Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say June 7? Trinity Sunday

   As a young preacher, I would take a stab at explaining the Holy Trinity during my Trinity Sunday sermon. A fool’s errand. This is a classroom exercise. For the sermon, we do as we always do, explicating the text. The Holy Trinity is there, same as every Sunday. I think, during my sermon, I'll ask my musicians to help me with the best "explanation" I've heard, which isn't words but musical notes. Jeremy Begbie points out that if you sing a C, the note fills the whole room, no more in one place than another. If you add the E and then the G, each note fills the room, one doesn't crowd out the other - and the chord they form together are far more lovely than the single note. God the Trinity is like that. Same 3 first notes, by the way, of the hymn we'll sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

  We have great texts this week. I'll go Genesis 1, as looking to God as Creator, especially of all in God's image, is pretty basic - plus the idea that God gives us "dominion," which isn't lording it over, but taking responsibility for creation. Given racial tensions, people feel overwhelmed or ask What can I do? God in creation made us responsible, and endowed us with creativity and smarts to figure stuff out, however hard it might be. Karl Barth, for all the talk about him climbing into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, spoke out stridently against allowing the news to dictate your preaching (in Homiletic). I'd venture this: for sheer simplicity, seeing how a week's text speaks to the moment, check out Sarah Howell-Miller's sermon this past Sunday. Sheer genius.

   Pastorally, we have to bear that everyone is so edgy right now. We were before George Floyd. Now every little action, like a powerful magnet, attracts stray metal. On Sunday I went to an exceedingly peaceful, Christian gathering to express solidarity with our black fellow Christians - and got accused of fomenting violence against property. The Church can't remain silent. But how to say anything and have a chance of being heard - especially when the people aren't in front of you so you can read their body language, grimaces, nods, puzzlements?

   The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, invokes not only the intriguing “holy kiss,” but also the formula I use many Sunday as my benediction at the close of worship. 
The whole idea of a “benediction” could merit a sermon: in my book Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I explore what it means to utter words of blessing over another person, upon people, in daily living. Words have this power. Could our worship on Trinity Sunday give permission, encouragement and empowerment to our people to speak words of encouragement, beauty and blessing to others all week?

   Jesus’ “last words,” his final blessing, in Matthew 28:16-20, offer an alluring peek into the heart of God and our task as the Church. It takes place on a mountain, as do so many crucial Bible moments. Moses on Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Horeb, Solomon’s temple on Mt. Zion, Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Jesus transfigured. We speak of a “mountaintop experience.” The air is thinner up there. I think of the physicist Alan Lightman’s quirky thought – that parents of young children should live on the tops of mountains, as the earth rotates a little faster there, and the theory of relativity teaches us that time passes more slowly where the earth moves faster.

   Mountains are beautiful – but in a different way than a pond in a valley or the seashore. Roger Scruton contrasts the serene beauty of a green meadow with a “wind-blown mountain crag… We experience the vastness, the power, the threatening majesty of the natural world, and feel our own littleness in the face of it.” This we call “sublime,” which isn’t super-beautiful, but a beauty that humbles, even frightens you a little. It’s thrilling and inspiring, but it underlines your finitude, your frailty.

   Isn’t God like such a sublime mountain crag? Was Jesus like one when he ascended? We are in awe. We are inspired. We tremble a little, and wonder if it’s safe. You can’t just jog to the top. You feel small, and yet drawn into the wonder.

   This text is major section in the Church’s charter. Fascinating: for all our talk about “making disciples,” our people just don’t spend much time or energy even attempting it. I suspect there’s some code language in there… Plus, I’ve never warmed up to that classic phrase, “Make disciples,” as if that’s something people have the ability to do to other people. The Greek is a single word, mathētoúsate, which means simply to “teach” (as in the King James!). We don’t make disciples. We teach. The would-be potential disciples have their own space to respond as they wish. And our teaching isn’t a tract or a Bible lesson at the office. It’s watercooler asides, and maybe how we live. What’s the story of the Amish man who was asked “Are you a Christian?” His reply was to point across the street: “You’ll have to ask my neighbor.”


   The "method" in that isn't showing a Bible. The disturbing (to many, although not all...) photo of President Trump holding a Bible in front of the St. John's Episcopal Church adjacent to the White House raises a question I'm not sure I possess the delicacy to ask well: Do we show Bible by holding one up? or by living in a way that you could comfortably say "Ask my neighbor"? How often do we (clergy included) wield the Bible as a weapon, as a shield to hide behind, or as a symbol to prop up my preferences or my frustrations? Maybe before I bore into my people with these questions, I'll ask them of myself.

