Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say June 16? Trinity Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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




What can we say June 23? 2nd after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What can we say June 30? 3rd after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we say July 7? 4th after Pentecost

   My take on our texts? I find 2 Kings 5 to be fertile for preaching; and I find Galatians and Luke to be texts I need to ponder for me and my ministry. So: 2 Kings 5:1-14, a riveting story of brokenness, humility, hope and healing. Peter Leithart even calls this text “the richest Old Testament story of baptism,” one that “anticipates Christian baptism.” Maybe.

    Naaman was a great, successful man of valor, of substance.  But… there is always a “but” isn’t there? “But” he was a leper. Robert Alter, in his great new translation of Scripture, renders tsara’at as “skin blanch,” the main symptom being loss of pigmentation, not lesions and lumps. Only the very bold preacher would dare to suggest that his problem is being white!

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

   The not-yet-humbled Naaman rumbles up to Elisha’s house reining in his stallions, bearing gifts, expecting to pay his way to healing, to grease a few palms. He’ll come out for me (the Hebrew of “for me” is emphatic. The wealthy and powerful grouse about the poor feeling entitled; but who feels more entitled than the wealthy and powerful? Such a barrier against God’s grace!

    Elisha is unimpressed. After all, once you’ve seen chariots and horses blazing with fire, riding not across rugged terrain but soaring above the clouds (2 Kings 2), a bunch of steeds pulling a cocky chieftan atop wooden wheels just doesn’t raise your pulse. Not deigning to come out, Elisha disses Naaman, enraging him. Naaman was prideful, but perhaps pride was all he had left. Much as we might do in the privacy of the doctor’s or therapist’s office, we’ve dressed well, and mention some cool thing we did last night – but obviously we have come not for banter, but to be healed, to reveal the “but,” to expose what hinders us, hoping, blushing.

    Fascinating:  Elisha could have come out; he could have made the trip himself to Damascus; he could have healed at a distance. But he let Naaman come to him. When Joseph’s brothers were hungry, he could have shipped food to them, but he let them come. Joseph didn’t want them merely to fill their bellies; he wanted to heal the relationship. Elisha didn’t want Naaman merely to be rid of leprosy; he wanted him to be more deeply healed. By not even paying him the courtesy of coming to the door, Elisha reverses the sorry tale Jesus would tell of a rich man not coming to the door to help out a poor leper!

      Elisha’s prescription isn’t courteous either: bathe in the Jordan. Pilgrims to Israel chuckle when they see the Jordan, hardly a river at all, more of a stream, a creek. Naaman protests: shouldn’t his cure be more dazzling, perhaps dipping himself in the pools by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or some exotic salve imported from Ethiopia? It’s just water, it’s always been there; it’s all around, it’s what I am made of.

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

    Without romanticizing childhood, we may recognize its virtues: vulnerability, an implicit demand for justice, the way children show their treasures, weep in the open, accept grace easily, suffer no illusions of independence, and are easily amazed. All of Christianity is a kind of return to childhood, a training in humility. All of our gestures seem silly: folding our hands, bowing our heads, kneeling. How do you get ahead or defend yourself acting in these ways? We believe in vulnerability, humility, a bit of flailing in embarrassment. Dipping in a no account river on the suggestion of a two-bit prophet who wouldn’t even answer the door: the foolishness of God is wiser than all of us.

     The humility goes on. Sensing his nascent excitement about Elisha’s God will be compromised at home, Naaman rather charmingly scoops up some dirt to carry back with him, to cling to some piece of holiness in an unholy place. “Elisha does not expect Naaman to abandon the world or withdraw into a ghetto where he can escape moral dilemmas and difficulties” (Leithart). Not only is our post-baptized life full of dilemmas and difficulties; we fail miserably. We cannot heal ourselves, or achieve what God wants of us. But we remember the water, the awkward humiliation – and wasn’t it at precisely that moment of spiraling out of control, of losing all hope and dignity, that a slight rustling of wings was heard, and a whispered message, something like “this is my beloved child,” just a boy, a girl, small, wet, like we were at birth, like we will be when we are greeted at the door by fiery chariots?

    Galatians 6:1-16 isn’t a text that prompts much homiletical creativity in me. Paul’s counsel not to grow weary, though, speaks to us clergy (and could to laity too) who stave off exhaustion and burnout. I am reminded of Marianne Williamson’s Goop podcast, “Who Are You in Crisis?” in which Gwyneth Paltrow whined of being weary in working for the cause – and Williamson chided her, reminding all of us of how slaves, African-Americans in the 50’s, Jews in concentration camps, and so many others who’ve suffered far worse haven’t had the luxury of feeling tired or taking a break from the cause for a season.

