Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say August 1? 10th after Pentecost

    2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a. Last week, we focused on the soap-operaish, tawdry scenes that are now, in chapter 12, dealt with by God. Our text continues to underline that it’s “the wife of Uriah” who laments his death. David “sent” for her (the verb so dominant in chapter 11, indicative of David’s sheer, calculating power).

   God is not mocked. Joab knows what unfolded – partially. David knows… and God knows. Nathan’s parable reminds us of the way Jesus exposed the truth of life with God, in story form, which is how truth bores its way in to the soul. This story is so patently obvious! Robert Barron cites Robert Polzin’s observation that the 3 verbs used to portray the poor man’s relationship with the lamb, eat, drink, lie, echo precisely what David tried to get Uriah to do with Bathsheba!

   For years, I thought David was incensed such a thing could happen, and only with Nathan’s “You’re the man” does the truth dawn on him. But surely, David wasn’t na├»ve, and recognized himself in this story, hence the excess of rage, hoping his righteous indignation would mask his betrayal, his fingers crossed Nathan didn’t really know. How could he?

   Preachers: do not rush blithely into Psalm 51, as the lectionary seems to beckon us to do! David probably was penitent. But uttering the words of Psalm 51, no matter how earnestly and tearfully David felt them, can undo the consequences of his evil sequence of acts. The Lord said “I will raise up trouble within your house.” Unsure how best to nuance this in a sermon, but it’s enormously important. Gary Larson, in a “Far Side” cartoon, depicted God at God’s computer. On screen there are piano movers perilously hoisting a piano out of an upstairs window, with a guy walking directly beneath. God’s finger is hovering above the “smite” button. People think God “smites” with cancer, wrecks, whatever – and they wonder why? Only to conclude “everything happens for a reason,” which is true, but they are thinking “some inscrutable divine reason.”

   Better to help people realize God created a natural order that isn’t mocked with immunity. If you get drunk every day for decades, your liver is a catastrophe. If you sunbathe unprotected all summer all your life, the chances of skin cancer soar. If I scream at my wife every night, she leaves me. God doesn’t get annoyed with drinking, sunbathing or yelling and as punishment afflict us with liver damage, a melanoma or a divorce. David sins. The Lord raises up trouble in his house, not in a Gotcha! kind of way. David’s children grow up and are, not surprisingly, as scurrilous as their dad, and the whole kingdom suffers.

   A great pastoral question is What do we do with God-forgiven regrets? Nicholas Wolterstorff asked this after the sudden death of his 23 year old son. He realized he was forgiven by God for whatever little missteps he’d made as a parent. But what happens to the lost moments, the pain? “I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life. I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those living. And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensity the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ The God of love will surely grant us such a day. Love needs that.”

   Ephesians 4:1-16. What a great text! I preached on this in October, focusing on the caller who issues the calling, and what he bore, pondering the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Being online then, I was able to interview 2 women clergy on the topic, which was fun, as was a story I found about a cancelled wedding where the family invited the homeless – and some wisdom from Julian of Norwich.

   The preacher can’t neglect the “therefore” that opens chapter 4, which assumes you’ve soaked up and lived into the contents of chapter 3, the riches of grace, the blessings, the dramatic shift from darkness to life, the mystery of reconciliation. How odd a repetition: “the calling to which you have been called.” Preachers are wise to clarify “call” isn’t just for the ordained, and may be big life calling or what you do at 2:30 this afternoon. Samples welcome. I love to repeat my mantra on this: it’s not what I want to do, and it’s not even what I want to do for God; it’s what God wants me to do.

   Paul teases out for us a way of doing what God asks: “with lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing.” I hear echoes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:3) and “Forgive us as we forgive” (Matthew 6:12), and Paul’s portrayal of the “fruit of the Spirit,” “peace, patience, kindness, gentleness” (Galatians 5:22). The culture will never invite you to be lowly, meek, patient or forbearing. It’s a counter-cultural way of being. It’s really about conformity to Christ – or rather, being transformed by a miracle (we need one!) so we will be more like Christ.

   A sermon could fix on one of these. Patience? – which we chat about as if it’s a thing you have or don’t, and almost as if bragging, implying I’m a type A go-getter! Patience is cultivated over time; it is the work of God’s Spirit in you. God can do patience in anybody. It’s a surrender of rushing, of my way; it’s an embrace of time, of love, of the image of God in the other person. Or this: forbearing isn’t tolerance. We could use more tolerance in our world, but that’s a low bar. I “tolerate” something or someone I really don’t like. To “forbear” is to bear burdens with another person. You’re in this together. You have to love to forbear.

