Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say May 9? Easter 6 / Mother's Day

  What is May 9? 6th Sunday of Easter? Mother’s Day? Yes. I’ve heard clergy fight, ignore or even diss Mother’s Day, and I’ve heard clergy extol the wonder of Moms. In my book reflecting on the ongoing task of preaching (The Beauty of the Word), I suggest that we take into account people with dysfunctional relationships with mom, and syrupy sweet relationships too, but naming both and directing the emotions in that to Christ – and even to his mother, Mary. I like, on Mother’s Day, to launch into a little reflective reverie on her, bearing him in her womb, hearing his first cry, teaching him to walk, reciting Psalms, feeding and nursing him to health, watching him walk away to an unknown life of itinerant preaching, hearing rumors of amazements but also mounting conflict and danger, and then watching him suffer and die. No big moral takeaway. Noting the beauty of Jesus’ story.

  Acts 10:44-48 (as we still bear the anomaly of a New Testament book containing the lectionary’s Old Testament readings!) has the hopeful phrase, “even on the Gentiles.” Psalm 98 is … Easter-ish? A new song, God has done marvelous things. I’d linger over “his right hand and his holy arm getting him victory.” Jesus hands, extended to touch a leper, to heal the sick, to embrace the lonely, a gesture in teaching, lifted in prayer, then pierced by nails, his arm extended around people and then across the crossbeam as he was crucified. This is “in the sight of the nations” – or was it at their hands? Or ours?

   The idea of this “new song” reminds me of a sermon a very young Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at his dad’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, entitled “How the Christian Overcomes Evil.” It was punctuated with an illustration from mythology. The sirens lured sailors onto the rocks and devastating shipwreck. Two managed to navigate those waters safely. Ulysses stuffed wax into his rowers’ ears, and strapped himself to the mast of the ship. But that’s not the Christian’s way. We can’t just shut out the world, or cling to some notion of Bible authority. No, we look to Orpheus who, as the sirens began to sing, pulled out his lyre and played a more beautiful tune, so the rowers listened to him and did not notice the sirens.

  I would commend to you Wendy Farley’s new, marvelous book, Beguiled by Beauty, in which she weighs the way beauty, noticing it, letting it come into play in the mundane realities of a busy life still with some moments of meditation and prayer, informs everything from faith to social justice. {My recent "Maybe I'm Amazed" podcast convo with her was just terrific!}

   1 John 5:1-6. Interesting how this epistle frames things: God and Christ as parent and child, if you love one you love both. If you love me, you love my child – thinking of Christ, but then all the children of God! The answer to the question, How will they know we are Christian? evidently isn’t answered as simply as the hymn “They will know we are Christians by our love,” but “that we love the children of God.” See the difference?

   Love is commanded. It doesn’t just happen – or not happen. Paul Victor Furnish (in The Love Commandment in the New Testament): “Christian love isn’t a heat-seeking missile that directs itself to something inherently attractive, but perhaps especially to the unlovely and those who see themselves as unlovable.” The love Jesus talks about is the love Jesus embodied, and if we approximate this love, we approximate all he was about.

   How do we love God? It seems different from love for other people, or my child or spouse or friend, as it’s not a feeling or even a doing-for, but obeying God’s commandments. Commandments aren’t this external code I should adhere to to stay out of trouble, feel pious or judge others. It’s how I enact my love. Really, our earthly relationships bear a similar dynamic, don’t they? If I love my wife, I follow the commandment to be faithful, to help with the dishes, to listen, etc. If the love is genuine, and robust, this commandment fulfillment isn’t burdensome but a great joy – as illustrated in Psalm 19.

    John 15:9-17. When we ponder the Last Supper, we reflect on the meal, the footwashing, and Jesus’ words of hope about mansions in heaven or sending the Advocate. Jesus actually expends a lot of his air time talking about commandments. When he said “If you keep my commandments, you abide in my love,” what did the disciples infer that he meant? Jesus’ commandments would have been identical to the Torah, but with immense depth. No adultery? No lust. No killing? No anger. Loving your enemy. Giving up your coat. Finding the lost sheep. Welcome the prodigal home. Not being smug like the smug. Taking up a cross. Losing your life. I think a sermon could poke around in all of these and more. Not vague love, or generalized goodness or niceness. Something more radical, startling, full-bodied. As Kavin Rowe put it, “Human life is just too hard to have a boring Christianity.”