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

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

What can we say July 14? 5th after Pentecost

   Amos 7:7-17. We are in a summer series on Worship, and Amos will help us understand how worship is Prophetic. Amos, the southerner, travels north to the sanctuary, to pious, sacrificing people, and dares to suggest that not all worship is good. Prophetic words are rarely welcomed – even when not in your hometown like Jesus in Luke 4! “The land is not able to bear his words” – an intriguing phrase. The land of promise, so solid, with growing things, even trembles under the weight of God’s Word. Thomas Jefferson (not noted for his piety) rightly said “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.”

   Amos’s vision is of a “plumbline,” as if God is a builder, measuring Israel’s moral straightness (or lack thereof). Sweeney points out that ’anak could mean “plaster” – as if God is a renovator. The walls of the kingdom’s lavish sanctuary and palace were in superb condition – or so they presumed. Marianne Williamson suggested that when we invite God into our lives, we expect a decorator to appear to spruce the place up a little. But instead, you look out the window, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear it all down and start over.

   My first pre-seminary sermon, somehow, latched onto Amos’s disclaimer: “I am not prophet.” I was no preacher, for sure. Amos wasn’t a pro; he spoke only under divine compulsion. Hans Walter Wolff: “Amos establishes a sharp contrast between a prophet by virtue of office and one called by the Lord, one trained and one sent, between a salaried cult official and his own independent activity sanctioned by the Lord alone.” Amaziah, not surprisingly, bans him from the precincts – and Amos’s reply proves he didn’t take Kindness 101 in seminary: “Your wife will be a prostitute, your children will be slaughtered.” Yikes.

    Colossians 1:1-14 opens an astonishingly eloquent letter, which commences with this flourish about faith, hope, love, fruitfulness. Paul was clearly energized, as verses 3 through 8 form a single sentence with no break in Greek. You have to love the way he portrays prayer. Our prayer requests are about gall bladders, better jobs and nice weather. Paul’s is that they may “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” What if we prayed this for one another?

   Some details: plerothete, “filled,” is a passive, intimating that God is the actor, as Jerry Sumney explains: “The Colossians do not attain this knowledge for themselves; God grants it to them. The divine passive represents a subtle rejection of the other teaching, which prescribed means for its adherents to attain heavenly knowledge and experiences for themselves.” Any versions of Christianity today that do the same?

    This business of “pleasing”: we ding pleasers, but God would be pleased. How cool is it that God actually can be pleased by us? Think you aren’t too important? You can please God. And you can “live a life worthy…” The verb here is peripateo, which means literally to “walk around.” As we walk around, our life is about pleasing God.

   And why bother? “He has rescued us from power of darkness.” Pretty different from the pale religiosity that imagines a distant God who gives you a boost now and then. Of course, Paul is just warming up for the brilliance of verses 15 and following… Verse 13 (in the meantime) carries a political ring: “One’s allegiance must shift to the king of the new realm. This requires the believer to relativize all other allegiances and commitments” (such as empire, nation, city, even family, as Sumney reminds us).

     Luke 10:25-37. They “test” Jesus – but the reader knows they stand little chance, as he’d survived the onslaught of the devil’s testing already. The tester “wanted to justify himself” – as do we all; this being our primal difficulty, right?

    Jesus, responding to queries about what love of God and neighbor are about, responds not with “Here are 7 principles of love for God” or “There are 6 ways to love your neighbor.” Instead he tells a story, and then winds up in a story. A made-up story – the best kind. I love it that in Israel you can visit “the Inn of the Good Samaritan” – which isn’t a real place... Love this photo of my daughter Sarah, aged 8, with Jason Byassee, at this spot! But back to the topic:

     “Love” (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) isn’t just an inner emotion, but something concrete, touching, doing, sacrificing – and not just for someone easy to love, or someone you really like. The “neighbor,” Jesus suggests, is the one who is offensive to you, the one you are least likely to “like,” a dreadful Samaritan (whom the Jews despised)… which raises awesome questions about how and where we spend our time and energy. 
 G.K. Chesterton wrote, “St. Francis loved everybody, but especially those others disliked him for liking.” Who is hard to love? and who is the stranger? According to Jesus, eternal life seems to hinge on whether we go out of our way, find these people, and love them, selflessly, thereby fulfilling God’s plan for our lives.