   Another key theme here? Unity! To be sure we don’t skate past this or miss it in a distracted moment, Paul repeats the word “one” seven times! The Church is one. There is one baptism, one table, one Lord, one faith, one church. Of course, humans, thinking they know better than God, have thought they have a better idea. And so churches have split up, and subdivided again, and segmented themselves. Actually, if you ask any church splitter about church unity, they would be adamant in insisting upon it – rather like political ideologues in the U.S. who resolutely wish the country would come together. On our side, not theirs, of course. We are the one true church, not those other lost fools. Our disunity is our shame. We grieve. And simultaneously celebrate God’s extraordinary mercy that gives us space to believe in an embarrassingly divided church. Our hearts should be as grieved by our disunity as our disunity grieves the Spirit of God. Or as Ephraim Radner put it, “In a divided church, the Lord’s Supper should taste bitter in our mouths.”

   Here’s the good news, though. Jesus, on his last night with us, prayed for unity (John 17). God won’t refuse to answer his Son’s prayer. In fact, it has already been answered. We might eye one another with suspicion or judgment. We can splinter off into any number of divergent institutions. But in Jesus’ heart, we already are and will forever be one.

   That’s liberating – and a challenge. Let’s at least learn from one another – how to be silent, how to sing, to know the Bible, and then we’ll be more one than we were before. Let’s each ask: what gifts do I bring to the table? Not what do I want out of church, but what can I do to build up the good of the church, its mission, its unity?

   John 6:24-35 continues the lectionary’s 5-week jog through one story; again I refer you to my blog on the larger story and then each “fifth” of the whole.

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

What can we say August 8? 11th after Pentecost

   2 Samuel 18:5-33. Summer is a great time to touch on some of our marvelous Old Testament stories. Actually, all year is… How poignant and unforgettable is 2 Samuel 18? Absalom: his name combines ab, father, and shalom, peace. There’s no peace in this family or in this kingdom, the nagging, ongoing consequences of David’s pathetic behavior. David is morally weak – and how do we read him as a father? Indulgent? Weak? Immensely merciful? Robert Barron shrewdly asks, “Does David’s ‘weakness’ for his children, his failure to exact true justice in their regard, in fact not represent the deeper and higher judgment of God?”

   In this family quarrel / civil war, even the forest claims its victims, like The Wilderness campaign in America’s Civil War – and like the mud at Passchendaele in World War I, with the implication that nature itself is conspiring against these warriors. Almost comic, this vivid narrative of Absalom’s demise. Riding high, his hair – reminding us of Samson, and in Absalom’s case his impressive locks were a source of cocky pride – tangled in one of those trees. Kin to the avenging Treebeard of Lord of the Rings?? Did the betrayer Judas ponder this vignette when he went to hang himself? “He was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.” He’s unseated, from his ride and from the throne. Tempting to tease out how we all dangle between heaven and earth!

   David’s gasping, gut-wrenching sobs are worth repeating slowly in the sermon so people might feel the anguish. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Barron points out that David “who composed an achingly eloquent elegy on the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is now reduced to moaning the name of his son over and over again.” He suggests that, as David ages, and loses more and more precious lives, “there is a kind of declension” in his poetic / verbal abilities. Our people understand well when the words just won’t come. The Bible knows agony, the kick in the gut, the unthinkable loss. No quick fixes. No easy answers. No divine miracle. God’s embrace is infinitely large.

   Psalm 130 is so very preachable, and speaks in manifold ways. This was my text just 2 weeks ago in our Psalm series, and people said this spoke like no sermon in recent memory. I don't think it's the sermon, but the text! Check out what I did here (sermon begins at the 23 minute mark).

   Ephesians 4:25-5:2. I preached on this text in the Fall when we departed the lectionary for a 3 month series on Ephesians. How odd: in its long stroll through Ephesians, our Lectionary skips right over 4:17-24 – which won’t stop me from saying something about it! How fabulous is this? Speaking to Gentiles, Paul says “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” This is like saying to Americans, “Don’t live like the Americans.” Indeed. We may love America – but the Americans? People aren’t exactly wise and holy out there. Hearts are hard. Paul touches here on some of what the Church has always called the “7 Deadly Sins,” greed, lust, sloth, pride, envy, anger, and gluttony, which describe not just life as it is in America, but also what people are aiming for! We’ve been duped into thinking anger does some good, that money and an easy life will bring joy, on and on. The Church has been and is right. These 7 are toxic to the soul, and to public life.  