   Jesus isn’t wagging a finger, urging us to behave ourselves. It’s “that your joy may be complete.” The Greek, plerothe, means full, overflowing. It’s not Do this and you’ll be swimmingly happy, or it will be great fun. Joy is richer, deeper, sustainable during the darkest days, undefeatable by circumstance. If it feels like pressure to feel this way, we’ve missed the point. It’s a gift. The fruit of the Spirit (echoed in Jesus’ words here!)? Love, and there it is: Joy. A gift you discover has happened in you when you were fixated on something else – or rather, on someone else, not yourself, but Jesus. Our people are mostly joyless, as are we clergy. Perhaps the recovery of joy as a thing, in preaching, in church life, is the secret to Christianity not being so boring.

   Jesus calls them friends. I’ll close with this rumination, excerpted from my new book on the theology of our hymns, on what friendship with Jesus looks like and is about:

   At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends” (John 15:15a). Up to this moment, Jesus has given them good cause to think of him as Lord, God, Word incarnate, Light of the World, Savior. This utterly magnificent, inspiring, divine one invites them to see him as a friend. What could he mean?


   For us, a “friend” might be someone you have fun with, someone who likes what you like, someone like you, someone easy to be around. But such friendships can be thin. We hold back from going very deep, not wanting to risk disagreement. So we stick to chatter about food, ballgames, lifestyle nuggets. Or we find our way into little enclaves of people who agree with us, echo chambers for our biases, feeding our narcissism. Isn’t it true that if you only hang around with people like you, you become ignorant and arrogant?


   Ancient philosophers like Socrates defined “friend” as someone who helps you to become good and wise. Aristotle wrote that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. Christian thinkers, from St. Augustine to Søren Kierkegaard, thought of friends as those who help you to love God, and whom you help to love God. Paul Wadell reminds us that “Friendship is the crucible of the moral life.” You become the people you befriend. It’s formative. If Jesus is your friend, you become like him, touching untouchables, seeing through fake religiosity, prayerful, generous, ready to lose everything to do the will of your Father.

   The secret to young Methodism’s vitality was that John Wesley wisely insisted that people get organized into small groups to share in the quest for holiness. We need friends who care about and dare to cultivate wisdom, and holiness, to hold one another accountable for progress toward Jesus our shared friend. Jesus explained why he would be calling the disciples friends: “For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15b). Friends share God’s knowledge. They are learners, egging one another on to more expansive understandings of the heart of God.

   Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth century Cistercian, said to his friend Ivo, “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.” What would it be like if Christ, the third, were in your friendships? Whom are we called to befriend, if Jesus, befriender of a scandalously diverse grab bag of people, is our friend? G.K. Chesterton wryly declared that St. Francis liked everybody, but especially those others disliked him for liking. Sounds like a friend of Jesus.

   When Jesus is our friend, we celebrate differences with friends. You disagree? Instead of drifting away, we friends of Jesus labor toward reconciliation, knowing Jesus didn’t run off when we were difficult or thought wrong or were less than faithful. Martin Luther King’s insight, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” makes me wonder how many friends I’ve missed out on.


   What are the habits of friendship? They eat together. We dine with Jesus at the Lord’s Supper, and hopefully at all our meals with friends. We dare to be vulnerable. Brené Brown has drawn quite a following by simply reminding us that friendship never happens without the courageous risk of vulnerability, candor, sharing. “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer,” and what a privilege to carry everything to a friend down here over dinner. Jesus “knows our every weakness” (echoing Heb. 4:15), inspiring us toward friendships here that know weakness and love.

   Friendship is encouragement. “We should never be discouraged.” The tenderest way Jesus our friend alleviates our discouragement is when a friend encourages. And friendship is sacrifice. Jesus, the best friend ever, said “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) – and then he went out into the night to be arrested, tried and crucified – for us, his friends. What is Lent, if not being drawn into a deeper friendship with Jesus?

What can we say May 16? Easter 7

   Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 narrates the choice – by the casting of lots – of Matthias to fill out the twelve, Judas having turned out to be… Judas. Jesus clearly didn’t have precisely 12 – count ‘em! – disciples at every moment in time. It’s a symbolic number. And yet the simple existence of 12, even if we fudge and 3 others have tagged along, embodies Jesus’ mission to redeem the people of Israel. I like things like this: the church, simply by being the church, fulfills God’s vision for redemption. What if we chose our leaders for our congregations this way? How boring is it to put bankers and accountants on Finance? What if you put the person no good with numbers but with a passion for the poor on Finance? The kingdom might just dawn.

   Our two Johannine texts leave me a little cold. It’s as if Jesus, and then John, tried to be philosophically reflective, offering high-minded but rambling explications of intimate relationships within God and with us. Confounding, possessive pronouns abounding.

