Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say October 27? Reformation Sunday

  At my place, we will mark October 27 as Reformation Sunday. In preaching, we always need to lift our people out of their individualistic spirituality; and certainly on this Sunday we think about God’s Church, and its constant need to be re-formed, and to be attentive of the way we let ourselves be formed – which, lately, seems eerily to be a mirror image of the political ideologies of our culture. Thinking Martin Luther (and allowing he sparked a division in the church!), we might open the sermon, or the service, with a loud knock from the back door... although the risks of being corny are immense.

   Our texts are stellar. Joel 2:23-32 opens with God’s pledge that rain will pour down, shattering the drought – and that is but a sign of the even more prolific pouring out of God’s Spirit, God’s ruah, the holy breath, wind, onrushing, transforming presence. When this unfolds, the old will dream dreams, the young will see visions. Earlier in my life, we counted on the youth to dream big dreams. I wonder if some of that is lost. The aged surely have become cynical, crusty, maybe honored among themselves as “realistic.” Church is about dreaming. Preaching induces dreams and visions. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us to dream – not our private fantasies, but to share in God’s dreams, which we know from God’s past activity, from Scripture, and from an attentiveness on our part to what new thing God might be doing. Church reform begins in the dreams of God’s people.

   We've seeded this, by the way, by asking people to share their dreams for the church - via mass text, in small groups, etc., and we have compiled dozens and dozens of answers. Some will find their way into sermon and service. The exercise gets people (hopefully) into a prepared mindset before they even arrive.

   It’s scary. “The moon will turn to blood!” But change is always scary. The prophetic way is irritating to the status quo, and requires much courage. Joan Chittister’s new book, The Time is Now, explains how the prophets “chose courage. They chose the expansion of the soul. They chose to stake their lives on what must be rather than stake their comfort, their security on what was.” Indeed, dreams can be squelched by fear and the drive for security. But as Scott Bader-Saye explains (in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear), “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good… Our overwhelming fears need, themselves, to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.”

   Joel’s vision is of a new, very different world. The preacher can’t slink back into talk about personal salvation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” – but the verb in question, yimmalet, means “will escape,” namely the Babylonians or the latest military juggernaut scorching the earth and slaughtering the young. Hans Walter Wolff is right: “The pouring out of God’s spirit upon flesh means the establishment of new, vigorous life through God’s unreserved giving of himself to those who, in themselves, are footless and feeble.”

   2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 is Paul’s poignant, eloquent looking back and also forward as he nears the end of his life, deploying images of a soldier, an athlete, and a laborer completing arduous tasks. His “death” is at hand – but the Greek (analusis) literally is “departure” – a little wink toward the resurrection to come! I hear echoes of Luther’s titanic battle for the Word of God in all this… and then for all of us who labor for the Word, there is a reward. Not that we do it for the reward – but one’s coming.
   And it’s not a pot of gold or a luxury chalet in the Alps. It’s “the crown of righteousness.” Lowly servants, crowned – like the orphans in Cider House Rules, who were bidden goodnight by Dr. Larch with the words “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” I think of the emotionally riveting scene at the climax to The Return of the King, the crowning of Aragorn, who then comes and bows before the hobbits.

  FYI, I love the new InLighten Film series - short professionally produced films geared to the lectionary. Here is a great sample on this week's text! - of what it might mean to "finish the race." Moving stuff, useful to you and to your people!! Check it out!

   Luke 18:9-14. And if we think back to the Reformation, the one in the 16th century, the rediscovery of mercy, grace, faith not showy works is at the heart of what sets the church back on its feet after stumbling. A vapid carelessness about holiness, the primal staple of church life in our day, is not in the vicinity of mercy, which takes sinning and holiness so very seriously, and human brokenness and our inability to be what we so desperately dream of being for God.

   Luke 18:9-14 is one of Jesus’ most profound exposures of human spirituality gone bad. The righteous one not only trusts in himself; in his praying he is really only talking with himself! Very pious – but entirely secular, if Charles Taylor’s massive tome’s theme is correct (that the “secular” is whenever we see meaning within the self instead of beyond the self – in A Secular Age). Luther’s Reformation project was a response to the theology of the likes of Gabriel Biel (as I remember my professor David Steinmetz explaining so carefully), whose admonition was “Do what is in you.” What is in me, in all of us, is brokenness, a shackling to sin and self, and inability to do much at all besides scrape out a living and then die alone. The loneliness! Notice the Pharisee is “standing by himself.”

   Luther’s own despair, in striving to be holy enough, to be righteous enough, is perhaps well-depicted in the shameless plea of the tax collector, who cannot even raise his eyes. Humility is faith, humility is the need and reception of grace, mercy requires nothing but humility. This despairing humility is faith – and stands as the answer to so many of our debates about who’s right and who’s wrong in the church, who’s worthy of the church’s blessings and who isn’t.

