Sunday, January 2, 2022

No Explanations in the Church!

    I was lucky enough recently to enter the Church of All Nations by the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. I noticed the sign by the door, sternly warning “Please, No Explanations inside the Church” – and snapped a photo. A while back I had read something Ellen Davis wrote (in her marvelous Preaching the Luminous Word) about this sign:

   “We in the church have been baptized into the mystery of Christ; and so long as we attend to God, with every heartbeat we are drawn more deeply into a mystery that infinitely exceeds our understanding and power of expression, a mystery of mercy that goes beyond even our wildest hopes and imaginings. So no explanations in the church; rather, let us speak softly and with wonder, as befits a holy place.”

    Our people are – what to call them? – flatlanders, prosaic, mushed down people who only know cause and effect, political ideologies, loudness, clutter, busy-ness, and all the while our faith happens and is about something quiet, expansive, beyond imagining, something grasped only in the silence, in the dark, a little baffled. To walk people into mystery, the preacher must ink this in at the top of every sermon.

    How to preach the mystery that our Gospel is? Mystery doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible, or not rooted in fact. It’s higher, deeper, more enveloping than the very real facts we know, with what’s comprehensible as the launching point.

    I think people need to see in the preacher a sense of awe in the face of mystery. So too much explaining, too much rational argument, too many earthy illustrations can ruin the mystery. When I was in Div School, we had a talent show every year – with a segment where students would walk on stage and imitate a professor, and the crowd would guess who it was. My friend Pat walked out, starting talking rationally about the Trinity, then removed his glasses, began to stammer, then put his hand over his eyes as if exasperated, searching for elusive words. It was Tom Langford, who taught theology this way – pitch perfect.

   I long to see more stammering, more scrunched up facesand reaching for impossible words in sermon delivery. When I teach preaching, I invite students to read Michael Erard’s wonderful Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean. He explores how, indeed, some talkers fumble around unintentionally and say Uh or Um too much. But an Um, with a pause, has fabulous functions. It implies humility: you don’t have this thing all figured out. It gives the listener space to fill in what you’re stumbling to say – so they are involved. “The scariest thing about dying is… Um…” and a listener pokes his or her fear into your talk, now fully engaged. Winston Churchill prepared his speeches with marginal notes of when to pause, when to fumble for a word, when to scrunch up his face and say Um.

   Just being quiet, not talking so fast. The Holy Spirit can fill the pregnant pauses. Or asking questions: every sermon should have questions that are left unanswered. Let it linger. Why was Elijah burnt out on Mt. Horeb? How did Mary feel when she heard Jesus’ first cry? What made Judas betray? Just leave it out there. What will heaven be like? Mystery.

   And finally, be careful to distinguish what’s proper to a classroom and what’s fitting in a sermon. An explication of the Trinity, or a meander through the origins of apocalyptic language, or the course of Jeremiah’s career. Offer a class! And in the sermon, supply a few hints you know such things and could lead such a class; you’ve read, reflected, and know – but for now we’re embracing and even falling into mystery. No explanations in the church!

Saturday, January 1, 2022

What can we say May 22? Easter 6

    Acts 16:9-15. Again, a New Testament reading serving as the Old Testament? The Acts 16 narrative is a seamless whole, so as it’s segmented, I’ll start on it here, and continue next week. A fabulous, powerful, preachable narrative if there ever was one.

   They “set sail from Troas” – conjuring up images of ancient Troy, not just a prehistoric, legendary battle, but stories that inspired the New Testament culture, stories of nobility, heroic acts, fabulous love, immense passion. This is where Paul hears the call to Europe – and launches out. The itinerary might make us yawn, but ancient people’s jaws would drop: what? You took a “straight course to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis”? Unheard of, given the unpredictable winds and waves. The clear intimation is that God was in this, enabling Paul to arrive in record time! The implication is that the Spirit (the “wind”!) is engineering this.

   Philippi was a “little Italy,” where Roman veterans had been resettled as part of the reward for battle. I wonder if they had something akin to Memorial Day, when they thought of their comrades who had died in the battles they had survived? Can a sermon touch on this without glorifying war and country unduly? Perhaps just envisioning the ongoing grief and memorializing that surely happened in Philippi might show we understand.

   They go “down to the river to pray” (think Alison Krauss and O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Rivers, and prayer? Howard Thurman wrote these lovely words: “As a child I was accustomed to spend many hours alone in my rowboat, fishing along the river, where there was no sound save the lapping of the waves against the boat. There were times when it seemed as if the earth and the river and the sky and I were one beat of the same pulse. It was a time of watching and waiting for what I did not know – yet I always knew. There would come a moment when beyond the single pulse beat there was a sense of Presence which seemed always to speak to me. My response to this Presence always had the quality of personal communion. There was no voice. There was no image. There was no vision. There was God.”