   There are little tidbits pregnant with preaching possibility. 1 John 5:9-13 is fixated on “testimony.” The Greek is the same as “martyr.” And, the testimony in question is that “God gave us eternal life, in his Son.” That’s worth unpacking. Most Christians think of eternal life as quite distinguished from the Son, or at most that it was the Son’s death and resurrection that opened up the path to heaven. But this eternal life is in God’s Son, not me living on forever playing golf or enjoying my family. It’s finding myself in him, in his Body, so it’s all about the Son, nothing else – and it will be way more than enough.

   John 17:6-19 intrigues. Jesus says of the followers God gave him, “I have been glorified in them.” Really? You’d think he’d be embarrassed all the time. This text explores the “in but not of the world” notion. Most of my people, me included, are very much in the world and most assuredly of the world too! Or they are of the world and so therefore not much in the world as Jesus’ witnesses. I love to picture John writing all this. “I protected them; not one was lost!” – at which point the secretary interjected, “Uh, what about Judas?” “Oh, right, he lost one. But that was God’s plan.” Problems abound.

   So I will preach, as I’m fond of doing, on the Psalter. My book, co-authored with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms, is still in print, and not bad! Psalm 1 is the exception among the Psalms, being a blessing more than a prayer. It mirrors what we read in Proverbs and the life of wisdom, the choice between two ways. Wisdom is so worthwhile to explore in preaching. If I ask rhetorically, Can you name smart people? Or good looking people? Or successful people? my listeners nod. Then I’ll say But can you name someone who is wise? They look befuddled. Most, if pressed, resort to somebody who’s dead: my grandmother was wise!

   What is wisdom, anyhow? In my introduction to Proverbs in the Wesley One Volume Commentary, I wrote “Ralph Waldo Emerson mocked Harvard as having ‘all the branches of knowledge, but none of the roots.’ Wisdom is deep underground, not just lying around on the surface. Wisdom thinks about the purpose of life. Wisdom is serenity and patience. Wisdom must be cultivated over the length of life. Wisdom treasures what is old, believing what is ancient survived for good reason. Wisdom is born out of the cauldron of experience: hard times, grief and sacrifice. You can’t just pick up an idea and suddenly become wise the way you crack open a fortune cookie. You live it, wait on it, test it, let it seep in from the good earth through the soles of your feet. You begin to notice you are becoming one with God who is Wisdom.”

   Our Psalm speaks of the one who is “happy” or “blessed.” The Hebrew, ashre, is echoed in Jesus’ Beatitudes, which aren’t directives on how to be happy or blessed. Jesus looks at those who are poor in spirit or merciful, and he blesses them. The Psalm looks at the wise life, and pronounces God’s blessing. It’s not a still life entirely. It’s a way (the Hebrew is derek) – a road, a moving forward. I love Pasolini’s great Italian film The Gospel according to St. Matthew, where Jesus is always walking briskly, teaching over his shoulders to breathless disciples trying to keep up. And yet this moving way is also a sigh. It involves meditating, the Hebrew hagah meaning to breathe, to sigh.

    I’ll illustrate with someone like a man in my first parish. I asked him once how he came to be so wise. As wise people do, he demurred, professing I’m not wise. When I pressed him, he said Well, I go to work early in the morning. When I get home, I do some chores around the house. After dinner I help my wife clean up, then I go down into my basement, where I pull up an empty peach crate. I sit on it for a couple of hours, and just think.

  The Psalm’s vivid image is of a tree planted by the water – a reminder that wisdom happens underground, unseen, not flashy on the surface. Ellen Charry’s comment (in her consistently splendid Brazos commentary on Psalms 1-50) is spot on: “Even if God is silent in the short term, the faithful triumph spiritually because they are the strong trees that bear fruit and vibrant leaves; they know themselves to be so, and that is rewarding.”

  I won’t be able to resist alluding to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, those tree-like beings who help save the day in The Lord of the Rings. Treebeard explains their peculiar language, Entish: “It’s a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” Of course, I’ll drag those quote out, so very slowly, to drive home the point.

What can we say May 23? Pentecost Sunday!

   Pentecost. Finally! At my place, we always read Acts 2:1-21 at the very opening, and then another of the lections just prior to the sermon. I'm unsure if I'll use Romans 8:22-27 or John 15:26-16:15 - but will reflect on both (along with Acts 2) in this blog. 