   A cautionary word from historical reality: we need not romanticize Luther's nailing of his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door - for 2 reasons. It's a heroic image, but it was about a grievous division in God's Church, with anti-Catholic (obviously!) overtones. How do we rightly reform without dividing and injuring brothers and sisters in the Body? Also: recently I read Carlos Eire's great book Reformations - and he reminds us that Luther's theses were a vicious verbal assault with ferocious accusations and name-calling, which persisted through the supposedly holy Reformation (Luther dubbed his foes - and even his Protestant foes! - goat, blockhead, blasphemer, the devil's donkey, swine, toad-easter, idiot, stinking mushroom... Calvin called those who didn't agree vermin, scum, fiends, and Müntzer, who refused to utter Luther's name, called him Dr. Liar, Father Pussyfoot, and Malicious Black Raven). 

What can we say November 3? All Saints

   Preparing for All Saints, I stumbled across a marvelous passage in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Animal Dreams, which tells how the citizens of a town called Grace observed the Day of the Dead: lavishly decorating the cemetery, nothing solemn, but much laughter, running, and many flowers. "Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones.  The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care.  It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead.  In these families you would never stop being loved.."

   While in our worship we’ll use the All Saints’ Day lections, the November 3 readings are themselves powerful and sufficient to the day. Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 images a sentinel on a watchtower (I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s, and then Jimi Hendrix’s versions…) – an impeccable image for our longing and patient waiting for the dawning of God’s good kingdom. Near the end of Homecoming, Marilynne Robinson’s best (maybe? my opinion?) novel, we find this reflection on memory and death: “But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.” Not accidentally, this watchtower moment climaxes in Hab. 2:4 – the verse Paul alighted upon when he was figuring out how to explain the way faith in grace is what saves.

   Luke 19:1-10 similarly would work for All Saints. Jesus comes to the home of Zaccheus (“a wee little man was he…”). We are titans, and even the saints weren’t giants. Zaccheus’s smallness is a mirror – or perhaps we ponder Tolkien’s hobbits from the shire as the hope and future of Middle Earth, or that other child’s song, “They are weak, but he is strong.” Luke’s punch line zooms in on what matters: “The Son of man came to seek and save the lost,” not the clever or well-placed or even the church members, Bible readers and believers. Jesus’ intriguing, mystifying use of “Son of man” (as the Ethiopian eunuch asked, “Does he refer to himself or another?”) leads us to the first of our All Saints Lections:

   Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18. The exotic setting and vivid language of verse 1 sets the tone for high drama. It’s just fun in the pulpit to say “Belshazzar,” and perhaps then to image Daniel, in the shadows of such a dreamy place, dreaming – not the kind Freud could explain, but the kind God gives and in which we share. Dreaming still matters – and just as a knot in the gut may turn out to be a malignancy or a pregnancy, the dream may be a nightmare or something glorious. Daniel is terrified – but the monsters haunting him in the dark are nothing more than the temporary, vapid powers of this world about to be defeated by the powers of good, light and love. I wouldn’t squander much time explicating which beast represented Persia and which the Greeks – as later on it’s Antiochus Epiphanes, then Nero or Domitian, and ultimately the Hitlers, Stalins and other arrogant megalomaniacs who strut across the stage of history. They are undone by a humble, unarmed, suffering one.

   Daniel’s dream vision has been made the linchpin in N.T. Wright’s explication of Jesus as Son of Man instigating The Day the Revolution Began. Daniel 7’s “little horn” is silenced, the monsters condemned, God’s kingdom inaugurated – reminding us that All Saints’ Day isn’t merely about eternal life for those who’ve died, but the comprehensive, cosmic dawning of God’s kingdom in its fulness! Again, the new ones who will reign are the little people, the hobbit-like ones, the “saints.” 

   Christians have often been irresponsible hopers in God’s ultimate victory, not engaging in God’s work now. Sib Towner explains why quietism isn’t the interim ethic for those with apocalyptic hope: “The waiting is an active waiting. It includes the maintenance of sharp identity, the heightening of interpretative skills, faithfulness before unjust demands of the foreign rulers, and fidelity to Yahweh in all things.”

   I’ll allude to Daniel but will preach primarily on Ephesians 1:11-23 (although we’ll sing David Haas’s wonderful “Blest Are They,” and I will allude to the Gospel also). I doubt I’ll do a lot of explaining the text, and I certainly wouldn’t try to make such powerful words “relevant” or any such nonsense. They speak for themselves. Mine will be to relish the words, being personally awed by them, like a docent in a museum, pointing with gawking delight. The luxurious, lavish verbiage had to be mind-boggling to the early Christians, meager as their resources and prospects were. Frank Thielman is right: “Words that emphasize God’s meticulous planning pile up one upon another – purpose, work, counsel, will – how privileged are we!” Heirs, inheritances, riches, glory, destiny... 

   This last word needs a little parenthesis, doesn’t it? The old “God is in control” notion is ridiculous, of course. I love how Markus Barth (Karl’s son!) clarifies how personal this destining is: “It pertains exclusively to the relationship of the Father to his children. If no wise human father would treat his children according to a schedule fixed before their birth, how much less would the Father who is blessed in Ephesians 1:3-14!”