   But on now to 4:25-5:2, which speaks of truth. What’s the climactic line in “A Few Good Men”? “You can’t handle the truth!” Handling truth is an art, requiring humility and wisdom. You can blurt out true things that are hurtful. St. Ephrem pictured truth as one wing of a bird, the only wing being love. Without love, truth can’t fly; without truth, love crashes to the ground. It must be said in our culture: truth is a real thing, although we’ve been hoodwinked into believing all news is fake and all thought is prejudice. How pathetic would it be if there were no truth, but only our pet notions and ideological murmuring? Truth sets us free, as Jesus reminded us (John 8:32). Truth is the way toward healing. Truth is that God is good, and there is hope.

   “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26) perhaps should be translated “When you are angry, do not sin,” especially as Jesus said anger is murder (Matthew 5:22). There is a kind of holy anger, although we mostly see unholy anger. St. Augustine poetically wrote that “Hope has 2 beautiful daughters: anger at the way things are, and courage to see to it they do not remain the way they are.” Get upset by what is not of God, not in sync with Jesus; but instead of stewing on it (is this sin?), do something.

  Paul’s prohibition of evil talk and advocacy of edifying talk? Sounds like an indictment across the centuries against us. We Americans have become a people who seem to cherish nastiness, bashing the other guy. It’s personal, and political. At the end of the Civil War, with boatloads of resentment in the air, Lincoln urged “malice toward none.” Words, even in our day when they’ve been cheapened, are powerful. The test for us is Do the things I say edify anybody? Is grace imparted? Or shattered by my words?

   “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Kindness is more tender and engaged than simply being nice, isn’t it? Why be kind and forgiving? Because God is kind and forgiving to you. What would Jesus do? Be sure you find out, instead of assuming Jesus is the Jesus of your fantasies… and try to copy him: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

   And the lectionary’s 5 week rampage through John 6 continues, so go to my post which covers the whole chapter and then each segment.

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   You and your people might enjoy exploring my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week - which takes each act in worship, probes its meaning, and asks how we live these acts when we aren't in worship.

What can we say August 15? 12th after Pentecost

   1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 is just a laugh-out-loud text – and preachable. We want to call BS on the writer. But he knew. Isn’t he winking at us with all this? Solomon has the numbers, uber-impressive – but somehow he’s a bore. And theologically, he’s a fake. “He loved the Lord. But, he sacrificed at the high places.” Anything to get ahead. A very modern kind of guy. And leader. 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?

   Don’t you hear the pretend humility in verse 7? “I’m only a child.” Precocious child, that is. He asks not for riches but “an understanding mind.” God is tickled! And gifts him not only with wisdom but, oh, as a bonus, riches and honor. The sermon should explain, in case you have Prosperity Gospel peeps, that God doesn’t really operate this way, rewarding those eager for wisdom with wealth.

   It’s wise for the preacher to contemplate the clever approach of 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’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 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.

   Ephesians 5:15-20. I preached on this during our series last Fall. “Be wise” – but not like smart-alecky Solomon! “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 exgorazo, as spun by Frank Thielman, implies buy, or buy up, or even buy something to gain its release from where it is. He 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.

   It’s part of “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time” (v. 15). I think I’ll explain this by sharing that when my wife and I go hiking, we have to be careful where we walk. A rock here, a root there, a slippery place, a muddy patch. You can’t just saunter along. You have to slow down, and be deliberate. Paul would say our journey as Christians is like that. Take your time, don’t take stuff for granted, beware all that would trip you up.

   "Making the most of the time," or maybe it's "Redeem the time." How do we help our people (and ourselves) to see time as a rich gift from God, and for God? Kathleen Norris (in The Cloister Walk): "Gradually my perspective on time has changed. In our culture, time seems like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use, rather than allowing us to be used up by it... Liturgical time is esentially poetic time, oriented toward process rather than productivity, willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than pushing to get the job done."

   “Do not be foolish” suggests that foolishness is precisely the opposite of knowing the Lord’s will (v. 17). Hard not to be foolish in our culture – complicated by the original, hardly acknowledged sins like racism or vaunting our political ideology. We become, literally sophomores, “wise fools,” fools who think they are being wise. Preaching strives to expose this without lambasting people. Delicate, always.

   Finally, Paul urges us to sing to one another. Not hard to explore in preaching… 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.

   John 6:51-58 is covered in my previous blog post on the entirety of chapter 6, and what intrigues in this particular section.

