Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say August 9? 10th after Pentecost

   Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 appeals to me, as the idea of preaching through the narrative of Joseph (Gen. 37-50) is something I want to do some day. The lectionary, though, skips immediately to chapter 45 next week and then plunges ahead into Exodus. Maybe a sermon can capture the flow of the larger story – without the sermon being a mere retelling of that story.

   And what a story! The drama, emotion, irony and vivid settings make this the Bible’s single greatest tale. The climax in chapter 45 (or is it in 50 after Jacob dies?) is stunning, undermining all our theological oversimplification. Joseph doesn’t let the brothers off, or give them another chance. He sees in how God, without causing evil, uses it for good – and the preacher dare not over-trivialize that thought either. Perilous but precious stuff.

   Just on chapter 37: Joseph, if we’re reading the Hebrew correctly, doesn’t get a “technicolor dreamcoat” (a la Andrew Lloyd Webber!) but rather a coat with long sleeves. Short sleeves were essential for day laborers in the fields, where it would be hot and brambles would get caught in longer sleeves. So Jacob is saying Joseph gets to live in the comfort and authority of the house, while the older brothers bear the sweat of hard work out of doors. As happens in the case of Cain and Abel, brother rages against brother, when brother’s real problem is with the Father (or God).

  Fascinating that, within a single family, we have class division. I wonder if, in my sermon, I might help people think about dashed dreams (especially during this coronavirus season?) - but not just for us but for the marginalized? I may have a soprano sing "I Dreamed a Dream" (from Les Miserables) - and try to ruminate on crushed dreams among us and others. I also noted, at John Lewis's funeral, that James Lawson quoted Langston Hughes's great dream poem: "I dream a world where man / No other man will scorn, where love will bless the earth / and peace its paths adorn / I dream a world where all / will know sweet freedom's way, where greed no longer saps the soul / nor avarice blights our day. A world I dream where black or white, whatever race you be, will share the bounties of the earth / and every man is free, where wretchedness will hang its head / and joy, like a pearl, attends the needs of all mankind / Of such I dream, my world!" It's not a stretch! Joseph's dream, at the end of the day, was about securing enough for everybody, food for the entire world.

   Jonathan Sacks notices how Reuben fairly quickly tries to intervene, but fails – calling him “the Hamlet of Genesis,” someone with good intentions he never completes, or they backfire; at the critical moment, he never comes through.

   We have little hints in this opening scene of the story of how God superintends things. God is, as Sacks puts it, “already monitoring the sequence of events, arranging the necessary strategic interventions to ensure that the outcome will be as planned.” All this is concealed, not obvious at all – and so I wonder how the preacher opens up to listeners the idea that we are sort of “co-authors of our lives,” free to act, yet with God’s involvement, a far cry from the silly “God is in control” mantra people love.

   I love it that the Bible seems utterly lacking in sweet, happy families. So much dysfunction – helpful to me, as a guy from an utterly dysfunctional family. Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina is poignant: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a bit tongue in check. Every family has its unhappiness. A pastoral challenge is to help people not to glibly say such saccharine things about family. During the Covid-19 crisis, how many people said “Oh, how cool to get more time with family!” – in earshot of the woman whose belittling husband now stays home instead of giving her the respite of leaving for work, or the divorcee who felt her loneliness more agonizingly. Don’t do this in preaching, ever! – and help people to learn how to talk with one another about family. Bible families oddly enough show us the way.

   Romans 10:5-15. Like Genesis 37… unless you’re preaching your way through Romans 9-11, which would be daunting (is it more of a class?), perhaps best to avoid this text. Verse 9 gets isolated: “If you just confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” as if that’s a formula for a revival. Paul is leaning in to his Jewish relatives and friends who just don’t buy into Jesus. Complicates things – and then do we really want to name that anyone who utters “Jesus is Lord,” and intellectually accepts that Jesus was raised are saved? – and that’s it?

   What about the woman I counseled with who swore to me she’d never believe in Jesus because her daddy, who most certainly did as a Bible teacher and deacon in his church, sexually abused her through her teenage years? He’s saved and she isn’t? Or those who have only heard about Jesus from boring, vapid, judgmental people? They’re not saved but the dullards are? I don’t think it’s a problem to ask such questions in the pulpit. No need to answer them. Just let them linger.

   And then take off your shoes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” My surgically repaired foot is ugly as sin. Of course, Paul is seeing the beauty in the proclaimer, who’s been sent, actually going, walking, getting to the people to share.

