Tuesday, November 27, 2018

What can we say July 7? 4th after Pentecost

   My take on our texts? I find 2 Kings 5 to be fertile for preaching; and I find Galatians and Luke to be texts I need to ponder for me and my ministry. So: 2 Kings 5:1-14, a riveting story of brokenness, humility, hope and healing. Peter Leithart even calls this text “the richest Old Testament story of baptism,” one that “anticipates Christian baptism.” Maybe.
    Naaman was a great, successful man of valor, of substance.  But… there is always a “but” isn’t there? “But” he was a leper. Robert Alter, in his great new translation of Scripture, renders tsara’at as “skin blanch,” the main symptom being loss of pigmentation, not lesions and lumps. Only the very bold preacher would dare to suggest that his problem is being white!

    He probably cloaked, with armor or sheer reputation and might, his humbling disability, as we usually hide our brokenness. His unsought humility was mirrored to him in the person of a young woman, who is small of stature, and female; he is a captain, she is a captive. All other healers having failed him, Naaman is desperate enough to follow her tip.

   The not-yet-humbled Naaman rumbles up to Elisha’s house reining in his stallions, bearing gifts, expecting to pay his way to healing, to grease a few palms. He’ll come out for me (the Hebrew of “for me” is emphatic). The wealthy and powerful grouse about the poor feeling entitled; but who feels more entitled than the wealthy and powerful? Such a barrier against God’s grace!
     Elisha is unimpressed. After all, once you’ve seen chariots and horses blazing with fire, riding not across rugged terrain but soaring above the clouds (2 Kings 2), a bunch of steeds pulling a cocky chieftan atop wooden wheels just doesn’t raise your pulse. Not deigning to come out, Elisha disses Naaman, enraging him. Naaman was prideful, but perhaps pride was all he had left. Much as we might do in the privacy of the doctor’s or therapist’s office, we’ve dressed well, and mention some cool thing we did last night – but obviously we have come not for banter, but to be healed, to reveal the “but,” to expose what hinders us, hoping, blushing.

   Fascinating:  Elisha could have come out; he could have made the trip himself to Damascus; he could have healed at a distance. But he let Naaman come to him. When Joseph’s brothers were hungry, he could have shipped food to them, but he let them come. Joseph didn’t want them merely to fill their bellies; he wanted to heal the relationship. Elisha didn’t want Naaman merely to be rid of leprosy; he wanted him to be more deeply healed. By not even paying him the courtesy of coming to the door, Elisha reverses the sorry tale Jesus would tell of a rich man not coming to the door to help out a poor leper!
      Elisha’s prescription isn’t courteous either: bathe in the Jordan. Pilgrims to Israel chuckle when they see the Jordan, hardly a river at all, more of a stream, a creek. Naaman protests: shouldn’t his cure be more dazzling, perhaps dipping himself in the pools by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or some exotic salve imported from Ethiopia? It’s just water, it’s always been there; it’s all around, it’s what I am made of.

     Faith is the crumpling of pride (as my theology professor Robert Cushman used to say). This morning a friend texted me a photo of the epitaph on Don Knotts's grave, which reads " He saw the poignancy in people’s pride and pain, and turned it into something hilarious and endearing" - and I thought of Naaman. I picture him as tall, strapping, muscular; but maybe he was more like Barney Fife, a bit ridiculous but not to himself. 
Or was he Barney Fife, hiding inside the tall, strapping guy? Is faith, the crumpling of pride, somehow the realization that there is real poignancy in our pride and pain, and it ultimately is endearing?

   Elisha invites Naaman to achieve this humility through something as simple, as obvious, as unimpressive as a bit of water only Elisha or somebody desperately thirsty would think of as powerful. I do not know if Naaman flailed a bit trying to get his whole body under such a shallow, coursing stream. But we know there was a miracle in that water. Sure, the leprosy washed downstream. Yet more importantly, when he stepped up onto the river bank, drenched and dripping, he was no longer a man, but a boy: “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child,” like the little maiden who showed him the way, like all of us when we “become like children.”