   We love the idea of Pentecost – and yet, as mainline Protestants, suffer s kind of reticence about the Holy Spirit. Which isn’t wrongheaded. I’ve heard so much sappy chatter in my lifetime about who’s got the Spirit (and thus who doesn’t), where the Spirit is (and thus isn’t), powerful emotional experiences that feel to me to be more about intuition and native-born gushing than a movement of the Spirit – so then, perhaps in the way Protestants have barely spoken of Mary in order not to be Catholic, I’ve shied away so as not to be confused with the emotivism that dominates so much of American religiosity. 

   Try what helped me: to teach a series on the Holy Spirit (which issued, for me, in a little book, The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit - which I would commend to you, not because it's mine, but because it's short, and one example of how clergy might try to explain the Holy Spirit to church people - and to themselves!). Shyness about Holy Spirit talk syncs with the Holy Spirit’s persona, oddly enough. Frederick Dale Bruner shrewdly suggested that the Holy Spirit is the “shy member of the Trinity,” preferring to stay backstage, deferring to the glory of Jesus and the Father. Even on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t make a grand, personal appearance. It’s wind? Too much whisky early in the day? Fire on the head?  [I love the way old icons took this literally.]  It’s the people of God who take center stage, their hair tussled and singed, staggering a little, bolting out into the street, talking a mile a minute...

   The disciples catapulted onto the streets in Acts 2 were - astonishingly - understood by pilgrims from all over the place, in all those languages birthed at the Tower of Babel – whose ill effects are now being reversed.  I love rattling off (and I practice ahead of time) the list of peoples present in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9-11) – and can’t avoid chuckling when I get to “the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene” (what about the rest of Libya?).

   No “speaking in tongues” here. It’s not confusion or uber-Christianity, but understanding, beginning, and unity. How do we find the language to speak to people out there? No church jargon, and certainly no judgmental declamations. How do we talk about the best news ever to people who hear nothing but awful news and a jaded and cynical? 

   When rethinking Pentecost, it’s worth recalling that, in Judaism, Pentecost is the day that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. And don’t be tempted to say We have the Spirit, the law is kaput. The Spirit enables the fulfillment of the law; have you read Matthew 5??  The Spirit doesn’t unleash a burst of emotion; the Spirit plants and grows holiness in us. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5). He/she is the “Spirit of Holiness” (Rom. 1:4).

   Growing things? Pentecost was also the celebration of a harvest. The Spirit, when you were sleeping, caused things to grow – and we humbly give thanks to God for the fruit of the earth. Do you garden? Or do you know someone who farms?  Tell your people about the Spirit moving over the fields.

   At Pentecost, the Spirit rushed, not on this or that individual, but on the Church, on the Body. It’s the church that is birthed, not a gaggle of solo Christians who happen to be near one another, on Pentecost. All preaching needs to speak to the Body (a major point in my book, The Beauty of the Word - not on how to preach but how to continue preaching!). I stumble into preaching as if I have a batch of little direct lines to each individual out there, and the sermon is You, you individual, go do this yourself, or believe this yourself. But preaching is to the Body, for the Body, and of course even from the Body. 

   Peter’s sermon is placed right here in Acts, we might presume, as an exemplary early Christian sermon. It would be tough, in our culture, to preach such a sermon: a pastiche of Bible quotes from obscure prophets primarily, and David looks like a crystal ball prophet. Could such a sermon work? Only if the preacher has immense trust in such texts, and lets them linger, read slowly with pauses, trusting them to do their work. I think of St. Francis, commencing his order, appealing to the pope for support. His strategy? His defining of his movement? It’s just a laundry list of Bible verses, stuff Jesus said we should do. How lovely.

   Acts preaching only worked because of the lifestyle of the Body. Read Acts 2, 3, 4, and onward. Radical stuff! The emperor Julian the Apostate, trying to shed Christianity from the empire, complained, “The Christians care, not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” In today’s political climate it is unpopular to speak of caring for the poor. But this is Christianity. I’ll take Jesus over political sway or social preference any day. Preachers (and these are very tough days in which to preach) have to find humble, gentle but direct ways to say “This just is Christianity.”

   The Gospel text: at the Ascension, Jesus leaves, and the disciples must carry on down here - perhaps the way Gandalf kept leaving the hobbits to fend for themselves, trusting them with the fate of Middle Earth! But we are never as alone as they were. The Spirit Jesus leaves behind does amazing things, according to John 15:26-16:15. The Spirit bears witness to Jesus - so the pressure isn't all on us!  The Spirit convinces the world of sin - and us who are in the world but not good at being not of the world.  