   Matthew 14:22-33 is, for me, one tough text. The setting is alluring. If you’ve been to Israel, you totally get “the other side.” When you’re by Galilee, you look across and – there it is, the other side. Jesus went up on a mountain by himself to pray: exemplary for us, a flawless sample of the way being solo need not be loneliness, but solitude. The sensational archaeological discovery of “the Jesus boat,” a real fishing boat dating to the time of Jesus, a boat he most assuredly saw and maybe stepped into, helps me feel my way into the reality of first century life on Galilee.

   But then Jesus had to go and walk on the water. And Peter did too, acting very Bruce Almighty-like – briefly though. Peter, whose name means “rock,” sank like a stone. As we would expect. And Jesus fusses at him! Seems like he should give him credit for taking even a few steps – on water.

   There’s a Buddhist story of a disciple who walked on water, or sank depending on whether he focused on the Buddha. Easy story to spiritualize. We can even sing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” But I’m probably not the only guy in the room who will just shrug and say Gosh, not sure this really happened. The Gospel writers had to know skeptics as well. Maybe one or two were themselves skeptics. But they let the story stand – maybe to throw cold water on skeptics like me and invite me to suspend me for a few minutes and tread onto such a story that, if it happened or not, most clearly is about faith, and really about how utterly amazing and God-like Jesus really was and is.

  My newest book is my favorite (among 20 I've written now!) , fun to have researched, to have written, and to find in print. I hope you might enjoy it - part of the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Minstering Well series from Baker: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. Check it out - and thanks in advance for doing so!

What can we say August 16? 11th after Pentecost

   When I think of the Joseph story, its weather seems hot and dry. Must be the Egyptian setting, and the famine in Palestine. Genesis 45:1-15 is, to me, without question, the high water mark of all of Scripture when it comes to drama and theological depth. I’ll preach on it once more, and send you to my blog from last go round, with illustrative material from “Good Will Hunting,” “The Return of the King” and To Kill a Mockingbird. To this now I’d add the final ten pages of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is a profound, riveting exploration of forgiveness (and how much of it is courage!). What a text. If anything, I’ll probably over-explain. This is one we just trust. The preacher is like a docent in a museum, simply pointing: Wow, did you notice his sorrow? Did you see that he doesn’t give them a second chance? Can you fathom their anxiety, and relief? And so forth.

   How intriguing that the lectionary arrangers got the Psalm (133) right! “How good it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” Sounds like Isn’t it fun when siblings get along and enjoy one another! But maybe it speaks to the beauty of the broken, divided ones miraculously arriving at a space of reconciliation.

   Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32. You’ve got to be a far wiser preacher than I to probe these little segments of the dense, emotional, theologically daunting Romans 9-11 section week by week! I’ve taught it in a class – which to me feels like what Paul is providing for the Romans, and for us.

   Matthew 15:10-28. Jesus’ blunt thrashing of the pious: “Blind guides” (the same derogatory term he uses during Holy Week when the pious are already plotting to kill him!). What goes into the mouth? – makes it into the sewer! Jesus is so keenly obsessed with the inner life. As in Matthew 5, it’s the hidden murder, the cloaked adultery that are huge problems with those who externally behave properly. Just as you can murder or commit adultery in the privacy of your own mind, you can also bear false witness in there as well!

   And then we come upon the peculiar episode where the woman won’t take No for an answer, upbraiding Jesus himself. She asks for mercy – for her daughter, of course, but then any parent who’s watched a child suffer needs mercy too. What to do with this blunt repartee? Floyd Filson, in his 1960 commentary on Matthew, suggested that he winked at her when he spoke these words, implying insider status for this one. Or was it a clever ploy on Jesus’ part to evoke deeper faith in her, or those watching?

   Jesus did come to Israel – not for them alone but so they might be spurred on to their mission to be the light to the world. Morna Hooker, noting how Jesus confined his attention to the Jews, suggested that “the Gentile woman requests a cure outside the context of Jesus’ call to Israel; she seems to be asking for a cure which is detached from the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, merely taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the presence of a miracle worker. This is perhaps the reason for Jesus’ stern answer; his healings are part of something greater and cannot be torn out of that context.”

   Joel Marcus is mindful of the history of bad blood between Tyrians and Galileans – and how the farm produce of Galilee so often wound up in Tyre, while the peasants in Galilee went hungry. So Jesus’ words make a bit of compassionate sense. Or should we suggest, as many have, that Jesus had a growing moment, a learning experience, a maturation in himself? Mistakenly, he turned her away – and her persistence cracked open a bit of hardness in Jesus’ Jewishness to leave space for a desperate Gentile? Depending on the height of your view of Jesus’ humanity, this may or may not work.

   Martin Luther examined this text and thought of the ways Christians are to persist in trusting God, even when God seems to turn his back on them. They must learn to see the ‘yes’ hidden in his ‘no.’  Much wisdom here – although the preacher dare not resort to trifling ideas such as those articulated in Garth Brooks’s crooning “Unanswered Prayers.”

