Friday, November 16, 2018

What can we say April 21, Easter Sunday?

    Easter preaching. Fun! & so hard. So much cuteness and sweetness, lots of sightseers and visiting kin, all the flowers. The lectionary, having tracked Luke’s narrative this far, inexplicably leaps over to John 20, albeit with Luke 24 italicized just in case.  I will look now at Luke (which I’ll preach on), and then turn to John 20.

    Luke 24:1-12.  If you slow down, you’ll notice they waited until the “third day” because of the intervening Sabbath. You just don’t work on the Sabbath – even if it’s tending to Jesus’ precious body! After all, resurrection is the kind of thing only God can do, and only while we are doing nothing at all, while we are resting. I’m reminded to encourage all clergy to watch the best sermon for clergy I’ve ever heard  - and it’s on this business of the women, the tomb, and the Sabbath – by my friend Claude Alexander; a must watch – and don’t miss the song right after the sermon.

    While we welcome Easter as so pleasant, we should note that, unanimously, the first witnesses were flat out terrified.  And then the “He is not here, he is risen” reminds me of the many places we think Christ must be but he’s on the loose, not so blithely contained where we expect him to be.  Doug Marlette’s cartoon about prayer in the public schools is wicked funny – and probably not for the sermon proper but the preacher’s own edification and inspiration: 2 angels standing on the front step of the schoolhouse, telling people toting Bibles, "He is not here. He is risen." Or maybe for the sermon: where do we not expect God to show up? & where does God show up we don’t envision?

   The women Luke names as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and the angels’ report, are the very same women named in Luke 8 – those who underwrote, who funded the ministry of Jesus and the disciples! Despite that, these powerful women still have no credibility with the guys.  A whole sermon could be framed around “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The Greek, lēros, means something like “humbug” (think Scrooge!!!) or “nonsense.”

    You have to love St. Augustine’s comment: “Humanity fell through the female sex, human kind was restored through the female sex. A virgin gave birth to Christ; a woman proclaimed he had risen again. Through a woman death; through a woman life. But the disciples didn’t believe what the women said. They thought they were raving, when in fact they were reporting the truth.” Questions about when we listen (or don’t!) to women are intriguing – and in this case, how do we modern people scoff at notions of resurrection – real resurrection, not pie in the sky eternal life, playing golf or shopping in heaven.  How many people will you speak to on Easter for whom this is, in its robust, physical, transformative sense, “an idle tale,” “humbug,” “nonsense”?


   I am sure we trivialize Easter, and Christianity, when we make it about me and my eternal life. I cannot commend strongly enough Gerhard Lohfink's fabulous Is This All There Is? Resurrection and Eternal Life. He begins by dissecting how modern blather about death (that we live on in memory, or are forever digging whatever we dug in this life) isn't very different from ancient melancholy and resignation (like the common tombstone saying, "I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care"). Biblical hope is about incorporation into Christ’s eternal body, and participation in the redemption of all creation. Is there judgment? Yes - in that we will finally see with total clarity who we really are. This ultimate encounter with truth, in light of God's mercy, will strike in us our need for healing, and purification. Hell (for Lohfink) isn't something God imposes. God loathes hell. “If there be such people who with the fundamental choice of their existence seek only themselves and reject everything else, God must leave them to themselves, to their own closedness-within-the-self. God cannot overpower them and certainly cannot assault them. Such a person then would really have nothing but his or her own self – and that precisely would be hell. We can only hope that there is no such person, that even in such cases God’s grace will prove victorious by tearing open the self-created prison of that person’s own existence. We can only hope that hell is empty.”

   As empty as Jesus' tomb. Resurrection, in Scripture (as Lohfink explains), isn't only of soul, and not even of just my body. It is all of our life, books I’ve treasured, a garden I planted and tended, another person I loved, my unfulfilled dreams – all the great music, paintings, scientific research, any and all amazement ever by anybody. Resurrection incorporates me and you into all nations and peoples, with the unborn child you never knew, and all the saints - thankfully, as in eternity we will be granted "a full share of the patience of the most patient mothers, the wisdom of the holy, the courage of the martyrs, the faith of Paul, Francis, Teresa, the rapture of the great lovers." Big, this Easter hope.

