Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What can we say come July 22? 9th after Pentecost

   Ordinary time, and three great texts. In 2 Samuel 7:1-14, God sends Nathan to David – a preview of a far harder conversation they will have in chapters 11-12, where the question “Will you build me a house?” receives a tawdry answer in David’s house-building via his seizure of Bathsheba. Robert Barron, on the plan David hatched while resting: “We will see the contrast between this use of Sabbath time and the use that David makes of his leisure time in the eleventh chapter” – which he says is “none other than the difference between Adam’s proper and improper exercise of authority in the garden.”

     It’s tempting to preach on the nature of God, which is mobile, elusive, never boxed in. Of course, since the temple eventually happened, we try to fix blame on David. 1 Chronicles 22 chalked it up to David having shed too much blood – which is appealing to me, as it refutes those who see the God of the Old Testament as bloodthirsty! I think there is preaching fodder in this: David wants to do something for God – which seems noble. But in the phrase I rattle off now and then: It’s not what I want to do, and it’s not what I want to do for God, but rather what God wants me to do. 
Barron again: “A person’s plan might be bold, beautiful, magnanimous, and popular, but still not be God’s plan. A person’s ambition might be admirable and selfless, but still not be congruent with God’s ambition… Our lives are not about us. God’s plans for us are always greater, more expansive, and more life-giving than our plans for ourselves.” Or as Anne Lamott famously said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

     The house David hoped to build got built – and its successor was the one Jesus cleansed and then announced it would be destroyed. Jesus is God’s house – which none of us can personally build. Ours is to enter, to worship, to move around with him as the ark moved around.

     Details in the text are worth attending to. God says “I took you from following sheep” – not leading them but following them! “…that you should be a prince” (not a king!). In my leadership book, Weak Enough to Lead, I reflected on what unfolded in 2 Samuel 5:

     [The tribes gathered and spoke of the days when Saul became “king” (melek). Then turning to David they added, “The Lord said to you, You who shall be ruler” (nāgîd, not melek). All other nations (and the people’s trouble began when they wanted to be like the other nations!) spoke of their king as melek. But the Lord called David not melek, but nāgîd, which implies “prince,” maybe even the crown prince. What a theologically useful distinction this was! The Lord alone is king (melek); but Israel now had a ruler (nāgîd), a “crown prince” to the Lord if you will. At the pinnacle of human authority in Israel stood someone who was a dependent subject to the true king. The king had no absolute power, but was just as answerable to God’s law as everyone else. The Bible reminds us that a leader is not a superior being, and has no significant status others don’t. At their best, leaders can be like those consuls in the Roman Republic, who were not dictators but simply role-fillers, each one nothing more than a primus inter pares, “first among equals,” and only for a time, and only in a particular role.]

     The preacher has to cope with or just ignore the clear redactory edits about Solomon. Also, as is the case with the people’s desire for a king (1 Samuel 8), the desire for a temple isn’t God’s desire – but then God lets them have what they long for. “God gave them up to their desires” – but then God used kingship and even the temple powerfully in people’s and the nation’s life. Such is our God.

     Now to Ephesians. Frank Thielman suggests that the primary orientation of 2:1-10 is vertical, whereas our text for this week, 2:11-22, is horizontal. 2:1-10 is about God’s powerful work through Christ; 2:11-22 on the social alienation between Israel and the Gentiles and Christ’s role in solving this. Let’s ponder some moments in this rich text. At the end of verse 12: “without God in the world.” The Greek is atheos, which it turns out was a disdainful term Gentiles used to describe Jews for their refusal to worship the pagan/civic gods. This same term became a slander against the Christians. The martyrdom of Polycarp: as the fires were being lit, the Romans shouted “Away with the atheists!” – and Polycarp responded in kind: “Yes, away with the atheists!”

     Many scholars suggest that Paul is reciting a pre-Pauline hymn here. I like to fiddle around with that idea in preaching, asking people to wonder with me what the tune was like, what the voices of the early Christians, huddled in small homes or the catacombs, sounded like singing these words.

     “You who once were far off have been brought near.” They didn’t come near; they were brought near. Paul is thinking Gentiles outside the covenant people – but it’s no stretch to extend his words to all of us, and our immense gratitude for God bringing us near.

     “He is our peace.” Love that. Not he brings peace or wants us to have peace. He is our peace – and has made us one by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. With all due sensitivity to political upset, the preacher would be remiss not to speak of real walls that divide: the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, Israel's wall today, Hadrian’s Wall, maybe the railroad tracks through a segregated town, and the proposed wall President Trump promised to build… Paul is envisioning the balustrade, the low stone wall the separated the outer from inner courts of the temple, the wall that declared “No Entry” to Gentiles. All division crumble in the light of Jesus.

