to be soter, savior – but of the upper echelons, keeping a heavy boot on the lower classes. Ben Witherington: “Paul was offering a very different sort of savior, one who was for everyone, even those in the lowest status in society, even slaves.” 

     We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:21). In my book, The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed, I tried to clarify what this “glorious body” is about: “When we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus’ soul survived the death of his body, and yet we do not mean the mere resuscitation of a corpse. The risen Jesus is not recognized, but then is recognizable. He can be touched, but then he pulls back. He materializes, and then he vanishes. Paul spoke of the resurrection as involving a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Corinthians 15). A body, yes, but spiritual, not merely a spirit, but a body, totally transformed, animated entirely by the Spirit, not liable to disease or death. So for those whose understanding of anatomy makes a resuscitation seem ridiculous, the Bible narrates something different, and far better – better even than the immortality of the soul. The Bible promises the resurrection of spiritual bodies.”

     It’s a “lowly body” though now, not yet glorified, and something of a struggle, like a burden – and yet the Body is God’s temple (1 Cor. 6). Paul’s tone in all this is never castigating or harsh. How tender is he? How tender must the preacher be? Where else but in the Church do you get called “beloved”? Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved, articulates God’s hopeful message for each of us who live a world where “beloved” doesn’t compute.
    Paul and the Philippians share love (review the origin of the church in Acts 16!) – but their love isn’t spontaneous affection, or the fact that they think alike or enjoy leisure activities together. It is Christ who is their friendship, who cements their relationship; it is Christ they share, and their zeal for the present work and future hope of the kingdom of God. Love? “My joy”? “My crown”? Hard of me not to think of the consummation of Tolkien’s The Return of the King. The crown falls to the new king, Aragorn, but he yields to the wonder of the small people, the hobbits. They are friends. As Merry famously said to Frodo: “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. You can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” This is the life of the Body of Christ.

   Luke 13:31-35. Finally we come to the Gospel. Jesus has Paul’s tender love – for Jerusalem. Its people, of course, but the larger dream and destiny of God’s chosen place. Warned by the Pharisees (was this a friendly warning? or are they trying to goad him into shutting up?) to flee, Jesus has a snarky response, calling Herod a “fox.” His poetic declaration about his as-yet incomplete work (today, tomorrow, third day) is haunting, beautiful, courageous. 

   His lament is moving, and picturesque. If you get to travel to Jerusalem, you often get your first glimpse of the old city as you round the crest of Mt. Scopus. Tourists get giddy, or play that old song “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” on the bus’s loudspeakers. Jesus at this point fell on his knees and wept – just as he’d wept for his friend Lazarus on arriving at his tomb. He would have seen, in the Kidron valley, the “tombs of the prophets.” So he wasn’t just recalling history. He sees and points to their tombs! – a haunting glimpse of his fate to come. I even wonder if “stoning those sent” might look forward to Stephen, the first martyr, which Luke of course knew about.

My friend Jeremy Troxler, on the last night of our awful General Conference in February, suggested that if you look at a religious institution you love and it is a travesty, profoundly disappointing - or if you know things you know, try to explain them to other people, and they just don't get it, then in that terrible, painful, frustrating place, you are very close to the heart of Jesus.


   And then the lovely image of a hen gathering her brood. It’s lovely – and not just because it’s a feminine image. In the traditional “Upper Room” in Jerusalem, the site where pilgrims have believed (wrongly, but still…) the Last Supper transpired, there is a carving on one of the columns of a pelican and her chicks. Evidently (is this true?) a mama pelican goes out in search for food for her chicks. But if everything is dried up and she finds none, she returns to the nest, pokes holes in her own flesh with her beak, and the chicks feed on her. Eucharistic. Cruciform. Sacrificial gathering. Grisly, and lovely.
*****
Milky Way photo by Steve Jurvetson

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Ash Wednesday and Lent 1

   Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, March 6 (which requires a short homily on my part, and maybe yours). Those inks will take you to thoughts for this holy day. I'd add here that the "ashes" image is timely (as it always is...): it's grief, it's repentance, and it's grace and hope, all three, never judgment, never blame. You might be interested in the op-ed I was asked to write for Religion News Service ("Grieving but not Leaving").