   The magic in Jesus’ last words, his benediction, is that he creates a lovely inclusio around his whole life. At birth he was given the nickname, Emmanuel, God with us. Now, even as he’s leaving, he promises to continue to be God with us. Sam Wells poignantly suggests that the most important word in the Bible is with. God isn’t a divine fixer, and our mission isn’t to fix or do for others. God is with us. We are with others. For Americans, who want a fix-it God and want to be a fix-it church, we have to reiterate this constantly. 
My congregation’s Advent prayer back in December, which we printed on cards for everybody, was “Here I am, Lord. Here you are. Here we are together.”

   I plan to preach on Genesis 1:1-2:4a, and might even start a little summer series on Genesis. I’ve been reading Jonathan Sacks’s fabulous reflections in Covenant & Conversation. Just Wow! on every page, on a book I thought I’d understood quite well over many years. It’s easy on Trinity Sunday to say Creation happened because the inner relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were so profound, so pregnant with divine love, that an outburst, an overflow made the universe happen; its goodness mirrors the love in God’s eternal triune heart (even though we know the plural in v. 26 didn’t originally intend the Trinity). I wonder if a more Jewish reading, which then might be a reading for non-pious, secular, even interfaith people, might do a richer work.

  My plan to preach Genesis 1 was confirmed the other day as my wife and I listened to episode 6 of the podcast, 13 Minutes to the Moon, which is wonderful. It narrates the moment the Apollo 8 astronauts circled the moon for the 1st time in history, snapped unforgettable photos of earth from the moon, and on Christmas day said "We have a message to share" - and proceeded to read Genesis 1. From space. Looking back to earth. The clincher in the podcast is this: NASA was swamped with notes. One was from a woman, noting how 1968 had been a horrible year, with riots, Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Her note said simply "Thank you for saving 1968." I'd say 2020 is another 1968... and the saving will only come from the Creator.

   I’ve expended time in sermons and classes defending Genesis 1 as a theological declaration, not conflicting with science; check out my blog on this from yesteryear with wisdom from Francis Collins, C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, Stephen Hawking, and even the Russell Crowe “Noah” movie. I was struck by Sacks’s alternate approach, citing Max Weber (the 19th century sociologist) who pointed out that Genesis 1 was “the necessary prelude to science: it represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will, and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious.” Boom. Ancient people were nervous nellies, feeling warring, sophomoric deities were messing with them arbitrarily. Genesis said No, it’s ordered, there’s one God with one plan, and it’s good.

   Sacks ponders the daily blessing that what God made is “good” in light of his experiences visiting youthful offenders in prison. “They, like you and me, had dreams, hopes, ambitions, aspirations. Their tragedy was that they came from dysfunctional families. No one took the time to care for them. They lacked a basic self-respect, a sense of their worth. No one ever told them that they were good.” This is Jean Vanier’s entire project, or Fr. Gregory Boyle’s, or any number of people who get God’s work in creation: to say to people You are beautiful, you are good, I see wonder in you, and in the world. It’s good. You’re good.

   I do believe I’ll spend time on what is at the heart of life in creation: Sabbath. Rest, joyful time with others, a day for and with God, stepping away from the frenzy of busyness. What greater invitation could I give to my people? Of many stellar books that explore the beauty of the Sabbath, most adore Abraham Heschel – as do I. But two others are rivals. I have savored Christopher Ringwald’s riveting A Day Aparta rich, personal exploration of Jewish, Christian and Muslim habits and joys derived from a sacred day: “The Sabbath remains the dessert most people leave on the table.” What are we missing? 

   Ringwald’s Jewish friends, the Kligermans, do not drive on the Sabbath, since making a fire was prohibited by God on Mt. Sinai, and an automobile engine requires a spark. So the Kligermans stay home, or they walk, kids gambol, the adults visit. “It’s a joy derived from a restriction.” After listening to the Kligermans describe their Sabbath, Ringwald hung up the phone, and told his wife their observance of Sunday had gone awry; so they turned the TV off, played with the children, and had dinner with neighbors. His clinching remark? “Thus the Jews save another Gentile family.”

   “A God of love invites us into the day. We are admitted by our humanity, not our perfection. The day calls us to a banquet of time, not a prison of gestures and abstinence. An omnipotent God needs not our perfection.” A Day Apart is replete with history, from Pompey’s invasion of Palestine to Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the World Series. “We fight for the Sabbath: against ourselves, perhaps against other believers, and certainly against the claims of the world. The day apart pits the believer against all his or her worldly intentions.” “I now see the unfolding opposites of the day. We do less and are more, we stop earning and grabbing and have more, we cease from making and make more, we let Creation be and in our repose we see it to be more than we ever knew.” 