  Jesus tantalizes by suggesting things will be even better for the disciples once he's gone! Why shouldn’t Jesus just stay? “Only through the internal presence of the Paraclete do the disciples come to understand Jesus fully” (Raymond Brown). The Spirit's business isn't a starring role anyhow. The Spirit is deferential, glorifying the Father and the Son, like the stage director you never see but who makes the show unfold and keeps the stars in the bright lights, looking good.

   Romans 8:22-27. For Paul, this same Spirit does amazing, tender, desperately needed work in each Christian's soul. Romans 8 in its entirety is a deep ocean we'll never fully sail across or understand its depths. Back in verse 15, sadly not in today's lectionary sectioning, the Spirit undercuts any sense that we are docile slaves, and any slavery to anything not of God; the Spirit stirs in us the reality that we are adopted into God's family - the greatest privilege of which is being able to pray with the same intimacy to God that Jesus exhibited.  The Spirit invites and liberates us to pray, "Abba! Father!" 

   And then Paul, so powerfully, speaks of the Spirit groaning within us, helping us in our weakness, sighing in us when we are clueless how or what to pray. Wow. I have used this often during the pandemic, and people resonate. When you sigh, in despair (as it feels to you!), this is actually God’s Spirit praying in you. Oh my. Such comfort, and hope. "Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me" - please, and now. "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, and make me love Thee as I ought to love."

 

What can we say May 30? Trinity Sunday

   Trinity Sunday. For me, it’s been a fool’s errand when I thought to explain the Holy Trinity during my sermon. Feels more like a classroom exercise to me. In preaching, I hope to embody something I witnessed back in a Div school talent show. Students were invited to impersonate professors, and the crowd had to guess whom was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he fumbled into incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.

   I’ll explicate one of our 3 astonishing texts, with God-as-Trinity serving as the wallpaper, the background music. Speaking of… Jeremy Begbie points out that if you sing a C, the note fills the whole room, no more in one place than another. If you add the E and then the G, each note fills the room, one doesn't crowd out the other - and the chord they form together are far more lovely than the single note. God the Trinity is like that. Same 3 first notes, by the way, of the hymn we'll sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

   Isaiah 6:1-8. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Hmm. 742 BC? That had to be a year of upheaval, turmoil, jockeying for power, anxiety – maybe like 2020. Or 2021. I love the way the architecture, the fixtures, the art of the sanctuary came to life. I wonder if I can tease that out for my own sanctuary, helping people imagine such a miracle that just might be the unseen reality. I love Amos Wilder’s thought on worship: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.”

   Or Annie Dillard’s (in Teaching a Stone to Talk): “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

   Isaiah 6 is yet one more of the Bible’s call narratives that all fit the same pattern: God unexpected calls, the one called explains why he or she is insufficient, then God reassures – not that he or she is sufficient, but that God will use whom God will use. In Isaiah’s case, he senses his unholiness, rendering him unfit for holy use.  When we interview candidates for ordination, they generally speak of their abilities, education and cool experience; not many speak of their unworthiness, their unholiness – which seems to be what this God is looking for, not ability but availability, and maybe even disability. These thoughts and others led me to write Weak Enough to Lead – which explores the Bible’s thoughts on leadership, which are vastly different from, and almost antithetical to ours.

   For us who preach, we may find ourselves properly humbled, discouraged, and then encouraged to find ourselves in great company. God says Go, tell them. Isaiah says (or sings?) “Here I am Lord.” God, not leaving well enough alone, clarifies that they won’t understand, their hearts are fat, their ears heavy, their eyes are shut. It will turn out that they won’t get your message – at least not for a very, very long time. Such is the preaching life. We preach, maybe, not to get results, not to grow the church, not to gauge my worth or their worth, but because God says Preach. It’s for God.

   Romans 8:12-17 pokes around in the intimacy that is the Holy Trinity. Not ineffable, infinite beings but Jesus the child in the Spirit’s arms calling God the Father Abba. Lovely. Recalling the Rublev icon: that loving fellowship of 3 has room at the table. We are invited into that eternal fellowship, to rest in the love, and to share in that threesome’s labor over all of creation.

  Paul loves the theme of Adoption. In my book on Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series), I had some fun pointing out that Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Lafayette, the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Aristotle, Confucius, and Nelson Mandela were adopted. Queen Esther and Superman were adopted, and so was Buddy the Elf, and Harry Potter. Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Isn’t church a question to discover our true origin?

   Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then, pondering the woman who bore her, she tries to fathom if her giving her child up was a rejection? or rather a relinquishment? Some might rush to condemn a mother who “abandons” her baby. But isn’t there a wrinkle in the story – that a woman who did not have to carry the child for so long actually did, at considerable physical cost. What if being surrendered at birth was a loving relinquishment, not rejection, a humble acquiescence in the face of crushing circumstance? What does God relinquish for us – and we for God?