   Then Lent 1. The Old Testament intrigues me: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, which I recall from seminary was dubbed a “creed” by Gerhard von Rad, shows how your offering to God is linked to remembering what God has done – for you, and through all of salvation history. I’d think the preacher could probe this profitably… or use the Psalter: I love Psalm 91. I’ve seen my wife offer up liturgical dance to “On Eagle’s Wings.” Lovely stuff. 

     Of course, the Psalm sits in this place because it’s cited in the Gospel lection – by Satan himself! Just because somebody quotes Scripture doesn’t mean they’ve delivered God’s true word. Even Shakespeare, dinging Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, beyond noting that “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose… An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek,” has Bassanio declare “What damned error, but some sober brow / Will bless it and approve it with a text, / Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?” As we saw at General Conference, citing Bible doesn't clinch many arguments, and is more likely to expose hypocrisy than move us toward holiness.

  Lent, typically, begins with the Temptation narrative, and in this year it is Luke 4:1-13. For me, this is a classic example (discussed in my The Beauty of the Word) of the way we mis-read texts in preaching. Way too often we make texts about us: my faith, my struggle, my serving, my doubts, my discipleship. But most texts aren’t actually about us. They are about God, or about the Body of Christ. The Temptation narratives, if mis-read as being about us, press us toward the common, and frightfully dull and discouraging sermon whose plot is, “We’re tempted just as Jesus was; so we can overcome temptation the way he did!” – which is ridiculous. Not one of us would stand a chance against the assault of this evil one. For holy and charitable purposes, we’d turn mere stones into sorely-needed bread for the hungry. We’d take the power, as so many religious people want to do.

    The point of this story is how amazing Jesus is. He did what you and I could never do, and that we (what a relief!) don’t have to do. Jesus isn’t our moral example, showing us how to combat Satan. Jesus is our Savior, for all the times, for all of life, when we succumb, when we drink the koolaid and fall for the devil’s wiles. This story should make us fall on our knees in awe. Jesus. Wow. What a Savior.

     In chapter 3, Luke sets Jesus’ ministry in the context of the political powers of his day: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod. Does Luke imply in chapter 4 that Satan is the source of their power? Luke’s genealogy of Jesus traces his lineage back to Adam. Luke 4 shows Jesus succeeding where Adam failed; with Paul in Romans 5:12-21, we see Jesus correcting and healing the Fall.

     Luke’s version is unusual. Jesus, Luke alone mentions, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” He’s not beaming or having a titillating emotional experience. The Spirit, for him, stiffens his resolve to be at one with God the Father in the most arduous circumstances imagineable. And he’s not alone out there! The preacher might contrast solitude with loneliness. Jesus seems never to be lonely, although he’s often alone. Luke makes his solitude-ness explicit: the Spirit is with him, in him. When we are alone, we get lonely because we hear voices in our heads, negative messages… Preaching should make some attempt at comfort – while still fixed on the fact that this story is about Jesus, not us.

     It’s helpful for the preacher to describe the locale. Not a “desert,” like a stretch of sand with cacti. The Judean wilderness was a rocky zone full of cliffs and caves, with dangerous predators lurking behind every rock. A gravity-defying monastery clings to a cliff there, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ testing. It’s a wilderness, again reminding us where Israel was tested (and failed). Again, Adam failed, Israel failed, we all fail. Jesus alone is our Savior.

     I love Nikos Kazantzakis’s image of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ: every time young Jesus reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples.  He shrieked and fell down on his face.”  His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help.  The rabbi shook his head.  “Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?”  “Is there no cure?” the wretched mother asked.  “It’s God, I tell you.  No, there is no cure.”  “Why does he torment him?”  The old exorcist sighed but did not answer.  “Why does he torment him?” the mother asked again.  “Because he loves him,” the old rabbi finally replied.