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   Tom Long wrote the foreword to my book on preaching - not how to preach, but how to continue preaching: The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge anad Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say August 22? 13th after Pentecost

   1 Kings 8. Post-pandemic, rethinking what a worship space is and isn’t must be important. Solomon’s temple was impressive, but it wasn’t a showcase or entertainment venue, and certainly not a gathering place for friends. The cloud of God’s presence filled the place (was the smoke from the new candles and torches more than they’d anticipated?). What didn’t fill the place were idols. Israel, weird as always, had a room, and an empty one at that. Wendy Farley (in The Wounding and Healing of Desire - and check out this brilliant podcast interview she gave me!), pondering our desire for God, meaning, belonging and beauty, accessible only by traditions, wisdom and practices, reminds us the “the Holy of Holies is empty.” Like Jesus’ tomb, I guess.

   They did haul the ark in there. Not an idol either, but an empty box – well, with some words. This is our religion. Empty space. Some words. Solomon has plenty. I cringe a little when “Solomon spread out his hands to heaven,” as I want to see in him a prayerful leader but fret he’s one more user of religion to pursue his own power. Plenty of good theology in his prayer, though. “Will God indeed dwell on earth? Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house” (verse 27). People want to be back in church. To find God? Wasn’t the pandemic lesson that God isn’t contained? And yet the church building is God’s kind accommodation to our need for an empty space, with others, to find God.

   Not that it’s all comfort. Annie Dillard’s oft-quoted words about our need to wear crash helmets, if we ponder the power we “so blithely invoke.” And I love Amos Wilder’s phrasings, that would cause Solomon and those priests coping with too much smoke to nod: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a rail that spatters sparks, the sanctuary is like the chamber next to an atomic oven: there are invisible rays, and you leave your watch outside.”

   Psalm 84 is so lovely, the way it voices the loveliness of God’s dwelling place, and lives transformed by it. I’ll put Brahms on as I prepare to preach this great text. I’ve been preaching Psalms during Ordinary Time – a different kind of preaching, for sure. Check out my book co-authored with Clint McCann entitled, not very cleverly, Preaching the Psalms.

   I’d name that all our yearnings, our hollowness, our hankerings are really given their hidden identity here: “My soul longs, faints for…” – yes, the courts of the Lord. Surely the Psalmist looked up to the rafters and saw birds and even a nest. “Even the sparrow.” Even such a simple, usually unwanted bird. And there are “young” in the nest. New life. Such is God’s presence.

   “Happy are those in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” We all have some muscle memory, some map in the heart to some place we think of as home. I drive out Albemarle Road from Charlotte, wind along highway 24, hang a right at Frog Pond, pass Big Lick and boom, I’m in Oakboro, turning left to spy my grandparents’ home. The highways to God’s temple, the way to church. Noticing those are a blessing, a source of joy and hope.

   Clergy might ponder “I’d rather be a doorkeeper.” Do you know the Sam Shoemaker “I Stand By The Door” poem? Haunting and hopeful for clergy. Some excerpts: “I neither goo too far in, nor stay far out, the door through which men walk when they find God… Go in great saints; go all the way in… Sometimes I take a deeper look in, sometimes venture in a little farther, but my place seems closer to the opening… Some would like to run away. For them I stand by the door.” It’s eloquent, probably not appearing in my sermon, but making me think, and wonder if I’ll ever stop standing at the door myself and actually go in there.

   Ephesians 6:10-20. I preached on this in November. What I didn’t think of then but wish I had: In Tom Junod’s great Esquire article about the greatness of Mister Rogers (“Can You Say... Hero?”), he shares that “Once upon a time, a little boy with a big sword went into battle against Mister Rogers. Or maybe, if the truth be told, Mister Rogers went into battle against a little boy with a big sword.” Mister Rogers encountered a boy with a big plastic sword, knelt down in front of him and said “Oh my, that’s a big sword you have.” The boy replied, “It's not a sword; it's a death ray.” Mister Rogers whispered in the boy’s ear, who at first shook his head no, then nodded Yes. Later, Junod asked him what he’d whispered. “Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. And so that’s what I told him. I said, ‘Do you know that you're strong on the inside, too?’ Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

   Paul, having pontificated at length about the greatness and mystery of God, the marvel of grace, and leading a life worthy of all that, closes his letter with an urgent invitation: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” It’s not just “Be strong!” but “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might.” Fascinating. The true tensile strength we crave isn’t ours, but the Lord’s. Vicariously, we share in his strength. It’s like being strong enough to bear the world. I can try to be Atlas, hoisting it on my shoulders, which is exhausting, or I can move forward with the Lord who’s got the whole world in his hands.