    There was no synagogue for them to attend on the Sabbath – and so, failing to find a quorum of Jews for worship, they come upon some women including Lydia. She is “a worshipper of God” – which we’d size up as someone not needing conversion! The Greek term indicates she was a God-fearer, interested in Judaism, even prayerful, but not a fully observant member of the community.

   She’s fascinating. A “dealer in purple cloth,” which the wealthy purchased – and so was she at least relatively affluent? Willie Jennings rightly points out that “Here is power put to good use,” as Lydia’s house becomes the church in Philippi (verse 40)! Find stories of wealthy women who’ve made the Kingdom of God happen.

   “The Lord opened her heart” – reminding us clergy that at the end of the day the work of preaching is in the Lord’s hands, not ours. What’s intriguing about this new church in Philippi is its shattering of social convention. Looking ahead (essential in this coherent narrative!), as Jennings writes, “Much of the concrete work of discipleship can be located between these two women,” the businesswoman and the slave girl. People going to the wrong side of town, diverse peeps eating together, doing ministry to the needy together (could we even think of Lydia’s house as the outreach center?): this must have provoked whispers, raised eyebrows, even harsh words.

   No need to give your people a thrashing – but who comes to church? Who doesn’t? Who comes to your home? Who doesn’t? Isn’t Christianity holier, nobler, and more itself when we bridge gaps, when we shatter isolation and segregation? Lillian Smith, in Killers of the Dream, dreamed about our overcoming of division by musing, “If we could realize our talent for bridging chasms.” Or as Jennings puts it, Lydia “draws the new order of discipleship into the economic order” – it’s a “reordering of economies, both civic and domestic.”

   For the rest of the dramatic narrative in Acts 16, click here for next week’s blog!

   John 14:23-29. Whether I preach it or not, I want to ponder, pray, and reflect on Jesus’ remarkable, hopeful words in verse 25: “I am still with you.” Thanks be to God for that! Good cause then to be among those “who love me and keep my word.” It’s aspirational, of course. How good of Jesus to provide the Holy Spirit – the Advocate! Notice the Spirit isn’t a fleeting mood or an emotional rush. The Spirit is the one who reveals the full meaning of Jesus’ words and life.

   So it’s not just “comfort,” probably the #1 reason people give for why they come to church, what they’re looking for. The real Spirit empowers for work, courage, witness, facing hostility, and bringing peace – “not as the world gives.” Or doesn’t! Raymond Brown, noting Jesus plays on the common Hebrew greeting, Shalom: “It’s not the thoughtless salutation of ordinary men – it is the gift of salvation.” This peace “has nothing to do with the absence of warfare, nor with an end to psychological tension, not with a sentimental feeling of well-being.” It’s salvation, an all-encompassing reality. I wonder in preaching if it’s worth clarifying all this. Maybe. Better if I can paint a picture, or share a story. From your own community, or life preferably?

   Back to Jesus’ “I am still with you,” let me share these words I wrote on the hymn “Abide with Me” in my new book, Unrevealed Until Its Season. Fitting for this text, I think:

   Some hymns are associated in our minds, by habit or by common use, with particular situations. “Abide With Me” gets sung at funerals. And understandably. Henry Francis Lyte wrote the words when his health was deteriorating rapidly back in 1847. He probably wrote it, or most of it, on the day he surrendered his pastoral work in England to travel to Italy to recuperate. He never arrived, dying along the way in France. And William H. Monk, who wrote the elegiac tune for it did so shortly after his three year old daughter had died. Sorrow, love and a glimmer of hope glow from the embers of this hymn.


   And yet it can and should be a hymn for the living. Lyte probably was thinking of that moment when the risen Jesus had caught up with the two forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus. When they came to their village they asked him, “Stay with us,” or “Abide with us, for it is evening; the day is far spent” (Luke 24:29). In that moment, it wasn’t a lonely soul asking Jesus to stay. It was a fellowship of three. The Bible didn’t know much if anything about the Holy Trinity, but we do. God is eternally a fellowship of three, abiding, staying, loving, sharing. I love the Rublev icon, which depicts Father, Son and Holy Spirit sitting around a table together. That’s God, this fellowship of three. And just as the Emmaus story invites you, the reader, to join the threesome of Jesus and the other two, so God’s holy club around that table invites you to pull up a chair on that open fourth side of the table.


   The image of Jesus staying, lingering, abiding is a constant in John’s Gospel. Jesus saw two of John’s disciples and stayed with them just before he saw Nathaniel standing under a fig tree (John 1:35-48). Jesus lingered mid-day with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). During Holy Week, as in all his visits to Jerusalem, he stayed at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 12:1-8). On Holy Wednesday, we don’t know what Jesus did all day. Probably he just abided at home with his three friends. Then at the last supper, Jesus invited his friends to “abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). They overheard his prayer, including that he abides in the Father and the Father abides in him (John 17:21). He was nearing his end. But the abiding is for them, for the rest of their lives, for the life of the church.