   With adoption, we get a glimpse of a different kind of belonging, not inferior, maybe superior, or maybe not. Nikondeha wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

   John 3:1-17. A beloved text. John 3:16 was never the verse until the modern American revival movement – so chalk it up to Billy Graham I suppose. People adore it – so why not explicate it carefully? The verse isn’t a problem, although it diminishes the breadth of the Bible’s vision for us and creation. Or does it? If we read it slowly, we see it’s better than we dreamed. It doesn’t say “For God so loved you, you religious person, that he gave his son – that is, had him crucified in your place – so that whoever believes in him, that is, whoever confesses his sin and agrees Jesus saves him, will not perish but go to heaven.” Instead it says God so loved – the world, the kosmos, the whole thing!  He gave his son – but he gave him when the Word became flesh, at Christmas, and in his healing and teaching, and in his crucifixion and resurrection, which for John is way more about the glorification of God than me getting off for my sins. Belief, for John, is way more than mental assent or repentance and feeling forgiven. It’s following, it’s union with the living Christ, it’s being part of the Body.

   In that same Birth: The Mystery of Being Born book, I spent a section ruminating on John 3. So I’ll close this blogpost with this excerpt:

   The famous evangelist George Whitefield was once asked by a woman, “Why do you go on and on about being born again?” He replied, “Madam, I do so because you must be born again.” Billy Graham travelled to every corner of the globe preaching this “new birth,” which for him was accepting Christ as your Savior, commencing a personal relationship with God. The emotional wave was experienced at the close of every revival meeting when the crowd would sing “Just as I am.” People in stadiums, and those watching via television were always invited to bow their heads, right on the spot, and pray the simple prayer of faith. In that moment of acceptance, “You become a child of God, adopted into His family forever. He also comes to live within you and will begin to change you from within. No one who truly gives his or her life to Christ will ever be the same.”

  John Wesley worried about the tepid to vapid responses to Baptism in people’s lives. “Justification implies only a relative, the new birth a real change. God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, He does the work in us.” What fascinates here is that the men talking about being born again rarely if ever link it to birth itself. How is discipleship like birth? Let’s look once more to the words of the writer Anne Enright, who shows no evident interest in religion: 
 “A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” Isn’t this what being with Jesus, a child who came out of his mother, is like? The past is laughably past. Every small thing, devoted to this Jesus, matters.

   Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. Does the darkness symbolize ignorance, untruth or evil? Is it stealth so he won’t be observed? The longest darkness any of us has ever been in was in the womb, waiting to be born. When you were born, the first time, wasn’t it true that “God called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:9). How is this new birth like the first?

   Jesus speaks of being born of water and the spirit. Recall your first birth. You were in water. Then you emerged, gasping for air, for a breath – or we can say “spirit,” as the Hebrew ruah, and the Greek pneuma both mean air, and then by extension, spirit. It’s always water, and then the spirit when getting born.

   That you “must” be reborn intrigues. The Greek, deĩ, implies throughout John’s Gospel something of a divine necessity, a holy compulsion. Jesus “had” (deĩ) to pass through Samaria – not because it was the shortest route, but because he was on a saving mission to the Samaritan woman. You must be born again. It’s not must as in You must do your homework, or You must report for jury duty. It’s more like You must come to my birthday party! or You must come with me to the hospital to see Fred before he dies. It’s love, it’s a deeply personal, can’t-miss-it necessity. And yet, you might just miss it.

   You can’t grit your teeth and get born the first time, and you can’t when it’s “again” either. Back in October of 1955, I didn’t think, Hmm, nice day to get born, let’s do it. An entirely passive, unchosen event. Even the mother has zero ability to turn a microscopic zygote into a breathing, squawling person. Birth happens to you, and in you. Rudolf Bultmann, reflecting on Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’s search for salvation, clarifies that “the condition can only be satisfied by a miracle… It suggests to Nicodemus, and indeed to anyone who is prepared to entertain the possibility of the occurrence of a miraculous event, that such a miracle can come to pass.”

   Jesus didn’t ask Nicodemus to feel anything. There are, of course, intense feelings at birth. The mother giving birth may be overwhelmed with an intensity of joy, or anything else along a broad spectrum of emotion. The one being born though: is birth an emotional high for the baby?

