Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say February 24? 7th after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we say March 3? Transfiguration

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

   I just love Zora Neale Hurston's vivid portrayal (in Moses, Man of the Mountain): "Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. It comprehended the world.  Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. 'Joshua, I have laws. Israel is going to know peace and justice.'”

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

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

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

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

What can we say March 10? Lent 1

   Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, March 6 (which requires a short homily on my part, and maybe yours). Then Lent 1. The Old Testament intrigues me: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, which I recall from seminary was dubbed a “creed” by Gerhard von Rad, shows how your offering to God is linked to remembering what God has done – for you, and through all of salvation history. I’d think the preacher could probe this profitably… or use the Psalter: I love Psalm 91. I’ve seen my wife offer up liturgical dance to “On Eagle’s Wings.” Lovely stuff. 

     Of course, the Psalm sits in this place because it’s cited in the Gospel lection – by Satan himself! Just because somebody quotes Scripture doesn’t mean they’ve delivered God’s true word. Even Shakespeare, dinging Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, beyond noting that “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose… An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek,” has Bassanio declare “What damned error, but some sober brow / Will bless it and approve it with a text, / Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?”
  So: Lent, typically, begins with the Temptation narrative, and in this year it is Luke 4:1-13. For me, this is a classic example (discussed in my The Beauty of the Word) of the way we mis-read texts in preaching. Way too often we make texts about us: my faith, my struggle, my serving, my doubts, my discipleship. But most texts aren’t actually about us. They are about God, or about the Body of Christ. The Temptation narratives, if mis-read as being about us, press us toward the common, and frightfully dull and discouraging sermon whose plot is, “We’re tempted just as Jesus was; so we can overcome temptation the way he did!” – which is ridiculous. Not one of us would stand a chance against the assault of this evil one. For holy and charitable purposes, we’d turn mere stones into sorely-needed bread for the hungry. We’d take the power, as so many religious people want to do.

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

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

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

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

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

     People mis-conceive the devil. Red guy, pitch fork, whispering in your ear to eat that extra brownie… Real evil is far more sinister, elusive, and hidden from view. The devil’s great wiles? To persuade us he doesn’t exist, or to dupe us into seeing the devil behind every rock. Thomas Merton spoke of “the theology of the devil,” suggesting that what the devil wants most of all is attention. Clearly, if evil is alluring, we should look to things that are beautiful, attractive, even appearing to be holy – and that’s where evil sets its trap for us, as it did for Jesus. David Lyle Jeffrey points to Tintoretto’s “Temptation” as one of countless examples of artists portraying Satan as a beautiful, innocent youth.

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

     Jesus is taken (spiritually? in the imagination? or literally?) to the “pinnacle” of the Temple. Does Luke mean the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, looming 400+ feet over the Kidron Valley? How many televangelists, or even parish pastors, would indulge in a bit of razzle-dazzle? Henri Nouwen (in In the Name of Jesus) reminds us that we clergy fantasize about doing something impressive for God. But this is not God’s way. The angels adored and worshipped Jesus – but clearly, in the end, they not only let his foot be dashed against those stones near the Temple. They let Jesus blood be shed, his body be pierced. This story points toward that day – as Luke adds the tantalizing, haunting footnote that once Jesus won round 1, Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.”

What can we say March 17? Lent 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.” 
   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.

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…

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.

     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.