   Every day, dusk and darkness remind us that our mortal lives are brief. “Fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens.” Indeed, “other helpers fail.” And so faith is turning to God, “help of the helpless.” Loss and death are not merely my own, but the death of others I’ve loved, others I’ve never known, nameless victims of evil, not to mention the death of dreams and illusions, heartbreak, aging – and even transitions like graduation or retirement that we celebrate, and yet are losses. In the thick of all this change, loss and unwelcomed newness, the hymn teaches us to look to God, “O Thou who changest not.”


   Indeed: “I need thy presence every passing hour.” Isaac Bashevis Singer wryly wrote that “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time.” Jesus told us to become like children, and if this means anything at all it reminds us that we are as dependent upon God as little children are upon their parents; a toddler doesn’t fancy herself to be independent, and delights in dependence, as we might as we ask God to abide with us. Incidentally, “abide” can also mean “tolerate” or “bear,” as in “I cannot abide his behavior.” Grace is that God abides us, abiding with us.


   The final stanza is haunting. “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes.” What is the first thing you see after birth? Most likely, your mother, who bore you in agony and gave you life. What is the last thing you see? We hope it might be family, our children perhaps. The hymn asks to see the cross. The death of our Lord. God become one with us in our mortality. What comfort, what profound company we keep in the hour of death. God is with us, always but most shimmeringly then. The cross is gloom, but we pray that it “shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.” Have you pondered the cross, not merely as an erect piece of wood on which Christ dangled, but as a compass, as a roadsign, pointing not left or right or north or south, but upward, toward God?

What can we say May 29? Easter 7

    Acts 16:16-34. I'll preach on this - and am pondering a structure in which I'll begin at the end: at midnight, with singing in jail. Then backtracking: how did they get there? The slave girl's liberation. And then back to Lydia (last week’s lection!) - and the fact that God had called them to come there, and ask what challenges God's call entails, but then how the joy and peace come.

   How humorous: Paul encounters a possessed woman, evidently traipsing around after him, and he gets annoyed! Like the demons who recognize who Jesus is, this possessed slave girl knows who Paul is! Was Paul annoyed by her bellowing? Or by the system that puts a girl in such a predicament – a slave for the profit of others? Yes?

   Background: for centuries, people had travelled to Delphi (a stunningly picturesque place!) to consult the Oracle there - which was a temple where the priest would lead you to speak with the Pythia, the "pythoness," a woman who would breathe subterranean hallucinogenic fumes, and utter (allegedly) the words of Apollo. A famous case: Croesus, king of Lydia (fitting for Acts 16!) asked the oracle if he should cross the Halys and attack Cyrus's army. The response, "You will destroy a great empire," excited him. Then he asked if he would rule long. Her reply, "Your foe is but a mule." He crossed the river and was thrashed by Cyrus. Yes, he did destroy an empire - his own. And Croesus didn't parse that a mule is a mongrel, and so was Cyrus (his mother a Mede, his father a Persian). Delphi was so profitable that they set up branch establishments in cities around the empire - including Philippi.

   Once this enslaved pythoness was healed, the reaction of the citizens in Phillipi – a “little Italy” of relocated Roman veterans – tells us about early Christianity and raises a question about our purpose today as Christians: “These men are disturbing our city… They are advocating customs that are not lawful.” Light years from us blessing America and the status quo. Shouldn’t this top the job description for today’s pastors? “Disturbing our city”? “Advocating customs not lawful for us”? Paul clearly didn’t get the memo about keeping politics and religion separate… And so they are imprisoned in what must have been a cold, hard, dark stone cavern with zero amenities.

   “About midnight.” This could serve as a lovely cadence for the sermon! Paul and Silas, “about midnight,” instead of whining, they sing. In The Children, David Halberstam tells about the night in 1961 in a Jackson, Mississippi jail. A young civil rights protester with a stunning voice began to sing.  The cells grew quiet, enthralled by James Bevel’s solo.  The white prison guard demanded quiet.  But Bevel sang on.  The guard arrived at the door and asked for the radio:  “No radios allowed in here – you niggers ought to know that.”  Bevel replied, “You ain’t getting the radio – not this one.”  And then he continued singing “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  The guard, uncertain if he felt anger or faith, walked away.

   God opens the prison. Can’t verse 26 be a sermon? “The foundations of the prison were shaken.” Not just Paul and Silas, but all the prisoners! Willie Jennings, in his wise and provocative commentary on Acts, suggests that “the disciples of Jesus cannot escape our necessary confrontation with prisons.” Our society labors under the illusions that prisons make us safe, that prisons are and enforce morality. God overturns all this. Acts 16 questions all systems that overly imprison those who need not be there – like ours. Jesus shows us how people come to be treated as criminals. We serve a God who was unjustly arrested, charged, sentenced and executed.