   The responsibilities of even the most fabulous heirs was driven home to me at the World Methodist Council in 1986 when Donald English reported on attending the wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew – and how the couple, immensely wealthy, able to do whatever they might wish, had bowed and pledged fealty to the crown, to the “rights and responsibilities” that went with being a royal couple.

   I love Paul’s “prayer report” here. It’s not so much that What we asked God for was ‘answered.’ What intrigues is the content of his prayer – that the recipients, the objects of his praying, might have a “spirit of wisdom and revelation,” that their “eyes of their hearts might be enlightened” 
(reminding me of St. Francis’s constant prayer during his season of conversion, “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do what is truly your most holy will.”

   Paul also prays for 3 things (Do you wish people prayed this for you? for one another?): (1) the hope to which he has called you, (2) the God’s glorious inheritance, and (3) the magnitude of God! Do we get such prayer requests? What if we did? The hope business: Emily Dickinson suggested that “Hope is the thing in the soul with feathers…” – but is it in the soul? Or is it more about God? Markus Barth, again: “The emphasis lies not so much on the mood of the person hoping as on the substance or subject matter of expectation.” It’s the thing hoped for. 
Christopher Lasch (in his marvelous The True and Only Heaven) clarified that optimism is the fantasy that all will be better tomorrow, and it depends on us; but hope is the ability to deal with tomorrow if things aren’t better – and it depends not on us but on God.

   Luke 6:20-31 fascinates as the parallel to Matthew 5’s more familiar and beloved “Beatitudes.” Why more beloved? Matthew omits the “Woe” moments in Luke… and Jesus suggests the “poor in spirit” are blessed – instead of merely the “poor.” 
Clarence Jordan shrewdly pointed out that the poor prefer Luke, while the rest of us delight in Matthew! Jesus spoke to the poor, the nobodies – and blessed them. They were accustomed to being cursed, ignored or blamed – as we see in our world today. How amazing was Jesus? For All Saints’ Day, it’s hard not to hear the line “Blessed are those who mourn.” We come mourning, indeed – but we grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Again, I trust the reading of the names in God’s holy place more than I trust my frail words to express the hope of the Gospel!

   Robert Schuller tried to modernize the text with the rubric “The Be-Happy Attitudes.” But Jesus isn’t issuing commandments, much less doling out advice for a chipper life. He blesses, he embraces, loves, knows, recognizes, and gives hope to the hopeless, to the people nobody else wants – and then he brings down a Woe! on the big dogs, those who think they’re somebody, and especially the self-righteous. Jesus’ words are light years from the conventional wisdom of our day. He doesn’t say Blessed are the good-looking, the successful, the well-connected, the white Americans, and he doesn’t say Woe to the immigrant, the unemployed, the lonely or the homeless. The preacher has one more chance just now to chip away at the façade of thin, culturally-mashed-down thinking, and open the window into Jesus’ revolutionary worldview.

What can we say November 10? 22nd after Pentecost

   Haggai 1:15b-2:9 is appealing to me for two reasons. It’s just fun to say the names (and the weighty impact of them piling up must have been part of Haggai’s intent!): “Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak.” God’s engagement with the people, in history, where political powers reside but can’t get done what’s required.

   The demise of the church is worth reflecting upon (Haggai 2:3). Care is required if we get nostalgic about “this house in its former glory.” He is speaking of the meager temple the Israelites rebuilt after the exile, a pale, puny successor to Solomon’s. Could it be that the real “former glory” of the church wasn’t in the 50’s or some sunny season we pretend was cool. Maybe it was during the Roman persecution, or as Luther was hounded at the beginning of the Reformation?
   To ancient Judeans, and to today’s church, the Word through Haggai summons us to “Take courage” – 3 times! And why? “The Lord is with you.” As Sam Wells rightly named in his A Nazareth Manifesto, “with” is the most important theological word in the Bible. God is with us: this is the Old Testament’s constant story, the very nickname Jesus was given (Emmanuel!), and his parting words at his Ascension. God doesn’t fix everything, or shelter us from unpleasantness. God is with us. Somehow, ultimately, that is enough.

   The promise, “The latter splendor will be greater than the former,” is ostensibly about a cooler, more magnificent temple yet to be built. Justinian’s wry remark, when the Hagia Sophia was finished? “O Solomon, I have surpassed you.” We might read Haggai’s promise eschatologically – or we might wonder if our church, with its crumbling denominations and ever lessening profile in society, will enter a new era of glory, not defined by size or institutions, but by holiness and a radical embodiment of what church was supposed to be about all along.
   Frederick Buechner’s old quote might pertain: “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be if the buildings were lost, the bulletins blown away by the wind, the institutions all gone – and then all we’d have left would be Jesus and each other, which was all we had in the first place.” Of course, in the meantime, especially if you're in the thick of your annual pledge campaign just now, you need some interim money to keep the Jesus and each other functioning!