     I wonder about the role of personal testimony at Easter.  I did this after the DaVinci Code came out, along with the other anti-Christian books that sell so well.  I clarified that for me, as a guy, not as pastor, not under instruction from the bishop, but just me, a naturally cynical guy: I really believe Jesus didn’t stay dead, but he rose, he appeared.  I can clarify various things, like It’s not a resuscitation, etc.  But I really believe this amazement happened.

    If I were asked for proof, I’d go for the one several others have advanced:  in those days, lots of great, heroic leaders died; some were even believed to be messianic.  After their deaths, their followers trudged home and gave up or looked for the next great thing to come along.  Jesus’ followers never went home, but launched out into the world, risking everything, and often winding up dead or hurt, because of one thing only: they had seen the risen Lord.  As Rowan Williams said in The Sign and the Sacrifice, “It’s hard to see how this new age faith could come into being without an event to point to.  The language of resurrection is historical, not speculative: it’s about earth before it’s about heaven.  The very untidiness of the resurrection stories is one of the main reasons for taking them seriously.  What’s going on is clearly people struggling to find words for something they had not expected.”

    I think I always like to turn to Paul’s logical plea (from this Sunday’s Epistle): “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). I think that speaks even to cynics.

    Or I am fond of what J. Christiaan Beker wrote in Paul the Apostle: “Paul’s church is not an aggregate of justified sinners or a sacramental institute or a means for private self-sanctification, but the avant-garde of the new creation in a hostile world, creating beachheads in this world of God’s dawning new world and yearning for the day of God’s visible lordship over his creation.”  N.T. Wright mirrors this approach in lots of his books, especially Surprised by Hope.  Does the D-Day analogy fit? Or is the carnage of war counter-intuitive for Easter?

    Preaching hinges on how we grow and are enriched personally, whether we ‘use’ the stuff involved or not.  Let me summarize what Rowan Williams has said: “Believing in the resurrection is believing that the new age has been inaugurated… The decisive difference has been made.  The destinies of all human beings are now bound up with Jesus.  They will find who they are, who they may be, and where they will be, in relation to Jesus.  The future is in his hands.  Christianity is not the Jesus of Nazareth Society – rather like the Alfred Lord Tennyson Society, looking back to a great dead genius. If Jesus is risen, there is a human destiny.  We were made with dignity and liberty so that, one day, we would be companions for Jesus Christ.  Human nature was endowed with all its gifts so it would one day be a proper vehicle for the transforming work of God the Father.”

    What a high view of humanity!  And then he invites us who preach to trust the message:  “Wherever we go, with the biblical story in our hands and the vision of Jesus in our eyes, there is an expectation that human beings will resonate with what’s being spoken of.  They may not quite know how they do it or why…  We go on in mission, because of that conviction that there is such a thing as the human heart and human destiny, and thus that these words will find an echo.”


Thursday, November 15, 2018

What can we say come Good Friday?

      I love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service.  N.T. Wright has written brilliantly about the crucifixion, calling it The Day the Revolution Began (a must read for clergy). I buy into that (although I wonder if the revolution really began at Christmas, or even at conception in Mary's womb!) - but the whole program feels too active, too much like a campaign for the quiet calm, the dark sorrow of the service. Maybe a mention, and follow up next month?

     I preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word.  “Homily” is even too grandiose.  I meditate, and briefly – or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty.  May I just sigh, or shudder.  That would be a good enough sermon.  Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or one of the others listed at the end of this blog.  As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar.