     And then our Gospel, a bit weirdly, mandates Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 – skipping the whole multiplication of the loaves! I preached on that section, exploring the 12 baskets leftover, at Duke Chapel a couple of years ago. But the sandwich around that story is intriguing enough. The pace of vs. 30-34: lots of rushing and intensity. The disciples turn in their mission reports – and he notices they are weary. “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place” (the wrong word – it’s not loneliness but solitude! – and in this case the “lonely place” is one where they are together!).

     The very rushing around of the people to hear Jesus is part of their being “like sheep without a shepherd.”  They had plenty of leaders, of course: Herod, Caiaphas, the Emperor… but they are lost even in their frenzy to find a new leader.  How much spiritual seeking is more lostness than finding?

     Jesus, the Messiah, with an endless to-do list, “went up on the mountain to pray.” And then, as if to underline the strangeness and otherness of Jesus, when the storm rages and he’s walking on the water, the text says “He meant to pass by them.” Where was he going???  The preacher need not answer.  But how intriguing.  On his way somewhere else, he’s interrupted – Jesus, the ultimate interruptible one.  Interestingly the crowds reach out hoping just to touch the hem of his garment – as in that other story where the woman interrupted him on his way to Jairus’ home (5:27).  In one way, I wish the text didn’t say “and as many as touched his hem were healed.”  Sounds magical…

     But then the “hem” would have been those tassels worn by observant Jews in compliance with Numbers 15:37-39.  Jesus is a devout, fastidious Jew!  That Numbers text is fascinating: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly.’”  That’s what Jesus was about – and what following him is about.


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 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What can we say July 29-August 26 on John 6?

     The lectionary offers the preacher a high unusual chance to spend not one but five weeks on a single story – albeit a long, complex one: The feeding of the five thousand and its immediate aftermath, the only miracle reported in all four gospels. I’ll offer some comments on the chapter as a whole (and you have to grasp the drama of the whole to make sense of the parts!), and then some thoughts on each section of the divvied up lectionary readings for July 29 through August 26.

     In my late twenties, I was present for an unforgettable sermon on John 6 by the inimitable Fred Craddock. He deftly exposed the plot of the whole chapter: starting with next to nothing, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 – and they responded with exuberant glee. Happy days are here again! The Messiah has come! He’ll turn out nickels into dimes, make our gardens grow, find beautiful wives for our sons, and rout the Romans! But then Jesus shifted the conversation from bread to bread – as in You shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  The people draw back a little, wondering why he’s heading in this direction. And then he turned on them entirely: instead of bread, as in the Word, he explains that “the bread I give for the life of the world is my body.” Now he’s talking about suffering, dying – and they flee for the exits.

     From thousands, now there is only a handful left. Jesus asked the few, Will you also go away? And as Craddock intoned it, they rather pitifully asked, Where would we go? – as if they didn’t really have any place else to go. His sermon, we then realized, was actually about so many leaving the church. Churches in decline – and we clergy all know those who have abandoned the ministry. Will you also go away? Craddock’s final line? I think I’ll stay. I know others have left, but I don’t know, I think I’ll stay. Those of us watching/listening were annihilated, moved – and inclined to stay.

     Why not talk about the decline of the church? Not to warn, or to demoralize, or to amp up people’s efforts to evangelize. We note the numbers, which are the perfect reason to ask Why be here?

     My fellow doctoral student and friend Marianne Meye Thompson reflects wisely on the full 5 weeks of Gospel lections: “John’s portrait of Jesus in chapter 6 fuses traditional material about Jesus’ ministry; allusions to the Scripture about manna, word and wisdom; practice of the Lord’s Supper; and John’s own deep convictions about Jesus. The events of the chapter are set at Passover. Like the first Passover, there is a miraculous crossing of the sea, followed by a time during which God provides manna in the wilderness.” This Passover tie is huge.

     And then she slants in Craddock’s direction: “After eating their fill, the people now want more: more bread, more miracles, more of what Jesus can offer.” Sounds very American to me! – or reminding me of Oliver (in the musical).
 Thompson again: “They are right to ask for more; but they do not yet understand what Jesus wants to give them.” I love her depth of insight, that we are mistaken to think Jesus is only fixated on higher things: “Jesus does not feed people with bread merely as an object lesson to show that he can give them food for eternal life. Rather, Jesus can give food that sustains human life in this world and that provides eternal life because he is the agent of God’s creation of all life.” Material food still matters – for us and for those who don’t have it. After all, in the Synoptic versions of the story, when Jesus sees the hungry people he tells the disciples, "You give them something to eat" (Mark 6:37). The preacher's way into the deep spirituality in John 6 could do through a food ministry your church is engaged in - and perhaps you find a story there that leans into what John 6 is about.

     Jean Vanier sees chapter 6 (which he says is “as difficult as a storm”) as a long journey “from the weakness of the newborn child we once were to the weakness of the old person we will become – growth from ignorance to wisdom, selfishness to self-giving, fear to trust, guilt feelings to inner liberation, lack of self-esteem to self-acceptance… The feeding itself reveals a caring God… Jesus calls his disciples to move from a faith based on a very visible miracle that fulfilled their needs to a faith that is total trust in him and in his words, which can appear foolish, absurd, impossible.”