     People mis-conceive the devil. Red guy, pitch fork, whispering in your ear to eat that extra brownie… Real evil is far more sinister, elusive, and hidden from view. The devil’s great wiles? To persuade us he doesn’t exist, or to dupe us into seeing the devil behind every rock. Thomas Merton spoke of “the theology of the devil,” suggesting that what the devil wants most of all is attention. Clearly, if evil is alluring, we should look to things that are beautiful, attractive, even appearing to be holy – and that’s where evil sets its trap for us, as it did for Jesus. David Lyle Jeffrey points to Tintoretto’s “Temptation” as one of countless examples of artists portraying Satan as a beautiful, innocent youth. How often does evil sneak into Church conversations, dressed up as being holy or fighting for justice or whatever feels so good and pure to us fallen creatures? (and I don't mean among the "other" guys...)

     Luke reverses temptations #2 and #3 from Matthew’s version. Like Matthew he begins with the bread. Jesus, born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” is the “bread of life,” and invites us to refrain from every appetite (so we don’t wind up like Paul’s folks “whose God is their belly,” Philippians 3:19). The offer of the kingdoms: I can’t talk about this without lifting up Tolkien’s marvelous Lord of the Rings, in which he quite wisely showed that the ring of power shouldn’t fall to those who believe they’ll wear it well; it must be destroyed for there to be peace and goodness.

     Jesus is taken (spiritually? in the imagination? or literally?) to the “pinnacle” of the Temple. Does Luke mean the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, looming 400+ feet over the Kidron Valley? How many televangelists, or even parish pastors, would indulge in a bit of razzle-dazzle? Henri Nouwen (in In the Name of Jesus) reminds us that we clergy fantasize about doing something impressive for God. Sometimes, I worry if I see in others (and in myself!), when we're at General Conference or other big church doings, a kind of ambition to be somebody, to matter, to stride forward to validate self - in a religious cause, of course!

But this is not God’s way. The angels adored and worshipped Jesus – but clearly, in the end, they not only let his foot be dashed against those stones near the Temple. They let Jesus blood be shed, his body be pierced. This story points toward that day – as Luke adds the tantalizing, haunting footnote that once Jesus won round 1, Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What can we say March 3? Transfiguration


    If you are United Methodist, it's worth noting that we could not have been gifted with a better liturgical date or texts than these memorable stories of Transfiguration. Whatever church bodies do, whether it's gone our way or not, the church is still God's. Jesus is still amazing. Our focus should always be on him, his glory, his mercy, his wisdom, his presence. Surely this is the way to preach this week - and maybe every week.
    At the same time, naming pain, tears, fears: part of the glory of Jesus is that he embraced all these things. If you are sorrowful, if you are frustrated people can't understand things, if you grieve the brokenness of an institution that should be holier, then you are very close to the heart of Jesus (as my friend Jeremy Troxler reminded me last night).
    Here is a sermon I preached before the Conference that would work well after the Conference too. Of course, I can't re-do it... but will sound some similar themes, fixing on Jesus, his embrace of all, our resolute determination to stand with him and those wounded by the conference - which I think really is everybody.

     Not one or two but three great texts to mark the Transfiguration of our Lord! Exodus 34:29-35 – the day Moses’ face began shining. Today we speak of someone’s face “beaming” or “glowing.” But it’s not that Moses had a chipper disposition or a cheerful countenance. He had seen God, and the shining of God lingered, impressed itself upon him. I’m not sure there’s a “Go thou and do likewise” here (or in our Gospel text!). Maybe the writer simply wants us to be awed by Moses, a theological hero if there ever was one. Or if there’s a “go thou and do,” it’s captured in something the newly sainted Oscar Romero said: “When we leave worship, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong, to face the world’s difficulties.”

   I just love Zora Neale Hurston's vivid portrayal (in Moses, Man of the Mountain): "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.'”

    Context matters. Moses has just, in a holy rage, broken the tablets of the law. As the Jewish commentator Gunther Plaut put it, “The newly liberated people struggle to understand their God and God struggles to understand His people.” At least God and Moses ‘get’ one another. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, priests often wore a mask or veil when engaging in their sacred rituals. With Moses, it’s reversed: he wears the veil when he’s a civilian, with the people, and it comes off when he’s up close with God! It’s a kind of humility – maybe the way St. Francis hid his stigmata. Or he wants to shield the people from his excess of holiness; we pastors suffer the opposite in every church, those who are so very pious and flout it in your face!
    And Moses’ glowing isn’t a private experience for him to enjoy. He shines as the one God has chosen to lead, the one who is God’s earthly connection to the people. There’s also the peculiar way this shining entered into Western art. The Hebrew translated “shone” or “radiance,” qaran, is an inch away from qeren, meaning horn – and so it became, in the Vulgate, that Moses was “horned.” We see his horns all over, most famously in Michelangelo’s statue in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. In Bible times, horns symbolized power – but by the Middle Ages, horns represented the demonic. Moses became the epitome of anti-Semitic hostility…