   And then we have Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistence: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which might just be his best book ever…), a profound and provocative, deftly moving from sabbath as devotional practice to social, political and economic implications; a short, holy, prophetic wonder. Some nuggets: “Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness.  Such practice yields a divided self.” “It was the deities of Egypt for whom work was never done.” “God isn’t a workaholic, God isn’t anxious, creation not dependent upon endless work.” His verbal and visual capture of Scripture itself can be breathtaking: “It is not accidental that the best graphic portray of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.” But then who is the most anxious person of all? The one at the top of the pyramid!

   If you think he’s making too much about “Keep the Sabbath,” Brueggemann points out that this commandment gets the “longest airtime” of then ten, and does explore property and economics. Claiming the Sabbath as the “linchpin” of all the commandments, he suggests it is no different from the first (“No other gods!”) and the second (“No images,” life is not about objects and commodities). Coining the felicitous, memorable phrase, Brueggemann avers that “YHWH is about restfulness not restlessness.” Sabbath breaks all the interlocking cycles. Parents don’t have to rush their kids into ballet, you don’t have to buy the newest gadget, you aren’t compelled to get prettier.
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  Let me commend my new book, in the "Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well" series: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. I loved researching and writing this, and hope you'll enjoy. Glad to do a virtual signing of the frontispiece for you!

What can we say June 14? 2nd after Pentecost

   Striking, always how the lectionary texts, prescribed many years ago, speak in such a timely way during Covid-19 and now in the wake of George Floyd. Hospitality, God in the stranger, a readiness for everything to change, the truth of all you don't already know - and then Jesus' deep emotional empathy with the crowds. God is in these texts.

   Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7). The lectionary frustrates, as it skips Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Babel, and the early phases of Abraham’s life. Alas. Without retelling all that, we come to the marvelous drama of the three visitors who materialize under the Oaks of Mamre – depicted in the famous fresco in Ravenna.

   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his insightful Covenant and Conversation reading, sees Genesis 1-11 as a “tightly constructed four act drama on the theme of responsibility and moral development.” Adam and Eve fail to take personal responsibility; Cain refuses to assume moral responsibility; Noah (who saved only himself!) took no collective responsibility; and the builders of Babel know no ontological responsibility. Abraham reverses all four. He assumes personal responsibility, following God’s call; he is morally responsible, doing all he can to save Lot (so he is his brother’s son’s keeper!); he accept collective responsibility, intervening for the people of Sodom (unlike Noah, who just boarded his boat without protest!); and he understand his ontological responsibility, willing to sacrifice even his son.

   Sacks sees Abraham as “a new human type.” Until now, people viewed God’s command as “a constraint from which they strive to break free.” For Abraham, God’s command is his life. He calls him the “unheroic hero,” as it’s not about him, but about God. He’s flawed, laughable at times. And then the last laugh comes.

   Abraham’s legendary hospitality takes on a startling reading among the rabbis who composed the Midrashim. Lingering over the Hebrew word by word, they read it as “The Lord appeared to Abraham. Seeing three men, Abraham hurried to them, interrupting God’s speech, asking God to wait until he had waited on his visitors.” Hospitality trumps even the Divine Presence in Judaism – or maybe Abraham models how to see and hear God in the persons of strangers.

   Maybe spirituality is seeing strangers, noticing them, and maybe discerning something angelic or even divine in them. They have a kind of omniscience. They know Sarah’s impending pregnancy – and they can even read her silent thoughts just inside the tent. Robert Alter’s rendering is vivid: “Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow. And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying ‘After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure?’” The laugh, yitzak, is cynical, and ironic – since we know the baby is coming, and that his very name Isaac, yitzak, means laughter. The sermon just has to play on this, how we might snicker at the possibility of new life, and then how when it comes we laugh – for the joy, or even at ourselves for our prior snickering.

   Is the sermon about hospitality as a Christian virtue? What is hospitality during Covid-19? And during a season of racial tension? “He who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40)? Or about God doing what we can’t manage, even the impossible? I doubt many people I preach to expect anything extraordinary or beyond human capacity from God – and that’s likely because I as their pastor don’t expect so much either. Perhaps it’s because we’ve reduced the impossible we fantasize about from God to health issues. I wonder if the hospitality is linked to the divine impossible. In a pretty cool Maybe God podcast about ministry with immigrants at the border (“Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save Our Souls?”), pastor John Garland steadfastly refuses to talk about what he actually does. Instead, he speaks of simply being there to witness to the new thing God is doing. Can we get there without it appearing to be or even being bullsh-t, or clergy PR?

   Interesting, isn't it, how immigration has faded from sight, yielding to race (since George Floyd)... but it's all cut from the same cloth isn't it, theologically, sociologically, politically?

   Romans 5:1-8 just appeared in the lectionary on March 15, so check out my blog from Lent 3 with fairly extensive reflection on this great text.

   Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23) provides an intriguing snapshot into a turning point in Jesus’ ministry – between when he dazzles the crowds and draws a following to his sending out his followers to continue, expand and even augment his ministry. Matthew reports that Jesus has been curing “every” disease and “every” sickness – which can’t be reality. Donald Hagner calls the “every” here “hyperbolic and symbolic.” People still had cancer and Alzheimer’s and tooth decay and deafness after Jesus left town. If anything, his healings weren’t so people could feel better, but so serve as object lessons for his sermons. His #1 cure was for blindness – and he always then pointed out how the righteous people thought they could see but couldn’t.

   This Jesus, the one who wept when Lazarus died and prayed in intense agony, had “compassion” on the crowds. The Greek esplanchnisthe connotes a twisting pain in the entrails, a writhing, intense emotion. It’s a common translation for the Hebrew riham, which means “womb” and then the pangs the womb underwent during the agonies of childbirth. Watch a woman in labor: that’s how Jesus felt when he saw the crowds, total strangers – and yet he knew them so intimately.

   He didn’t blame them for their plight, or pity their lackluster, colorless, futile existence as the utterly impoverished and despised people in the Roman empire. He understood that they were “harassed and helpless.” How harassed are your people? By their employers, by heartbreaking friends and family, by the chipper Facebook culture that depresses them, by the rancor of political ideology, by ads, by loneliness. The Greek for “helpless,” errimmenoi, means literally “cast down to the ground.” The preacher portrays, imitates and embodies Jesus himself by simply naming the miseries and niggling frustrations people undergo all the time.

   In Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus, besieged by throngs seeking help, sings “There’s too many of you; don’t push me; there’s too little of me; don’t crowd me.” He needs help, more of himself. In our Gospel, Jesus asks his laborers to pray for more laborers! How do we join him in this prayer today? By poking around for laity who’ll get busy? Connecting with non-church people who might turn out to be the naïve, zealous type of new Christian who doesn’t know to be a lazy Christian yet? Or even investing time with sharp young people, middle- and high-schoolers, college students, and daring to ask if they’ve thought about ministry? I became a laborer in the field because an Episcopal priest took an interest in me, somebody with a zero religious resume, and asked if I’d thought about ministry. Never, ever… but it planted a seed that grew years later.

   What does the relationship with Jesus look like? I’m fond of “following” as the image. Jesus goes, I try to stay close. He sets the path, I simply trail behind in his wake. In Matthew 9, Jesus looks at his followers and “sends” them. That is, without him – unless you count spiritually or mystically. They have to figure out where and how to go, and what to do. They have “authority” – but what would that be for us? Not an M.Div. or that some bishop laid hands on me. It’s something more organic in me, or despite me. Maybe it’s just being fool enough to try: is that the authority? Is it trying to get out of the way and let Jesus be where I am?

   I love it that the Gospels provide names of the twelve – although the lists are happily inconsistent. A dozen – with some wiggle room. They are in stained glass in my sanctuary, and little biographies (95% of which is total guesswork/fiction!) are posted in our children’s building.

   Jesus, unhappily for me, directs them not to go to Gentiles but only to the Jews. I wish he’d urged the opposite, given anti-Semitism and often strained relationships with Judaism. Hagner reminds us that this limitation is “temporary,” as Matthew’s Gospel later on sends Jesus’ people to the whole world. Maybe, if you're white, we translate this into our world as We begin with white people. So much to work on in here before we can connect and change out there - although dithering on self for long is so lame.

   Maybe we do go to the Jews first – not to proselytize, but to find common ground. As you saw above, my greatest learning in Scripture lately is from Rabbi Sacks. In our city of Charlotte, we have more in common, and can work more effectively with the synagogues than with many of the churches – including my own cantankerous Methodist denomination!

   And while I’ve never tried it in a sermon, I do wonder about playing with the notion that the Kingdom “has come near.” It’s not in me, it’s not fully realized. But it’s close. It’s near. What’s near? My wife sitting next to me on the couch. My fears and anxieties, always hovering close by. Maybe it’s about developing some sort of dual vision/perception. I see the world as it is; but between the lines, as near as the breath I just took, the Kingdom really is close by – maybe like St. Augustine’s City of God?

   Of course, if I really believed it were so close by, I wouldn’t build up securities or be so dang timid. St. Francis heard Jesus’ words about “take no bag, no silver,” and he and his friars (Italian for “brothers”!) did just that. I can't get there. I'm taking my bags, checking out my portfolio, garnering funds. I can only stand in awe, with a restless sense of penitence and yearning.

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  Check out my new book, Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the new Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series). Loved researching it, learned so much - and it's reshaped my own thinking about life, birth, parenting, adoption, and being "born again."