   2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17. With its apocalyptic trappings is unpreachable to me; to much “splainin’” would be required. It’s possible to reflect on “holding fast to tradition,” although we have to own that traditions can be evil and should be let go. And so now we turn to the Gospel:

   Luke 20:27-38. I saw a colleague dare to title his sermon on this “7 Brides for 7 Brothers.” Not quite… A common enough pastoral question is Will I be with my wife in heaven? Or if married twice, Which will be my wife in heaven? Or children decide where to bury dad: With wife 1 or wife 2? For Jesus, unmarried and not exactly a matchmaker or glorifier of marriage, would explain the marriage is an earthly institution, not necessary, or even heavenly. St. Augustine: “Where there is no death, there are no marriage.”
   I never enjoy deflating people’s vapid visions of what heaven will be like (golf every day! Or as Tammy Faye Bakker put it (as she was nearing death), “I think of heaven as a giant shopping mall where I have a credit card with no limit!”). Heaven will be about God – whose glory will so mesmerizing, we will never in a zillion years tire of gazing on his face, and singing our praises. We will even then find the true union in relationships: not looking at one another, but together looking to Jesus. If that’s our destiny in heaven, perhaps the more we might approximate that here in friendships and families, the greater our joy might be?

   David Lyle Jeffrey, wisely reflecting on Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees interrogating and trying to trap Jesus, asked “Was Jesus wearied by them? Did he laugh out loud? The absurdity of their question is a function of their rationalism taken to an extreme.” Their goal wasn’t to establish to whom you’re married in heaven – and so Jesus doesn’t answer that! They aim to expose the absurdity of belief in the resurrection – a belief that we might as well own isn’t without its lunacy and unanswerable questions. The preacher might chart why she or he believes in eternal life, and trusts in it, even if with the inevitable mystery.

   I love what Amy-Jill Levine reported when commenting on this passage. At her mother’s deathbed, her mom asked, “‘What will happen to me when I die?’ I immediately answered, ‘You’ll see Daddy.’ My father had died decades earlier. She replied, ‘I look like hell.’ ‘Well, Mom, you’ve looked better, but when you see Daddy, you’ll look as beautiful as you looked the day you got married.’ ‘How do you know this?’ ‘Mom, I‘ve got a Ph.D. in religion; I know these things.’”

What can we say Nov. 17? 23rd after Pentecost

   Isaiah 65:17-25 is so profound, the dream of the ages – and so hard to expand upon or explain, and maybe even harder to believe. Before you preach this, you’d best wrestle deeply with whether you somewhere in the marrow of your soul believe and expect that God really is “about to create new heavens and a new earth.” Even the best and most faithful among us tends to wring the hands, and expect little from God – and so we meet, strategize, plan, or retreat, divert, or spiritualize or individualize faith. I get it. Why not name how little we really expect or believe in God really doing some huge new thing?

   Part of our trouble is we suffer from a shrunken timeline. We’d bet God won’t do the new heavens and earth thing this afternoon or next week either. Israel knew about waiting, not a week, month or year but decades, gosh, even centuries. And yet the expectation kept them alive, fresh, eager, hopeful – but that “even centuries” might dawn soon. And God has begun the new thing already, even if unseen. I’ve heard preachers compare this to D-Day or some other military victory that was only partial and yet implied total victory to come. I’m not sure how those analogies really play out. How about My first conversation with Lisa? I knew we’d marry. Any better? Where are the signs, the proleptic little dawnings of new heavens and earth right now?

   Father Greg Boyle spoke for us in August (in a talk that far exceeded by soaring expectations!). A stunning talk that far exceeded by massive expectations. He spoke not of doing things for gang members, but of seeing what God is doing in them, of seeing beauty in them, of celebrating God’s wonder. That echoed what I heard in an amazing podcast about John Garland’s ministry at the Mexican border (“Maybe God: Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save our Souls, part 2”). He said it’s not so much doing something for someone, but just being there to bear witness to the beautiful thing God is doing. Is this how we discern, notice and come to embrace firm belief in Isaiah 65’s gargantuan vision of what God is on the verge of doing?

   I love Isaiah’s order. “Heavens” and then “earth.” Heaven is first, now and forever, the true reality of which earth is but a shadow, a temporary way-station. I love what seems impossible: that the “former things shall not be remembered.” We joke about not being able to un-see something like an embarrassing photo. I can’t un-remember much. But perhaps it’s the guilt or regret being stricken, and being so overwhelmed and blotted out by gratitude and forward-looking hope that the guilt and regret seep away unnoticed.

   The joy in this text flabbergasts me. It’s not that we feel joy, but we will – and thus can now. It’s that Jerusalem, a city, walls and buildings, is “a joy” (to the people but also to God!) and the people “a delight.” What people today are a delight? But they are. That’s some of Fr. Boyle’s secret with gang members. They aren’t evil in their core. They are a delight – to God, and then to Fr. Boyle. And seeing themselves seen in this way, they get and do better.