    …and much of the fault lies with our dear friend, Paul. Our Epistle, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, exegetes why Moses hid his face, suspecting it was not humility but embarrassment, because the glory was fading (a notion unmentioned in our text)! The veil now cloaks them, the Jews, from seeing the truth. I can sympathize with Paul’s profound grief that his fellow-Jews, certainly including close friends and family, just didn’t see Jesus as the Messiah or Christianity as the way. It would be hard to preach this text now without lifting it up as one of the way we fail to ‘get’ others who believe in our God in a different way? Can we revel in the transformation, even the transfiguration, that is life with God without being dismissive of other faiths?

    There is a fading of the glory. Is it the gradual demise of the church? Is it our heightening secularism? Is it our fallen inability to see God? We at best know what we know with veiled faces; “now we see through a glass darkly,” and only “then face to face.” Maybe the preacher doesn’t reach for a “Go thou and do likewise,” but simply notices and points, like a docent in a museum, to the greatness that was Moses, and the competitive zeal that was Paul – and then primarily, on Transfiguration Sunday, to the amazement that is Jesus.
     Luke 9:28-36. What a text! and how easy it is to preach it poorly. The Transfiguration texts are, for me, exemplary of what goes wrong in much preaching. We make texts about us, our faith, our doubts, our serving, etc., when many texts are quite simply about God, or about how amazing Jesus is. The Transfiguration texts are my prime example in The Beauty of the Word: clearly these passages seek to make us amazed at Jesus. He dazzled them, he was in the company of Moses and Elijah. The lunge to build booths is what we always do: what’s the takeaway? I’ve heard “After the mountaintop experience, you go back down into the valley and get to work.” But this text isn’t about us! It’s about God. We are to be awestruck. The takeaways is the disciples were awed, amazed, stunned, moved. Can you preach a sermon that simply says Wow! Jesus is amazing! How do I love Jesus? What is lovable about him? Let us count the ways.

   Luke’s Transfiguration episode is peculiar in that “They were speaking of his departure.” The Greek for “departure” is exodon, reminding us of the Exodus! ” Amazingly (to me), Luke reports that those with him are “sleepy” (as in Gethsemane!). Verse 33: “Master, it is good that we are here” must be the great understatement in all of Scripture! As in the Baptism texts, God says “Listen to him!” (as if God knows we won’t listen to Jesus!).
   At best, the takeaway is that we who are awed by Jesus listen to him. Or maybe we just adore and worship him. “Jesus, I adore you, lay my life before you, how I love you.” Or maybe Dorothy Day got it right: Robert Coles was interviewing her late in her life and asked her to jot down some autobiographical remembrances. She responded with this: “I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me. The other day I wrote down the words ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to try to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most – but I couldn’t do it. I just sat that there and thought of our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!”

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

What can we say February 24? 7th after Epiphany

   As a United Methodist, I will be at our General Conference this coming Sunday. Only you know what to say in your context - but here was my best effort to preach directly into where we are a couple of Sundays ago ("Remember Your Baptism").

   Genesis 45:3-11, 15, that profound narrative, for me the theological high water mark of the Old Testament and maybe all of Scripture, has come up recently in the lectionary: see my August 20 post for reflections and images. It would be hard to imagine a finer text for our broken denomination than this rich, miraculous story of reconciliation.