   It’s God’s strength, but I’m not passive or a spectator. I love the scene: Paul is in prison, and must be looking directly at a Roman soldier guarding him when he dictated these words: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). Did the soldier squirm a little, or return a menacing glare? Paul’s armor would be laughable to a Roman soldier with bronze and iron weaponry.

   This spiritual armor isn’t about keeping yourself safe in the world, or arming you for success or happiness. It’s about a cosmic battle you undergo daily; it’s “the wiles of the devil,” trying to trip you up, and “principalities and powers.” Can you discern that the combat of good vs. evil isn’t just people doing their best, making good or bad decisions? Aren’t there forces beyond mere individuals at play?

   I like to invite my people to imagine themselves, when they dress each morning, putting on “truth” (which our politicians have teased us to doubt), “righteousness” (a goodness that feels flimsy), “peace” (not even willing to fight!), “faith, salvation, the Spirit” (not resume building stuff), and “the Word.” We read God’s Word, we trust in spiritual realities, not to beat the world, but not surrendering either. It’s a different playing field, and wisdom is knowing where you really are, and whose you really are.

  John 6 continues! – so if you’re there, check out my previous blog post on the chapter as a whole, and then each part, including this week’s.

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   Check out my book on why weakness makes leadership happen, Weak Enough to Lead.

What can we say August 29? 14th after Pentecost

   Song of Songs 2:8-13. I keep planning to preach a whole sermon series on the Song of Songs, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and a great many others greater than I have done. How marvelous, that the Bible contains erotic (but not pornographic) love poetry! What a glorious gift of God – and what a vivid image of what life with God might be, what it has been for saints through history. 

   I love Robert Jenson’s theologically robust commentary: “The canonical plain sense rightly takes human sexual love as an analogue of the love between the Lord and Israel…” This does not mean that “our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation by projecting it… It’s just the other way around. Human lovers’ relation to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.”

  Our text, in chapter 2: Paul Griffiths makes much, as did our medieval predecessors, of verse 9. “There he stands behind our wall, gazing in through the windows and lattice.” We cannot see God, but he can see us. God is concealed behind a wall. Our way! Yet there are little windows, openings, to let the light in, so we might hear what’s transpiring on the other side of the wall.

   Dare the preacher speak of human intimacy, as Scripture does? And to suggest that our relationship with God might be similar, or even better?

   James 1:17-27. I love preaching on James. So practical. So un-Lutheran! To contemplate that these words were written by the brother of Jesus? What greater testimony might there be to the wonder of Christianity than that Jesus’ siblings, who’d shared meals and play space and chores with him might believe, and preach?

   James 1 is such an elegant, preaching-rich text. “Do not be deceived.” Deception is everywhere, spin, ideology, versions of truth, or the virtual absence of truth. “Do not be deceived” implies we might be, but we need not be! Truth is a real thing.

   Notice the repetition. It’s not merely Good from God, or gifts from God. Words pile up to be sure we get God’s extravagance. God’s gifts aren’t merely good but “perfect.” The Greek teleios doesn’t mean squeaky clean, but mature, complete, the fulness of what is needed. Such perfect gifting is “from above.” The Greek, anothen, is identical to what Jesus said to his nocturnal guest, Nicodemus. Being born “again,” or “from on high” (anothen).

   Seems unnecessary to declare God as “unchanging,” but given the moody temperaments of ancient deities, capricious at best, to declare we have a God who is trustworthy, consistent, reliable, steady.

   Notice James on speed. Quick to hear, slow to anger. We are, generally, just the opposite. James feels a tad contrary to Paul here. Luther and others… but it’s superficial (I’m calling Luther “superficial”?). I love Richard Bauckham’s thoughts: “When James says justification is by works, he does not have in mind the works of self-reliance which compromise faith. Beneath the surface of disagreement, there is a deeper agreement… That there are considerable differences between James and Paul is not in doubt. But they should not be exaggerated at the expense of notable similarities. In a conversation between James and Paul, there would be much nodding of heads and smiling agreement, as well as some knitting of brows and some exclamations of surprise.”

   Knitting of brows! James uses the “putting aside” language, which was the same word used for taking off / changing clothes. In Baptism, converts took off their old clothing, exchanging for a new white robe. And who could forget Francis of Assisi, sued by his father Pietro Bernardone, simply removing his clothing, owed to his father the cloth merchant, declaring his father isn’t Pietro but “Our Father in heaven.” Check out my explication of all this in his life and thought in Conversations with St. Francis.