   The jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” He’s kin to the guards at Jesus’ tomb! The door’s open. Did Jesus’ guards get to ask? Paul exits, but he doesn’t scramble away. Jennings: “Paul will not go quietly into freedom.” It’s a matter of justice. Paul demands redress as a Roman citizen. Jennings alludes to Nelson Mandela’s release from decades in jail. F.W. de Klerk informed him suddenly and quietly he’d be taken to Johannesburg and released – a matter of government/PR expediency. Mandela objected. He wanted his release to be public. He sought public dignity. Instead of being taken to Johannesburg, his preference was, “Once I am free, I will look after myself.”

   Ponder the Philippian church. Meeting in the home of relatively wealthy Lydia, we have her, a slave girl, and a middling government official, the jailer – and his wife and children. The Jesus movement fashions churches that cross social boundaries – and then there is a unity in Jesus that the world thinks impossible, which comes into play in our Gospel lection!

   John 17:20-26. Jesus prays for those who have not yet believed! How hopeful. Including… us! Of course, we are thus also the object of his prayer when he asks God his Father the we be one. Denominations cockily divide, sure they are God’s holy guardians of truth – rather Gnostic-like. Jesus-style unity isn’t uniformity. It’s togetherness in difference. God made us different, and delights in difference. Division is on our side, not God’s. Check out my blog on Jesus’ prayer for unity and things Methodist in particular forget when they get ready to split, including great wisdom from Peter Leithart, Francis Schaeffer, Christina Cleveland, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Ephraim Radner, Hans Urs von Balthasar and more!

   Why does unity matter? You can make the case that divided, very different churches offer more open doors for the wide variety of people God seems to have created. Pentecostals for the bodily emotional, Catholics for lovers of order, Greek Orthodox for multi-sensory folks, and so forth. Jesus pinpoints why it matters: “so that the world may know.” Boom. The world won’t know the oneness of God and the intimacy between God and Jesus and thus with us because we are divided, we are the anti-answer to Jesus’ own prayer.

   No use going on a rant about all this – except to name the embarrassing sin that division, and our lean toward sides in church life, and invite all of us into a season of confession and repentance, not celebrating our side won or pouting that our side lost, nothing but a mirror image of how it goes with our culture’s idolatry, political ideology.

***

  Check out my non-leadership leadership book, Weak Enough to Lead.

What can we say June 5? The Day of Pentecost!

    Acts 2:1-21. The RCL adds “or Genesis 11:1-9.” It’s both, at least in all ancient people’s minds. My previous year’s post on Pentecost Sunday has my best thoughts and illustrative material, from St. Francis to Gandalf to Julian the Apostate.  To those thoughts I would add these, which are fresh and making me rethink things…

   We’d best be careful to speak of Pentecost as the “reversal of Babel” – which could imply diversification is a bad thing. God used human guile, pride and overreach to fashion a wonderful tapestry, so Pentecost is less the reversal of Babel but the growing into God’s new way? There is understanding at Pentecost, not sameness. It’s not that everyone suddenly spoke Greek or Aramaic, and certainly not Latin, the language of empire! They kept their own tongues, and stories!

   God clearly delights in diversity and understanding – which today doesn’t happen miraculously in an instant. Understanding, getting the hang of language, and cultures and ways, takes time – and is no less a miracle because of it! Willie Jennings speaks of Acts 2 as “the epicenter of the revolution,” “the revolution of the intimate.” God breaks everybody open so they can be a radical new, welcoming, fully engaged community. Notice it was no grand strategy on the disciples’ part. God just did this. It was uncontrollable – like the wind, with immense if unseen power.

   Jennings wryly points out that they might have asked for the Holy Spirit – but not this! This is real grace, “untamed grace.” He hears an echo of Mary learning the Spirit had “overshadowed her.” The Spirit transforms not just the ears, but mouths and bodies. God is like “the lead dancer, taking hold of her partners, drawing them close and saying Step this way.”

   Learning a new language (do you recall sitting nervously in language class?) is humbling – but so beautiful once you get the hang of it. You could learn someone else’s language to dominate them, and history has witnessed plenty of this – or the dominant people declaring “You must speak our language, not yours!” Learning a language though can be love, to be fully with others.

   Thinking of the spread of the church, not unlike the spread of people after Babel, and those who precursors showed up at Pentecost, I recall Mark Noll’s great wisdom: “Christianity appears more and more as an essentially pluralistic and cross-cultural faith. It appeared first in Asia, then Africa and Europe. Immediately those who turned to Christ in these ‘new’ regions were at home in the faith. When they became believers, Christianity itself became Asian, European and African. Once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place. It also challenges, reforms and humanizes the cultural values of that place. The Gospel comes to each person and to all peoples exactly where they are. You do not have to stop being American, Japanese, German, or Terra del Fuegian in order to become a Christian. Instead, they all find rich resources in Christianity that are perfectly fitted for their own cultural situations. It is by its nature a religion of nearly infinite flexibility because it has been revealed in a person of absolutely infinite love.”