   The woman’s persistence has recently been likened to the persistence of women right insisting on their place in the church. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became a popular slogan, t-shirt and hashtag this year. Persistence of all kinds is a biblical thing, falsifying the absurd notion of God’s will being associated with “the door was open.” Many open doors we most surely should not walk through. And many closed and bolted doors should be knocked down.

   I am fond of Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s probing sermon, “Crumbs” – cited in Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s great book, Prophetic Preaching. “Crumbs. That’s all they are looking for. Crumbs. Not the whole life. Not even a slice. Just crumbs. You and I want the whole loaf…” – and then she speaks of our wealth, access, all the poor lack. But then she presses further: “Crumbs. They want more than crumbs because deep in their souls, they know they deserve more. And yet they often do not know who to ask or how to ask…”

  My newest book is my favorite (among 20 I've written now!) , fun to have researched, to have written, and to find in print. I hope you might enjoy it - part of the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Minstering Well series from Baker: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. Check it out - and thanks in advance for doing so!

What can we say August 23? 12th after Pentecost

   I’m not a topical series preacher, as I tend to force things. I do like it when the lectionary walks us through a series of texts. Right now the preacher could open a walk through Exodus, which is so appealing to me. Romans has been moving along for some time, and the RCL has us deep into Matthew now. All 3 texts this week are provocative, with much to be said.

   Exodus 1:8-2:10 dovetails three dramatic moments: the vicious infliction of harsh servitude on Israel, the devious midwives countering, and then the birth and rescue of Moses, the rescuer. Tourists gawk at the pyramids as wonders of the world. Like most others, they came to be on the backs of slave labor, blood, sweat and tears. American culture is mired in debates now about monuments to the beneficiaries of slave labor. And Walter Brueggemann, in his lovely book Sabbath as Resistance, unearths how our culture clings to Egyptian ways: endless work, more and more production, money flowing upward toward the top. The coronavirus crisis underlines how we are lost without it. I love Brueggemann’s phrasing: “It is not accidental that the best graphic portrayal of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”

   And who’s the most anxious one in such a system? The guy at the top! “He dealt shrewdly with them,” a line to make you laugh out loud. Less straw, killing the male work force? Paranoia, self-destructive – but just as surely destructive of others.

   How deftly the narrator, like using a zoom lens, moves from the megapicture of Egypt, its vastness, and sprawling construction projects, to two small women, Shiphrah (meaning “beautiful”) and Puah (“fragrant flower”). Religious parents should name their daughters for them. They “fear God,” but they also have considerable spunk, sass, courage. History’s first civil disobedients!  Thoreau reminded the world that “I was just obeying orders!” is no defense. Church people need to get over their blind attachments to what superficially seems to be patriotism or goodness. God’s great heroes through history have blatantly disobeyed the law, starting with Peter (“We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5), continuing through history to the Civil Rights movement; the examples are endless, although the preacher never disses listeners. An art, not a science for sure.

   The Bible disses empire, but in clever, sneaky ways. Why didn’t Shiphrah and Puah kill the babies? “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are so strong they give birth before the midwives can get there.” True? A little fib? Doesn’t matter. They were heroic. Instead of blaming and feeling impotent in the face of massive powers, they did what they could. The heroic is always like that. Church doesn’t speak often enough of courage. Examples abound. John Irving, in Cider House Rules, uses Charles’ Dickens’s great line from David Copperfield to great effect: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Or Aunt May’s wise counsel to Peter Parker/Spiderman: “Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them. Years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us…that keeps us honest…gives us strength…makes us noble…and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most – even our dreams.”

    Heroes? Small people changing the world? Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Albert Schweitzer, giving up a lucrative career to plunge into Lamparene. Jochebed defied Pharaoh by hiding her son. Even Pharaoh’s daughter! Rameses II, greatest of the pharaohs (and it’s no accident that this was precisely when God showed who’s really God!) had 59 daughters! This one knowingly took a Hebrew boy who was to be killed into her home.

   There’s so much in Exodus 2! Moses is a “good” child; the Hebrew, tov, is the same as what God pronounced over each day of creation in Genesis 1. How on earth would one keep a child quiet for so long? When she can no longer, in a moment wrought with poignant sorrow and yet unquenchable hope, she places him in a basket and just sends him down the Nile. The word for basket, tevah, is used only one other time in Scripture: Noah’s ark! Like Noah’s ark, this tevah had no rudder or sail, floating randomly – and yet was God’s hand in it somehow? The preacher might wish to say Yes! But it’s better just to let the question linger – which is how our people experience there lives. Think Forrest Gump: “I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happenin' at the same time.”