     And finally I find the evangelical scholar D.A. Carson’s articulation appealing: “At a superficial level, the signs attest that Jesus has remarkable powers; but the signs must never be assessed as anything more than attesting portents. This particular miracle had filled the bellies of the people, and the crowd loved it and were willing on that basis to sign up immediately.” But there are hidden meanings, and daunting challenges… “It will shortly become clear that Jesus not only gives the food; he is himself the bread of life.”
 
     I think I might help people see this by explaining how all good gift giving is really a giving of self. My mother-in-law died in November. I am positive that every Christmas, and every year on my birthday, she gave me some carefully chosen, valuable gift, beautifully wrapped. But for the life of me, I can't recall what was in any of the boxes now. What I am sure of is that each one was simply the gift of her self, disguised or embodied in a coat or a clock or something or another. Our people, understandably, and very much like young children just before Christmas, want this or that from God. But maturity is realizing that the gift God gives is... God's own self, Emmanuel, God with us.

     And now for just a few remarks on each section, if you are going week by week.

     John 6:1-21/July 29. Four years ago I preached at Duke Chapel on this and focused on the leftovers. Why so much? No mention of them going to the poor; those who just ate were the poor. We might think a better miracle would be for Jesus magically to have produced just enough – but he overdid it… Was it wasted? So much in the spiritual life is a waste – of time? Sam Wells speaks often of the superabundance of God’s mercy. There’s plenty, more than enough.

     Dorothy Day once received a diamond ring as a donation. Instead of selling it, she simply gave it to the next poor woman who walked in. When criticized, she asked “Are fine things only for the rich?” It was a waste – a beautiful waste. 
The preacher can think of moments of extravagance. I preached in Haiti at an ordination a while back. Three of us took suitcases full of oreos for the celebration. Yes, Haitians need much more than oreos. But the sheer delight at the party mirrored the extravagance of God’s grace.

     If you want to point to a miracle, it’s not the multiplication of the food. It’s this: Jesus “withdrew to a mountain by himself.” Solitude, time alone with God, might be more miraculous for our people (and us!) than any wizardry with bread. And the lunge to crown Jesus as king: echoes of Gideon’s refusal, and then the people’s foolish request for a king (and what it cost them – 1 Sam. 8) – and yet how remarkable of God to accede finally to their request for a king. David and his lineage are the ones God uses (despite themselves), culminating in Jesus, who was the king (yes, the same guy who just refused the crown!). We won’t understand his kingship until the crucifixion.

    One more interesting tidbit: as D.A. Carson reminds us, “Jesus ‘blesses’ God, i.e. he thanks God; he does not ‘bless’ the food.” It’s worth mentioning to our folks at some point that the pre-meal prayer doesn’t change or radioactivize the food; we are the ones transformed. And we have a fair guess at the words Jesus used when he prayed over the food in John 6 (and at the Last Supper!) – the common Jewish blessing, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

     John 6:24-35/August 6.  Jesus offers in effect his own sermon on Exodus 16 – which also directs the people from food (which perishes!) to a higher kind of food, namely trust in God’s provision, and leading from bondage to freedom. And we see deep connections here with the story of the Samaritan woman who wants water and then is given water…

 
    John 6:35, 41-51/August 13.  We see the first of Jesus’ “I am” statements. Think Moses, burning bush, and God’s merciful provision to us of names, identities, revelations of the character of God. The preacher could seize this occasion to explore all the I ams (bread, vine, water, shepherd, light, door, way) – and perhaps fuse those marvelous identities to our own, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Who Am I?: “Am I really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, weary and empty at praying, ready to say farewell to it all. Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

     Marianne Thompson helps us hear the shock/offense of Jesus’ words in this reading: “Jesus’ claims may sound familiar to Christian readers accustomed both to thinking of Jesus as God’s Son ‘come down’ from heaven and to hearing ‘eat and drink,’ the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper, but John portrays them as divisive when uttered by Jesus’ contemporaries.” How much of our churchy jargon is nonsense not just to outsiders, but to the casual attender, the first-time visitor, the under-theologically-formed?

     D.A. Carson offers a thoughtful observation on the crowd’s reaction to Jesus: “The grumbling was not only insulting, but dangerous. It presupposed that divine revelation could be sorted out by talking the matter over.” It’s not in our skill set to decide what is revelation and what isn’t.

     Jesus “draws” people to himself. The verb (from helko) can mean “pull or drag by force” (in John 21:6 they drag the net loaded with fish into the boat, and in Acts 21:30 they seize Paul and drag him away!) or “attract” – and while John’s context pushes us toward “attract,” the stronger nuance is intriguing. Carson somewhat crassly but clearly puts it like this: “When he compels belief, it is not by the savage constraint of a rapist, but by the wonderful wooing of a lover.”