   1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 continues the lectionary’s 3-week run on Paul’s climactic “resurrection” chapter. For this segment’s focus, I might add the importance of helping folks understand the “spiritual body” that is pledged in Jesus’ resurrection – huge, as people worry about lost loved ones, and their own futures. In The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching & Worship, I explained it like this: “When we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus’ soul survived the death of his body, and yet we do not mean the mere resuscitation of a corpse.  The risen Jesus is not recognized, but then is recognizable. He can be touched, but then he pulls back.  He materializes, and then he vanishes. Paul spoke of the resurrection as involving a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15).  A body, yes, but spiritual, not merely a spirit, but a body, totally transformed, animated entirely by the Spirit, not liable to disease or death. So for those whose understanding of anatomy makes a resuscitation seem ridiculous, the Bible narrates something different, and far better – better even than the immortality of the soul. The Bible promises the resurrection of spiritual bodies.  We can rejoice, even if we lack clarity on this matter: ‘The Church binds us to no theory about the exact composition of Christ’s Resurrection Body’ (Dorothy Sayers).”

    And then, our Gospel: Luke 6:27-38, continuing last week’s opening of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain,” paralleling but adjusting a bit from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” It isn’t entirely sufficient when Christians use slogans like “Love Wins” (although, of course, it does) – as we’re still in the mode of love-as-my-preference/desire. Jesus envisions a love that is commanded; love can be and is commanded! Kierkegaard probed this deeply in Works of Love – a bit of a testimony to his own dark experience of rejected love. Luke translates Jesus (who spoke in Aramaic!) as speaking of agapé, unconditional, giving, fixed on the good of the other love. No reciprocity with Jesus: he does not say Do unto others so they will do unto you!

   To illustrate the radicality, Jesus says we love enemies, and beggars. Who are our enemies? We might picture strangers or dangerous people; Jesus’ first listeners might have growled at the Roman or tax collectors. But perhaps the enemies we must love are within the church (given our divisions…) – and maybe even (not to psychoanalyze) within my own soul. Amy-Jill Levine humorously recalls that moment in Fiddler on the Roof when the rabbi of Anatevka was asked “Is there a blessing for the Czar?” Yes: “May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!”

    Ben Witherington, reflecting on Jesus and forgiveness, tells a story he heard Corrie ten Boom tell – how she encountered the Nazi who had treated her sister brutally, leading to her death, and found forgiveness for him. Jesus’ most ignored commandment might just be “Do not judge.” We should be relieved that this terrible burden is not laid on us; maybe the key to love within the church, and to those outside, is precisely refraining from judgment.

    Jesus also speaks of love of beggars: “Give to everyone who begs from you” (which poses daunting challenges, and doesn’t entirely answer how we give to them). Kelly Johnson has gifted us with a marvelous book on the history and theology of begging: The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Beggars make otherwise invisible poverty visible, unavoidable. Yes, begging can be sloth or avarice, but the beggar still is always a challenge to holiness, wealth, generosity. In the Middle Ages, the Dominicans and Franciscans, chose to become beggars – in solidarity with the poor, and deliberately distancing themselves to the church’s corruptions with wealth. John Wesley saw beggars as a question: “The Lord has lodged money in your hands temporarily; what return will you make?” And Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day’s mentor, repeatedly said “What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.”

     Yes, we have to parse dependencies, and how we contribute through agencies. But we can always be kind to the poor, to beggars, giving them the gift of love. Marion Way, a great friend and longtime missionary in Brazil, would always stop when encountering a beggar, ask the person’s name, lay hands on him and pray.
   Finally, we have that lovely admonition in 6:38, the sort of thing my grandmother used to rattle off and leave us children puzzled but impressed: “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” What? To be sure, the Greek kolpos, translated “lap” can mean “bosom.” Grain would get caught in the folds of a woman’s garment… Levine and Witherington notice in this pithy, agricultural wisdom a movement from the shortest and mildest (good measure pressed down) to the longest and strongest (shaken, running over). Maybe it’s one of those sayings you don’t explain; you just let it hang, and it finds its own way into life, longing and largesse.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What can we say February 17? 6th after Epiphany

   While I adore Psalm 1 and its clear echo/reiteration in Jeremiah 17:5-10, I do not believe I have ever preached on either text.  The image is vivid – and one the preacher would be wise to ponder for her/his own personal life.  The shrub in the dryness is contrasted with the tree planted by the river. I recall a brilliant sermon I heard (on cassette tape, if that dates it…) about trees, and how the most important things happen in the dark, unseen (the roots holding the tree upright, feeding it with water and nutrients, etc.). What’s interesting is that such a tree “will not fear” and “will not be anxious.”  Somehow coping with, embracing and redeeming fear and anxiety are about deep roots, locating oneself near flowing water. Baptism image? Jesus as living water image?