   And then the Pharaoh's daughter: how much courage did it take for her to welcome a slave child into the palace? Kelley Nikondeha, in her thoughtful book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom, sees her as a beneficiary of a closed system of complicity. When she bathed, she was "attempting to purge the filth of empire. Something in her broke under the water's surface." She leverages her privilege (this is God's call to us!) to save a child washed ashore. Nikondeha then ponders such moments in our day.

   My mind rushed to Pope Francis. For his first trip away from Rome after his consecration, he chose Lampedusa, and island in the Mediterranean where hundreds of immigrant bodies had washed ashore. He had an altar made from the wrecked boats of migrants, and spoke of the place as symbolic of "the locked door between the worlds of affluence and poverty." His sermon strove to "awaken the consciences of those who have forgotten how to weep over the plight of the poor."

   Romans 12:1-8 takes me back to college days. My roommate’s girlfriend cross-stitched J.B. Phillips’s rendering of this passage and hung it on our wall – perhaps fantasizing it would help us behave: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” Paul was on fire the day he paced a candlelit room, dictating these words to his secretary! After all the theologizing that has unfolded in Romans 1-11, Paul cuts to the heart of how we then live – beginning “by the mercies of God.” Notice the plural. It’s not “Behave! But if you mess up you get mercy.” It’s mercy, mercies plural that instigate, and make the holy life reality.

   Notice also for your people that worship for Paul isn’t sitting in a pew singing hymns and reciting litanies. It’s something you do with your body. We all worship something, some things, with our bodies. How stunning is this? You can please God, or not, with your body. It’s the “temple of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Paul’s grammar amazes me: “be transformed.” The Greek, metamorphousthe (like metamorphosis!) is a passive imperative. Imperatives usually say Go do this. But the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, just let this happen in you. Stop expending so much energy on conformity. Even our best Christian parents fret over whether their children will “fit in.” Don’t fit in! Who said “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd”? Shiphrah and Puah didn’t conform. They were transformed.

   And then Matthew 16:13-20. In the plot of the Synoptics, the clear turning point in the saga is this very moment. Until then (as I learned from W.H. Vanstone’s old and profound book, The Stature of Waiting), Jesus is in control, a dynamic actor striding across the stage of history, working miracles, dazzling the crowds. Now he has ventured to the border, in the far north, to Caesarea Philippi, which in those days was a warren of pagan temples; check out the artist’s rendition of what it would have looked like, imperial altars all affixed to the ancient cave dedicated to the nature god, Pan. After this haunting conversation in such a place, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem. No more miracles really. Increasingly he is passive; he is “handed over.” He is acted upon.

   Vanstone muses on what this alone might mean for us. as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence – and we loathe any turn toward dependence. I had a close friend with colon cancer.  A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.” We shudder; we pity – but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life.  Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry. But the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them. Even his resurrection was passive:  he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him.

   Jesus’ identity is debated, among those who know him best. Who do people say Jesus is today? Political ideologue? White guy? Liberal prophet? My personal assistant? The answers are many, and downright embarrassing. Peter gets the right answer, but doesn’t grasp what that identity implies. I love the irony in Jesus’ rebuke: “Get behind me.” That’s precisely where disciples are supposed to be – for it is from behind that we follow! Jesus is heroic, but not a Spiderman kind of heroic. He'll show the heroic, if Peter will be stick around.

   Matthew alone then supplies the much-abused conversation about the keys, and Peter as the rock on which the church would be built. Without dissing Roman Catholicism, we can name the way the church perverted all of this into a power grab, and still does. To us are entrusted “keys,” but those keys are our gentle pastoral authority to listen, love, guide, demonstrate mercy and hope. Martin Luther spent a lot of time pondering these keys. We ordained peeps are responsible for order and discipline. Peter is entirely foolhardy, as are all of us who dare to wield the keys and be the church. We simply stick behind Jesus, a little bit embarrassed over how dumb we can be, and count on his mercy, his mercies plural, and journey with him to the holy city not to assume power but to lose everything.

What can we say August 30? 13th after Pentecost

   Exodus 3:1-15. When I was writing my book on preaching (The Beauty of the Word), I found myself reiterating the way so many sermons are about us, our faith, our struggles, our spirituality – when most Bible texts oddly are actually about God, and I’d love to hear (and preach!) more sermons that are simply about God. This Sunday’s Old Testament and Gospel readings needn’t have little moralisms or take-aways. What would they be? If you see a bush on fire, take off your shoes? Go be crucified to save the world? I hope to focus on God, which inevitably will have implications for my call, the church, and how we live – but our fixed attention will be on God.