     John 6:51-58/August 19. Again, Marianne Thompson’s words above on the graphic nature of and unsettling shocking sense of Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood! No wonder critics in the Roman world misconstrued the Christians as cannibalistic, and crazy.

     John 6:56-69/August 26. See above on Craddock’s exposition of the few who are left being asked if they too will exit. This is the only scene in John where Jesus is in the synagogue (in contrast to Mark, where he’s a regular!). D.A. Carson asks who Jesus’ deserters “take umbrage.” “They were more interested in food, political messianism and manipulative miracles than in the spiritual realities to which the feeding miracle had pointed. And, they were unprepared to relinquish their own sovereign authority even in matters religious.” Jesus does not give them a thrashing. Instead he makes himself even more vulnerable, surrendering himself. Verse 64 uses that theologically rich verb paradidomi, “handed over,” which is the key term in the Synoptics for Jesus letting himself be acted upon. The plot of every Gospel is the same: Jesus strides onto the stage of history as a powerful actor, impressing, impactful; but then he turns toward Jerusalem, no more miracles, quieter, increasingly passive. This is his glory. For us, as John 6:61 puts it, this is an offense, a scandal; the verb, skandalizo, drives us to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
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 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 

 

Monday, January 8, 2018

What can we say come July 29? 10th after Pentecost

    July 29 is a peculiar week in the lectionary. The Old Testament (2 Samuel 11) gives us the first half of what is inseparable from next week’s reading (2 Samuel 12) – both of which fit neatly with the Psalm (51) – and we just explored these texts on Lent week 5 (so look back at that blog).

     And then the Gospel reading is the first of five consecutive weeks of readings that are really just a single story: John 6. Here is a blog on the full story, which has to be read as a dramatic whole – and then you’ll also find there some specific details for each of the Sundays as it’s divvied up between the weeks of July 29 and August 26.

     So beyond the Bathsheba/David/Nathan episode, and the Feeding of the 5000 and what unfolds from it, here are some thoughts on this week’s epistle, Ephesians 3:14-21. When I was in college, I fell in for a while with a group of Christians who were big on prayer “reports.” When they gathered, people would file their prayer requests (which as I recall were remarkably self-absorbed and narrow – help with an exam, romantic troubles, etc.), everyone would pray – and then a time was provided for people to report on what they had been praying, and the results of prayers in earlier weeks. My mother’s surgery went well! I aced the test! And one quite attractive young woman who had caught my eye reported with much enthusiasm that she had been desperate for a parking space the other day; she’d prayed, and someone pulled out of a very convenient space right in front of her just a moment after she’d prayed. I didn’t follow up with her.

    Ephesians 4:14-21 is a prayer report – in the sense that he reports on what he has been praying for them. No prayers for help or comfort or “answers,” but strength in their inner selves. The goal of Paul’s prayer for them, which we might deduce would be a good mission statement for our own lives, is “to be filled with all the fulness.” That’s three big words, and on the heels of four expansive words in verse 18: the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love. I’m reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…” Did she have Ephesians 4 in the back of her mind? And how do we consumer-oriented people love others, much less God, in such boundless ways?


    I’m also reminded of something in George Lindbeck’s wonderful The Nature of Doctrine. Assessing how theology organizes itself around some key principles, he argues that our Christology has and should have “three regulative principles” – that is, whatever we say about Jesus is accountable to these three rules: the monotheistic principle (that is, what we say about Jesus can’t put the truth that God is one in peril), the principle of historical specificity (that is, what we say about Jesus must be integrally linked to what the real human being Jesus did in history), and the one pertinent to our text, what Lindbeck calls Christological maximalism, that “every possible importance is to be ascribed to Jesus that is not inconsistent with the first rules.”


    Paul is all over that. This whole section is two very long, complex sentences in Greek. He’s not constructing a grammatical masterpiece so much as he’s simply getting carried away, so awestruck is he but the wonder of Christ. He’s “lost in wonder, love and praise.” The commentator Rufold Schnackenburg says “Paul unleashes a flood of thoughts in an intensifying crescendo.” Frank Thielman invites us to picture Paul dictating such long sentences: “When Paul dictated it, he was able by the cadence of his voice to solve the syntactical problems that now face us as we pore over the text in silent study.” I like it when preachers invite us to imagine something simple, like Paul thinking out loud while someone is scribbling down his thoughts - and that becomes our Bible. 


     “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” Words fail us. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” When I turned 60, my daughter Grace made a list, “60 reasons I love you.” When my wife turned 60, I did the same for her – but the list could have and should have been far longer.  Maybe we make lists to praise the wonder, the breadth, depth, height, fulness of the marvel that is Jesus Christ. Again, sermons need not have a moral take-away or a do-able point. The best sermons simply cause us to stammer in awe at the fabulous grandeur that Jesus really is.