What can we say June 21? 3rd after Pentecost


   Genesis 21:8-21 is a terribly depressing episode – yet with surprising hopefulness tucked inside. Phyllis Trible (Texts of Terror) and many others have read the text from a feminist perspective: Hagar symbolizes countless women trapped and abused by the power of men. Patriarchy and race are written all over Abraham’s stunning shunning of this woman. And yet she finally achieves liberation despite all that. She isn’t shunned by God, who sends a messenger, a promise, water in the wilderness, and comfort.

   Gustave Dore’s image is shown here – one of an amazing number of artistic images of this haunting scene. Frances Klopper, a scholar from South Africa, notices that “the frequency with which the expulsion scene has been painted testifies to a fascination with the fate of the slave-woman who has been wronged by her master and mistress.” Getting inside Hagar’s sorrow: the poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker imagined her thinking “She threw me away like garbage… But I still wonder Why could she not love me? We were women together.” Can the preacher use this moment as a time to lift up domestic abuse and how women still get short shrift?

   The image of the little boys Ishmael and Isaac playing together is intriguing. What’s more intriguing is that, evidently after years of isolation, Genesis 25:9 reports that Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham. How did they get back in contact for the funeral? Jonathan Sacks, after raising this question, also asks Who was Keturah, Abraham’s way late in life wife and mother of his subsequent children? Among many medieval rabbis, Keturah was none other than Hagar! After Sarah’s death, Abraham found Hagar, redeemed and married her, reuniting Isaac and Ishmael – which Sacks sees as a Scriptural warrant for friendly relations today between Jews and Muslims.

   I’m unsure what to do with Romans 6:1b-11. I never encounter people who think I’ll sin more so grace will be even greater! We do presume upon God’s mercy, or maybe God’s laid back, laissez-faire attitude we fantasize God must feel. Voltaire famously quipped “God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Paul’s query, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” elicits the obvious answer: “Plenty of ways!”

   Since Paul’s line of thought is so alien to how American Christians think, this is good cause to reiterate it and help people reimagine it. C.E.B. Cranfield opens a window by analyzing “four quite different senses in which Christian die to sin.” We die to sin in God’s sight; it’s God’s decision to crucify our sin. In Baptism, God seals and ratifies God’s own decision. Then death to sin is our calling to be holy – and as God calls, God simultaneously give us “the freedom to die daily and hourly to sin by the mortification of their sinful natures.” And death to sin is an eschatological promise; in eternity, sin will be no more.

   So here’s an image from Austen Farrer: “You are to become Jesus’ body. You are to be nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.” And another: being born again. In my Birth book, it’s a whole new life, a whole new identity, learning dependence, mercy.

   The death “no longer having dominion”: Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize by assessing how all our craziness and the havoc in our heads and relationships grow out of The Denial of Death. Recently I re-read Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, where he speaks tantalizingly: “You are so afraid of dying alone. Your deeply hidden memories of a fearful birth make you suspect that your death will be equally fearful… Maybe the death at the end of your life won’t be so fearful is you can die well now. Yes, the real death – the passage from time into eternity from the transient beauty of this world to the lasting beauty of the next, from darkness into light – has to be made now.” Unsure how to preach that – but I bet it’s important for us clergy to live into as people and would-be leaders.

   Then Matthew 10:24-39. I so long to say Beelzebub out loud in a sermon! Just fun to utter – as are the possible translations, “lord of the house,” “lord of dung,” “lord of the flies.” Jesus is all over the place in this text. Even if the lectionary has trampled over periscope divisions, Jesus must have talked like this, one topic, shifting to another, blurting out a reminder on something else. The preacher should take care not to latch on either the comfort or the severity themes here. Jesus clearly was comfortable with both, holding both together always.

   A few details. Jesus “setting a man against his father” undercuts any trivial talk about Jesus and family values. Examples abound, such as St. Francis divesting himself of his father’s goods – and how his father never spoke to him again, spitting in his direction as they passed on the streets of Assisi.

   Jesus wants to be acknowledged, not denied – not as a double dare you, but because of the blessing to the acknowledger and any who notice, and the dissonance in the soul of the one who denies. What does denial look like in 2020? Myriad stuff, like conventional living, fitting in, letting a racist slur slide on by, on and on. I wonder if piety can be a paradoxical denial of Jesus? You make sugary but harmful theological remarks (“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “Everything happens for a reason”) – which deny the more robust reality of Jesus who doesn’t deny but embraces suffering?

   On taking up one’s cross, and losing one’s life to find it: I admire Joel Marcus for reflecting on Alexander Solzhenitsyn in (of all places) his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark! “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.  At the threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My former life is over, I shall never return.  I no longer have property.  Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious to me.’”