   How dumbfounding must it have been for Iron Age people to hear that all infants will live into old age? Walter Brueggemann rightly points out that infant mortality is “an index of the quality of community life.” Where in our country or in the world is infant mortality on the rise or simply too high? Is that where we go to see what God might do while we are witnesses and co-laborers there? Another index is housing. Isaiah dreams of a day that the people will build houses and live in them – which sounds obvious, but Abraham Lincoln denounced what went on in slavery and still goes on in our tiered society: some build, others enjoy; some plant and harvest, while others reap the benefit. This is not of God. No, God dreams of an egalitarian, and frankly non-capitalist kind of community.

   I’d preach this whole text like a docent in a museum. Look what Isaiah said next! Wow! “They will be like the days of a tree.” Firm, deep roots, lasting, beautiful, providing shade and home for others. And prayer, when God’s kingdom is realized? Garth Brooks won’t fret over “unanswered prayers” any longer. No, “before they call I will answer.” Doesn’t this happen in human life? Before Lisa asks me to vacuum, I vacuum – which is too trivial to mention. What about Before Lisa asks for tenderness I’m tender? What if I know her so well I run ahead to provide what she’ll adore? What if I did this for the people nobody else loves or wants, the shunned, the wounded?

   Brueggemann’s summary of our text is spot on, calling it “a glorious artistic achievement. It is also an act of daring, theological faith that refuses to be curbed by present circumstance. This poet knows that Yahweh’s coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible.” God really is bigger than our imaginations. God really is more compassionate than we dream God might be. God really delights in us, which doesn’t seem so possible, does it? Isn’t Scripture all about what isn’t possible (as in Genesis 18 or the Annunciation to Mary)?

   I just can’t preach 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, where Paul (and we might want to stand with those scholars who say This isn’t from Paul; I like Paul too much to think he’d write this!) is in one of his nyet nyet nyet moods

   Luke 21:5-19 reminds me of the gawking disciples in Mark 14: “Lord, look at these stones!” Herod’s ashlars were startling, and still are; google photos and data on how many feet long and tons heavy they are if you’ve not been to the Holy Land. Josephus described the temple as “built on stones that were white and strong, each of their length 25 cubits, height of 8, breadth about 12. The Temple had doors adorned with embroidered veils, with flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven. Over these was spread out a golden vine, with branches hanging down from a great height, with fine workmanship, a surprising sight to spectators.”

   Spectators then and now. We spectate in church… and the future for a spectator church isn’t bright. Jesus denounced the fake piety and grandeur of the place, predicting (was he predicting, or calling down the doom itself?) “not one stone will be left upon another.” Spectators viewing the self-evidently impregnability of the massive structure must have laughed out loud. And yet, in a short time, Jesus was right. Titus and the Roman legions dismantled the place and burned everything. How would you preach this though without appearing to threaten the church with destruction? Where’s the Good News in that? Or do we simply mention it as a real thing while moving toward the hope, the love?

   The buildings are less of a phony distraction than the phony messiahs. I am sure our problem today won’t be some messianic pretender or a popular religious leader who misleads (we have plenty though). Since political ideology is today’s idolatry, it must be that political ideologues are our fake messiahs now. Just look to Trump, or Warren or Booker or Biden: he’ll or she’ll save us!

   I think there is some hope, and some good pastoral, congregational thoughtfulness in verse 13, where the suggestion is made to “prepare your defense.” How do we help our people articulate what they believe? How might they speak to somebody on the fence, or an outright atheist at work or in the neighborhood or family? Surely not by handing a tract or pronouncing judgment or cocksure certainty. How do we bear testimony to what I believe, what has mattered to me, humbly but with some joy? How do they answer questions – from children, skeptics, siblings or a wayward child? Maybe the preacher models this by telling her or his own story – not the official preachy story but your real story of how and why you believe – and because of whom you believe. Not that this will necessarily go well or win the day. Jesus speaks of betrayal within families, or being hated. St. Francis was spat upon by his father every time he passed him in the street.

   Interestingly enough, the pairing of Isaiah 65 and Luke 21 inverts the popular but mistaken viewpoint many Christians have about the testaments – that the Old is about wrath and the New is about grace, the Old is about doom and judgment and the New is about hope and resurrection. The terrible days of judgment and misery declared as dawning by Jesus himself are to be healed, redeemed and transformed by the beautiful days of new life and immense joy the Jewish prophet declared!

What can we say November 24? Christ the King

   We are blessed with (or challenged by) three great texts for Christ the King. Jeremiah 23:1-6 reveals the prophet’s thoughts on Israel’s shepherds – not the guys herding sheep, but the kings. Tim Laniak shows us that “in the Ancient Near East, flocks could number in the tens of thousands, requiring considerable administrative savvy… They were responsible to care for the sheep, insuring adequate food and water, leading to pasture, making space for rest, providing security, and fending off menacing threats.” The mightiest nations spoke of their kings as shepherds.