  And I'm going to ask my musicians to play, just after I speak, or maybe later on where it fits, that elegiac, emotionally powerful piece from the end of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical - "John 19:41." Preparation for Good Friday involves the preacher sitting, being very still, and weighing deeply an image, or images of the crucifixion.  Grünewald? Rouault? Some other choral pieces that are lovely and moving for Good Friday: “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears” by Kenneth Leighton; Dan Forrest’s “Forsaken”; “Thy Will Be Done,” by Craig Courtney; or Al Travis’s “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” 
 
     At our church, we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness.  A childhood friend of mine, who lives in another city, called the church last year at the end of the service he was livestreaming, saying "I can't see anything!"  Indeed.  We can't see.  We can hardly speak.  On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything – just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours.  On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it.  We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.  I love this:

     Robert W. Jenson, after assessing the historic doctrines of the atonement, quite shrewdly concluded, “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back.  There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives.  The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours.  Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”

  Fleming Rutledge's amazing (and long!) Crucifixion highlights an astonishing sermon by Melito of Sardis, maybe around the year 190, which includes this: "The Lord suffered for the sake of those who suffered, was bound for the sake of those imprisoned, was judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the buried. So come, all families of people defiled by sin, and receive remission. For I am your remission, I am the Passover of salvation, I am the Lamb sacrifice for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your Resurrection, I am your light. I am your salvation. I am your king. I lead you toward the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up with my right hand."

 More eloquence from Rutledge herself: "The Crucifixion is God's new creative act, his great reclamation project that is even greater than the creation itself... His execution was carried out by all the best people... Christianity is the only religion to have as its central focus the degradation of its God... The crucifixion is an almost theatrical enactment of the sadistic impulses that lie within human beings... Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness... If God in three persons is most fully revealed to us by the Son's accursed death outside the community of the godly, this means a complete rethinking of what is usually called religion."  Her book is striking in so many ways; I'm glad I read it in preparation for this Good Friday - and the rest of my life as a follower of the crucified Jesus.
   And so, in awe, we pray, perhaps with St. Francis:

     My Lord Jesus Christ, 
            two graces I ask of you before I die:
         the first is that in my life I may feel,
             in my soul and body, as far as possible,
             that sorrow which you, tender Jesus,
             underwent in the hour
                 of your most bitter passion;
         the second is that I may feel in my heart,
                        as far as possible,
             the abundance of love with which you,
                                son of God, were inflamed,
         so as willingly to undergo
                 such a great passion
                       for us sinners.

After this, Francis bore, in his body, the actual wounds (the stigmata) of Jesus, which he hid for the rest of his life out of humility.
     Wise, deeply spiritual writers help me weigh what happened at Calvary.  One of Henri Nouwen’s more obscure books, Heart Speaks to Heart, will place you in conversation with the crucified Jesus. I love the idea of speaking with the suffering Christ on the cross and saying, "O Lord, why is it that I am so eager to receive human praise even when experience tells me how limited and conditional is the love that comes from the human heart?  So many people have shown me their love... but no one could touch that deep, hidden place where my fear and my loneliness dwell. Only you know that place, Lord.."

     Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God has hot when I was in seminary – and it still speaks to me, and should be required reading for younger generations.  He wonderfully explains how an omnipotent God is inferior to the suffering God, as only the vulnerable one can love and be loved.  My copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale is chock full of underlinings and exclamation points, and I return to it often. 
Rowan Williams’s newest book, The Sign and the Sacrifice, is predictably and wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent (and brief).  For him, the Bible parses the cross as proof of God's love for us, and a demonstration of the kind of God we're dealing with: "When Pilate, on behalf of all of us, pushes Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do.  That's the good news: our powerlessness to change God's mind.  God's love is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable.  It has a magnetic force because it is a love that can't threaten us."

 



Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What can we say come Maundy Thursday?

     Maundy Thursday, such a lovely night. I can't talk long, for they come, not for the sermon, but for the tangible experience, the bodily encounter. Just a little bread and wine. My kooky mind is drawn to the semi-comic scene in Jesus Christ Superstar of the semi-drunk disciples singing “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I could make it if I tried…” But no silliness in the service itself. The mood is a bit somber (even at a feast of celebration), the pace is slower, the feel is of shadows lengthening - and there's an intensity of love. Can I embody and even evoke this in preaching, and the liturgy - or even how I walk into the room?

     I don't usually focus on the footwashing in John 13, although it's theologically provocative. But it’s way too easy to flatten it out: Jesus served humbly, so go and serve others humbly (although Pope Francis sure revolutionized how we'll forever think about footwashing after doing it to women, and Muslims!).  I’m not sure John would say that was his one-liner takeaway… and we have so much all year long about serving anyhow that Holy Week, for me, needs devotion to Jesus and his literally sacramental death. 