   Jesus’ pointing to sparrows: we have the new hymn, “God of the Sparrow,” which is lovely – but it’s tough to top that oldie, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It’s been recorded countless times: by Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Holliday, Sandi Patty, Marvin Gaye, and even Michael Jackson but I’ll take Mahalia Jackson any day. Here’s a reflection on the hymn, and on Jesus’ regard of sparrows, for a new book I’m finishing on the theology of hymns (and this will end this blog):

     When I was a young pastor, I had a handful of members who were most unhappy with our “new hymnal” (which was nearly twenty years old at the time!) for several glaring omissions, the most egregious being “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” 
“We should never have replaced the old Cokesbury Hymnal!” They had plenty of copies on hand, but none of my people really needed a book to sing “Why should I feel discouraged?” Despite my resistance, a warbly soprano I loved deeply would do it as a solo now and then, although I detected a few semi-restrained eyerolls when she’d sing it. I just found it to be kind of corny, sentimental, not made of strong enough stuff for the tough theology I was lifting up to my people.

     I must have been just the kind of guy Jesus hoped would overhear when he told people who didn’t matter in the world’s eyes that in God’s eyes they were fabulously precious. Thankfully I’ve fallen back in love with this old hymn I heard my grandmother sing while she went about her chores. Jesus asked us to see God’s handiwork and sustenance in mere sparrows. 
Walter Brueggemann (in A Glad Obedience) calls them “model citizens in the Kingdom of God.” They nest inside the glorious temple itself, too high to be swooshed away by the priest and their acolytes. God feeds and clothes them, quite naturally; these non-acquisitive, trusting creatures have no worries.

   Easy for sparrows, I’d say. The hymn asks “Why should I be discouraged?” Let me count the ways. “Why should the shadows come?” is worth pausing over, not merely to count all the darkness that imposes itself in every life. 
Ray Barfield, in his book on beauty and suffering called Wager, speaks of “reverencing my shadow.” If you’re in the world, you cast a shadow; it’s proof you’re here. If there’s light, there is shadow, and if there’s shadow, then there’s light. Obviously – but that is why the shadows should come.

   What’s so lovely about the hymn is that it doesn’t pledge or expect a quick fix or any fix at all. It’s not God will do what I ask, or God will repair everything tomorrow. It’s simply that God cares. God sees. His eye is on the sparrow – and as virtually worthless as a sparrow might seem to be (Jesus pointed out that five are sold for two pennies!), God miraculously cares intensely for each one. 
God sees the sparrow, and you and me. And it’s not just a passing glance. Birdwatchers are patient, focused people, gazing at length through their binoculars, noticing the slightest flutter of a feather, turn of the head, opening of the beak or twitching of a talon.

     Who was Jesus? Who is he? His nickname at birth was “Emmanuel,” God with us. And his parting words were “I will be with you.” Not a magical fulfiller of wishes or fixer of all troubles. He is with us. That’s what my grandmother was singing about while sweeping and ironing. God’s abiding presence infused her with joy and strength. She was still dirt poor, and her arthritis pained her. But Jesus was her “portion,” a lovely echo of Psalm 73:26.

     Indeed, my grandmother and my warbly soprano soared to the climactic high note in the hymn, which occurs on “I’m free.” Not free American-style, the paltry notion that I can do whatever I dang well please. No, I’m free, like a bird, as in Paul’s ringing declaration that “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Free from the cruel bondage of sin, anxiety, fretting over self-worth or terror of mortality.

     Civilla Durfee Martin wrote this poem, later set to music by Charles Gabriel, after visiting with her friend, a Mrs. Doolittle, bedridden for over twenty years. Martin’s husband asked Mrs. Doolittle her secret of joy in the thick of affliction. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” That was in 1905. It was back in maybe the year 28 that Jesus said pretty much the same thing. No wonder the hymn, and more importantly, the reality of God’s tender care for sparrows and us people, lingers despite failing to make the hymnal committee cut.

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  Let me commend my new book, in the "Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well" series: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. I loved researching and writing this, and hope you'll enjoy. Glad to do a virtual signing of the frontispiece for you!

What can we say June 28? 4th after Pentecost


   As the Epistle and Gospel readings leave me a little underwhelmed (even though Romans 6:12-23 has its timely wisdom as July 4 draws near – that freedom isn’t my right to do as I wish, so cherished by Americans, but being set free from slavery to sin, and for obedience!), I’ll be preaching on one of the toughest, puzzling yet theologically profound texts in all of Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14. Ellen Davis wryly points out that “Here we are, only 22 chapters into the Bible, and already our skin is crawling.” Most listeners will shudder, unknowingly siding with Immanuel Kant, who asserted that if you hear a voice commanding something contrary to moral law, it is not God’s voice. Only a deranged person would harm a child!