  And Pentecost is learning whether to talk at all! Thomas Merton's pondering is intriguing: Merton: “T
he mystery of speech and silence is resolve in Acts. Pentecost is the solution. The problem of language is the problem of sin. The problem of silence is also a problem of love. How can one really know whether to speak or not, and whether words and silence are for good or for evil, unless one understands the 2 divisions of tongues – Babel and Pentecost. Acts is a book full of speech. The apostles down downstairs and out into the street like an avalanche… Before the sun had set, they had baptized 3000 souls out of Babel into the One Body of Christ.”

   Romans 8:14-17 intrigues, although it will at most be background music for Pentecost. A quirky question I have: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” was quoted at me once by a church member grousing that I’d spoken of non-Christians as God’s children. I’ll hear that – but I then in reply do want to ask, How many achieve that high bar of Yes, I am so very led by the Spirit? Really?

    I’ve written in other posts about Kelly Nikondeha’s marvelous theology of adoption. And we do need to hear Paul in verse 17: “if we suffer with him” doesn’t mean, probably not, if by some remote chance we suffer. Rather, we become his children, close to him, if we suffer as Christ did, or at least some approximation. Not a cross-stitchable passage! – although it was for St. Francis who actually prayed to suffer so he could feel in his soul and body what Christ felt for and with us.

   John 14:8-17, 25-27. I want to linger, always, over the simple request, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” No other satisfaction (Mick Jagger, anyone?) – and the request, “Show us the Father” elicits from Jesus a bit of “This is it, you’ve been seeing it right in front of you all this time.” So lovely, surprising, earthy, simple.

   Jesus makes two confusing, questionable comments next. You guys “will do even greater works” – than Jesus did? The only parsing of this is to realize the bar is set high – so there isn’t some honeymoon period of amazing things past and gone once Jesus ascends. And we may well reflect on what the Body of Christ, Jesus on earth, has done worldwide and through centuries. Greater, indeed. More embarrassing in many moments too. Yet that’s God’s way, risking it all, placing the future of Jesus in the hands of confused fools like us! As we saw at Pentecost, it’s God’s surprising irruption into things that wins the day anyhow.

   And Jesus also say “Ask anything in my name, I will do it.” When I was fairly new to Christianity, I had friends who insisted you pray in Jesus name, and they “claimed” the answers if they did so. This is blatant nonsense. It’s not that God is waiting for us to stick “in Jesus’ name” on the end of a prayer before doing something. The question is back at us: are you praying “in Jesus’ name,” that is, are your prayers what Jesus would pray, in sync with his mission, your heart so close to his as for you to be almost him praying? It’s not about control, but the yielding of control. It’s not about prayer working, but us dreaming God’s dreams. As Jennings said about the Day of Pentecost, they may have asked for the Spirit, but they certainly did not ask for our “claim” what they actually received!

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  Check out my Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week on all these matters and living spiritually in ways connecting Sunday worship with the rest of life.

 

What can we say June 12? Trinity Sunday

   Before we explore the Trinitarian nature of the lectionary readings for Trinity Sunday, we should stand back and notice that, if the Trinity is a thing, if the Trinity is the thing, then all texts are Trinitarian, all Sundays are Trinity Sunday. A preaching booboo this week might be to attempt an intellectual explanation of the Trinity. Save it for the classroom. In the liturgy, in sacred space, we don’t disentangle, analyze and explain the Trinity. We worship. We listen. We join that Holy Circle. We let the Trinity speak for itself.

   In last year’s post on Trinity Sunday, I speak of my theology professor’s agony trying to theologize about this, how the structure of a musical chord helps us make sense of things, how visuals like the Rublev icon help (or don’t) – and more. I would strongly commend to you now the video of a conversation I had with the brilliant and pastoral theologian Jason Byassee on “God as…Trinity.” It’s really good. Let’s also turn to this week’s lections:

   Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31. In my Wesley 1 Volume Commentary on Proverbs, I wrote this (speaking of all texts being Trinitarian and how that complicates but also enlightens things!): “In one of the Bible’s most eloquent, puzzling and theologically robust passages, Wisdom isn’t a goddess, although she sounds a little like one! Translators struggle to capture the nuance of qana: the Lord ‘created me’? or ‘possessed me’? or ‘had gotten me’? It’s not that God made things and also made wisdom. Wisdom was already with God, in God, prior to creation. Wisdom was the pattern for and reason in God’s creating. Wisdom here isn’t practical virtue; wisdom is cosmic in scope, divine in its essence, comprehensive, omnipresent, as personal as your mother.