   The linkage of our Epistle and Gospel remind me of All Saints’ Day, when we ponder the resurrection hope and also the Beatitudes! The lectionary offers the preacher a four week run through the long, profound and hugely important 1 Corinthians 15. This is week 2, following week 1’s creedal and personal testimonial business about the eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. This week, 15:12-20 reveals a deep, emotional appeal, almost a pleading yelp from Paul, his rhetorical masterpieces that underline why Easter matters and all that is at stake: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain as is your faith,” and “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” and “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  The preacher will be wise simply to lift these up, with pauses and emphasis. Hard to improve upon Paul’s plaintive directness.

    It is once again essential to notice how Paul ties the resurrection to forgiveness. It’s not “If Christ isn’t raised, your faith is futile and you stay dead when you die,” but “you are still in your sins.” The New Testament everywhere gets jazzed up that Jesus was raised – for now there is forgiveness! What did Anne Lamott say - that "not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die"?  How is forgiveness a liberation from the cold, dark bondage of the tomb? How is forgiveness as miraculous as a dead person up and walking about?

    The absence of forgiveness is very much a tomb. There must be no shortage of stories, images, and memories you might draw upon to show how resurrection, the unbolting of the chained door of death, the miraculous eruption of new life from the dead is entirely tied up with forgiveness – not that if you’re forgiven you get eternal life, but that forgiveness requires resurrection, that Jesus’ resurrection in particular is the one that unleashes a healing power so that impossible forgiveness actually happens. The Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, forgive the killer Charles Roberts, and assisted his family. For them, Jesus was raised from the dead, so they required and sought no vengeance; their sins forgiven, they could forgive.

    And then Paul’s “we are most to be pitied if our hope is in this life only.” You could easily say the life to come is fantastic and you’d be pitied to miss it. But I wonder if it’s especially pitiable to live the life of faith only for this life” – in two senses. If this life is all there is, but you’ve bet everything on eternal life, that is pathetic; you’d have been wiser to party hard and choose decadence. But then there is also the rejoinder to preachers – like me… - who get so fixated on justice and holiness and reconciliation and relationships here that we really do forget about eternity, when all we nag people about will effortlessly and simply be.

     U.C.San Diego psychologist Dr. Nicholas Christenfeld has studied whether knowing the end of the movie spoils or heightens your enjoyment of the movie – and he’s proven that it’s better to know how it’s going to end. Fascinating… and theologically intriguing. We know the end to the story – and so the rest of the story makes more sense, we get the struggle, the sorrows, the exasperation, and then we can calm down a little, and maybe be more courageous, and joyful.

     Luke 6:17-26 is, understandably, less popular than Matthew’s version of Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” Jesus clearly would have uttered these blessings many times in many places, with variations based on his crowd, what was unfolding in the news, his own temperament. Luke’s peculiarities? It’s a “level place,” not a mountain; and the immediate context is a rash of healings, and people stretching out just to touch him.

     But the major shifts are in his content. Jesus blesses not the “poor in spirit” (as in Matthew) but simply the “poor.” Clarence Jordan was once asked which was the better, original reading: “If you have a lot of money, you’ll probably say spiritual poverty. If you have little or no money, you’ll probably say physical poverty. The rich will thank God for Matthew; the poor will thank God for Luke. Who’s right? Chances are, neither one. For it is exactly this attitude of self-praise and self-justification and self-satisfaction that robs men of a sense of great need for the kingdom and its blessings. When one says ‘I don’t need to be poor in things; I’m poor in spirit,’ and another says ‘I don’t need to be poor in spirit; I’m poor in things,’ both are justifying themselves as they are saying in unison, ‘I don’t need.’ With that cry on his lips, no man can repent.”

     Recently sanctified Oscar Romero preached on this: “The world says: blessed are the rich. You are worth as much as you have. But Christ says: wrong. Blessed are the poor… because they do not put their trust in what is so transitory. Blessed are the poor, for they know their riches are in the One who being rich made himself poor in order to enrich us with his poverty, teaching us the Christian’s true wisdom.”