   James climactically urges us to become “doers” of the Word, not just hearers. The Greek ginomai implies we are to “become” doers. It takes some time, it’s a life process; it’s something you do, but it’s something you become a doer of. Doing God’s will – something we speculate about! I love Francis of Assisi’s daily prayer. “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do what is truly your most holy will.” Do. Very James-ish.

   Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. Not Jesus’ most preachable moment… Concerns for purity seem noble, but confuse us, and isolate us from God and others. It becomes avoidance, keeping our distance from people and things, keeping our hands clean – when, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, God asks us to get our hands dirty for God.

   Sarah Ruden’s fresh translation of the Gospels is always worth consulting. Her verse 8: “Throwing away God’s command, you hold to what human beings have handed down.” There’s an assumption here that there are wrong people. But there are no wrong people. G.K. Chesterton shrewdly wrote that “St. Francis liked everybody, but especially those whom others disliked him for liking.” So it is with Jesus, and his people.

   William Placher wisely points here to Flannery O’Connor’s great story, “Revelation.” Ruby Turpin, an overly good and judgmental woman, tries to make sense of a young woman railing at her, “Go back where you came from, you old wart hog.” She’s respectable, “not racist.” But she has a vision that evening of “a vast swinging bridge… Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven> There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics… Bringing up the end were those who, like herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right… Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” I’m never sure a preacher should attempt to reiterate such a story – but gosh, on this text, the effort might just be worth it.

What can we say September 5? 15th after Pentecost

   Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23. While I was writing the commentary on Proverbs for the Wesley One Volume Commentary, I kept circling back to my lifetime dream of preaching a series on Proverbs! The cultivation of wisdom, not just faith or mercy or even holiness in the church, gets scant attention. And the peril of veering into corny moralism would pose many risks. Maybe a class or two, if not a sermon series? Great timing for Proverbs to make this cameo appearance – with school beginning! A time to ponder learning, youthful maturity and why it matters.

   The lectionary, for obscure reasons, picks 6 distinct proverbs. Pick any 6, really! Of most interest here is the saying in verse 2, easily preachable. What do the rich and poor have in common? “The Lord made them both.” Notice the text does not say the Lord made the rich rich, and the poor poor. Foolish theology suggests that God has arranged things as they are; the God who is “in control” “makes no mistakes.” But wealth and poverty happen for myriad reasons, and if Acts 2-4 is any indication, God would prefer a redistribution of wealth instead of pridefulness in the wealthy and shame in the poor.

   The Hebrew translated “have in common,” nipgashu, literally means to “meet” or “come together.” Usually they do not come together. Is there a hint in the proverb that they could, or should? The Lord made them both. Early Christianity seemed bent on shattering social boundaries. Acts 16 narrates a church with wealthy Lydia, a slave girl and a jailer. Paul fumed against those who tried to preserve pre-conversion social distinctions at the Lord’s table (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The proverb before this one claims that “high esteem” is better than silver and gold. Esteem in whose eyes? The Lord’s? The poor’s? Is a Christian goal perhaps to be like Dorcas, on whose death all the poor of the city grieved, and showed off all she had done for and with them (Acts 9:39)?

   James 2:1-17. Some wisdom, proverbs actually, from Jesus’ brother! “Show no partiality.” We do all the time. Jesus did too – but his partiality was toward the poor, those shunned, the untouchables. Yet I think of Kathleen Norris being impressed by monks she met in the monastery: "When celibacy works, when me have given up possessing women, healing can occur. I've seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and response as to her conventionally pretty roommate."

   If a well-dressed man comes in…? In my formal church people would say Welcome! In an informal, dress-down church people would raise eyebrows! James is after our fawning and deference – even in the privacy of our minds – toward the rich. I pastor a church with many wealthy people. I have to encourage my new staff, none of whom come from wealth, to work on how you feel about wealth, so we don’t despise, or envy, or mock, or fawn. St. Francis enacted what unfolds when he gave away his finery, took on the garb of the meekest, and got sued by his own dad. {On Francis, check out my favorite of my books, Conversations with St. Francis}

   The good works James lifts up amount to generosity, especially to the poor. Another virtue we don’t attend to as we should, except as we’re meeting the budget (or not). Generosity is a fruit of the Spirit (if you translate Galatians 5 with the great F.F. Bruce). In Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead, a man boasts that his grandfather “never kept anything that was worth giving away, or let us keep it either… He would take laundry right off the line. I believe he was a saint of some kind. When he left us, we all felt his absence bitterly. There was an innocence in him. He lacked patience for anything but the plainest interpretations of the starkest commandments, ‘To him who asks, give,’ in particular.”