   Of course, the feelings mother and child share in childbirth are the pains, the excruciating squeezes, the tearing of flesh and sometimes the breaking of bones. Could Jesus have imagined such agony when pressing us toward a new birth? Jesus courageously embraced pain, and invited us to follow. Paul, imprisoned and beaten multiple times within an inch of his life for following Jesus, wrote that “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God… provided we suffer with him” (Rom. 8:15-16). No wonder we prefer a happy emotional kind of rebirth at a revival, over against the costly discipleship that is the new life Jesus has in mind for us. It isn’t the feeling, but the fact of the new birth, and the hard facts of union with Jesus in a world puzzled or hostile to his ways.

   Jesus wasn’t asking Nicodemus to behave a little better. Bultmann explains it perfectly: “Rebirth means… something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself.” My first birth defined my origin as a Howell. I have the DNA, I favor my dad, I am who I am. How could I come by a new and different origin? Let’s look to St. Francis of Assisi.

   After fitting in and even excelling as a child and youth, enviably popular, chic and cool, Francis heard the call of Jesus. Taking the Bible quite literally, Francis divested himself of his advantages, including his exquisite, fashionable clothing, which he gave away to the poor. His father, Pietro, a churchgoing, upstanding citizen, took exception, locked his son up for a time, and then sued him in the city square. Giotto’s fresco in the basilica where Francis is buried shows a stark naked Francis, handing the only thing he has left, the clothes off his back, to his father. But his eyes are fixed upward, where we see a hand appearing to bless him from up in the clouds. At this moment, Francis declared, “Until now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who are in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” A biblical moment, if we have regard for “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 2:23), or “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).

   Nothing individualistic when Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” – as the “you” in verse 7, interestingly, is plural – so Jesus isn’t speaking just to this one man but to his people, even to us. Y’all together must be born again.

What can we say June 6? 2nd after Pentecost

    1 Samuel 8:4-20. Saul, chosen, flawed, rejected, the Bible’s classic tragic figure. Big, strong, rich; he even had a frenzied experience of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:12). He was the beneficiary, or rather the unlucky one, of a theologically wacky process narrated in our text. “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old’” (a frank but unflattering opening remark), “‘and your sons do not follow in your ways’” (similarly frank and unflattering). 

   “Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us” (they had tried this years earlier with Gideon, who wisely refused – perhaps like Frodo destroying instead of wielding the ring of power) “like other nations” (which was the one thing Israel was not supposed to be). “But the thing displeased Samuel” (another understatement – but why? Perhaps he was displeased that they were so frank and unflattering as to reject his sons. What does his desperate lunge to install his greedy sons tell us about his heart? Was he clinging to hopes they would turn out all right after all? Did he seek some validation through them? Was he, in old age, shortsighted regarding what was required in such tough times? How did the author of 1 Samuel get this peek into Samuel’s sentimental confusion? And how did he know Samuel’s displeasure was shared by God – who if anything felt more jilted than did Samuel?). 

   “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘They have rejected me from being king over them.’” Francesca Aran Murphy's insight intrigues (in her Brazos commentary): God does not appear much in the story going forward. Has God withdrawn? Does it seem to wayward people God has withdrawn? We would all do as poorly as they did – or worse. Saying We need no government or army, God is our King would be a deeply pious riff, but the Midianites and Philistines wielded real swords and clubs. Dealing with them spontaneously, haphazardly, armed with nothing but a prayer made no sense. And the world was changing. The Bronze Age was yielding to the technologically superior Iron Age. Nomadic, tribal culture was yielding to urbanization and more centralized power all over the world. Israel was under siege, and would likely be squashed within a generation. The Bible’s radical vision of life with God never seems to mesh well with the demands of real societies trying to adjust and survive. The Prussian chancellor Bismarck famously said “You can’t run a government based on the Sermon on the Mount.”

   How surprising then that the Lord, nursing feelings of rejection, told Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (1 Sam 8:7). To their veering away, God didn’t toss down thunderbolts; no, God let them have what they wanted. “God gave them up” (Romans 1). When people insist on their will instead of God’s, God “gives them up,” God lets them have their way. The name Saul means “asked for.” What rich irony!

   But they aren’t abandoned to their own devices. There’s a warning (1 Samuel 8:9). Pastors warn – but who wants to hear warnings? Was Samuel’s tone accusatory? Or tender pleading? The warning is a laundry list of troubles (taxes, wars, demeaning labor). But the people only hardened their hearts, shouting “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that he may go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). “Our” battles, not the Lord’s. It’s as if they want to return to Egypt, where the powerful extracted from everybody else!