   Jeremiah calls down a Woe! on Israel’s. They “destroy” the sheep (or as Robert Alter translates is, they are “negligent” shepherds, allowing the sheep to go astray. Jeremiah engages in savage wordplay: in Hebrew, shepherd (ro‘eh) is hardly distinguishable from evil (ra‘ah), and so they are. A preacher may delicately ask about the ways political leaders, whether their policies are popular or not, or effective or not, might actually veer people away from God. Most likely, they all do nowadays, as our modern idolatry is our political ideology.
   Jeremiah’s severity is the preparation for his hopefulness (as in his call in 1:4-10 – to break down and then build up!). God will gather the lost sheep (reminding us of Jesus’ words about gathering his sheep, and even seeking the one out of a hundred that was lost). The shepherd God will raise up for the people will deal wisely, and execute justice (mishpat – that marvelous Hebrew word meaning not fairness but the poorest being cared for!) – and you have to love this: he will be named “The Lord is our righteousness.” It’s probably an ironic play on the name of Israel’s last dud king, Zedekiah – but in the tradition of symbolic names, it might be the best one.
   There might be a word in here for clergy. Pope Francis reflected on bishops who “supervise/oversee” versus those who “keep watch,” like a shepherd: "Overseeing refers more to a concern for doctrine and habits, whereas keeping watch is more about making sure that there be salt and light in people’s hearts… To watch over it is enough to be awake, sharp, quick. To keep watch you need also to be meek, patient, and constant in proven charity. Overseeing and watching over suggest a certain degree of control. Keeping watch, on the other hand, suggests hope, the hope of the merciful Father who keeps watch over the processes in the hearts of his children."

   Colossians 1:11-20 is one of the Bible’s most eloquent texts, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Da Vinci Code’s version of the divinization of Christ (by Constantine in the 4th century?) is a laughable hoax. Twenty years after the crucifixion, Christians are singing (and yes, verses 15-20 were probably an early hymn!) in the most fantastic manner possible the greatness, divinity, preexistence and comprehensive power of Jesus.
   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 by Paul (or "the author of Colossians," if you prefer) to try to capture how fabulous Jesus was, is and will be, always has been 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.
   Such a Christ doesn’t make your life 8% better, or get you out of a little fix now and then. “He rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his son.” That’s big. Echoing John 1, this Christ was at creation, and everything – everything! – was made through and for him. Here’s the hope: “In him all things hold together.” It’s not the emperor, and it’s sure not you and your heroic efforts. It’s Christ – and they do hold together. 
So much glory! It’s hard to find hymns (we discovered in worship planning) about God’s glory. Our music veers toward us glorying or giving glory. But God’s glory? Jerry Sumney: “Glory refers broadly to God’s majesty and power, God’s reputation as radiant power. So the strength that enables readers to live in a worthy manner derives from the power inherent in these overwhelming characteristics of God’s nature.”

   Christopher Seitz points out the biblical echoes in this passage - and also that his Gentile readers would not have been familiar with this! "He is allowing Scripture to make its sense in the light of Christ's work" - and so his people are like our people, biblically illiterate and yet able to resonate to the Scriptures they don't know! 
Seitz reminds us that you can't lift one line out of this text (like Arius did!); it's the whole, all the attributions held together in relationship with one another.

   There’s a countercultural thread here. Jesus counters the claims of the empire, and for us of every political ideology, of every promise of money or might. Sumney again: “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!!!).
   Luke 23:33-43 exposes with stark clarity the way Jesus is king – but hardly the kind of king anybody ever thought of or desired. This moment, Jesus last hours, happens at the place of the Skull – probably a rock formation so named for obvious reasons. Theologically though, we get glimpses of what is at stake in medieval art, where at the foot of Jesus’ cross we find a skull – and it is Adam’s. In the basement of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the tomb of Adam. Fanciful – and profound. Jesus dies to overturn and redeem the death of all of us in Adam.
   Jesus reveals his true self, his heart overflowing with holy compassion in the way he dies. He utters his famous “Father, forgive them” – without supplying the antecedent to “them.” Forgive the evildoers being crucified with him? The Jewish assemblage? The Roman soldiers? Maybe us too?
   Luke alone speaks of the two being crucified on either side as “evildoers.” Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us that whoever they were and whatever they had done, they had stories, and families – and hope in Jesus. It’s not about deathbed conversions, but the way Jesus welcomes any and everyone in any and every circumstance into the life of his heart and hope. When preparing to preach, I will put on a recording of that simple, elegant Taize chant, “Jesus, Remember Me.”
  Jesus bears the mockery nobly without retaliation. The mockers mock not just Jesus, but the Jewish people (and now the church), and all of humanity including themselves, as mockers always do. Ironically, they mock his inability to save – precisely when he is saving!

   And I just learned that Giotto created his “Christ in Limbo” fresco, he depicted Christ descending into hell accompanies by the repentant convict! Of course, this Christ is the one whose royalty commenced in the virgin's womb, microscopic, then growing within, finally being born in the humblest circumstances in Bethlehem, worshipped by angels, shepherds and magi. Advent is coming.