   And yet, don’t we sacrifice our own children on the altar of….? Fill in the blank. Don’t we bind them to the altar of money, or alcohol, or dizzying busyness, or our anxiety or society’s false deities. Plenty of sermon fodder here, isn’t there? Bad parents, all of us… and if you’re a Family Guy fan, this hilarious clip about the world dad in the world elicits a chuckle (but best not to run this video on your worship screens).

   The simplest homiletical conclusion to be drawn is that Genesis 22, written during the days when Israel’s neighbors did in fact sacrifice their children to placate angry gods, stands as a bold witness to say It shall not be so among you; this will not be done in Israel.

   But is that it? Doesn’t Genesis 22 open up a larger vista of the divine heart and faithful discipleship? Phillip asked the Ethiopian eunuch who was pondering this text, “Do you understand?” His reply, an understatement, so humble and true to life: “How can I unless someone guides me?” What guidance can we offer? The text can always be read as a one-off – that is, it’s about Abraham, not you and me. There needn’t be a “go thou and do likewise” in every text. The Torah marvels as the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, not necessarily urging us to mimic them.

   When I was young, I think I touted Abraham as a shining example of total devotion to God. But recently I’ve been reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Genesis. He makes a big point of contrasting Noah, who said not one word in response to God but simply dished up blind obedience (which didn’t impact anybody else!), with Abraham, who talked back to God, who took responsibility, who instead of just letting Sodom and Gomorrah burn fought back, advocating for the citizens there. Why then is Abraham so meek and blindly obedient here? Sacks doesn’t offer us much, except this: “We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing… Judaism is a sustained discipline in not taking life for granted.”

   More than any passage in Scripture, this one is to be read slowly. Each word bears so much weight, and the emotion – never stated! – is intense. Take your son. Pause… Your only son Isaac. Pause… underlining the ‘only,’ and thus the whole story of barrenness, and then reminding him of his name… which had just meant joyful laughter. Whom you love. Long pause… again, reiterating the obvious, expanding the interior horizon. The pace remains slow, rising early, and as he saddles his donkey.

   When they get to Moriah, he takes the wood, and the fire and knife. Then the text lingers: So they went, both of them together. Pause. Absolutely tender, harrowing. These very words are repeated two verses later. Isaac calls out to him “My father!” (which is how Jesus would teach us to pray). Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son” (echoes of Isaiah 6 but with the tender ‘my son’). I love it that the text never tells us how either of them feels. The intensity is greater than if the mood had been depicted in a bunch of adjectives.

   The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gifted us with a profound rumination on this text (Fear and Trembling), in which he points out that if Abraham had been heroic, he would have raised the knife and plunged it into his own chest: “He would have been admired ; but it is one thing to be admired, and another to be the guiding star which saves the anguished.” Kierkegaard’s best line? “Only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.”

   Ellen Davis, in her wise reflection on this text, speaks of “vulnerability” as “the enabling condition of covenant relationship with God.” Abraham could not be more vulnerable – and he makes himself even more vulnerable by responding “Here I am.” Perhaps he should have run, hidden, or just said No way. “Here I am” is how we always stand before and with God.

   She considers the vulnerability of children in the face of their parents’ faith. How vulnerable was Isaac to his father’s piety? Might this cause the preacher to shudder a bit over the cost to our children of what we think we are doing for God?

   So we have a startling text. Abraham is “tested,” not tempted (as is the case for Jesus in the desert). Russ Reno (in his Brazos/Genesis commentary): “Trials and tests are consistent with divine love. They work against our hopeless hope that our finite powers can see us through. To be tested is to be brought back to reality. It is a spank that awakens us. Trials and tests not only purify us of delusions, but also prepare us for a proper loyalty to the world and its finite goods.”

   The best I can think to ask is What sort of test was the crucifixion for the heart of God the Father? We know Jesus’ cry of dereliction. How did God hear him? What was God’s swirl of emotion when the taunters jeered, “Save yourself”? There is some harrowing in that moment, some unspeakable agony – which words just cannot capture. Rembrandt’s pen and ink profoundly and unforgettably captures Abraham’s face just at the moment he is relieved of his crushing duty, when he who drew the knife actually got Isaac.

What can we say July 5? 5th after Pentecost


   The Sunday the day after July 4. I’m sorry, but I will grouse openly about the fact that, on the day people chatter about soldiers giving their lives for our religious freedom, people exercise that freedom by attending church in absurdly low numbers. The people in front of me are there, so they aren’t the problem…  I blogged a few years back about “Jesus and July 4 (one of my best and most popular blogs ever!) and I’ll stick by its premises all day, every year. God sets us free – to have parades and drink beer and shoot off fireworks? Or to be holy, charitable, compassionate?