   In my preaching book, The Beauty of theWord, I suggest that with many texts, listeners have a sermon in their heads they believe you will preach. An excerpt: “So, at all costs, the preacher must know where people think the preacher is going – and steadfastly refuse to go there.  Suppose the reading is Luke 10:29-37, the duly famous parable of the Good Samaritan.  The reader begins, and people tune out – the way frequent flyers pay no attention whatsoever to the flight attendant who is reviewing the safety and emergency procedures before the plane takes off.  Where do they think you’re going with this text? They yawn and wait for the pedestrian lesson: ‘So often you’re like the priest or the Levite, in such a rush, hurrying right past the poor person who needs help.  But God wants you to be like the Samaritan.  Slow down, help the guy who’s beaten and bleeding by the side of the road.’ They are snoring by now, or rifling in their minds through the afternoon’s to-do list.

     Maybe the predictable sermon is more nuanced, with some modern parallels to today’s Samaritans:  ‘Jews and Samaritans loathed one another; we have our Samaritans, don’t we? People with AIDS? Immigrants? The poor (or rich) person across the tracks? Jesus wants us to love them.’  Like the priest and Levite, the bored pew sitters quite justifiably rush right past the poor bleeding sermon lying by the side of the road.

     So what to do with the Good Samaritan text? You may not know just yet, but you firmly make a vow to yourself: ‘Whatever I say this Sunday, it will not be the predictable or the trite.’ Notice it may well be a superb idea to help people who are hurting, or to reconcile with strangers. But when Jesus told the story it wasn’t an old saw. People who heard him left home and family to follow him, risked life and limb to proclaim him. In fact, at the end of the day, Luke 10:29-37 is about this one they left home and family to follow. Jesus is the teller of the story, and that must matter. It’s not a free-floating story Confucius or Plato might have told. It’s from the mind and heart of Jesus, and the story is in full harmony with who he was.

     In hatching sermons we can reconsider what I call the ‘identification game.’ We hear a Bible story, and we begin to identify with some character or another – understandably, and even helpfully. But we don’t play around with the possibilities thoroughly enough. With the Good Samaritan, the options seem to be priest/Levite? or Samaritan? But what about the bloodied victim by the side of the road? Don’t listeners know what that feels like? What about the guys who beat him up in the first place? Whom have we hurt, even if unwittingly?

    These are questions with energetic potential in the preparation of a sermon. But the better questions are always about Jesus, the teller of the story – or by extension, about God, the subject of not just the sermon, but the subject of all subjects. Wasn’t Jesus beaten and bloodied? Wasn’t Jesus the one who spared no effort in helping a stranger? Isn’t Jesus the stranger? Augustine saw Jesus as the stranger who helps – and we may even see Jesus as the wounded one we tend to…

What can we say July 21? 6th after Pentecost

  I’m not preaching on Amos 8:1-12, but I’m drawn to the timeliness of his vision of a “basket of summer fruit” here in July! Amos is in full-bore judgment mode here. Preachers always have to assess when to speak judgment and when to voice hope; the catastrophe is when we get them reversed. Israel’s prophets do both, but at the right moment (perhaps in line with “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”?). John Goldingay rightly says “the true prophet knows what time it is.”

    Lingering another moment here, I’m fond of Gerhard Lohfink’s thoughts: “According to biblical faith, the deceased are judged not according to a system, but by the living God.” I’d add God isn’t simply the judge, but also the defense attorney, and even the scapegoat bearing your judgment. More Lohfink: “When we encounter God in death, we will for the first time recognize with full clarity who we really are. God has no need to harangue us. We ourselves will judge and condemn the evil in us… The encounter with God in death will become an encounter with truth – about God, others, the world and ourselves. We can even hope for judgment, because truth is something in which we can rejoice.” For our hope is in the judgment that is God’s mercy – which clarifies, then purifies, then heals.

     Colossians 1:15-28 is an astonishing wonder of a text a preacher might marvel over – and not just to piece a sermon together. The style of this? Elevated, eloquent, with rhythm. It’s poetry, lyrical, maybe a hymn. Can the preacher’s style in the sermon be elevated, not chatty? Maybe we quote hymns, or poems – or just trust the text, re-read it to them people in short segments, or building to a crescendo, and then let it do its own work, of which it is more than capable. The writer wants readers to slow down, ponder, parse, reflect, re-read. Can the sermon help listeners to do so?