     Exodus 3 reveals to us a God who hears, who cares, who calls, who comes down to save – and not merely pie in the sky afterlife saving, but real, physical, socio-economic saving. And God calls Moses, who stammers with nothing but “Here I am,” which Isaiah would say later, and we sing now in Dan Schutte’s lovely hymn. Not Here are my credentials, or I hope to do things I’m good at for God. Just Here I am. I am not running. God seems to want availability more than ability. Gerhard von Rad pointed out that “Neither previous faith nor any other personal endowment had the slightest part to play in preparing a man who was called to stand before Yahweh for his vocation.”

     This text is about God, and God is what our lives are to be about. Here we see that God will save – for what purpose? “So that you will worship me on this mountain.” We exist to praise, notice, admire, be in awe of and simple be astounded by God. An expansive mind, blown wide open by such a God, isn’t baffled by questions like Moses’ – how a bush could burn but not really. 

   That this text is about God is reiterated when Moses asks, with naïve innocence I think, What is your name? God’s answer is – evasive? teasing Moses and us into a deep mystery? Or is the name and hence the divine nature just too overwhelming for a mere Hebrew word? Jews rightly omit the pronunciation of the name, which must be something like Yahweh (which seminarians utter with total abandon, gleeful in their thin knowledge of Hebrew, discounting the historic Jewish reverence for the name!). What can it mean, even if shrouded in mystery, this “he who must not be named” (and yes, as a Harry Potter fan I’ll probably play off Voldemort…)?  

   Yahweh looks like a verb. I like this a lot. God isn’t a static thing, but an action, a movement, a happening. The vowels intimate that this verbal form is causative: God is the one who causes things to happen. So God happens; and God makes things happen. Thirdly, this verb’s y prefix implies a future, an as-yet-incomplete action. God is the one who above all else will be. What was Jesus’ parting promise? “I will be with you always.” Whatever future we envision, God will be there; it will be about God, and for God. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says we “walk by faith, not by sight”; Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the conviction of things not seen.” What is unseen? Not invisible things, but future things.

   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores that Moses was afraid to look at God (v. 6). If he (or any one of us) got too close to God, and became like God, he could understand history from heaven’s perspective – and the price of that is too high. “He preferred to fight injustice as he saw it, than to accept it by seeing its role in the script of eternity.” Moses, we should recall, had been a fighter against in justice. When he saw a slave beaten, or two men fighting, or young women being treated roughly by shepherds, he intervened – which is why he was in Midian in the first place. Is God now asking him to keep fighting like this? or to lead in a way that opens the way for God’s redemption, which is large-scale and historic instead of just one at a time?

   Romans 12:9-21. This text should be read slowly, maybe just one phrase a minute, or a week. You really could preach a year’s worth of sermons, lingering over each phrase. I wouldn’t over-explain in a sermon on this. Let Paul’s words just be, and do their own work. Or perhaps I’d take the pictorial dictionary approach. What face, saint, hero’s face comes to mind as you linger over “Be patient in tribulation”? or “ardent in prayer”? Or slowly notice unusual word connections. “Rejoice in hope.” Usually we think simply Have some hope. Or strain to hope. But hope itself brings joy, or you discover joy in the hoping. “Practice hospitality.” It does require practice.

   Matthew 16:21-28. Last week’s blog addressed the situation at Caesarea Philippi, and this remarkable turning point in the overall plot of Jesus’ life – from active to being acted upon, from impressing to embarrassing. Fascinating that Jesus tells him to get behind him – as that’s where followers are supposed to be anyhow! The “taking up your cross” might sound like bearing your burdens, but that’s not it at all. In the Roman world, if you picked up your cross, you were on death row, you were walking that green mile toward your execution. Joel Marcus in his commentary on Mark, wisely refers us to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on the gulag: “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself. ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. . . I no longer have any property whatsoever. . . Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”

What can we say September 6? 14th after Pentecost

   Romans 13:8-14. I’ll refer you to my blog from last go round on waking up (with illustrative stuff from Rip van Winkle to Robin Williams – and what this text meant for St. Augustine’s “conversion”). And I’ll get back to the hugely important Old Testament text in a minute (and it’s huge). For now, a bit of a creative wrinkle to the Gospel lection:

   Matthew 18:15-20. This important text, clarifying that there are real processes for the church to engage in to work toward reconciliation, needs some deconstructing. Its assumption that leaders have power over wayward members is an open door to terrible abuse. Examples of this are many, and horrific. And although the obvious abuses of power are agonizing, I worry also about subtler ways those in authority wound others. Even the preacher, trying to proclaim the Gospel. I tend to think we just have zero authority vs. clergy of yesteryear. But there still is some power residing in the one standing in the pulpit, to shame, to embarrass, to belittle, to quarantine people off from God even while thinking we’re telling some Bible truth.