     And to invite our listeners to expand their shrunken souls. In the thick of World War II, C.S. Lewis preached one of history’s finest sermons, “The Weight of Glory.” In its opening, he says our problem is not that our desires are too strong – a sense you get from a lot of preaching, that Christianity is throwing cold water on excessive desire. Rather, “it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Paul promised that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 4:20).

     So: life in Jesus is huge, fantastic. Somebody unspeakably large is living in you – the preacher, and those to whom you preach, echoing Galatians 2:19, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” How do we realize this wonder we don’t notice, or underestimate? By meditation? Contemplating art? Listening to music? It’s counter-cultural, for sure.

     A clue to help us grow in our praise, and thus to cultivate strength in our inner being, is in verse 18: Paul prays we will ponder this “with the saints.” Indeed, as we enjoy the advantage of 2,000 years of Christian history over Paul, we see much in the saints we can mimic. Thérèse of Lisieux, in the late 1890’s, riddled with illness up to her death at age 23, repeatedly said of her love for Jesus, “To die of love is what I hope for, on fire with his love I want to be, to see him, be one with him forever, that is my heaven – that’s my destiny: by love to live.”

     Bernardo of Quintavalle, a wealthy merchant, invited Francis of Assisi to his home.  After the evening meal, they retired for the evening.  Francis pretended to sleep; Bernard also pretended to sleep, even feigning a snore.  Francis rose and then knelt, praying over and over, all night long, “My God, my all.” His whole life was a manifestation of the height, depth and breadth of God’s nature, heart, grandeur and wonder.

    What is ministry but the demonstration and embodiment of God’s boundless love? Too many ministries skimp, and try to insure the recipients are worthy, and that they only get just enough. Dorothy Day (who was born the same year Thérèse of Lisieux died, and wrote a great little book about her) once received a donation of a diamond ring for her work with the poor. Instead of selling it, she simply gave it to the next person who came in asking for help. Her response to critics who said she should have sold it and given it to the poor (who might remind us of Judas’s criticism of the woman anointing Jesus!)? Who says fine, beautiful things are only for the rich?

    And then Thomas à Kempis: “Lord, in what can I trust in this life? And what is my greatest comfort on earth? Is it not Yourself, O Lord my God, whose mercy is limitless? Have I ever prospered without You? And did I ever suffer ill when You were at hand? I would rather be poor for Your sake than rich without You. I would choose to be a wanderer on the face of the earth with You, rather than to possess heaven without You.  For where You are, there is Heaven; and where You are not, there is death and Hell. You are my sole desire; for You I sigh, pray, and cry… Unless You abide with me, all things that seem to bring peace and happiness are as nothing, for they cannot bestow true happiness. You alone are the End of all good things, the fulness of life, the depth of wisdom; and the greatest comfort of Your servants is to trust in You above all else. My God, Father of mercies, I look to You, I trust in You.”

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 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

What can we say come August 5? 11th after Pentecost

   Our Old Testament readings, 2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51, continue what began last week, and are covered as well as I’m able in my blog from March 18. Our Gospel reading, John 6:24-35, is also covered in my blog on John 6 as a whole, and with attention to the details of this week’s segment.

     Ephesians 4:1-16 is a rich text with, if anything, way too many possible preaching paths. I preached on this text three years ago, focusing then on “One” (called it “One is the Holiest Number,” with some Three Dog Night humor…). In the thick of all the complexity in the world, and divisions in the church, and with other pretenders and usurpers strutting around and claiming to be “the one,” it is liberating, focusing and a great joy to explore the way God is one, and therefore we are one.

   Paul’s admonition that we “lead a life worthy” makes me shiver – but then lends great dignity to life. We are so unworthy. This worthiness must be extrinsic to us, a gift – maybe in the way ordinands learn to say Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, not the grunting, grinding effort to be good enough. We clergy should ponder this worthiness in our own souls. John Owen’s words haunt me: “The minister may fill his pews and the mouths of the public; but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty – that he is and no more.”

    The worth is linked to the calling. “Not many of you were wise…” (1 Cor. 1), as Paul reminded us. I will preach better and far more faithfully if I recall my calling and how I frame it in my gut. Back then, I didn’t sense a call to run meetings, meet budgets, go to clergy meetings or even preach sermons. For me, I was naively and deeply in love with Jesus, and I simply wanted to do anything he might need from me, any errands he might need to have run, to be someone who would say as clearly as possible Jesus is the One.

   Sometimes evangelical jargon puzzles me – including the way the Christian life is called a “walk.” How’s your walk with Christ? Paul speaks of this life as walking. The Greek word, kin to our word “peripatetic,” means to walk around. I like a “walk around” kind of pastoral administration more than fixed evaluation meetings. Jesus seemed to be someone who walked around – towns, the countryside, etc.