    Without romanticizing childhood, we may recognize its virtues: vulnerability, an implicit demand for justice, the way children show their treasures, weep in the open, accept grace easily, suffer no illusions of independence, and are easily amazed. All of Christianity is a kind of return to childhood, a training in humility. All of our gestures seem silly: folding our hands, bowing our heads, kneeling. How do you get ahead or defend yourself acting in these ways? We believe in vulnerability, humility, a bit of flailing in embarrassment. Dipping in a no account river on the suggestion of a two-bit prophet who wouldn’t even answer the door: the foolishness of God is wiser than all of us.
     The humility goes on. Sensing his nascent excitement about Elisha’s God will be compromised at home, Naaman rather charmingly scoops up some dirt to carry back with him, to cling to some piece of holiness in an unholy place. “Elisha does not expect Naaman to abandon the world or withdraw into a ghetto where he can escape moral dilemmas and difficulties” (Leithart). Not only is our post-baptized life full of dilemmas and difficulties; we fail miserably. We cannot heal ourselves, or achieve what God wants of us. But we remember the water, the awkward humiliation – and wasn’t it at precisely that moment of spiraling out of control, of losing all hope and dignity, that a slight rustling of wings was heard, and a whispered message, something like “this is my beloved child,” just a boy, a girl, small, wet, like we were at birth, like we will be when we are greeted at the door by fiery chariots?
    Galatians 6:1-16 isn’t a text that prompts much homiletical creativity in me. Paul’s counsel not to grow weary, though, speaks to us clergy (and could to laity too) who stave off exhaustion and burnout. I am reminded of Marianne Williamson’s Goop podcast, “Who Are You in Crisis?” in which Gwyneth Paltrow whined of being weary in working for the cause – and Williamson chided her, reminding all of us of how slaves, African-Americans in the 50’s, Jews in concentration camps, and so many others who’ve suffered far worse haven’t had the luxury of feeling tired or taking a break from the cause for a season. {Parenthetically, isn't it curious, lovely, and strange to see Marianne Williamson on stage with other Democratic presidential candidates??}

    And then Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. I wish I were better at preaching such a text. Such hackneyed metaphors (harvest/laborers, lambs/wolves – and I start humming “Bringing in the Sheaves”), and then Jesus at his most apocalyptic: “Satan falling like lightning from heaven” (so has the apostolic ministry struck a blow to Satan’s cause? Or are they about to get fried in Satan’s fire?). Jesus sends out 70 (or is it 72?): where did he find 5 dozen serious disciples beyond the twelve? Is the number symbolic (evoking Jacob’s family, Gen. 46:27; or the elders on Mt. Sinai, Ex. 24:9; or the number of the world’s nations, Gen. 10)? 
They are “appointed” (anadeiknumi, which Levine and Witherington are sure refers to an “official commissioning”) – a term that would make any United Methodist pastor shiver! They go two by two – like the animals entering the ark?

   Clearly Jesus is saying this work is daunting, and there will be much failure. Galatians (and Marianne Williamson) remind us not to grow weary. I’m drawn toward the words of Reinhold Niebuhr (“Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime”) and Vaclav Havel (“Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is good, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not”). 

Monday, November 26, 2018

What can we say June 30? 3rd after Pentecost

    2 Kings 2:1-14 provides us with one of the more touching scenes in Scripture. Elisha, attached to Elijah since that moment when he was out plowing and he unexpectedly had a mantle thrown over him (1 Kings 19), and when he abruptly left his oxen right out in the field, like Jesus’s fishermen to come, and traipsed off after him, so very understandably and zealously refuses to let Elijah get away from him. Twice he reiterates, “I will not leave you.” And after Elijah’s strange movements indicate he preferred to go off and die alone. In an unforgettable scene at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, Samwise Gamgee jumps in the water, not knowing how to swim. Barely surviving, he explains, “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.”

    The text says this happens “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…” Today we think, What? Imagine back then, when death was quite simply the end, no thoughts of eternal life! Elisha, humbled, in awe, grieving, asks humorously and again understandably for a “double share” of Elijah’s power. He’ll need it… and if you count, Elisha’s miracles exactly double Elijah’s (16 to 8!) – just as Jesus told his disciples, who didn’t believe him surely, that they would do even greater things.

   Elijah leaves this earth in… a whirlwind? In a chariot of fire? Chariots of Fire was a great film with many profound moments pondering sabbath observance – and joy. The mantle Elijah had thrown on Elisha when they first met was the mantle draped over Elisha’s shoulders as Elijah departed. Did it fit? Was it too big? In The Lord of the Rings, the wise wizard Gandalf somewhat foolishly left the course of affairs in Middle Earth to the diminutive, fun-loving, timid hobbits. “Despair, or folly?” asked Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”

   A virtuous approach to preaching here could be to speak of the importance of mentors. Who are the wise sages who know you in depth and speak to the holy in you, and rouse you from the stupor of your complacency? I can tell of my mentor, God's astonishingly great gift to me, Father Roland Murphy, who was far more than a professor and doctoral advisor to me. Who is or has been your mentor? Might you be a mentor to someone?

  {Parenthetically, if you are interested in mentoring as it relates to ministry, you might enjoy this collection of essays I edited with Jason Byassee and Craig Kocher a couple of years ago - called Mentoring for Ministry: The Grace of Growing Pastors}.