    If we continue tracking Luke's narrative (per this year's lectionary), we find much of interest. Jesus gathers, not with family (as most Jews would) but with his new family, the disciples; Peter Scazzero speaks of the church as "re-familying." God calls us into new relationships, new kinships that sustain us and are the priority for us. "When the hour had come" (Luke 22:14) would be sundown on Nisan 14, when the angel of death passed over the Israelites whose doors were marked with blood. Haunting, rich in Christological nuance. They "took their places" at dinner: did they recall Jesus' words about who sits where, and who shows up at dinner back in Luke 14?

   Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us how the "words of institution," so rote for us, would then have been "shocking, provocative, and ultimately obscure. Cannibalism? Blood out of the body made one impure. How close does Jesus as God down here want to get to us? Not merely in the same room, or bumping up next to us. He wants to get inside us, so he lets himself be fed on by us.
     I don't usually re-envision biblical scenes at length, but on Maundy Thursday I invite my people to imagine that first Holy Thursday night.  Maybe like Palm Sunday, the disciples were in a buoyant, expectant mood, while Jesus was mired in a more somber apprehension of what was to come.  They sang Psalms - any or all of 113-118. What did their voices sound like? Did Jesus or one of the others lead? Did they harmonize? How did "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” or “This is the day the Lord has made” resonate with Jesus and the rest of them?  This is the preaching angle I often suggest:  instead of asking about takeaways or relevance to me today, I just ask people to marvel over what happened then.

     Beyond any doubt, Jesus stared at that bread and caught a vision of what would happen to his own flesh the next day. And then he peered into the wine and glimpsed an image of the blood he would shed. How haunting, lovely, gripping, poignant.

     When they ate, what did they think?  We quiz candidates for ordination about their theology of the Eucharist; just to be clear, a struggling seminarian and even the frankly less than average churchgoer today understands more of what was going on that the disciples did.  Austin Farrer (in his unfortunately out of print Crown of the Year) put it beautifully:

     “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”  I like that.  We are mystified – but we know we receive Jesus himself, and we are thereby committed to him, come what may.  As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”

     While we include or exclude and feel noble about it, Jesus was utterly inclusive – and he makes that shrine thing happen for everybody, even those who don’t believe or have a clue.  Jürgen Moltmann (in The Church in the Power of the Spirit):  The Lord’s supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of ‘the world,’ the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper.”

     In my book which came out a year ago, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I quote these words and then turn to the lovely interview Krista Tippett had a while back with Father Greg Boyle, whose ministry with gang members in California is impressive and moving:  “We’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’ hand and we’ve replaced it with a chalice because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn’t use a chalice?”  Then he told how he asked an abused orphan and former gang member in his program, “What did you do for Christmas?” The young man said he cooked a turkey “ghetto-style,” and invited six other guys to join him. When he named them, Boyle recognized them as members of warring gangs. As he pondered them cooking together on Christmas day, he wondered, “So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends.”

     A few years ago, it occurred to me that my reflections on something as stupendous and tender as Maundy Thursday were growing stale.  How to find a new wrinkle?  I tend to forget that Maundy Thursday includes Jesus bolting out into the dark to pray in Gethsemane – and being arrested.  On that prayer of agony, I am always moved by Jesus Christ Superstar’s “I Only Want to Say.”  I’ve made a point over the years of correcting a popular image of Gethsemane – that of Heinrich Hoffman’s “Christ in Gethsemane” (hanging in the Riverside Church, NY) – Jesus praying placidly, well-coiffed, almost as if saying his bedtime prayers.  Willem Dafoe captured that searing agony in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” and I’d refer you also to the very interesting take in Mel Gibson’s gory “The Passion of the Christ.”