     The Greek word for “poor,” ptochoi, implies that they are not merely low on funds, but miserable, oppressed, humiliated.  So the miserable, oppressed and humiliated are blessed? By Jesus, yes. Remember the beatitudes aren’t commandments. Jesus looks on the poor, the humiliated, those ground into the pavement with no hope – and he blesses them, he sees them, he loves them, he makes outlandish promises to them.

     Something Matthew omitted: Jesus says “Blessed are you when they exclude you.” Being excluded, left out, passed over – an easy connecting point with your people, and maybe in your own soul, as clergy know about being excluded and passed over.

     Most intriguingly, Luke’s Jesus adds Woes. We might wish he’d stopped with the Blesseds. And his Woes are for those the world regards as blessed: the full, those laughing, the rich, those spoken well of. Again, this text, whether you preach it well or not, can cure the preacher’s soul. I want, I desperately crave to be spoken well of. Henri Nouwen pinpointed “popularity,” being liked, as one of the grave temptations of ministry. When they say Great sermon! or when they say Pastor is so wonderful! we should shiver a bit and dig deep to see if we are in sync with Jesus or not.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What can we say February 10? 5th after Epiphany

   Three great texts this week! Isaiah certainly, and probably 1 Corinthians also, are well worth the preacher exploring devotionally, apart from sermon preparations; both speak deeply to the clergy!

   Isaiah 6:1-13 is intriguing in so many ways. An unusually precise date and political context are provided, reminding us that Isaiah’s words aren’t the fruit of rumination, reflection or study. God spoke to him. And clearly he speaks to the political and social turmoil of his day, just as we preachers must, however delicately, however boldly we try to be courageous yet nonpartisan. Nobody called Isaiah nonpartisan…
   Isaiah 6 might challenge or heighten how we think about worship. He’s in the sanctuary, which is splendidly appointed. The room, its iconography and décor all come to life – but apparently no one else noticed. The prophet sees what others don’t see; the preacher must see what others don’t see or can’t see, or at least not yet. Did God come his way (as I’ve assumed)? Or was he what Walter Brueggemann called “an earthly intruder into the heavenly scene”?
    Might worship be as holy, as “hot” as it was for Isaiah? I remind my people periodically of what Amos Wilder wrote – so they might catch the vision: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks, the sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays, and you leave your watch outside.” Or Annie Dillard’s lovely thought: “I do not find Christians… sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

    Isaiah’s response to God’s immense holiness? He is awestruck (do we get awestruck? – as church people or even as pastors?), and as a reflex of that can only mutter “Woe is me.” Isaiah is no doubt a pretty good person, maybe even quite holy – but in the searing holiness of God’s presence, he realizes his woeful inadequacy. He is “reduced to nothing” (John Calvin). Maybe we miss out on God because we get too chummy with God. May talk of calling (here or in our Gospel) only begins when we are struck dumb by the holy God. Why after all did those fishermen traipse off after a guy they'd just met?

    The called are awed - and then saddened. We hear God, and then hear what God hears; we "let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God" (World Vision founder Bob Pierce). Sunday I heard the best sermon I've heard in a very long time by my colleague Uiyeon Kim who spoke of "becoming like children." When grownups are dissed or wounded by someone, we get mad, we want to get even or flee. Children though get sad, and they still want to love. Spiritual maturity is in the sadness, not the anger, in the love in the face of rejection. Isaiah is asked to exit the temple and re-enter a world that will make his heart, one with God's, sad. The awe will help...

    But he’s not shattered; being reduced to nothing, realizing our meekness is the opening for grace. Brueggemann again charts a move in this text “from the vision of splendor to the awareness of inadequacy to readiness for dispatch.” “Here Am I, send me” – and we Methodists will sing #593 (after opening with my lifetime favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”!).