   Generosity does not ask tough questions about the recipients of the generosity. Jesus simply said, “To him who asks, give” (Matt 5:42). Mother Teresa cared for the poorest, and insisted repeatedly that we do not need to know all about why they are poor; we simply love them, and we thus love Jesus by loving them – and there is the joy, not in demanding explanations or assigning blame. God loves the cheerful giver, not the giver who insists on measured results. Generosity is “an unmeasured willingness to give. It is a warm, delightful, instinctive self-spending for God and others. It is the uncalculated response to all that is asked” (Evelyn Underhill).

   How might we conceive of our offerings for those in need? “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov 19:17). They not only lend to the Lord. They provide credible witness to the Church’s worth and blessing to the world around us. I wish, before we took up the offering each week, I could remind my people about the complaint the Roman emperor Julian, the one who reversed the Christianizing of the empire and tried to make it pagan, lodged against the Christians he was trying to discredit: “Those impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.” Were we more generous with the offering, skeptics who scoff at the church would be exasperated by all the good we’d be doing right in their faces.   {these past 3 paragraphs are excerpted from the chapter on The Offering in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.}

   Mark 7:24-37. Sarah Ruden’s new translation (The  Gospels) quite rightly renders kunarion as “little doggies,” instead of “dog.” Try it. Better. More pitiful, more dismissive. Dogs, we might recall, did not enjoy warm relationships with humans back in Bible times. I can’t really improve upon my blog from last time around on this great story (highlighted by thoughts from Morna Hooker, Garth Brooks, Martin Luther, and Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s stunning sermon “Crumbs”) – except to note that the “leftovers” are the same word used for the basketsful (basketfuls?) they collected after Jesus fed the 5,000. And how intriguing that this woman wins her argument with Jesus, just as Moses won his argument with God in Exodus 32 – implying God must invite arguments and be willing to lose a few. The crucifixion was, oddly, a lost argument, right?

 

What can we say September 12? 16th after Pentecost

    Proverbs 1:20-33. Last week I spoke of my dream of preaching a series on Proverbs. As people navigate what they perceive as boundaries between sacred and secular, it’s intriguing that Proverbs appears to teach about secular things, while the sacred was covered by priests, temple, sacrifice. Wisdom understands that nothing is merely secular; everything is sacred. God made and cares about everything. What we do with our pots and pans, whether you step on a worm, the next check you write, or a tree in your backyard: all are part of God’s world, all require some patient attention from the spiritually attuned. John Wesley’s great gift to Christendom is what he called “practical divinity.”

   Derek Kidner described Proverbs well: “Its function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes; to name business and society as spheres in which we are to acquit ourselves with credit to our Lord, and in which we are to look for his training . . . There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the Law and the broadsides of the Prophets.” Wisdom is comprehensive discipleship.

   Our text is the key in the 9 chapter overture to the book, which sets the pithy sayings in rich context, originating with God, intimately interwoven into the life of faith. Alternating voices, parent with child, then the Wise Woman in the street, back home, then to a more wily, dangerous Woman in the street, back to the family, before the Wise Woman has her final say. Wisdom is all over family life, ants crawling in the yard, and also the street, the workplace, shopping, friendship, strangers, politics, and real dangers to body and soul.

   Street dangers? Ask a parent of an adolescent, any anybody with a pulse. Out there we encounter real danger, delusion, the very real, possibility that poor choices will be made, that wisdom will be frittered away or flat-out rejected. This is the drama of the inner life. Real, daily life with God is a thousand little choices in hundreds of reenacted scenes. Are you going on to perfection? Or just sliding by, hoping God isn’t interested in business, romance, or friendship, or that all will be forgiven—so why risk becoming fastidious?

   “Wisdom shouts.” Wisdom isn’t inaudible. She’s like a street preacher or a peddler, but with holy wares. If Proverbs fretted over the competing racket in the world, how much harder is it for us today to hear Wisdom’s voice above the din? Some inner quiet, and an attentive ear are required.

   Wisdom asks “How long?” Usually this question, frequently occurring in the Psalms, is voiced toward God by those puzzled by God’s seeming absence. How often is our sense of God’s absence a predictable outcome of a life that has “paid no attention” to Wisdom? Tone of voice is hard to determine in Scripture. “They didn’t want my advice”: is Wisdom annoyed, or disgusted? Or is there a plaintive pain in her voice?