     And then, of course, the poignancy of Judas’s kiss, and the arrest – and I am continually mentioning the detail that I can’t and don’t even want to explain:  in John 18:6 Jesus says, “I am he.”  What happened next?  “The soldiers drew back and fell to the ground.”  Wow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

What can we say April 14? Palm/Passion Sunday


   Palm Sunday? Passion Sunday? I don’t get the big dichotomy. On Sunday Jesus entered the city – clearly to confront and submit to death itself. forces of evil are already arrayed against him. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their stellar The Last Week, explain how, with Passover due, Pilate with his Roman legion is marching into Jerusalem from Caesarea to the west, arms clattering, swords glinting in the sun, the thunder of hooves and chariots meant to intimidate, to quell any thought of an uprising with the huge crowds visiting the Holy City.  Simultaneously, from the east, as clear a counterpoint as you could imagine, Jesus enters, not on a war stallion, unarmed, not to intimidate but to unmask the powers, to conquer evil and hate with mercy and love.
    What makes no sense theologically is the sunny, optimistic version of Palm Sunday with chipper children cheering for Jesus, their hero. “Hosanna, heysanna!” from Jesus Christ Superstar captures the mood dramatically. And for me, I love the fact that "Hosanna!" isn't a cheer. It's a prayer, meaning something like "Lord, help, please," or "Help us now."  What was the tone of the Hosannas on Palm Sunday - as habituated as the people were by the Romans to stay quiet?
     Some details in Luke’s peculiar version of the story are worth touching upon. No palms! And no Hosannas in Luke’s wording. David Lyle Jeffrey notes the serenity of the animal – that anyone who’s spent much time with them would notice. Never ridden, yet calm, even amid the flapping of palms and all the racket? 

     And why did Jesus ride? Not to spark the great “Ride On, King Jesus!” – but to make a symbolic point. He’d walked all over the countryside! He rode clearly to say I’m the one you read about in Zechariah 9:9. He didn’t holler “I’m the king!” He didn’t have to after this. Jesus is no a-political sweetie. He eagerly embraces the most political of titles, flaunting it in the face of big King Herod and huge King the Emperor Tiberius. He’s a different kind of king – but it threatens the political status quo. Jesus mustered immense courage – entering the city he had early wept over for killing the prophets (13:31-35), and to expose himself, unarmed, to the powers feeling very threatened by his entry. In Luke, the people get it: instead of “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” they cry “Blessed is the King who comes…” Wow.

  I am inclined to connect this day to a book I just read about the Vikings. Growing up I knew of Eric the Red and Leif Erickson. Tom Shippey tells the stories of more - with fabulous names: Ragnar Hairy Breeches, Thorkell the Tall, Svein Forkbeard, Aethelred the Unready, Halfdan Longleg, Ivar the Boneless, Ketil Flatnose, Magus Barelegs, the Sigurds (the Stout, the Dragon Slayer, and Snake in the Eye), and the Haralds (Bluetooth, Finehair, Harefoot). The Vikings were inferior in manpower; the did have cool ships, and loved surprise attacks. But Shippey says their real secret was their "contempt for death, their refusal to give in, ever. The only thing that could make you a loser was giving up...  They were not able to take death and defeat seriously, constantly making jokes and wisecracks in the teeth of bloodshed and peril. Even when being crushed: to them, what was best was to spoil your enemy’s victory, to make a joke out of death, to die laughing." I wonder if there is a kind of hidden laughter in Jesus riding a mere donkey, unarmed, never giving up, ready to die defiantly and with some mysterious hidden hope and joy.
    I might talk about geography in my sermon. Once upon a time, I led people on the “Palm Sunday walk,” starting in Bethany, down the hill then back up to Bethpage, then descending the slope of the Mt. of Olives into the Kidron Valley, then up into Jerusalem proper. You can’t do it any more – because of the wall, designed to keep peace, but only harassing citizens in Bethany who now have a 30 or more minute drive to get to the city to work.
     The confusion that reigned on the first Palm Sunday is worth exploring. People were wrapped up in their fantasies about Jesus, about God, and about what deliverance would look like. The Epistle reading, Philippians 2:5-11 (a perfect Palm or Palm/Passion text, toward which I leaned in my sermon 3 years ago) clarifies what Jesus was demonstrating by entering the city on a donkey. The translation is fascinating: we typically hear “Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” but the Greek will allow for an even more insightful rendering – “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” Jesus’ humility, his lowness, his vulnerability – this is not temporary charade, no play acting whereas God’s real nature is sheer, unadulterated power and might.  This is God, the humble one, the infant in a cow stall, the abject, beaten, silent one, the nailed one.
    If you do the full Passion story and plan to preach on it in its entirety, I’d highly commend Donald Senior’s short and thoughtful The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.  
     And then I will never again ponder the passion narrative with recalling Robert Jenson’s wise conclusion to his exploration of various theories of the atonement: “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back.  There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives.  The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours.  Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”  The question for the preacher is: can I trust the story? Or do I feel some compulsion to dress it up and improve upon it?
    Finally, I love Howard Thurman’s pensive reflection: “I wonder what was at work in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey. Perhaps his mind was far away to the scenes of his childhood, feeling the sawdust between his toes in his father’s shop. He may have been remembering the high holy days in the synagogue with his whole body quickened by the echo of the ram’s horn. Or perhaps he was thinking of his mother, how deeply he loved her and how he wished that there had not been laid upon him this Great Necessity that sent him out on to the open road to proclaim the Truth, leaving her side forever. It may be that he lived all over again that high moment on the Sabbath when he was handed the scroll and he unrolled it to the great passage from Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor.’ I wonder what was moving through the mind of the Master as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