   Three quirky thoughts. (1) The idea that we should treat the unrepentant one “as a Gentile or tax collector” falls strangely off Jesus’ lips. He was a great friend to tax collectors (for which the pious ridiculed him), and the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s historic pact with Israel is at the heart of everything Christian. Dare we imagine Jesus giving a little wink, saying what the pious would like to hear (“Treat them like tax collectors!”), but assuming we’d understand that it’s like Matthew or Zaccheus now.

   (2) The “binding.” We have the power to bind. I really want to do this with my sinful people. A member of my church recently confessed a long-running affair to me, and then added “I’m sure I won’t be welcome around here after this!” I want to bind him to us, to me, to our church. It’s the lovely ropes of love that I hope to braid around him and hold him and all who feel shunned or unwelcome or unworthy to us. Not what the original had in mind – I don’t think… then also:

   (3) The “loosing.” My mind drifts to John 11. Lazarus staggers out of the tomb and Jesus says “Unbind him, and let him go.” Yeah, get him out of the strips of cloth the make up that straitjacket of a burial shroud – but there’s also some symbolic unbinding, some liberating of the person for life. Can we exercise our power to loosen people, to empower and embolden and liberate them for a life of service and joy? Not a binding You’d better do these things, but Can you see what could be?

   And now, Exodus 12:1-14. Passover, pretty important to our understand of God, everything biblical, certainly Holy Week – and relationships with our friends today, the Jews. For background, see if you can get yourself invited to a Jewish family’s home for Passover. Maybe the local rabbi? You'll have the time of your life, and might wish to convert. An unforgettable night, and you’ll never be “supersessionist” any more about such things. You’ll be very careful never to attempt something like a “Christian seder,” which my rabbi friends assure me isn’t a thing, and is offensive to them.

   Yes, Jesus did Palm Sunday and got crucified around Passover. The scene is intriguing. A city with a population of 50,000 swelled with maybe 2 million pilgrims. Packed. Smelly. Chaos. No wonder Pilate marched his regiments into the city to keep peace, and no wonder Pilate got spooked and had this popular maybe-messianic one killed. Jesus loved Passover. But the preacher needs to let Passover be Passover without rushing to Christianize it. Holy Communion is not a baptized Passover.

   At Passover, real Jewish Passover, that is, the youngest son rises and asks, “Why is this night special (or different) from all other nights?” The fact that provision is made for children to learn about this is underscored by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who notes how odd it is that just as the Israelites are scrambling to get out of Pharaoh’s clutches, Moses is talking about children in generations to come. “About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators. Freedom is won, not on the battlefield, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools.” Passover isn’t a neat experience. It’s an education in freedom.

   What is commemorated is the climax of the plagues in Egypt and Israel’s deliverance to freedom. The food is delicious but also richly symbolic. 
   Bitter herbs = the taste of Israel’s suffering
   Harosset = a mnemonic of the mortar with which slaves built
   Matzot = how they left in a hurry
   And of course a bit of lamb, remembering the blood and sacrifice.
Could our food remind us of moments in our own salvation history?  The theme, redemption from slavery, might direct us to our own bondage to our culture (which American are loathe to recognize) – or perhaps to the reality of bondage in American history.  We still reel from the lingering effects of racism and slavery’s impact on our society.  God would have us ponder such things when we respond to Exodus 12.

   Scholars remind us that the feast of unleavened bread wasn’t just a hustling out of Egypt thing; it was an agricultural festival, perhaps prior to the Exodus itself.  Passover similarly has connections to agrarian life, the offering up of a lamb as gratitude for the thriving of the whole flock.  Linking annual, natural blessings to spectacular historical interventions is the stuff of theology, worship and discipline.  As Roland de Vaux suggested about these nature-related Spring festivals:  “One springtime there had been a startling intervention of God.”  For years I have raged against vapid understandings of Easter that are about the blooming of flowers and the return of life to the outdoor world; but the resurrection of Jesus happened in just such a season – and our life with God is about something dramatic, once and for all, and also what is ongoing, annual, daily even.  Everything, including farming and eating, changes in light of deliverance – the subject of my book, Worshipful.

   A solemn but joyful meal right before bolting for freedom. Don’t rush to Jesus yet! Linger with the Jews. See if a rabbi or Jewish teacher or friend might share sermon time with you. And don’t let your people stay confused about freedom. Americans blithely think freedom is I can do whatever the heck I want. Or they might piously add I can worship God the way I want. So egocentric, isn’t it? And so patently false. We are profoundly bound to the habits, mores and ideologies of our culture, bound to sin, self, anxiety, you name it. And note well that when the Israelites were set free, God let them directly to Mt. Sinai to download hundreds of laws to forge a covenant with them, to show them how to stay free, to introduce history’s curious idea that does reappear in Christianity: we are set free to be servants of another.