   This calling is itself Hope. “You were called to one hope.” I like that. It isn’t that my calling is to talk about hope, or to cajole people into being hopeful. The very fact that God calls is hope. And it’s not a passive hoping or wishing. St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. One is anger at the way things are. The other is courage to see to it that things don’t remain the way they are.”

    I was young when I was called. So I wonder if I have matured? Paul speaks of maturity, of growing up. I used to hate it when one of my parents would say “Grow up!” (and I’ve even heard this in adult life when somebody was super-annoyed with me). Growing up in Christ is peculiar: it’s not increasing independence, and certainly not any kind of codependency, but an increasing dependence upon God, or maybe an increasing inter-dependence upon God and others in the Body.

    The Greek term rendered “mature” is teleion, as in meeting the goal, arriving at the end, the telos, the purpose of things. Maturity is marked by certain traits, some of which Paul lists here: lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing one another, clearly echoing the text read at my wedding, Colossians 3:12-17, and mirroring Matthew 5:1-11.

     When I was researching my book on The Beatitudes, my most delightful learning was to realize these aren’t commandments, but the blessings of life with God. In fact, the Beatitudes are primarily autobiographical: they tell us about Jesus, and thus what those close to Jesus are like. After all, Paul speaks of maturity as rising “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” not any other standard! A bit oddly Paul speaks of us being “no longer children” – in the face of Jesus’ constant counsel that we become like children. Fun preaching possibilities there: how do you balance these two thoughts that don’t really conflict at all?

    The business in Ephesians 4 about ascending and descending: fascinating. When we explore the ascension of Christ, I like to say that the puzzle isn’t that Jesus soared upward and left earth. The real shocker, the way bigger miracle, is that Jesus came down to earth… Our text today seems to imply that doctrine of the descent into hell, although exegetes aren’t so sure. We looked closely at this belief back on February 18 (with help from Gandalf, Buechner, and Pannenberg) – so check that out.
     The doctrine is a valid, theologically shrewd one, the heart of which holds even if you have trouble buying that Jesus left his tomb and travelled somehow to the subterranean underworld to rescue captives.  I might also point you to my Easter sermon, which was dependent on John Dominic Crossan’s lovely thoughts in Christian Century on the way in medieval art, Jesus rose from the dead, not alone at all, but dragging along others with him.

     Speaking of hell, in our text Paul frets over the wiles of the devil. It’s the trickery, the fake news of the way evil comes at us, the BS whisper of whatever we want to hear. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters still make for fabulous, funny and insightful reading. His demonic tempters know that their “best weapon” is “a contented worldliness.” And then, “It is funny how mortals always picture us putting things into their minds; in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”

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 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

What can we say come August 12? 12th after Pentecost

    Of many dark days for David, 2 Samuel 18 narrates the darkest. We may not think of David as the author of the Psalms, but this Sunday’s, 130, echoes the horror in his heart: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.” In my book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, I try to explore the way leadership inevitably is impacted by family complications of which no one may be aware. David’s family dysfunction could not be more public. Absalom violates the second portion of his Hebrew name (shalom, peace), stirring up strife and then open combat against his father, the king.

     David is persistent in his over-indulgence of his children. He asks Joab to “deal gently” with Absalom – which has put Joab and his troops in grave peril! No wonder Joab chides him later to get his act together and recognize who’s been fighting with him.
 Robert Barron, always brilliant and wise, notices David’s soft spot with his sons, and asks a surprising and wonderful question: “Does David’s ‘weakness’ for his children, his sentimental failure to exact true justice in their regard, in fact not represent the deeper and higher judgment of God?” Wow. A lack of tough love, an overabundance of mercy on children in need of discipline: does this mirror the heart of God? Like God, David relentlessly loves those who fail, who rebel against him.

     The battle is a cruel one. The thick woods claim more victims than the soldiers and weapons, reminding Barron of the Wilderness Campaign during the Civil War, and then reminding me of Passchendaele in World War I, where the mud caused a high percentage of the casualties – as if nature itself conspires with the God who is left unmentioned to effect the outcome.

     The searing emotion of Absalom’s dramatic death: wow. Absalom’s hair, certainly a symbol to his followers of his potency, and probably a sign of his narcissistic vanity, becomes his undoing – like Samson! His royal mount leaves him suspended in the air – a picturesque image of his unseating, his being dethroned. Hard not to think of Judas, dangling from a tree.

     David, perhaps with the same heart as the father in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, does not pump his fists in victory. His grief is beyond measure. In The Lord of the Rings, King Théoden, learning of his son Théodred’s death, grimly declares “The young perish, the old linger… No parent should have to bury their child” – and David’s sorrow is even more harrowingly complicated since his son died while in revolt against his own sorry leadership. Or to shift the cause, and gender mix, consider the profoundly riveting and then funny scene where Sally Field plays the mom who lost her daughter in Steel Magnoliaswhich illustrates how a raging questioning is more faithful than a pious claim that God’s will was done.