What can we say April 7? Lent 5

    On April 7, it will be hard not to preach on the Gospel, given the timing: just a week until Holy Week! – and a dramatic scene intimately rooted in the events of Holy Week. Sometimes I still touch on other texts, or at least try to learn something from pondering them for my own personal ruminations and growth. 

     Isaiah 43:16-21 is vivid, eloquent – and reminds me how little we, or at least I, expect any new thing, and we certainly aren’t expecting the miraculous. Sure, maybe a little help with a medical situation – but a real new life? Real change in the political and social order? A vivid alteration in church life for the good? Claus Westermann suggests that “Israel requires to be shaken out of a faith that has nothing to learn about God’s activity.” I do too. The prophet is, of course, speaking of the nation and world, citing the miraculous deliverance from Pharaoh's grip at the Sea (Exodus 14) as proof of what God can and will do.

     Philippians 3:4b-14 is a rich text, with endless preaching possibilities, and wisdom for clergy spirituality. I love Paul’s trembling uncertainty in verse 11: “If somehow I may attain the resurrection…” Is it a rhetorical stratagem? I get the “if” and “may.” 
Karl Barth once asked, “Can even the clergy be saved? With the clergy, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

    We may sing “My richest gain I count but loss” (or delight in the powerful anthem by Gilbert Martin) – but what losses can we point to, or even seek because of Christ’s cross? Paul talks like an accountant – but between the lines we feel his harrowing heartbreak. Paul lost – everything? Property, yes, potential for making money, yes, but also “he lost his Jewish friends, his high status, and perhaps his wife” (Ben Witherington). Most of the early Christians suffered financially, because they refused to strike deals at pagan temples, and no longer curtsied to the emperor’s claim to total devotion. Families were ripped apart: husbands dispensed with wives who converted, Christian children were disinherited by parents. Nero burned Christians as torches in his garden. 

     Jesus senses our hesitation, the way we get tentative and hold back; we calculate, we play it safe and never leap. Is it because we are contriving to maintain total control over my life and not risk handing the steering over to anybody else, including God? Or do we simply not understand the magnificence, the wonder, the glorious beauty of what God is literally dying to give us?

    In life as in preaching, we’d best notice all the passive verbs the Bible uses to describe life with God. I am “found” in him. I do not “find” God. What I do is I flee from God, I mosey about as if there were no God. But God is what the poet Francis Thompson called “the Hound of Heaven”: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days… I hid from Him.” But “with deliberate speed, majestic instancy, came on the following Feet” of God who never stops finding us.

     Paul also wants to “share his sufferings” – not be spared suffering because of Christ, but actually to suffer not for but with Christ! Spiritual giants can show us the way to a deep love for Jesus that is so hinged to Jesus that we want to be as close to him as possible, that we want to know not just the resurrection but also the immense love in that hour when he exhibited the heart of God most profoundly. St. Francis prayed before a cross, “My Lord Jesus Christ, Two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus, underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.”
    Or this from Mother Teresa: “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not just what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which will have value before God. This giving until it hurts, this sacrifice is what I call love in action.”