   Christians think of the opening of John’s Gospel, where the Word (logos) was in the beginning, with God, through whom everything came to be, and persists as light and life. Way back in the Iron Age, the poet of Proverbs 8:22-31 perceived the depths of wisdom, or was inspired to write beyond his capacity. Even now we can’t exactly explain all the words. We are gazing very closely now into the mind and heart or God, into the recesses of time and space, into the wisdom that was among the Trinity, always.

   All we can do is read, marvel, and notice a few details. Vivid images of water depths, mountains settling, God appointing boundaries for the oceans titillate the mind. This isn’t a physics textbook, but there is no conflict with science. If the universe is billions of years old and we see pinholes of light at night that began streaming toward us light years ago, if subatomic particles buzz blindingly and together fashion the petal of a rose, if DNA plus time and meals concoct the face of the child who just smiled at me, then we begin to discern wisdom at the heart of the macro- and micro-processes that are our world. Wisdom was the tender power that crafted such beauty. To be wise is to be in sync with the origins of the universe, with the intent of the earth, with the rhythm of creation.

   Ellen Davis thinks Proverbs 8:22-31 might have inspired Michelangelo’s painting of creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. God’s left arm embraces a woman. Is it Eve? Mary? Or Wisdom, present with God at the moment of creation?

   Wisdom says that in creation she was ‘having fun.’ The Hebrew may mean ‘frolicking’ or even ‘doing cartwheels.’ Wisdom isn’t just useful. It’s fun, joyful. God isn’t somber. There is joy and delight at the heart of everything, and in our destiny. No wonder the Latin word for school, ludus, also means ‘play.’

   In the early Church, the Arians, seeing Christ as this Wisdom, insisted qana should be ‘created,’ arguing that Christ, whom they adored, was yet one more creature. The Athanasians squashed this notion, going with qana as ‘had,’ that Christ was equally pre-existent as God the Father, fully divine. The author of Proverbs would have been baffled—and may have laughed or turned a cartwheel at such a ferocious debate over what is beyond all imagining.”

   Psalm 8. One of our favorite Psalms, memorable, eloquent, ponderable more than explainable. I think of Francis of Assisi and a statue of him I love where he is lying on his back. He would climb steep paths to get up higher to pray. He slept out under the stars, and did so when there was virtually no ambient light, no artificial halogens. So as he lay on his back, drifting off, he could see what we can no longer see: a dense array of pinpoints of light, a flurry of meteors streaking, the deep darkness that is not dark to God at all. He would have known Psalm 8 by heart.

   When he got to the line which asks, “What is man… and the son of man?” he would have thought, not of himself, so small against the canopy of space and the openness of the fields, but of Jesus. Newer, inclusive translations miss this nuance – that Christian readers read “What is man” not a the male pray-ers down here, but as Jesus!

   What Francis understood about Jesus is that the Most High, Glorious God was not content to hover so high, to remain aloof. That Most High, Glorious God exhibited his glory by coming down, in the humble form of a man, Jesus. Actually, at first the infant Jesus. “Out of the mouths of babes”? Jesus’ first cry, Madeleine L’Engle suggested, sounded like the ringing of a bell. The height of God is measured by the smallness of Christ come down in the infant Jesus. The prayer for God’s will is, like some zoom lens, focused down on something small, tender. God came down from his Most Highness because God loved, God loves – and so God’s will is always about love, bending down, humble, serving.

   John 16:12-15. Christian thinkers would have been lame intellectually if they had not concluded that the Trinity was most assuredly the threefold God witnessed in Scripture. John, especially at that long filibuster postponing going out into the dark to be betrayed and killed, bobs and weaves between speaking of God the Father, himself, and the Spirit. In this short text, this multifaceted Spirit is the Spirit Of Truth, whose vocation is to guide us into all truth. Not to have an emotional high, and not to know how best to wield our absolute truths as blunt instruments to judge or punish others.

   This text reveals part of the rationale of thinking of the Spirit as the “shy member” of the Trinity (Who thought of this? Vladimir Lossky? Frederick Dale Bruner? Did they get it from someone else?). This Spirit is like the backstage lighting guy you don’t see, who doesn’t seek attention, but does his/her work to make the Son and the Father look good. “He will glorify me.” What this Spirit highlights so we can see is – well, is it Jesus? Or God the Father? Yes, both, as Jesus makes utterly clear. Jesus isn’t God the Father walking around down here. But they are one. If you see Jesus, you see directly into the heart and mind of God. And there’s the Spirit, their bond, or as St Bernard of Clairvaux titillatingly put it, “the kiss between them.” Hence the quirky title of my little book on the Holy Spirit: The Kiss of God.