     Barron points out the way David has changed, how the accumulation of losses has taken its toll on him – or how this loss was more brutal: David, who was so very eloquent when Saul and Jonathan died (2 Sam. 1), now is reduced to nothing more (or less) than moaning his son’s name over and over.

     Preaching on such a text: resist the temptation to find a moral. What would it be? Don’t start a civil war? Those who grasp for power are undone? I think the Bible invites us to hear stories of real people, truly important people, how things unfold – and tragically so very often. We do not find stories of sweet, well-behaved families that pray and are blessed by a generous Lord.  And so there is room in the Bible for people like… me, you, all of us.

   Our Epistle, as is generally the case, has more of an obvious moral, take-away or theological lesson. How counter-cultural and subversive, in a day like ours, is Paul’s admonition to “Speak the truth”?  So elusive, so rare, so despised – and our listeners have even come to believe truth is a phantom, a fantasy, or is no more than my private truth, my ideology.  Harry Frankfurt wrote what is for me the most important book for preachers to read: On Bullshit – which explores (he’s a philosopher, so it’s an intellectual riff) the dominant mode of communication, and expectation in our culture. The bullshitter, Frankfurt points out, isn’t a liar. He doesn’t care about truth at all; it’s just a matter of talking somebody into something, so you say whatever. People experience this all the time, and they have their BS antennae out when you’re preaching too. And you’d best beware of the nagging temptation to be a BSer in the pulpit.

    Paul counsels us: “Do not let the sun set on your wrath” – which is often parroted as great marriage advice. Not a bad idea – as lingering upsets do fester and grow rapidly like kudzu. But Lisa and I have figured out that sometimes, waiting overnight for things to chill before settling a disagreement might not be the worst idea – instead of plunging in while feelings are at fever pitch. The key is the commitment to iron things out and not let wrath win the day.

     “Be imitators of God.” The medieval notion of the imitation of Christ is resurrectable, but tricky. For years people wore WWJD bracelets – but many were clueless about what Jesus would in fact do. Better to imitate the way St. Francis imitated Jesus. He listened to the Gospel being read, and that was his to-do list for the day. So he took no cloak for the journey, he sold all and gave to the poor, he touched lepers.

     My favorite article I’ve ever published (in The Art of Reading Scripture) was about Francis’s stunning imitation of Christ – prompting G.K. Chesterton to suggest that “it is very enlightening to realise that Christ was like St. Francis.” As I suggested in my piece, “Mimicry is hardly a faithful copy, or even a desirable posture. I can hear my son filing suit against his sister from the back of the van: ‘Daddy, she’s copying me!’ And yet, for precisely that reason, ‘imitatio’ is helpful. We can muster no better than a failed approximation of Christ, in laughable, faltering ways.” The Greek verb, mimetai, is kin to our “mime” – a mimicry that is cool, but laughable too.  So is our imitation of Christ.

     Our Gospel reading, John 6:35-51, has been covered in my previous blog on the entirety of John 6, with details for this week there too.

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 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

Friday, January 5, 2018

What can we say come August 19? 13th after Pentecost

    Preaching on Sunday’s Old Testament text, 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14, might feel like investing in a startup venture or flipping a house: high risk, with the possibility of huge rewards. Solomon, for me, is a pastel, two dimensional kind of figure in the Bible. You don’t get a sense of his heart like you do with David. What shocks me is that the Bible both reveals the dirt on Solomon and tries to paper over it so we don’t notice – but unsuccessfully. It’s always Solomon was great! But

     Solomon is humble, but then arrogant. Solomon is wise, but then foolish. Or as 3:3 puts it, “Solomon loved the Lord… but he sacrificed at high places.” If the preacher wants to make this text into a lesson for how an individual leads the life of faith, I guess you could say we are all mixed like this. We love God; we fail God. We a holy; we are horrible. So the moral of such a sermon would be… what? Be like good Solomon, not bad Solomon? 
    Or is it young Solomon vs. older Solomon? Perhaps the Solomon of our text, the Solomon of the dream, was humble and holy, or not yet jaded and corrupted by the world. Heather Murray Elkins articulates this approach wonderfully: "This story may be a conscious attempt to remember what is lost and in the telling regain it... This story seeks to return a people to a trust in YHWH, God of creation and liberation. The outcome is determined by the memory of what was known to be true at the beginning and what is hoped for at the end of the struggle."

     I like that. But I'm jaded, and see primarily corrupt Solomon. It’s truer to the text, and to reality, and to God, and to our current situation, to detect what is clearly going on in this text. God makes an extraordinary offer to Solomon: ask what I should give you. Jesus suggested to the disciples that whatever they ask, he’d do it – but he did add “in my name,” which isn’t a magical formula but an invitation to be close to God’s heart in our asking.
 And I think of Thomas Aquinas on his deathbed. A voice from above said “Thomas, you have spoken well of me. What reward do you want for yourself?” Aquinas replied, “Nothing but your self, O Lord.”