    Any response to any call from God, large or small, lifelong or just for Sunday afternoon, requires new habits, a new discipline. Listeners shrink back, as this sounds like taking medicine or something unpleasant. I just read Tommy Tomlinson's wonderful book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, in which he reports on how hard it is to lose weight, the psychological dynamics, etc. Dropping the first few pounds required self-understanding, including why he'd resisted discipline for so long: "It felt like so much work. It is work. But the loose life - the life that looked like so much fun - turned out to be a fraud. It got me to 460 pounds. It threatens my life. It limits me more than a disciplined life ever could." The cost of discipleship vs. the cost of non-discipleship - maybe an idea that will preach?

   What stuns me, and might be a great help for all of us, is that God frankly informs Isaiah his ministry, which he must engage in, will in fact fail. We fret over failure; we worry about exhaustion. Otto Kaiser captured the hidden message in Isa. 6: “The preacher of the gospel, who faces the apparent failure of his ministry, and who is therefore tempted to despair, may recognize from the example of Isaiah that he is required to be wholly on the side of God in his heart, to let him be used by him as a tool, in whatever way God pleases.” – which yields “a peace and a freedom independent of outward success or failure.”

   I'm enjoying Tom Shippey's new book about the Vikings (the early medieval raiders, not the football team!). What is striking about their eloquent poetry is the way they honor and celebrate death and loss. There's little poetry about their many victories. But being crushed? They believed that "the only thing that could make you a loser would be giving up." In battle, the odds stacked against you? "What was the best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy's victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing." Such people are "impossible to daunt." The Vikings weren't Christian, but it's hard not to think of Christ's death - and our mission, our calling, Isaiah-style.
    For clergy and for your laity who feel they are failing, who are surely exhausted by the frustrating labor that is striving for God’s kingdom here on earth, I would urgently commend Marianne Williamson’s flat out brilliant Goop podcast. I’ve listened to it four times, and will again. It gives me courage, and good sense. Of course, Isaiah’s words are sealed up, and they do have an afterlife beyond his own life. A sermon may have zero impact today or tonight or this week. But years later? After you and I are dead and gone? Who knows?

    1 Corinthians 15:1-11 strikes me as a neglected but hugely important text. It’s like the creed used by the earliest Christians, has that poetic cadence, etc. What a lavish claim: people saw Jesus – not just a handful of biased guys with a vested interest, but to 500. It’s like a dare: go ask them! Hard to fool 500 about something like a resurrection. Clearly, the resurrection in question was no myth or spiritual insight. It’s physical, a real body, albeit a “spiritual,” transformed body – and it was sufficiently awe-inspiring (like Isaiah’s flying seraphim and cherubim!) as to incite less than brilliant fishermen to risk life and limb preaching the Gospel all over creation.

   Paul adds his own personal testimony. I suspect in our culture, so bogged down and confused by novels/movies like The DaVinci Code (Sir Leigh Teabing, played by Ian McKellen – Gandalf, right?? – sure looks smart and right, but it’s sheer fiction) and all those bestselling Christ-hater books, for the preacher to be able to say I know the questions, the speculations, the critics; but I, as a guy, not officially your preacher but as a person, I really do believe Jesus rose from the dead. I’ve staked my life on it. And it’s not just a belief qua belief. It is “the good news” – “in which we stand.” We stand, we don’t sit, we don’t observe. We stand up. As I have standing in, stand up for.
   And then Luke 5:1-11. Archaeologists, in one of the most amazing excavations in history, found a fishing boat in the Sea of Galilee dating to the time of Jesus. Wish it said S.S. Simon Peter on the prow! This is a boat Jesus most certainly saw. Might have stepped into it. A real boat – and so Jesus’ calling to these fishermen, for me, takes on a reality. Nothing mythic or spiritual.

    The story about the huge catch of fish is doubly interesting: Jesus does his miracle thing, but probably more importantly, their fishing business has never been better! David Lyle Jeffrey (Brazos/Luke): “At the absolute peak of their success as literal Genessaret fishermen, they forsook all and followed him.” Real guys with a business that’s booming, finally – and they abandoned all that to trek off to… well, they had no idea where, or what would happen, or how it would turn out.

    Of course, the church fathers made a big deal that a sanctuary might just look like a ship that’s upside down. The Latin word for boat, navis? Like the “nave” of the sanctuary? We are a boat. The Jesus boat, cast out onto the waters of the world, fishing for people, saving lives, bringing them safely to shore. Corny? Yeah… and holy.