What can we say June 19? 2nd after Pentecost

    1 Kings 19:1-15 is amazing. Elijah, in the aftermath of his astonishing crushing of the prophets of Baal, comes to a hard, dark moment at another mountain far to the south. Jonathan Sacks, as so often is the case, has helped me rethink what really is an awful text. Are we to cheer when well-meaning religious men are slaughtered – by God no less? Sacks passes along what Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher had said. Reading all of Scripture, and then attentive to details in 1 Kings 18, he points out that God did not actually command Elijah to challenge the Canaanite prophets, and God certainly did not direct Elijah to slaughter them. Prophets are not to intimidate or terrorize others; compulsion and force are not God’s ways. Elijah’s “zeal” for God was not holy. God was fuming with Elijah afterwards, which is why he wound up alone on Mount Horeb. Elijah had to learn the hard way the extreme dangers of religious zealotry. His show of strength impressed, but with catastrophic results.

   Is Sacks's reflection a stretch? The God who allegedly tossed down thunderbolts in chapter 18 is the one who shows up very differently in chapter 19! As an antidote to all religious leaders (even me?) who can be ruthless: a pointed sermon or a snarky blog post, dispatching others who think wrong? Elijah (is he whining or boasting?) declares “I have been zealous for the Lord.” But God does not ask us for titanic displays of zeal. Aren't clergy tempted to be impressive, relevant, popular? Elijah’s big moment had zero lasting impact.

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

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

   God hardly soothes Elijah. He’s not offered a sabbatical of R&R. Instead, he somehow has to withstand a wind storm so strong it broke rocks into pieces, and then an earthquake, and then fire – which Elijah had welcomed in his contest with the 450 prophets! But now? 1 Kgs 19:12 reports that the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake or fire. Doesn’t this interpret 1 Kings 18 as Maimonides and Sacks did?

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

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

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

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

   Psalm 42/43. This pair was originally a single Psalm, one of the most eloquent and moving in all of Scripture. My Old Testament professor, Fr. Roland Murphy, suggested to me one day that this Psalm may well have been composed at a fabulous waterfall just outside Caesarea Philippi. This video was part of a Bible study series we filmed in Israel a while back, a beautiful rendering of the Psalm at that Banyas waterfall! Water is scarce, a national treasure in Israel to this day. Did the Psalmist watch as a deer, sniffing the air, found its way to this spot to drink? – a vision of our thirst for God?

   Much grief is articulated in powerful images. Tears as my food. Waves of sorrow like the billowing of the water in this place. My soul is indeed cast down. The solution? There, “from the sources of Jordan and Mt. Hermon” (where the snow melts to form this headwater of the Jordan!), the Psalmist longs to return to the temple “with the throng.” It is his memory of being in God’s holy sanctuary, and his determination to return there, that is his hope, his strength, the only reason to go on. Lovely stuff.

   Galatians 3:23-29. What to do with Paul. The law was a disciplinarian – but no more? The paidagogos (do you hear “pedagogue” in there?) in Paul’s world would have been a personal slave attendant, with a duty to teach the young manners, to use a switch if necessary, to take him to school, to test his memory. James D.G. Dunn renders this “babysitter”!

   The law isn’t trashed for Paul. I assume his intent is for us to move from an external understanding of God’s will – it’s laws, rules, you study, you try to do it – to an internalization: it’s not something outside you you embrace, but something in you; it is you. He deploys the clothing image, which rightly reminds us of early baptismal practices. After a season of learning and preparation, you shed your dirty work clothes, descend into the baptismal pool, emerge washed, and are then enfolded in a new, white robe. I think of the little shower tags we got from Resurrection UMC, which hundreds of our people hung in their bathrooms: “As I enter the water to bathe, I remember my Baptism. Wash my by your grace, fill me with your spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child this day, and honor you in all that I do.” 
We later devised our own closet tags, to pray while dressing: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. I love giving people simple, practical ways to pray, to envision their life with God during their daily routine!

   Lastly, Paul’s stirring declaration that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; you are one in Christ Jesus,” gets misconstrued, and then we fail at the main thing. There were, of course, still Jews and Greeks, women and men. It’s the division, it’s the rankings that are shattered. Differences are not abolished; God loves diversity! It’s the end of bias, hierarchy, chauvinism – an end to segregation. On this score, we are manifest failures. But it’s still God’s way, and the more we approximate this, the closer we are to God (and the less we approximate this, the further we are from God as well).

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

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

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

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

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

What can we say June 26? 3rd after Pentecost

    2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 is a text that, personally, reminds me of the death of my great professor, doctoral advisor and mentor, Fr. Roland E. Murphy. He was a Carmelite – a Catholic order dedicated to Elijah. And as a Carmelite and Old Testament scholar, he died with considerable panache on the Feast Day of Elijah in 2002! This got me to pondering what happens when a great person, a great Bible scholar, a great knower of God dies. I blogged about this, and him. Could a sermon reflect on mentors, inviting people to find or even be one? Can you tell about yours – if you’d lucky, like I am, to have had one?

  {Parenthetically, if you are interested in mentoring as it relates to ministry, you might enjoy this collection of essays I edited with Jason Byassee and Craig Kocher called Mentoring for Ministry: The Grace of Growing Pastors}.