    In 1953, J.B. Phillips (the Eugene Peterson of his day) published Your God is Too Small. The title tells it all. We eviscerate Jesus, narrow him down, putting him in some small box (personal savior, prophetic revolutionary, conservative stalwart, liberal pundit, compassionate guru) – yet our text blows our mind with how great Jesus is. The words are big (fullness, all, etc.). Hifalutin philosophical terms (eikon, arche, etc.) are trotted out to try to capture how fabulous Jesus was, is and will be. Jesus is expansively amazing, over, under and beyond all of creation – reminding us that our worship of him isn’t about us; we praise, adore, listen, fall slack-jawed on our knees, dizzy from the grandeur.

    It’s edgy and countercultural too. If you adore this Jesus you might wind up suffering (as the latter segment of our text underscores) – but you won’t even mind as you’re so lost in wonder, love and praise. Jesus is set though against claims of empire, as Jerry Sumney explains: “The church possesses an allegiance that supersedes the claims of empire. This alternative allegiance will require them to live in ways that people around them see as disruptive and perhaps subversive of even illegal.” You can’t just swoon over Jesus if you don’t see him clearly, and if you don’t embrace what he’s about. I might praise my wife incessantly, but we might still wind up divorced if our values are out of sync (reminding us of the Amos text!!!).

    I will surely clarify to my people how this text alone debunks all the DaVinci Code nonsense – that Jesus was just a guy, and later politicians hatched the notion of his divinity to hold the empire together. As early as two decades after Jesus, while plenty of folks were around to know better were it not true, Colossians has the most gargantuan, high Christology imaginable – higher even than pedestrian Christians today.

   Luke 10:38-42 gives a narrative, at-home version of the praise in worship articulated in Colossians. Visiting with his friends in Bethany, Jesus did the unthinkable in Bible times: he permitted a woman to sit at a rabbi’s feet. Shocking, way out of bounds, overturning religious convention – again. The story’s context is crucial: he’s still unravelling the primal commandment to love God and neighbor. First he picks up love of neighbor with the Good Samaritan story. Now he dovetails back to love of God. It looks like Mary – and not Martha.

    We may well sympathize with Martha. It is probably the Feast of Tabernacles, so she is doing the right hostessing but also religious thing: providing a festive, complex meal. Quite rightly she upbraids Mary for doing nothing. Isn’t prayer and praise always doing nothing? I know of churches that have “Marthas,” a band of women who serve at meals. You just have to chuckle. Martha is scurrying about doing good – even for Jesus! But Jesus asks us to listen – for to what Jesus might want you to scurry about doing, but also just to him, just to be with him, to adore him.

    Listening is the heart of the life of faith. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, said that the key to research is leaving long, awkward silences during interviews. People will eventually fill the void. His notebooks are filled with marginal markings: SU, SU, SU. Shut up! We SU. We listen, we relish the silence with Jesus. Instead of Lord, hear our prayer, we say Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Mary listened – and the Greek is ekouen, the imperfect tense, implying “she kept listening.”

    Jesus chides Martha for being “anxious about many things.” What could be more apropos for people in our day? The solution, the conversion, is to fix on “one thing.” Søren Kierkegaard’s book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing comes to mind. How daunting is this for us? Early copyists of Luke Gospel made a fascinating textual change that can’t be a booboo. Instead of henos, “one thing” is needful, they shifted to oligos, “a few things are needful.” I can just imagine the abbot, the spiritual leader, getting frustrated over the monks not getting their work done; perhaps they even countered his demands by saying Jesus said only one thing is needful. He replied, and inserted it into Scripture, Well, a few things are needful.

    Jesus upends things by saying Mary has chosen the “better part.” St. Augustine suggested he meant “a better meal,” namely the Bread of Life, the Eucharist.

 

What can we say July 28? 7th after Pentecost


    Hosea 1:2-10 has provoked much conflicting commentary. Did God really tell Hosea to marry a prostitute? Or did he marry in good hope, but then her later infidelity, in retrospect, led him to see God using his experience to reveal how God feels about Israel? What sort of woman was she anyhow? I do wonder, with such texts, if they speak to the preacher about the carnage in personal life that can impact your ministry. And then Psalm 85 takes us from inappropriate, tragic intimacy to the loveliest, most picturesque kind of affection – when “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” I’ve tried preaching on this – but the vivid beauty of the line is so much greater than my paltry words.

     Colossians 2:6-19 continues this eloquent epistle’s soaring Christological assessment of Jesus and his implications for us. We “continue to live in him” – and the verb literally means “walk.” As we walk around, we are in him, he is in us – or I think of Pasolini’s wonderful film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” where Jesus is always walking somewhere, striding purposefully and urgently, the disciples struggling to keep up, as he teaches, looking back over his shoulder.