    Galatians 5:1, 13-25 arrives in the lectionary as if timed to stake out what freedom is (and isn’t) as we ramp into July 4. The text does not say You are free! So freely choose God! or God gives you freedom and hopes you’ll choose good instead of sin. No, it’s that Christ sets us free, implying we are (as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, all the great theologians have clarified) most assuredly not free. Our wills are bound, shackled, to sin, self, world. Our only hope is to be liberated by the miracle of God’s Spirit – and once free, it’s not so we might do as we wish, but so we might then bind ourselves freely and joyfully to God, to do God’s bidding – as Wesley put it, My life is no longer my own.

    Paul’s words, genius or inspired, recognize that a battle is being waged in the soul. Do we even notice any longer? Flesh vs. Spirit (which isn’t visible vs. invisible/“spiritual”) – flesh being idolatry, jealousy, anger, dissension (sounds like my denomination!) vs. the Spirit, which is tangible, real life as motivated by God’s Spirit.

   The “fruit of the Spirit” is one of those shining moments in Scripture we could ponder forever. People ask What is God’s will? Galatians 5:22 could keep you occupied every minute for decades. I’m especially fond of Phil Kenneson’s thoughtful book, Life on the Vine.

    Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16), and “My Father is glorified when you bear fruit... I have said these things so my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:8).

 Thomas Merton said “a tree gives glory to God by being a tree.” Am I like a tree? My life is not my own: I depend on the sun, the rain, the grace and power of God which I do not control, but only soak up as precious gifts. I live in the light, but my roots go down deep where it is dark - so perhaps I need not fear the darkness? What is growing on my branches? Am I bearing fruit? or am I just some driftwood that used to be a tree?

   Holiness is not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying really diligently to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants of me, I am not capable of the life God wants for me. A changed life is the gift of God's Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit.” Not “the fruit of my good intentions,” but the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”

   Not only are these not against the law. They are not the law! Paul does not say, “You must be joyful, patient, faithful.” Rather, if we just calm down and let the Spirit have its way with us, we discover to our delightful surprise traces of joy, peace, gentleness in our lives, all gift, all the work of God in us. These nine (love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) are what trees look like when giving glory to God, swayed only by the wind of the Spirit, watered by the grace of Baptism.

   I wonder if the preacher might lift up a story, a face, a short biographical sketch of someone who lives such a fruitful life. Whom do you know – in your world or in history, who has been loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle? Notice how a joyful person is also a patient person, the kind person is peaceful. They feed off one another, depend on one another.

   Consider joy, so different from happiness. Like all fruit, joy requires time, tending, maturity. Evelyn Underhill notes that “it is rather immature to be upset about the weather... Pursuing the spiritual course, we must expect fog, cold, persistent cloudiness, gales, and sudden stinging hail, as well as the sun.” Joy is about consistency in the spiritual life. Joy knows God is incapable of drifting away from us, and the very fact that we turn our heads and grope after God in the dark is God’s gift that gives birth to joy.

    Luke 9:51-62. Luke’s overall plot are in evidence here. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up”: as we see in Luke, volume 2 (Acts 1), the climax of Jesus’ work is his ascension, when he leaves the church behind to be his Body. He turns his face to Jerusalem: in the first half of his ministry, Jesus is an actor, in control, impressive, striding across the stage of history – but then in part 2, he is increasingly passive, acted upon, headed to die. He is “handed over.”
 This (as W.H. Vanstone pointed out in The Stature of Waiting) is the plot of our lives: we are active, but then late, we are increasingly passive, acted upon – and that is Jesus’ glory, and our glory (so counter-cultural…).

     The Samaritans irritate the disciples – so they wish to bring down fire: very Elijah-like! – undergirding our notion that Elijah’s summoning of fire was not God’s wish (from last week's blog). They are overly or inappropriately zealous – in distinction from those who have good intentions but aren’t really ready to follow Jesus: We have very important things to do that keep us from Jesus. We clergy do, the people we preach to do. Good cause for much mercy, and yet never any slight complacency that we are already the disciples Jesus longs for! Foxes have holes. We have our homes, etc. Let the dead bury their dead. 
Hard not to think of John Wesley, missing his own wife’s funeral – not entirely out of zeal for the Lord, I might add.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

What can we say June 23? 2nd after Pentecost

   In the summer, I frequently preach on Old Testament texts. With vacations, etc., you lose the thread of the ongoing Gospel story. Plus people are out and about in the world, on the ground, and the OT has more of that flavor.

     1 Kings 19:1-15 is an astonishing text. Elijah has just come from his crushing victory over the prophets of Baal – but do we read that story truly? And if we read it more wisely, doesn’t that cast today’s text in a different light? On the surface, Elijah defeats Yahweh’s foes, and spectacularly. But a couple of years ago, I attended to what Jonathan Sacks had to say about 1 Kings 18, as he had himself attended to what Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher had said. Taking into account the rest of Scripture, he noticed some interesting details. God did not tell Elijah to challenge the Canaanite prophets, and God certainly did not direct Elijah to slaughter them. Prophets are not to intimidate or terrorize others; compulsion and force are not God’s ways. Elijah’s “zeal” for God was not holy. God was fuming with Elijah afterwards, which is why he wound up alone on Mount Horeb. Elijah had to learn the hard way the extreme dangers of religious zealotry. His show of strength impressed, but with catastrophic results.