   Elisha has been attached to Elijah since that moment when he was out plowing and he unexpectedly had a mantle thrown over him (1 Kings 19), and when he abruptly left his oxen right out in the field, like Jesus’s fishermen to come, and traipsed off after him. Understandably, he refuses to let Elijah slip away. Twice he declares, “I will not leave you” – reminding me of the terrific scene at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, when Samwise Gamgee jumps in the water, not knowing how to swim. Barely surviving, he explains, “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.” But Elijah will leave Elisha. His strange movements are a clue he prefers to go off and die alone.

   This unfolded “when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…” Same whirlwind that God used to answer Job? Back then, nobody except or had really heard about eternal life. Being swooped up into heaven? Elisha, humbled, in awe, and pondering what he’ll need without Elijah, asks for a “double share” of Elijah’s power. Somebody counted, and surprisingly enough, Elisha’s miracles are precisely double those of Elijah, 16 to 8! Jesus told his disciples they would do even greater things.

   Elijah departs in the whirlwind? In a flaming chariot? Chariots of Fire is a fabulous movie with many profound moments pondering sabbath observance, and joy. Watch it for fun, and in preparation to preach!

   The mantle Elijah had thrown on Elisha when they first met was the mantle draped over Elisha’s shoulders as Elijah departed. Did it fit? Was it too big? 

Another Lord of the Rings illustration: the wise wizard Gandalf somewhat foolishly left the course of affairs in Middle Earth to the diminutive, fun-loving, timid hobbits. “Despair, or folly?” asked Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”

   Galatians 5:1, 13-25 materializes in the lectionary just prior to July 4 – with consummate timing, as Americans are days from chattering on about freedom in untheological, even anti-Christian (weirdly) ways. Paul most assuredly does not say You are free! So freely choose God! or God gives you freedom and hopes you’ll choose good instead of sin. No, it’s that Christ sets us free, implying we are (as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, all the great theologians have clarified) most assuredly not free. Our wills are bound, shackled, to sin, self, world. Our only hope is to be liberated by the miracle of God’s Spirit – and once free, it’s not so we might do as we wish, but so we might then bind ourselves freely and joyfully to God, to do God’s bidding – as Wesley put it, My life is no longer my own.

   Take note of his counsel: do not submit “again” to the yoke of slavery. You were, maybe even just this morning, a great submitter to this yoke of slavery, which is mere “self-indulgence,” which Paul says is a grave misuse of freedom. Paul’s words, genius or inspired, recognize that a battle is being waged in the soul. Do we even notice any longer? Flesh vs. Spirit (which isn’t visible vs. invisible). “Flesh” is idolatry (and today’s most popular idolatry is political ideology!), jealousy, anger, dissension (sounds like my denomination!) vs. the Spirit, which is tangible, real life as motivated by God’s Spirit.

   “Don’t bite and devour,” which we love to do, even in the privacy of our own minds. I love Frederick Buechner’s thought: “Of the 7 Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances, to roll over 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 feast is you.”

   “Eat fruit, not others!” The “fruit of the Spirit” is one of those shining moments in Scripture we could ponder forever. People ask What is God’s will? Galatians 5:22 could keep you occupied every minute for decades. I’m especially fond of Phil Kenneson’s thoughtful book, Life on the Vine. Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16), and “My Father is glorified when you bear fruit... I have said these things so my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:8).

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

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

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

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

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

   Luke 9:51-62 is (to me) hilarious. They didn’t welcome us – so, “Lord, shall we command fire to come down and consume them?” (picking up on consuming and getting consumed in Galatians 5, and Elijah’s over-zealous slaughter of the prophets of Baal, 1 Kings 18).

   My denomination’s slogan is “Make disciples!” – which sounds fun… but Jesus explains what disciple life is like. “Foxes have holes,” but we have no place to rest. “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples put their cozy past behind. For St. Francis, it meant a ferocious break with his own father Pietro. For you, it means…. What? For your people, it means… What? Hard not to think of John Wesley, missing his own wife’s funeral – although his failure wasn’t entirely out of zeal for the Lord!

   “When the days drew near for him to be taken up”: as we see in Luke, volume 2 (Acts 1), the climax of Jesus’ work is his ascension, when he leaves the church behind to be his Body, just as Elijah left Elisha to carry on after him. Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem: in the first half of his ministry, Jesus is an actor, in control, impressive, striding across the stage of history – but then in part 2, he is increasingly passive, acted upon, headed to die. He is “handed over.” This (as W.H. Vanstone pointed out in The Stature of Waiting) is the plot of our lives: we are active, but then late, we are increasingly passive, acted upon – and that is Jesus’ glory, and our glory (so counter-cultural…). More to come (and I think this is a perfectly valid way to wind up a sermon… Stay tuned for the rest of the story next week and in the weeks to come!).

***

  Check out my non-leadership leadership book, Weak Enough to Lead.