    I fear a Philippians 3 sermon on goal-setting. If you go there, be clear: Paul’s goal is established by God, defined by God, and Paul’s achievement of his goal rests entirely in God’s hands, not Paul’s! Paul presses on – but it’s the way a hungry man presses on through the line for the food that awaits, the way a young lover presses on to put his arms around the one he’s longed for but missed for some time. Yes, I make Christ my own, but really it is a spontaneous reflex to the larger wonder that Christ made me his own!

   The Gospel portrays one who got all this. John 12:1-8 is the opening scene of Jesus’ final pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It’s worth painting the scene: he would stay in the town of Bethany, nearby, in walking distance. Once upon a time when I took groups to Israel, we would walk from Bethany into the city of Jerusalem. Now, the Wall blocks the road, and it’s about a 25 minute drive to get all the way around. Proverbial, humanity’s lunges for security, to keep the peace – when Jesus, the one who walked courageously into the teeth of hostility and death, is our peace.

     The anointing: it’s good to portray the moment, the shock, onlookers trying to figure out what was unfolding, the scent, the nervous panic when they realized how expensive the oil was, and that it was soaking not only into Jesus but into the dirt of the floor, down in the cracks. How lavish, how unstinting, how absurdly generous is this woman’s devotion to Jesus! 

Jean Vanier suggested that she understood, perhaps uniquely, the depth of beauty of Jesus’ love – and so that his love “is liberating her love.” And yet, quite unashamedly, we see in this moment that Jesus is “also revealing his need for her love.” Jesus Christ Superstar played on the notion we’d be troubled by this – but the true God of Scripture isn’t the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent remote one, but the one who is vulnerable, who needs, who risks everything dreaming of our love, which he may receive, and often won’t, to God’s own heartbreak.


     The fragrance wafting through the room had to have struck those who sensed it as a striking contrast to the stench of Lazarus’s dead body, which filled Bethany just before, in chapter 11. The Gospel happens around death, always. The oil is muron – myrrh, as in the gift of the Magi, the oil set aside for preparing the corpse for the grave. This woman alone understood Jesus’ path – and hers.

   The objection of the disciples is worth pondering. I love James Sanders’s assessment of Judas and his persnickety fixation on practicality, calling him “a masculine Martha gone wrong.” His complaint? “It should have been sold and given to the poor.” As a clergy person, I’m weary of hearing this from stingy church people – when we ask for building money, if we print a nice brochure, etc. Christians are always thinking of what someone else should be doing for the poor. It was given to the poor – to the poor man Jesus, and Jesus praises her.

    Can you think of some extravagant gesture, some absurdly generous gift given to God that might strike the world and even holy people as wasteful? I think of those carvings up high and in the attics of medieval cathedrals – where no human can see. These were for God, only. Or recently some of my people complained our church people are too dressy and they’d prefer wearing jeans to church. I’m delighted if they wear jeans… but I did respond by explaining when I go to Bayonnais, Haiti, the poorest place in the poorest country in the world, where the people have nothing, on Sunday morning they put on suits and dresses not to impress anybody but God Almighty.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

What can we say March 31? Lent 4

   I’m unsure if I’ll focus on the Epistle or the Gospel – or gamely attempt both. Joshua 5:9-12 is a glimpse into the deep recesses of Israel’s history, when they gathered when they could around (evidently…) some large circle of stones (Stonehenge like?) and remembered when they first entered the land. God had “rolled away” the disgrace of Egypt – and here were the rolling stones (the root meaning of the place, Gilgal) to commemorate it. God’s people, marking time, visiting sacred space. There’s probably something in their recollection that once they entered, the manna ceased; now they could eat the crops of the land. Does God provide special sustenance for a season, and then the grace is that we can root around and sustain ourselves – no less dependent upon God, just differently dependent?

   2 Corinthians 5:16-21 is as compelling, important and timely a text as we have in all of Scripture. Reconciliation isn’t just a buzzword in church life and among recent seminary grads. It’s our historic work – and we need to engage in it zealously, patiently, doggedly and in hope, given the extreme divisions and intense rancor in society (not to mention the church!). We did a whole series on Reconciliation year before last (with Christena Cleveland, Matt Rawle, Ben Witherington and more! Check it out!); it should be our gig constantly.