     Good answer. Solomon gave the best answer ever. He began with immense humility: I am like a little child, I do not know what I am doing. 1 Kings says this “pleased the Lord” – but my question is, Was the Lord really fooled by this faked humility? Didn’t the Lord detect the BS? Or is the BS in the editor who passed along the story of Solomon to us? Solomon has for some time, and with a shockingly aggressive cruelty, been conniving to seize the throne. And immediately, his kingship was about accumulation, expansion, forced labor, massive taxation, as if we was bound and determined to prove Samuel right when he warned the people about why they should not want a king (1 Samuel 8).

     God’s response to this BS ask if lovely, and something we might aspire to: “Because you have not asked for long life or riches, or the life of your enemies, I will give you a wise mind.” But then the editor, clearly propping up the absurdities of Solomon’s real reign, jams these additional words into God’s mouth: “I will also give you what you have not asked for – riches and honor.” Seriously?

     I’ll never forget a short period of time in seminary when a huge light bulb popped in my head when I heard about “hermeneutics of suspicion.” We peek behind the official, sanctioned curtain of the text and ask what was going on that got hushed up; and our suspicion is that power trumped, that God got domesticated, that the story got tailored for public consumption to the advantage of the winners, the powerful, those who manipulated the system to their advantage.

     I read Stefan Heym’s amazing The King David Report – a novel about Ethan, a court historian, who was instructed by Solomon to write “The One and Only True and Authoritative, Historically Correct and Officially Approved Report on the Amazing Rise, God-fearing Life, Heroic Deeds and Wonderful Achievements of David.” The deeper, cynical purpose of crafting such a slanted tale is to vindicate Solomon and justify his reign.

     Clearly, 1 Kings is kin to Heym’s novel, and most good scholars (with Brueggemann leading the way, I suppose) see the vested regal interests dominating Solomon’s story. And yet the real story, the theologically sound angle on the story, wasn’t totally suppressed. There is a condemnation of all that is Solomon’s impressive but theologically troubled reign.

     I will try to talk about this, and about what goes on in our culture.  The preacher must be equal-opportunity and bipartisan on this – which isn’t difficult.  Politicians put forward their preferred story. They vainly mix their thin and usually faked piety into the official narrative – but we who know the heart of God are rightly suspicious, and even subversive.  All the more reason to warn our people not to bow down to the great idolatry of our day, which is political ideology.

     The Epistle, Ephesians 5:15-20, is a fine text rich with preaching possibilities less controversial and risky than 1 Kings. Be wise.  Good idea – and to explore wisdom in a world where people know people who are smart but aren’t sure if they know anyone who is wise is key.

     “Make the most of the time” intrigues.  The culture might say that – meaning grab the gusto, cram your time full, stay busy, maximize your life… but making the most of the time might mean being still, ‘wasting’ time in prayer and worship, etc. The Greek, as spun by Frank Thielman, exgorazo implies buy, or buy up, or even buy something to gain its release from where it is.
     We hear the phrase buying time. 
Thielman envisions the phrase implying “buy the time away from what has a grip on it.”  What has its grips on time?  Corporate life? The entertainment/diversions world?  Fears and anxieties (which are entirely fixated on time)?  Paul says “the days are evil,” well worth exploring in the context of how our time gets strangled, and how it needs liberation.

     Careful attention is required to parse “Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” It’s not, Don’t do this, but do this other thing. The two are interrelated. People drink to achieve what the Holy Spirit is supposed to provide, what only the Holy Spirit can provide: we seek joy, we want good company with others, we need recovery from a bad day, we want to celebrate a good day. 
Alcohol plays an outsized role in life, and so much of it is destructive – and for our purposes today, it’s not just destructive, but actually subs in and blocks our way to the Holy Spirit.

     Our church tried a cool program a few years back. We asked people to give up alcohol for Lent – and then to take the money they would have spent on beer, wine, cocktails, and contribute it to the “Spirit fund” (get it?), which would then go to support recovery ministries.  Huge wrestlings, and great conversations ensued.  I know of four people who went into treatment programs because we did what we did.

     Finally, Paul urges us to sing to one another.  Not hard to explore in preaching… and I’m reminded of a story Tom Long told in a sermon I was lucky enough to be present to see and hear. He told about visiting an older person in the hospital, fairly unresponsive, until his family gathered around the bedside and began singing old hymns. The man’s eyes flew open, he smiled, and sang along as best he was able – and then died not long afterward. Tom said he left the hospital, and phoned his non-church-going son and said, “You’ve got to learn these songs” – anticipating the day he would long to hear them in his own hospital bed.

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 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.
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Images: Philip Ratner, Israel Bible Museum; and the clock from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.