   This text reminds us that there are two parallel stories, two plots unfolding all the time: the obvious story of the world you see in the news and as you look around, but the other a hidden, elusive but certain narrative that unfolds unseen, entirely at odds with the other story, leading to God and goodness and redemption. The secret is not being deluded or diverted by the first story. William Temple famously said the world is like a shop window into which some devious person has sneaked at night and switched all the pricetags around. The lunacy of life is that we spend ourselves then on what has little value, missing the precious stuff.

    The paradox of the God story reaches its climax in the cross. The powers seem to have done him in and showed who’s boss. But from Colossians’s perspective, Jesus was dis-arming the powers, making a public spectacle of them. Like “That’s all you’ve got?” Or “This is where evil and the world wind up.” The striking image of nailing the law and its demands to the cross bears much reflection. I love Austin Farrer’s wisdom: “What, then, was done to this body? It was stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross: stripped of all dignity and all possession, scourged with the stroke of penal justice, and nailed up like a dead thing while it was still alive. The body you receive in this sacrament accomplished its purpose by nailing to a tree. You are to become this body, you are to be nailed: 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.”

    Luke 11:1-13 captures the disciples’ best request of Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” They had overheard and observed Jesus’ intimacy with God, Abba, and wanted in on it. I suspect our people want and need, above all else, to learn to pray, how to talk to God; like Paul, they are dimly aware that “We do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). We know prayer gets winnowed down into 911 panicked calls for health assistance.  

     Bonhoeffer’s wisdom here is unforgettable: “The phrase ‘learning to pray’ sounds strange to us.  If the heart does not overflow and begin to pray by itself, we say, it will never ‘learn’ to pray.  But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings – all of which the heart can do by itself – with prayer… Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.”

     Bonhoeffer used a helpful analogy. Children do not just know how to talk. Rather, “The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father.” So it is as we learn to pray. And the child must be shaped and molded in ways that may not suit the child’s immediate desires. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” Or as C.S. Lewis put in, “In prayer we lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” 

     Luke 11 begins with The Lord’s Prayer, well worth much explication, or a series of classes. Here is a little email series on it I sent out a few years back. Use it if you’d like. How different is this prayer from our usual praying! It’s about God more than me and my wishes – which get undermined, if Huxley was right in saying “Thy kingdom come means My kingdom go.” “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” will leave us plenty to do, making heavenly realities happen here and now. The reflexive forgiveness requirement is haunting, and bears repeating every few minutes in our rancorous culture.

    Having supplied this prayer as a good sample, Jesus continued with a story of a man banging on his friend’s door at midnight, demanding bread. George Buttrick once described prayer as “beating on Heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark.” Persistence in prayer will be hard for us in our “quick” culture, where speed and efficiency are everything, where we press a button and stuff gets delivered to your door. Prayer is not quick. Pray is not efficient. Communion with God isn’t won in fifteen seconds.

     The preachers should acknowledge that “Ask and it will be given you” is more discouraging than hopeful – as it fosters the illusion that “prayer works.” If it works, it doesn’t work very well – and people are grateful when pastor acknowledges what every Christian knows all too well. C.S. Lewis can help us: “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine – something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion, or else it is a personal contact between incomplete persons (ourselves) and the one utterly concrete Person (God). Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it. Confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us.”


   Same as in human relationships. My wife’s value isn’t in whether my requests to her “work.” A healthy marriage, like prayer, hinges on spending time together, listening, going places, discerning what she might want, loving each other, loving others. You have to love Jesus’ clever wording: fathers know how to give good gifts to their children – and so our heavenly father knows how to give… what? Good gifts? No: the Holy Spirit! God’s presence: that’s the answer to prayer, the point of prayer, the dream of all who pray. It’s all love – as Madeleine L’Engle explained so movingly. Over a long weekend, she and her husband Paul were waiting on his biopsy result. She kept praying, “Please, dear God, don’t let it be cancer.” Someone suggested that her prayer was invalid: it already either was or wasn’t malignant. But she said, “I can’t live with that. I think the heart overrides the intellect and insists on praying. If we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings. And so I pray as my heart needs to pray.” Later, after the cancer was pronounced terminal, she wondered if her prayers had been wasted.  But she concluded, rightly: “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted. Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hands outstretched to receive them, like precious pearls.”