   I do suspect that it’s wise, as we build that invaluable personal capital with our people, on the Sunday near July 4 to say cheerful, appreciative things about the day, things that are theologically hopeful.  The late-in-life correspondence and reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is especially alluring – and then they both died on July 4, precisely 50 years after the signing of the Declaration. Feels almost miraculous – without you having to say so.

   Our texts this week: Genesis 24:34-67 dramatizes a stunning matchmaking moment, in which God evidently is the matchmaker. Rebekah with a jar of water on her head, Isaac impressing her by pushing a large stone aside? I love verse 47: “So I put the ring on her nose and bracelets on her arms.” Troubled by your kids’ facial jewelry? Does God matchmake? Easy to say Yes – but tell that to those who marriages have been painful or downright crushing.

   Romans 7:15-25a is a psychologically astute text any attentive person can identify with: “I do not understand my own actions.” Who is the “I”? Is Paul speaking autobiographically? Representatively? Is this the Jewish experience outside of Christ? Or Paul’s sense of life once we are in Christ? I think it’s fair in preaching to ask the questions without the answers. This text, like so many, invites engagement from diverse people from diverse perspectives.

   Scholars gravitate toward the idea that Paul is speaking of the person under the power of sin. The assumption is liberation from sin but not slavery to it (Michael Gorman’s conclusion), unredeemed humanity, those living under the law. N.T. Wright often says Romans 8 is the “answer” to the struggle of Romans 7. Genesis 3 is clearly in the background. Sin as liar, Sin as usurper. So hard to speak of these things to modern churchgoers for whom sin is somebody else’s problem…

   Clearly though, Paul raises intense question marks on the way Americans blithely conceive of their cherished “freedom.” We are not free. We are bound. We are like the prisoner in his cell, free to go to this side of the cell or that, to stand or sit; but the prisoner is still a prisoner. Culture shackles us all. Self-destructives strangles everybody. It’s only in Paul’s realization that the good I try to do I can’t, and the evil I am determined to avoid I can’t that we can throw ourselves in hopeful despair on the healing mercy of God.

   Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. What a fascinating text! Verse 25: the “time” is kairos, not chronos, time as weighty, a decisive turning point moment, not just the passing of seconds, minutes, hours and days. God is Abba, so intimate our Father, our Daddy, so much love and tenderness. What has been “hidden” is now “revealed.” But only to the nepios – the simple, the childlike – very ones who in v. 16 didn’t respond well! No wonder this text has been dubbed “the Johannine thunderbolt,” as Jesus sounds like this in the 4th Gospel. There are also threads of Paul (1 Cor. 1) on the foolishness and wisdom and who gets Jesus and who doesn’t.

   The whole business of mystery, and what is hidden: preaching needs to leave way more as vague, tantalizing. St. Augustine said that If you understand it, it is not God. If you know a little about God, it’s maybe half of 1% of God, and your understanding of that tiny fraction is a bit foggy. Not that we despair. It’s a quest, and knowing this makes you humble, and curious. The solution to relational troubles, to what fractures groups, is simply to be humbler, and more curious.  In seminary, Dean Tom Langford would lecture on Systematic Theology. He’d start with complete, rational sentences, and then it would break down into some fumbling, he’d take off his glasses, rub his eyes, and flat out struggle to say what he was trying to say about the Trinity (for instance). Pitch perfect. Preachers should do the same.

   Jesus is “meek,” praus being the very word Jesus uses in the Beatitudes to speak of the blessedness of the meek – so preachers too can be quite meek, and properly so. Ours is to be “kind,” admittedly and frankly rare in 2020! The Greek chrestos, is absurdly close to Christ! – the kind one, the ultimately kind Lord of all. Not the powerful fixer of all things, but the gentle one says “Come to me” (echoes of Isaiah 55!!!) for “rest.” St. Augustine said Christ is our true Sabbath. This rest isn’t a vacation or being idle, but being close, in sync, joyfully and fully in Christ’s presence.

   His “yoke” is easy. But there’s still a yoke. It’s still hard. There’s heavy lifting involved. But our labor is for him, fulfilling our purpose and truest selves. Maybe we serve like Jacob did for the hand of Rachel: “Jacob served Laban for 7 years, but it seemed to him like just a few days, so great was his love for Leah” (Gen. 29:20). What is this yoke? Delighting in Scripture, hanging out with the people nobody else will hang out with, prayer, Sabbath, holy habits, all those practices. July 4 will have been just yesterday. What is freedom? It’s not Hey, I can do as I wish! But a diligent adherence to our Lord in all we do, say, think, eat, walk and sleep. God freed Israel and took them directly to Mt. Sinai so they would know how to stay free.