    At first I thought, Too much of a stretch. But 1 Kings 18 should mortify us, as it depicts God acting like a Greek deity tossing thunderbolts down to earth, and savage in slaughtering clueless people. We all know church leaders can be ruthless. Is God pleased when, in a loud sermon or a snarky blog post, we dispatch those who think wrong? In verse 10 of our text, Elijah (is he whining or boasting?) declares “I have been zealous for the Lord.” But God does not ask us for titanic displays of zeal. Henri Nouwen, in his great little book on pastoral leadership, worries that we succumb to the temptations to be impressive, to be relevant, to be popular. Elijah’s big miracle had zero lasting impact.

    Misguided or not, the very effort to carry out God’s will can be exhausting. After a hard, hot day of trudging through the wilderness, he slumps down under “a solitary broom tree.” Even the pitiful little tree is lonely! Then Elijah cried out “It is enough!” (1 Kgs 19:4). The Hebrew isn’t three words and four syllables, as in “It is enough!” With crisp brevity, really nothing more than a grunt, Elijah emitted a yelp, a groan, one word, one syllable only: rav! Croaking in exhaustion, burned out: rav!

    His next word was just as abrupt, emphatic, just a single syllable even in English: “Now!” I’ve had enough; I want it to end – “Now!” So harrowing, this urge toward death – now. Why was he so weary and disillusioned? Was it the vicious hounding from Jezebel, Ahab and their henchmen? Was it his own hard-headedness? Was God to blame? It was God who got Elijah into this mess in the first place. Leadership grows weary. Where is the blame to be laid? Is it the job? Is it the circumstances? Is it God?

   Elijah meandered as far as Mount Horeb, and his arrival there whets our appetite for something marvelous to happen. Moses went up into a cloud on that same mountain, and spoke with God face to face. We might hope or expect that God would soothe Elijah, offer some rest and relaxation, some reassurance, maybe a sabbatical from his grueling prophetic schedule. But instead, exposed to the elements, Elijah had to withstand a wind storm so strong it broke rocks into pieces, and then an earthquake, and then fire – which Elijah had welcomed in his contest with the 450 prophets! But now? 1 Kgs 19:12 reports that the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake or fire. Doesn’t this interpret 1 Kings 18 as Maimonides and Sacks did?

   After setting God far apart from the storm and fire, the writer tersely adds, “and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Older translations rendered this “a still small voice,” which to me can run us into sweet sentimentality. The Hebrew (qol demama dakka) is better: there was silence, total, crushing, deafening silence. What kind of response to Elijah’s cry was the hollow nothingness of total silence?

     There is so much ambiguity in this (and every) silence. Is God refusing to speak? Is it a test? How often do leaders look for some sign, some obvious word, but are greeted with nothing but no word at all? Is it an invitation into something deeper in the heart of God? Mother Teresa said “God is the friend of silence,” and most great mystics have probed and learned to delight in the quiet that is at the core of God’s being. When we listen for God and hear only silence, especially if we are alone, does it feel like loneliness – or solitude? Isn’t solitude a razor’s edge from loneliness and yet different by light years? Solitude is being quiet, and alone, but with God. If Sabbath is a time to be quiet with God, then perhaps silence is the most tender, restful way God is with us.

  For me, this "still small voice" or "total, deafening silence" was enfleshed for me when my older daughter Sarah showed me her first ever tattoo. After announcing she'd gotten one, and that I was maybe the only dad who might understand and appreciate it, she pulled back her hair and showed me those Hebrew words, qol demama dakka, just behind her ear. It took me a minute... What a powerful image: the ear, right where we hear, it's God's small voice, or really better, that agonizing, wonderful silence.

   God's silence is... okay, even good, perhaps stupendous, tender and beautiful. Silence for us is perhaps our most important labor for God and others. Proverbs repeatedly suggests that the fool chatters on, while the wise listen. Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, interviews people - and reports that his greatest tool in interviewing is silence. People will talk if you give them the space. So his notebooks from interviews constantly have jotted in the margin, in huge letters, SU, SU, SU. Shut up. Don't talk. Listen. Wait. Silence.