What can we say September 13? 15th after Pentecost

   Exodus 14:19-31. Was this a miraculous event, as the text implies? Or a natural one, as the text also implies? It was a strong wind drying up shallow waters in the Sea of Reeds (yam suf) not the Red Sea. Luck? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out places we’ve seen – I thought of Lindisfarne and the tides! – where water retreats rapidly. Napoleon was almost killed by a sudden high tide while crossing shallow water in the Gulf of Suez – Moses’ neighborhood! Sacks reminds us that “it is the genius of biblical narrative that it does not resolve the issue one way or another.” Miraculous or natural?

   Yes. “A miracle is not necessarily something that suspends natural law. It is rather an event for which there may be a natural explanation, but which – happening when, where and how it did – evokes wonder, such that even the most hardened sceptic senses that God has intervened in history.” He also points out the moral message here, “that hubris is punished by nemesis, that the proud are humbled and the humble given pride.” On foot, you could make it through the mud, but not in chariots. “The Egyptians’ strength proved to be their weakness. The weakness of the Israelites became their strength… God mocks those who mock him.”

   So we need not cling to mental images from Cecil B. DeMille’s film of the grand miracle with high walls of water defying gravity. There was a lot of courage in the people. Who was the first to step into the water? According to the rabbis it was Nahshon son of Aminadav. Only after Nahshon actually waded into the water did the sea part so everyone else could cross over. That first person to step forward is always the key. I admire Elie Wiesel’s retelling of this story: 
‘One could see people running, running breathlessly, without a glance backward; they were running toward the sea.  And there they came to an abrupt halt: this was the end; death was there, waiting.  The leaders of the group, urged on by Moses, pushed forward: Don’t be afraid, go, into the water, into the water!  Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment.  Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing.  Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men!’

   Walks to freedom inspire, and illustrate this text. Mandela out of prison, Gandhi to the ocean. John Lewis and a holy horde crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge – and then the time Lewis was shown a photograph of himself as a young seminarian being released from prison in Nashville. His face glowed with a dignity, a confidence: “I had never had that much dignity before. It was exhilarating – it was something I had earned, the sense of the independence that comes to a free person.”

   In my book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, I point to Moses and his repeated, failed attempts to lead: “In his first appearance in Pharaoh’s court he was humiliated. The plagues he unleashed only drew the ire of his own people, as their lot only worsened. Once Moses finally got them to the sea’s edge, when they heard the rumbling of Pharaoh’s chariots in pursuit, the people wailed in horror, pleading with him to take them back. His response was not to turn and fight, or to flee in a zigzag escape route. Instead, with Pharaoh’s juggernaut bearing down on them, he said to the people, ‘Stand still and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today’ (Ex 14:13). Do… nothing at all.” Words for the preacher! You have to do something, but maybe it’s to be still.

   Romans 14:1-12. Try verse 3 as your text: “The weak eat only vegetables.” Carnivores win! Paul is grappling with Jewish dietary laws as Christianity struggles to morph from a Jewish thing to a Jewish and Gentile thing. The homiletical takeaway could be how utterly unintentional we are about what we eat. Or we eat what we eat because we like it, we’ve bought into some dietary plan, we’re trying to lose weight.

   What connection might there be between our food, where it comes from, how we get it, and eating it – and with whom! – and God? Norman Wirzba has brilliantly awakened many of us to what’s involved (in Food and Faith, from which I borrowed heavily in my chapter on Eucharist and all our meals in Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, including Wendell Berry’s elegant thought about the starting point of all our food, the soil: “It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.”). A rich topic for preaching, just food.

   Of course, Paul spends more time here on why we should not pass judgment on others. How easy it is then to slip into judging those who pass judgment! We need constant reminders that we aren’t any good at it, and it’s not our job anyhow. What a relief! I simply am liberated from the slightest responsibility to pass judgment on others. This was obviously important to Jesus – the log and speck in the eye and so forth. In one of his novels, Robertson Davies writes, “It is part of God’s mercy that we do not have to undertake that heavy part of his work, even when the judgment concerns ourselves.” I’ll ask my people on whom they are more harsh in judgment: others? Or themselves?

   Matthew 18:21-35. I read and listen to lots of sermons. Oddly, forgiveness doesn’t get much play – as it’s been the heart of the faith forever. We’re rightly wary of manipulation and shaming that clings to forgiveness like magnets. Plus, listeners don’t feel much need for forgiveness, in our culture of blame, of rights, of self-fulfillment. But they do know broken relationships. Not bad to lift up Frederick Buechner’s wisdom: “To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to rollover your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways, it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the end of the feast is you.”

