Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say February 16? 6th after Epiphany


   Deuteronomy, big picture, feels so promising to me homiletically. Israel, perched on a high cliff overlooking the Jordan valley with the promised land beyond, listening to a long sermon from Moses, his last – and all about God’s promises and how freed people can receive and enjoy the gift of the land as free people. So much love, unmerited grace; so much potential and hope! But so many texts feel like a nag, dire warning, as if God’s making a list and checking it twice.

   Deuteronomy 30:15-20 is so right: there is disaster in fawning after all the other gods; there is joy and vitality, genuine shalom, in living in sync with God the creator’s laws. And we do muck it up – but the door is always open for us (not as individuals so much as the people of God!) to repent, shuv standing out as the key word and summons for the whole book, and all of the Deuteronomist’s history to come in Joshua-2 Kings. But how can the preacher lay all this out without people’s perceptions sliding into a legalistic, gnostic blame game or feeling of superiority which seems so alluring? I’d paint the stunning locale, and all that was and is at stake – and try to invite people into a profound covenant relationship with the God who wants all of us, and that it really matters, it really is life and death.

   Walter Brueggemann (in his commentary on this text) does notice the "doable" character of Torah. This is no "impossible ethic" - and thus the faithful are freed from anxiety or dread of inevitable falling short. He illustrates the plain and simple character of doing what God has prescribed by the Christians of Le Chambon in France who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II - at great risk to themselves. When asked why they did such a thing, they shrugged. No big dramatic, heroic or strategic explanations. Acting this way was simply a doable thing from their Scriptures.

   1 Corinthians 3:1-9 has often been discussed in my presence, as if its meaning is self-evident; but I am just baffled by Paul’s apparent progression from infant’s milk to solid food, spiritually that is. My gut discomfort might just be Paul’s point (or so I fantasize!). My friends who’ve spoken of the solid food imply they’re digging into it, while the less mature are still back on the bottle. Roy Harrisville’s wise commentary ties this text to Jesus’ prayer, “I thank you, Father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes” (Matthew 11:25). In other words, the milk is it. We’re always to be like children, humbly drinking what’s given. The arrogant ones who presume they’ve matured father are the… arrogant ones. I hope Harrisville is right: the Gospel of grace and utter dependence is all there is.

   And yet Jesus himself presses for a kind of maturity, or at least depth of soul. Last week’s text lured us toward a righteousness that exceeds that of the uber-righteous Pharisees. This week, in Matthew 5:21-37, he provides samples so we’ll get the hang of things. Picking out a couple of the easier of the Ten Commandments, Jesus lovingly but firmly presses those who haven’t murdered anybody to ponder their hidden anger – which is a kind of killing the other person. And killing yourself! Isn’t anger the toxicity that feels like it’s venting itself on the other guy but only eats away at you?

   I’ll guarantee you your people know anger well, and are weary of it. Political ideology feeds rancor. Drivers rage. Spouses demean. Bosses boss people. The nations rage too. Politicians show their fists. Hoping for good, we go after guns, or the other political party, or we blame whomever for whatever. But there is a kind of accepted, expected anger in the world, in society, in all of us, and it’s the high god who’s commanding loyalty and devouring us all. Jesus exposes it, not to say Nyet nyet nyet, gotcha!! or You’re even more of a worm than you thought! Rather, Jesus, like a gentle surgeon, lances the wound, lets the toxins seep out, and opens the way toward healing.

   What’s all the anger about, anyhow? It’s the unwitting recoil of fear – at least most of the time. We fear change, we fear others, we fear loss, we fear…. Preachers can fill in this blank endlessly, and fruitfully, looking with compassion into our people’s eyes; they can’t avert their gaze; they know – and hope against hope that Jesus’ hard words really do bring life and light. 
To do this I try to model myself on Dinah, the frontier preacher in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. “Dinah walked as simply as if she were going to the market, and seemed as unconscious of her outward appearance as a little boy, no attitude of the arms that said ‘But you must think of me as a saint.’ There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations. The eyes looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer could help melting away before their glance… The simple things she said seemed like novelties; the quiet depth of conviction with which she spoke seemed in itself an evidence for the truth of her message. She spoke slowly… She was not preaching as she heard others preach, but speaking directly from her own emotions and under the inspiration of her own simple faith.”

   Jesus, his eyes shedding love, turned then to speak of adultery. To all who’d managed not to have an affair, he said that if you’ve harbored lust in your heart, it’s the same thing. President Jimmy Carter, such a devout Bible guy, unveiled his heart (in Playboy magazine!) on this and got hooted down. But in our #metoo chapter of civilization, in a culture that mangles attitudes toward the body and intimacy, what more precious words could we contemplate? Everybody else talks about sex. Why are we so hushed in church - except for the occasional "Don't be naughty" triviality?

   I’ve found no better wisdom on this than from the philosopher Roger Scruton (in both Beauty, and Sexual Desire), who shows how physical intimacy between lovers properly is an interest in a person as embodied, not merely as an assemblage of body parts. In a kiss, the mouth is involved. But it’s not an aperture for food and drink, or the dentist’s workshop. Embodied persons touch with their mouths – but in a kiss you touch the other person in their very whole self.

   Lust and its partner, obscenity, mistreats the body on display as mere body; and so lust is “the eclipse of the soul by the body.” If we make the body “a thing among other things,” something to be owned, we forget that my own body isn’t my property; it is my incarnation; it is God’s temple. Lust assaults mentally, and many times physically, the other as an object for my pleasure, not as a person. Another target of lust, “pornography, like slavery, is a denial of the human subject, a way of negating the moral demand that free beings must treat each other as ends in themselves.”

   Genuine, human intimacy isn’t getting what you desire. You’re part of the whole. A caress “incarnates” me and simultaneously the other. We discover the mystery of one another in reciprocity. “I am awakened in my body, to the embodiment of you.” How lovely and profound – and a far cry from the couple recently who answered my question, “Why do you want to marry?” The groom cockily replied, "She's the best in bed I’ve ever had.”

   Another philosopher, Simon Blackburn, in his thoughtful book on Lust, analyzes Bronzino’s “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.” Lust is portrayed as surrounded by other related and consequent troubles: Venus holds apple of discord; in the background is blind Fate (fortuna); just behind Venus is Deceit with her fair face and honeycomb of pleasure, but with a serpent’s tail; tearing at her hair is Anger – and she herself is treading on thorns. Modern Americans would celebrate lust, or just accede to it as inevitable. But the woes springing from it when it is nurtured is like kudzu, a tangle obscuring God, love, and goodness.

   Lust is a tough topic to preach on? How could we pass up such a tantalizing possibility to talk about what is at the core of the disjointed modern soul?

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