   Her shouts in the public square remind us of the origins of Methodism, where the Wesleys took the Gospel out of the churches and into the streets and factories. We also recall that Jesus—“the foolishness of God . . . wiser than human wisdom”—was executed on a wide street for all to see; his voice still calls to us, “How long will . . . mockers hold their mocking dear? . . . I invited you, but you rejected me.”

   Psalm 19 is pretty inviting for a sermon. I preached on it during our Psalm series in the Spring (watch here). We begin with Creation, big creation, like from 15 billion years ago, inviting us to be in awe, not because it’s photogenic, but because it reveals God’s mind and heart. There’s music in the air… Ancient people believed the stars left music in their wake as they streamed across the sky. Science says No, but then we miss the awe, the joy. Paired quite naturally with this is the Psalm’s pleasure, sheer delight in the Law. Not a burden, not to make us chafe, but the marvelous gift of the God who created so we then can be created, re-created as beautiful people in sync with God’s lovely, sweet ways in the world.

   In my sermon, I explored this healthy, joyful approach to the law, leading off with Zora Neale Hurston's great capture of the moment Moses came down from Sinai with the tablets: "Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. Joshua, I have laws!" 

  And then on the being "perfect," this lovely reflection from Kathleen Norris. She was asked by a priest if she'd pray for him. She fretted about whether she could do this well or not: "I realized that was my pride speaking, the old perfectionism that’s dogged me since I was a child. Well, or badly was beside the point. Of course I could pray, and I did. Perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know. It is a marked characteristic of American culture, a serious psychological affliction that makes people too timid to take risks and causes them to suffer when, although they’ve done the best they can, their efforts fall short of some imaginary standard. ‘Perfect’ isn’t about striving for impossible goals. It is taken from a Latin word meaning ‘complete, entire, full-grown.’ To those who originally heard it, the word conveyed ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’" 

   James 3:1-12 is a scary text for the clergy. We’re judged against some higher standard? We might push back against laity who think so. They have a biblical point – although they might veer into irrelevancies. We are called to lead, not just by droning on up front in worship, but in living a life that is interesting, and at least veering toward the holy. James’s word “perfect” in verse 2 is teleios in Greek, meaning mature, complete, not squeaky clean, mistake-free, unbroken. We Methodist clergy promise at our ordination that we will be going on to perfection. Not a flawless but a purposeful life and ministry direction. A wise old preaching once said “If you’re not going on to perfection, then where exactly are you headed?”

   The image of the bit in the horse’s mouth illustrates – as Plato envisioned the controlling of the passions in the opening sentences of The Phaedrus. It’s not tamping down our passions, but directing them. If you’ve ridden horses, or driven a motorboat (the rudder image here also!), talk about that, how it’s not afflicting the horse or the boat, but the only way peacefully to move forward in a beautiful way to some attractive destination.

   St. Augustine humbles us: “The Lord wants gentle, compliant animals for his use. So, be the Lord’s beast. Be gentle. He sits on you. He controls you. Weakness is characteristic of you, but think who your rider is. A donkey’s colt you may be, but you are carrying Christ.”

   The genuinely scary small thing is, of course, the tongue. We’ll face an uphill battle persuading our people that how we talk, what we post to Facebook, our chatter at a diner or by the watercooler, matters to God, and is our witness. It’s not mouthing sugary sweet things, but asking if our words build up, are constructive, and in some way mirror the Fruit of the Spirit. In my book, Worshipful, I look closely at how we talk in worship, so the creed, the prayers, etc., and how then we are learning how to talk out there. Not a testimony of how I came to Christ, but some wisdom perhaps?

   Richard Bauckham, commenting on this passage way back in 1998, was remarkably prescient about the sad, rancorous place we’ve found ourselves when it comes to that perilously fiery small thing, the tongue: “The best instance in which a contemporary concern approaches James’s moral interest in the tongue is that of the mass media, whose power to distort the truth and to do considerable harm to private persons, as well as exerting considerable influence on political events, for good or ill, has become more and more evident.”

   Mark 8:27-38 is the axis on which the entire story of Jesus turns. If you’ve not preached well on this, you should… although I may go with Proverbs and James as I’ve covered this text quite a few times. I’ll point you to my previous blog – although I would add these spot-on insightful renderings from Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Gospels: instead of “He spoke openly,” she has “He was giving this discourse with confident freedom.” Peter spoke “sternly” to him. Jesus then “castigated” Peter. And then her championship line: “If someone wants to follow behind me, let him renounce all claim to himself, pick up the stake he’ll be hung on, and follow me.” Boom. All spiritual sentimentality swept aside in a moment.

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 Check out my book, not on how to preach, but on how to continue preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.