What can we say December 1? Advent 1

   Advent preaching has its peculiarities, delights, and challenges. Check out my general blog, “God Became Small: Preaching Advent,” which reflects on the season and also has a load of illustrative material that might fit in any of the four Sundays.

   Advent 1 here in Year A offers us Isaiah 2:1-5, which helps us immensely by providing a wide-angle lens to help us see the scope of what God’s coming is about. It’s light years beyond the individual, or the handful of people in my home or church. It’s international, even cosmic. Preaching must be brief and alluring during Advent, offering hints more than final answers. Isaiah envisions (or God showed him!) a day when God’s purposes will be consummated. God’s seemingly little hill, Mt. Zion, will be the highest, nations will stream into it, all will learn and walk in God’s ways, and weapons will be reforged into implements of life and goodness. I love John August Swanson's "Festival of Lights."
   A review of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech might get us in the mood (and also his 1967 speech about “the arc of the moral universe”); too few preachers dare this kind of thrilling, imaginative visioning.

   The takeaway? That we and our people will share together in this simple desire: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (and in worship we can sing “I want to Walk as a Child of the Light”).

   I think I will focus on Romans 13:11-14. How better to wade into Advent than by echoing Paul, “It is time to wake from sleep”? The days are long and darker now, and we might even ponder what Christmas morning will be like for little children who wake from their slumbers. There is a kind of sleepy-headed, almost comatose repetition of vapid, cultural Christmas customs. Without bashing anyone, we might invite our people to awaken to something better, richer, simpler.

   Americans have Washington Irving’s old story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in the Catskills as a faithful subject of King George, then woke up years later and was shocked to discover his beard was a foot long and America was a free democracy; he slept through the Revolution!  But I think about the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,” the 7 young men who (according to legend) hid inside a cave in the third century to escape persecution against Christians, then woke up at the beginning of the fifth century to discover the empire had become Christian.  The preacher could explore “sleeping through a revolution,” or it might be even more interesting to ponder what it would imply to wake up in a world where, if everything and everybody are Christian, then is anybody really Christian? 
     Americans also have “the Great Awakening,” a revival that was unanticipated and hard to understand today.  Read Jonathan Edwards’s dense, theologically muscular and not very entertaining sermons – and it’s hard to conceive that the masses, especially young adults, were stirred to renewed and deepened commitments to Christ.  Makes you wonder what might actually ‘work’ today.  Lighter, more accessible fare?  Or denser, harder stuff?
    I also think of Awakenings, the book by Oliver Sacks (and then the 1990 film) – the story of victims of an encephalitis epidemic who surprisingly began to do quite well after years of affliction.  All are fitting images of the power the Gospel might have on a vapid, routine kind of life.
   And I always recommend that preachers think, not only of what a text means for an individual person, but also for the church.  What would the awakening of the church, or of your church look like?  How would it actually happen?  Can the preacher paint the picture, which might draw the church toward the reality?
  Romans 13, a rich text, then clarifies what waking up is about: “It is time to cast off the works of darkness.”  We are deeply indebted to this text for its impact on St. Augustine.  This is the passage he stumbled upon while struggling so mightily in the garden of his friend, Alypius.  I love Sarah Ruden’s new translation of this moment in the Confessions:  “I was weeping with agonizing anguish in my heart; and then I heard a voice from next door, a little boy or girl, I don’t know which, incessantly and insistently chanting, ‘Pick it up! Read it! Pick it up! Read it!’” – and it fell open to Romans 13, in particular this: ‘not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy’ (I was doing okay for the first four… but then the last two?).  ‘But put on the Lord Jesus’ (clothing again…), ‘and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’  We have made all sorts of provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires!  We speak fondly of ‘comfort food,’ or for all sorts of occasions we say ‘I need a drink,’ or ‘You deserve that vacation at the beach.’
   If you're doing the Augustine angle, don't forget Mary Oliver's wonderful (short, entirely memorable) poem: "Things take the time they take. / Don't worry. / How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine.”
    St. John Chrysostom commented on the almost inevitable connection between drunkenness and the others: “For nothing so kindles lust and sets wrath ablaze as drunkenness and tippling… Wherefore I exhort you, flee from fornication and the mother thereof, drunkenness.” We make total provision for the flesh – and even ask God to help!
   I shouldn’t diss the Gospel reading, Matthew 24:36-44. But the apocalyptists have ruined Jesus' ominous yet inviting talk about “the day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son” (as if God the Father arranged things so Jesus his son could enjoy plausible denial!). Spooky “left behind” images lead people down a path toward a curious kind of modern Gnosticism, don’t they? It’s all about readiness, not niceness, a vigilant and holy engagement with the things of God – not easily pulled off ever, much less in this season.

What can we say December 8? Advent 2

   Check out my general blog, “God Became Small: Preaching Advent,” which reflects on the season and also has a load of illustrative material that might fit in any of the four Sundays. For my tastes, the Advent readings start a bit slowly. So John the Baptist? I’d just as soon have him in Advent 1! But we’re fine.