     Our Gospel text, Luke 8:26-39, has a comical edge to an otherwise darkly tragic yet redemptive story. Jesus has clearly strayed from Jewish territory (a rarity for him), as this town has a pig farm. Where exactly was it? The textual variants on the name: Gadara, Gergesa, Gerasa… Amy-Jill Levine (The Gospel of Luke) humorously suggests that as gerash means to “expel,” the place could be dubbed “Expelledville” or “Exorcismburg.” The preacher has space to explore the torment of the man. Is it severe mental illness – which they didn’t understand then, and which churches often can’t embrace and cope with today? John Calvin wondered why the spirits kept this man among the tombs, and concluded it was “to rend him with unending terror at the gloomy spectacle of death” (reminding me of Ernest Becker’s classic The Denial of Death, in which he explores how fear of death drives all human behavior, anxiety, dysfunction, etc.).

    The tormenting spirit/spirits’ name? Legion. Provocative: could mean it’s a few thousand, and that the spirits are like an armed force. Also, theological eyes see here and everywhere that cosmic warfare is unfolding – so it’s never just this or that conflict, but the powers battling it out through us and history. You also have to acknowledge that the real Roman legions were a huge psychological and physical affliction for the people. What’s wrong with you? The oppressive society, regime, whatever.

   The demons plead not to be cast into the abyss – in the sea nearby, where the disciples just in the previous scene pleaded not to be tossed during the storm! Ironically, this legion doesn’t want to go there, but then madly and ironically that’s where they stampede once inhabiting the pigs.

    Their unity, in a day when church people talk a lot about unity, is striking. Logicians refer to the “Gadarene Fallacy,” which is the mistake of supposing that because a group is together and in good formation moving steadily in the same direction, they must be on a good path. And of course, the economic consequences to a healing: how often in Scripture is someone healed and rage rises because of lost profits? Acts 19 and the silversmiths, their business model of selling figurines of Artemis, stymied by a healing, and turmoil ensues. David Lyle Jeffrey’s comment is funny, and on point: “That the price of pork bellies was bound to jump higher wouldn’t much cheer those with no hogs left to sell.”

  ** Much of this Elijah section is excerpted from my book about biblical and modern leadership, Weak Enough to Lead.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

What can we say June 16? Trinity Sunday

   While Proverbs 8 and Psalm 8 both speak eloquently and picturesquely of creation as sparked, surrounded, and permeated by God’s Trinitarian presence, I want to focus this week on Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15. It’s Trinity Sunday. In March I did a Q&A with our confirmands, and one asked why the Trinity isn’t polytheism – and we were exactly 3 minutes before the hard stop time. A sermon similarly doesn’t provide enough time to do anything but hint at the wonder of God as an eternal fellowship of love.

   I do recall that back in seminary we had a talent show each year. A favorite moment came when students would do impersonations of professors, and we’d guess who was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he began incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.

   So our epistle, Romans 5:1-5. I keep imagining Paul, pacing, thinking out loud, grimacing like Tom Langford, dictating to a scribe what we now read. He had to be uber-inspired as he sorted things out without the benefit of a New Testament or even one volume of theology on his shelf. He’s not figured out a Trinity yet, but he wrestles with the idea of “peace with God the Father through Jesus,” and “the Spirit poured into our hearts.” I wonder if a sermon might look like Tom Langford, and we simply restate, with uhs and sighs, the notion that we are at peace with God the Creator, through the agency of Jesus (his cross being, perhaps, like a wooden bridge from us into the heart of God, as Catherine of Siena suggested) – and as we weigh all this, our hearts pulsate with joy and energy, the Spirit not so much an emotional jolt but an undercurrent of understand, insight, aha!

     And then I always like to repeat Paul’s stunning litany – and maybe without explanation: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” I might pause there and say hope might not disappoint? Or rather, segue into what Christopher Lasch taught us about hope’s ability to cope with disappointment, and how it is so very different from optimism: “Hope doesn’t demand progress; it demands justice, a conviction that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope appears absurd to those who lack it. We can see why hope serves us better than optimism. Not that it prevents us from expecting the worst; the worst is what the hopeful are prepared for. A blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”

    Optimism depends on us; it’s Scarlett O’Hara’s na├»ve view that things will somehow be better tomorrow. Hope depends on God; it can bear tomorrow being worse.

    Our Gospel, John 16:12-15, is so titillating. Jesus has “many things to say, but you can’t bear them now.” Jesus will continue to speak long after Good Friday and Easter, though the Spirit – and I wonder if there’s some hint in there that the fullness of Jesus’ truth is something you can only grasp over time, only after much pondering and getting ready. The preacher would be wise to remember this: that you can’t just download the riches of the Gospel into people’s heads. They aren’t ready for it all just yet. Be patient. Dole out some, hint at more to come.