   Jesus engages in typical, laughable hyperbole. Forgive 7 times? (a lot) – No, 77 or 490 (the text isn’t clear, but either is essentially a number you’ll never achieve). His debt parable: 100 denarii, a manageable amount for even the poor. But 10,000 talents? The entire budget for the province of Judea for a year (Josephus tells us) was 600 talents. This is Bill Gates wealth. Forgiven. It’s not really volume or amount or counting, is it? Forgiveness is finally an embrace of the other person. Relinquishment of power is required. And a miracle in the soul you can only pray for. Donald Gowan, in his informative book The Bible on Forgiveness, says “As mothers and fathers are hurt by their wayward children, husbands hurt by their unfaithful wives, and brothers who have been betrayed, find something in themselves to make it possible to work toward a restored relationship, that something, multiplied many times, is present, and in fact originates in God.”

   Restoration. Reconciliation. The art of being a Christian. We have to talk about it constantly. And to clarify that forgiveness isn’t putting up with abuse forever. Regularly, I am talking to someone who can’t forgive. As pastor, I point out that the Greek word for forgive, aphiemi, means simply to open your hand and drop what it’s clutching. Then I drop something onto the floor and tell them, if reconciliation just can’t happen, let it go. I think that’s theologically on point.

What can we say September 20? 16th after Pentecost

   Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16 are individually so very preachable, and surprisingly of one mind thematically – as I outlined in my blog on these from our last time around. I’ll refer you there, and I would add that my thinking there, derived from Amy-Jill Levine’s provocative thought, that Jesus actually meant every worker should be paid the same, feels more confirmed the more I ponder it. And Flannery O’Connor’s musing (also in that blog) about what is sufficient: this theme is even more important to me these days. Our church’s theme last Fall was “Enough,” asking How much is enough? When do we say Enough! (as in this is not of God and we won’t have it!)? and Am I enough? All are interrelated, of course.

   Philippians 1:21-30 is a text I don’t recall preaching on – but here’s a promising angle. Paul’s “dying is gain” I can parse. My mother was so miserable leading up to her death she longed to be liberated from her body. And I think of Thérèse of Lisieux’s longing to die to be totally intimate with Jesus. “Living is Christ” is tougher to parse. It’s not live for Christ, or leaning sometimes on Christ. Living is Christ. How to get beyond the trite here?

   George Hunsinger, in his new Brazos commentary, calls this “one of the greatest declarations in all of Pauline literature, indeed in all of Holy Scripture,” suggesting Paul has found “the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.” Picking up on Gordon Fee’s suggestion that this is a “reflective soliloquy” from Paul, Hunsinger lays Paul’s words side by side with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be.” Google it or look it up: Act 3, Scene 1.

   Fascinating. Both Paul and Hamlet are weighing whether to die or live, Hamlet wanting to execute justice on the man who killed his father, Paul for speaking out boldly against Rome for Christ. The contrasts are telling: Hamlet is lonely, isolated, while Paul, even in jail, enjoys a network of close relationships. Paul had been a violent man, when he was hounding Christians; Hunsinger says “Paul then was not unlike Hamlet now.” Paul’s hunger for violence has been “aborted by a power not his own.” God intervened, and showed this one mercy. So Hamlet is an outraged victim; Paul is a forgiven sinner. Hamlet agonizes over what happens if he dies (“the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns”); Paul is utterly at peace, knowing the Traveler who has returned! In short, while Hamlet is “self-absorbed,” Paul’s soul is Christocentric. We tend toward Hamlet, don't we? 

   It is this Paul who urges all of us to lead a life “worthy of the gospel.” Not being nice, or using God to help us. Certainly not smug judgmentalism. It is a radical life of service the world will not recognize, or will fear as too out of the box. Hunsinger again: Christians who cannot confess that Caesar is Lord “are viewed with suspicion – not just in high places but also in the highways and byways of local neighborhoods. They are regarded as a potential danger to social stability and political cohesion.” Without dinging people too hard, I think Stephen Fowl’s wry observation is on target: “I suspect that… the common life of most churches is so inadequate to the gospel and our disunity so debilitating that the state has nothing to fear from us.” What might the Christian do, what might a church be about, that would raise suspicion in a local neighborhood?

   Verse 28 might be a word to us clergy: “Don’t be intimidated by your opponents.” Would that they were out in the world, but they often are in the church. It’s so easy to get intimidated, and to feel vengeful or flat out lonely – like Hamlet himself.