    Cleveland (Disunity in Christ) is especially sharp on the nature of the work of reconciliation. We can meet God in our cultural context, but then to follow God we must cross over into other contexts. She explains how “group polarization” works – we experience confirmation of our views because of our narrow social circle or social media tricks. Church makes it worse! God calls us to “cognitive generosity,” as we expand our “we,” and discover the fruit and joy of the hard labor of reconciliation.

   Reconciliation isn’t an optional add-on for some churches. This is the church’s work, always, everywhere. Not splitting up, or even being “right.” Sam Wells (in God’s Companions) reminds us that, for us, ethics isn’t so much about what’s right and wrong, but what builds up the Church. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out how our “goodness” can actually get in the way of us doing God’s will; God doesn’t ask for goodness, keeping our hands clean, but prefers we do whatever God asks, which will likely involve getting our hands dirty.

   Notice Paul begins with “from now on” – assuming the saving work of Christ and consequent community engagement and commitment to holiness he’s just talked about. This is totally new – a “new creation.” The Christian isn’t 14% nicer or 11% more generous. We are all new. And we see others through new eyes. Echoing the haunting truth that “God does not see as we see” (1 Sam. 16:7 – when David was the one chosen, not the taller, more muscular sons of Jesse).

   And why do we see differently? Not just because God said Look at them this way! For Paul, it is that Jesus was once viewed as merely a guy. But now he’s the risen Son, the Messiah, our Savior. We, too, used to be mere people; but now we are “ambassadors” for God!  Then, as if to be sure we don’t miss it (since we might), Paul pleads, urges: “See?!?!”

   This seeing differently, the enactment of reconciliation, is embodied in what many think is Jesus’ best story, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. The pious file their ironic complaint: “This fellow” (love the distant dismissiveness of the term) “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They find fault with the root purpose of his mission. Perfectly nuanced – and impactful for the pious of today.

   The prodigal son. Or is it the older son who’s prodigal (as in lost)? Or is it the father who’s prodigal (as in lavish, generous)? Think of Tim Keller’s lovely little book, Prodigal God, and even better, Henri Nouwen’s brilliant and moving The Return of the Prodigal Son (his best book by far, in my eyes). 
And I do not believe anything will ever top what the producers of the TV series Jesus of Nazareth pulled off, with an angry Peter peering into the tent of a bawdy party Jesus has attended at the home of Matthew the tax collector, watching Jesus tell his story, and then Peter embracing Matthew. Watch! – the best 11 minutes you’ll spend any time soon. I may just show this instead of preaching. Here we see reconciliation on intersecting planes: Peter to Christ, Peter to Matthew, like us to God and us to others. Amazing.

   Commentaries will advise on legal issues: the father gives all he has to the two sons – so the boy isn’t just squandering his money, it’s his father’s security! Notice the son doesn’t “repent” or have some religious moment in the pig sty. He’s just desperate – and if anything he sounds a bit cynical, as if he knows he can still take advantage of his dad.

    Who is just the type. Not demanding the son grovel, he swoops him up and throws a party. All mercy. And all joy: God’s kingdom isn’t about getting straight with God, but it’s about raucous delight, total joy. The Kingdom is a party.

   Which the older son can’t comprehend, so ossified is he in his smug doing good. Nouwen, feeling for the steely, distant brother in Rembrandt’s painting of the moment the younger son returns, asks about his own soul: “Had I really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God, instead of choosing over and over again the position of the outsider looking in? There are so many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, ‘Go out and prove that you are worth something.’ Do you know these voices like I do? They cut deep inside into those vulnerable recesses where we doubt our worth, where we know we can never achieve enough; they wrap ‘what I do’ around ‘who I am’ and cruelly lie to us. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift.”

    I regret the lectionary skips the lost coin and the lost sheep; I preached this sermon on these last time around. On a panel, I once asked my friend Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor of Capitol Hill UMC in Washington, Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story –that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us.

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

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.