    This “spirit of truth” is perilous, as too many Christians treat “truth” as some sledgehammer to judge or belittle others. St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century): “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth without Love is unable to fly, so too Love without Truth is unable to soar up; their yoke is one of harmony.” Denominations are lousy about truth; both “sides” blithely presume to have cornered it. I love Ephraim Radner’s insight: “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.”  Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”

   Truth somehow begins, ends and may well be fulfilled in silence. Our people, and we clergy ourselves may feel uncomfortable with silence, or exasperated by it. Oscar Romero, speaking to hurting, fearful Salvadorans feeling forsaken by God – on Good Friday, 1980! – said, “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray any more. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”

    Our text underlines what Frederick Dale Bruner once suggested – that the Holy Spirit is the “shy” member of the Trinity, preferring to glorify others, like the backstage help doing everything to make the star on stage shine.

    We are having Holy Communion this Sunday at my place – which draws me to reflect on the Rublev icon. Once I spoke of it and imagined three friends at dinner, inviting you, us, to join at our viewer’s side of the table. God’s Threeness yearns for the one who’s not yet there, maybe like that shepherd leaving 99 sheep to seek out the one.

  Check out my two most recent books. For leaders in church, business, community? Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership – and then also Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.

Friday, November 23, 2018

What can we say June 9? Pentecost

   On Pentecost and the Holy Spirit in general, and attention to Acts 2:1-21 (and the alternate reading, Genesis 11), check out last year’s blog. To keep myself from the same old same old, I think I’ll focus on the Epistle, Romans 8:14-17, or the Gospel, John 14:8-17 (25-27) – or both (daring to commit the semi-schizophrenic sin of focusing on two texts).

    Periodically, when preaching on one of Paul’s letters, I invite people to imagine him sitting at a rough, simple desk, pen in hand – or even better, pacing back and forth, furrowing his brow, dictating to a scribe who had to be slack-jawed in admiration as Paul, out of thin air (or in a spasm of inspiration), spoke of eternal, emotional, empowering things with unmatched eloquence. If Paul dictated nothing else, Romans 8 would stand as a masterpiece of theology. Maybe Pentecost implies that God moved in untold ways in Paul’s mind and heart, enabling him to perceive what no one had ever perceived – and then, miraculously, it comes across the centuries to us in a Bible. Ours is to read slowly, in considerable awe, praying to that same Spirit to show us something, to move our minds and hearts.

    We are “children of God,” a notion we might take for granted until we ponder that no other religion ever dared such familial intimacy. The Roman deities had children, usually the fruit of sophomoric encounters. Achilles might be a typical “child of a god,” heroic, muscular, flawed but not your ordinary guy. Paul wrote to nobodies, and to somebodies, and they all are God’s children not because of their abilities or brilliance or derring-do, but as the gift of God’s Spirit.

    As children, they address God as “Abba,” an idea frequently preached upon. Recently I’ve wondered what Jesus’ first word might have been. He adored his mama, of course – but did he look at Joseph one day and intelligibly utter “Abba”? He knew Joseph’s tender mercy; did that help Jesus fathom the wonder of God his Father’s tender mercy?

     Knowing people trembled before petty, moody deities like Achilles’ dad, Paul in his thin place explains we need not fear God or anything else. We aren’t in slavery. Well, we are. We are slaves to self, to sin, to the culture, to our brokenness. God in Christ through the Spirit liberates us to be God’s children. And it’s adoption! Astonishing: when conceiving of the most wondrous relationship possible with God, Paul fixes his gaze upon what might seem as second rate relationship: the adopted, not naturally born one.

    I have a book coming out later this year about Birth – with a chapter on adoption. Let me share a few excerpts as we explore adoption theologically (and this fits both Romans 8 and John 14!). How many people through history were adopted? Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Lafayette, the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Aristotle, Confucius, and Nelson Mandela. Queen Esther of the Bible was adopted. Superman was adopted, and so was Buddy, who was raised by an elf at the North Pole but then finally located his father, Walter, in New York. The profoundly moving film, “Lion,” tells the story of Saroo, adopted by an Australian family, finally managing to locate his mother in rural India. The themes of vulnerability, love and reconciliation in such stories fascinate all of us, including those who’ve never adopted or been adopted.

     Consider Harry Potter: Albus Dumbledore delivered him as a baby to the Dursleys after the murder of young Harry’s parents. Of course, Harry wasn’t the only thing that Dumbledore left behind him on this occasion: he also granted Harry some strong magic granting him absolute protection from Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters while he lived with the Dursleys – until he came of age on his seventeenth birthday. And what story of an orphan is more compelling than John Irving’s stellar Cider House Rules, where Dr. Larch not only cares for orphans, but reads to them from great literature before bedtime, bidding them off to sleep with these immortal, encouraging words: “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”

     Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then she wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

    Relatives by Baptism, by the blood of the cross, by the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. How cool is it that Jesus, at the Last Supper, and in our Gospel reading for this week, promised his disciples and us that “I will not leave you orphaned.” The Greek, orphanous, is sometimes translated “desolate.” Jesus embraces and enfranchises not to well-born, but all who are born. Prevenient, prevailing grace.