   Isaiah 11:1-10 is properly Advent-ish, prophetic, yet feeling Christmas-y enough! Just the animals are interesting: Isaiah’s vision of a fulfilled, holy future involves not just the people but lambs, leopards, lions, even asps. I love the way C.S. Lewis, in his allegorically-minded children’s books like The Lion, Witch & the Wardrobe, engages creatures like beavers and lions. God’s purposes are for more than people. It’s all of creation God comes to redeem, symbolically if unwittingly captured in manger scenes with cattle and lambs (and lobsters, if you’re into Love Actually).

   Even Isaiah’s way of speaking of the king, the coming king, the ultimate king – as a shoot, a branch? Nature imagery? And originally heard and copied by people who lived with shoots and branches, who worked the earth to survive.

   Can’t the preacher appeal to everyone’s (not matter their political/ideological inclination) craving for a leader who is wise, who fears the Lord, whose knowledge is constructive?

   And don’t neglect the Hebrew nuance of “with righteousness he shall judge the poor.” Judge here is the same root as mishpat, that marvelous Semitic word meaning not that the good are rewarded and the bad punished, but justice as in the society where the neediest, the most marginalized are cared for. That’s what God’s king, the ideal king, labors for – and it’s the dream at each new king’s coronation (which must have been the original function of Isaiah 11).

   Romans 15:4-13 conveys to us basic admonitions we’re no good at: Welcome one another (which we do just fine if we know one another, like one another, and think alike!), and Live in harmony (again, easy if we share political ideology – but weirdly daunting, as we share the only thing that matters, being created by God, saved by Christ, and set into a unified Church by the Spirit!).

   I think of the hymn, “Help Us Accept Each Other” – and also Paul Tillich’s famous sermon, “You Are Accepted.”  --- In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin grace abounds much more… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

   How amazing is it that verse 9 suggests that we glorify God – why? “For his mercy.” Indeed. Pope Francis proclaimed a “year of mercy.” Every year should be the year of mercy. It’s the only way for Christians to be, to respond to God, to think about God – and the source of joy. Ever notice how judgmental, condemning people never smile and laugh?

   Yet we attend to N.T. Wright’s thought: “We should not play down the political significance of this passage. The present disunity of the worldwide church has multiplied precisely in the historical period when “religion” has been carefully separated off from “politics” and kept in a sealed upper chamber where it cannot interfere with real life. Churches have often gone along with this… But the price of this freedom is that it leaves Caesar enthroned… A church that acquiesces in its own marginalization is never likely to comment on or engage with ruling powers. A church that all too obviously embodies the social, ethnic, cultural and political divisions of its surrounding world is no real challenge to the Caesars of this world.”

   Paul’s plea for “a common mind”: the Greek homathumadon occurs frequently in Acts 2-4 – meaning literally to be “of one mouth.” How do we, in such a divided culture, speak of one mouth? How do we, in such divided denominations like United Methodism, adhere to our Lord’s way to “speak of one mouth”?

    Ben Witherington notices a parallel is what André Trocmé achieved as the Huguenot pastor in Le Chambon in Frances – refusing to ostracize the Jews: “We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.” Le Chambon proved to be the safest place in Europe for Jews during World War II. A small village of 3,000 saved more than 5,000 Jewish refugees. Is my city, my town, my church, the safest place – in my county? My state? My country?

    And you have to love Ben Witherington’s summary statement: “Graciously, God’s commitment to risk-taking, costly love transcended the otherness between Creator and created as he set about restoring the relational nature of creation itself… God is essentially hospitable, welcoming all who are willing to come.”

   Matthew 3:1-12. How Advent-ish is this? John the Baptist!! Years ago, I heard a great sermon suggesting you never see John the Baptist on any Christmas cards – and yet he’s the pivotal way in to all the Bible’s Christmas stories! A Church member heard me say this and devised for me history’s first (only?) John the Baptist Christmas Card!  It really is a season of “confessing sins” (a superlatively Advent-ish thing to do). Maybe we’d prefer not to be dubbed “You brood of vipers!” – but is this the case? “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” – and “Do not presume…” How much presumption is there in the Christian religion – and especially at Christmas!
   I always wonder if Shel Silverstein’s children’s book might, oddly, help us think about the ax being at the root of the tree. Do you know The Giving Tree (which works well at Christmas with a cut tree in your house, right?)? The tree provides shade and apples to a young boy, until he grows up and drifts away – only to return in need of wood for a house, then wood for a boat to go far away, and then for simply a stump on which to sit: a hard journey indeed – for the boy and for the tree!

   After John’s fuming is done, Luke reports that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” We sure believe in preaching as Good News – but clearly, for John the Baptist and Luke, the “good news” isn’t something sunny, positive, cheerful, or happy. It’s about vipers and axes, giving away one coat if you have two (so isn’t a closet purge in order?).