    But before we rummage around the John text, don’t neglect Paul’s one condition to his even more fantastic promise: you not only get adopted, but you inherit the wealth of the glorious kingdom! It’s like Rockefeller or better took me in and left me the riches! We surely may wish Paul had put a period after the word “heirs.” But no: he had to add “if we suffer with him.” It’s not, Oh, you might suffer for him. You will. And only if you do will that inheritance come. 

    The preacher has to parse what this might look like – not just for them but for the preacher. I do recall going to the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” film. The guy sitting in front of me was sobbing after it ended. I asked “What are you feeling?” He said “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.” Paul suggests precisely the opposite in Romans 8, and saints through the centuries didn’t become saints because they were shielded from all difficulty by God. In a world out of sync with God, and if it’s Jesus whom we’re attached to, there will be pain, friction, some piercing.

    Finally, a couple of thoughts on John 14:8-17 (25-27). “Show us the Father” prompted Jesus (was he frustrated, annoyed, patient?) to say “He’s right here in front of you, you’ve been walking around with a clear window into the Father’s heart for three years!” But notice it’s not just a window. Maybe it’s a mirror. “You will do even greater works.” Show us the Father? We, inept, confused, broken disciples, are Jesus Body; we are the window to the Father. How odd of God to choose a fledgling band of such weaklings. And yet that is God’s own glory. 

    Gerhard Lohfink put it beautifully: “How does God’s omnipotence reach its goal in the world? – only through people… God is revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will, and trust of human beings, thus surrendering all power and yet achieving the divine purpose in the world. God attains this goal because in this world joy in God’s story is ultimately strong than all inertia and greed, so that this joy seizes people and gathers them into the people of God.”

     And quickly: Jesus very dangerously said “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it.” False – or true in a spiritually robust way. It’s not that if you mutter “in Jesus’ name,” God is obligated. To ask in Jesus name is to ask with a heart very close to Jesus’ heart, in sync with what Jesus would will. Praying in Jesus’ name is more likely to be “Not my will, but your will,” or “Love does not insist on its own way.”

  Check out my two most recent books. For leaders in church, business, community? Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership – and then also Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What can we say June 2? Easter 7 (and Ascension, and Visitation)

     The full set of texts in the lectionary presents an array of options. May 31 marks the “visitation,” when Mary arrived to see Elizabeth, both pregnant with hugely important people. The tenderness of their time together is moving, lovely, theologically provocative. For me, it’s a classic text that doesn’t have a “takeaway” or a “go thou and do likewise.” The preacher can just marvel, gawk, stare in awe at this moment when two women are simply with another another. I'll mention this visitation when I preach this Sunday on Acts 16 (see below) - as it involves singing (which Mary and Elizabeth did!) in fearful circumstances.

     Elizabeth’s words form part of the rosary recitation Catholics recite. Henri Nouwen’s moving “A Spirituality of Waiting.”  It’s been excerpted or printed partially various places, but I’d advocate listening: you can download an mp3 here.  Nouwen’s voice and inflection are stunning, and he draws you into the experience, exploring how we hate to wait, what underlies that anxiety, but then how Mary and Elizabeth waited – and did so together.  And the distinction between waiting for and waiting on – and how we might wait on God while we wait for God.

     The day before, May 30, is the Ascension, with Acts 1:1-11 as our text – and then Acts 1:12-26, which is hardly a break from 1-11, for Easter 7! I preached on this 3 years ago, if you'd like to watch.  Skeptics hoot over the idea of Jesus defying gravity (Wicked, anyone? or John Mayer, anyone else?) and floating up into heaven.  The art is all hokey - of course.  Own it.  What better time to say to the skeptic, the intellectuals, the doubters, that yes, there's room in church for you too.

     The ancient view of a 3-storied universe becomes no real problem at all if we recall that Jesus was raised with a “spiritual body” (as we will be too) – a body, but a transformed kind of body that appears and disappears…  Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest, March 28) asks if we are loyal, first to my intellect and only then to Jesus?  “Faith is not intelligent understanding, faith is a deliberate commitment to a Person.”  How can we entertain solid science questions with candor, grace, and flat out interest, and yet stay committed to whatever is at the heart of the story of the Ascension - which shows up in our creed every week?

     I'll never forget a sermon I heard early in my ministry from a hardscrabble, not-very-pious preacher who tackled the Ascension story with loads of quibbles and questions - but then said "All I can figure is that this story gets Jesus back home where he belongs, with his Father in heaven."  Not bad.

     What commitments does this Person ask of us and inspire in us in Acts 1:1-14?  There are at least three – and John expands on those.  Jesus exits, leaving the disciples alone.  Think Lord of the Rings: Gandalf is with the hobbits for a while on their adventure, but then he leaves them on their own for some time.  They face horrific difficulties, requiring courage and hope; they need one another; they have to stick together.  Gandalf shows up again at the climax, but then bids them farewell once more.  The plot mirrors the Bible’s:  Jesus heals, dazzles, teaches, suffers, is raised – and then he leaves.  He trusts them - the little, unlikely ones. And he trusts us, we unlikely ones.  Instead of dominating them, or creating codependency, he entrusts his future to them.  We are Jesus here, now. 

In the words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world.  Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.  My first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, spent 100 pages explicating this.

     This takes us to the wonderfully suggestive phrase in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  That is, Luke’s Gospel is what Jesus began; Acts is Luke’s narrative of how his people continued what he began.  So, whatever Jesus did, we do the same kinds of things.  WWJD?  We can only answer this by becoming open-minded students of Luke (and Acts helps us) – as then it’s never mere niceness, or judgmental attitudes, but sharing property, touching untouchables, and more.  Does the church today – does my church today – continue what Jesus began, and what the first disciples continued?

     The lectionary also supplies us with Acts 16:16-34. I'll preach on this - and am pondering a structure in which I'll begin at the end: at midnight, with singing in jail. Then backtracking: how did they get there? The slave girl's liberation. And then back to Lydia - and the fact that God had called them to come there, and ask what challenges God's call entails, but then how the joy and peace come.

   How humorous: Paul encounters a possessed woman, evidently traipsing around after him, and he gets annoyed! Background: for centuries, people had travelled to Delphi (a stunningly picturesque place!) to consult the Oracle there - which was a temple where the priest would lead you to speak with the Pythia, the "pythoness," a woman who would breathe subterranean hallucinogenic fumes, and utter (allegedly) the words of Apollo. A famous case: Croesus, king of Lydia (fitting for Acts 16!) asked the oracle if he should cross the Halys and attack Cyrus's army. The response, "You will destroy a great empire," excited him. Then he asked if he would rule long. Her reply, "Your foe is but a mule." He crossed the river and was thrashed by Cyrus. Yes, he did destroy an empire - his own. And Croesus didn't parse that a mule is a mongrel, and so was Cyrus (his mother a Mede, his father a Persian). Delphi was so profitable that they set up branch establishments in cities around the empire - including Philippi.

     Once this enslaved pythoness was healed, the reaction of the citizens in Phillipi – a “little Italy” of relocated Roman veterans – tells us about early Christianity and raises a question about our purpose today as Christians: “These men are disturbing our city… They are advocating customs that are not lawful.” Light years from us blessing America and the status quo. Paul clearly didn’t get the memo about keeping politics and religion separate… And so they are imprisoned in what must have been a cold, hard, dark stone cavern with zero amenities.
     And instead of whining, they sing. In The Children, David Halberstam tells about the night in 1961 in a Jackson, Mississippi jail. A young civil rights protester with a stunning voice began to sing.  The cells grew quiet, enthralled by James Bevel’s solo.  The white prison guard demanded quiet.  But Bevel sang on.  The guard arrived at the door and asked for the radio:  “No radios allowed in here – you niggers ought to know that.”  Bevel replied, “You ain’t getting the radio – not this one.”  And then he continued singing “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  The guard, uncertain if he felt anger or faith, walked away.

     Ponder the Philippian church. Meeting in the home of relatively wealthy Lydia, we have her, a slave girl, and a middling government official, the jailer – and his wife and children. The Jesus movement fashions churches that cross social boundaries – and then there is a unity in Jesus that the world thinks impossible:

     Our Gospel reading, John 17:20-26, shares Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers – and clearly Jesus continues to pray for that same unity. We talk unity quite well – but typically we mean “I want unity – my unity. Come be like me.” But real unity is about Christ, and real unity requires sacrifice. And repentance. And forgiveness.
    A few geniuses have written recently about Christian unity. Consider Ephraim Radner, in his aptly titled book, Brutal Unity: “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word… Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.” 

   Or Gerhard Lohfink: “Unanimity within a community assembly only happens when those assembled finally cease looking at themselves. As long as the only have themselves in mind they will constantly discover new things that the other has not yet understood, finding new offenses and injuries, new problems not yet resolved. The miracle of unanimity is only possible when the assembly turns away from itself and its own interests and asks about God’s interests.”
     And then Radner again, pondering the unity that was the disciples at the Last Supper: “What they achieved was not so much agreement as an act that allowed members to be joined to the figure of Christ… It was when Jesus was walking around with his disciples – and yet they were confused, mistaken, and Jesus quite deliberately included Judas, and even washed his feet and ate and drank at table with him.  The thief was already thieving, and the greed was already growing, and the disappointment in Jesus’ claims was already gnawing.  This was always a part of their unity.”

  Check out my two most recent books. For leaders in church, business, community? Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership – and then also Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.