   Like Oedipus of Greek tragedy, Saul is doomed at the outset. He’s not flawed so much as the people who want him are flawed – and he’s caught in the nexus of their failure, a scapegoat of sorts. And yet… shock of all shocks, miracle of all miracles, God winds up using the very kingship God didn’t want the people to have, which emerged out of idolatrous and rebellious motives, and established his own son, Jesus, the Messiah on Israel’s throne forever. God is, once again, more amazing than our wildest imaginings. By the way, my new book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, explores the Saul story in more depth, with connections to leadership today.

   2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 explores God’s craziness from a different angle. The lectionary weirdly lops a logically tight section off before it’s done – this lovely text we often read at funerals. The text explains itself, and should be read slowly, lingering over words and phrases – even in the sermon. Preaching at Oxford during the dark days of World War II, C.S. Lewis picked up on “The Weight of Glory” and spent what must have been fifteen startling, wonderful minutes preaching on that phrase – one of the truly great sermons in Christian history. Read it in preparation to preach, or just to expand your soul.

   Henri Nouwen also went deep on the way momentary affliction prepares for glory in his story about fraternal twins chatting in the womb. The sister announces to her brother, ‘I believe there is life after birth.’ He protested: ‘No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing to do but cling to cord that feeds us.’ But she insisted: ‘There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light, where there is freedom to move.’ She couldn’t convince him. Later, she added, ‘I have something else to say, and I’m afraid you won’t like that either, but I think there is a Mother.’ Her brother became furious. ‘A Mother!?’ he shouted. ‘What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let’s be content.’ Hurt deeply, she didn’t say anything for a long time. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and with no one else to talk to, finally she said, ‘Don’t you feel those squeezes once in a while? They’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.’ ‘So?’ he replied. ‘Well,’ the sister said, ‘I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our Mother face to face. Don’t you think that’s exciting?’ The brother didn’t answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk.

   Mark 3:20-35.  Roman Catholics might be right in their interpretation that Jesus was Mary’s only child. For us Protestants, the plain reading of Mark 3:31 and 6:3 is that Jesus had 4 brothers and at least 2 sisters. If Jesus is one with us in our human struggles, I find comfort that he had siblings to tangle with. And I’m even more moved by the fact that at least James, his brother, became a leader of the Church after Jesus’ resurrection; if anyone could have raised his hand and said He’s just a guy, I’d know, he used to steal my toys, it would be his brother.

   Here’s a fascinating moment: in Mark 3:21, Jesus’ family (which members of his family aren’t specified) hear about a crowd jammed into a house to hear him. “When they heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Jesus’ impoverished family had to be puzzled by his fame, and especially his bizarre interactions with the demonic world. If families today don’t understand the complexities of mental health issues, they are in good company. St. Francis’s own family thought he’d lost his wits – and Pope Francis’s mom was devastated when she learned he was entering the priesthood instead of medicine.

   We know that the first Christians faced daunting conflicts with family. It cost you business back then, and lots of believers were shunned and ridiculed. They must have found solace in hearing that Jesus himself left his family befuddled. We might ask if our belief and commitments to Christ are serious enough to raise even an eyebrow from family members.

   Later, there’s another crowd. Jesus’ mother and brothers must have arrived a little later than the others, for they are outside, on the periphery. Someone reports this to Jesus – suspecting he’d asked to have them ushered in to the front row. But Jesus replied “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And then gesturing toward the crowd circled around him, he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).

  Jesus came, not to bind families more strong together and make them happy. He actually divided families. Jesus’ ultimate mission was to create a new family, a little scary to those in happy families or who cling to the dream of one, strangely hopeful to those in broken families, and a vital joy for all of us. Pete Scazzero, in his great program Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, speaks of church as “re-familying.” You’re adopted into this new family, not related by blood (unless you count Jesus’ blood!) but by faith. We speak of a church “family,” and that’s our vision. Mind you, families have their dysfunctions, and their squabbles. But you stick with family – as God invites us to stick with church.

   And the “unforgivable sin”? Wise pastors suggest to anyone who’s fretting over maybe having committed it that, if you are genuinely worried about this, you probably have not done so. Joel Marcus explains such sin would be “a total, malignant opposition to Jesus that twists all the evidence of his life-giving power into evidence that he is demonically possessed. Those guilty of such blasphemy would not be overly concerned about having committed it.” I’d turn this and ask Why worry so much over Did I commit that one that’s unforgivable? What then about the mass of quite forgivable sins I’ve committed – and been forgiven?

What can we say June 13? 3rd after Pentecost

   Three texts, all inviting us to "see" differently. Hard to preach 3 texts, but they do interpret one another wonderfully.

   1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 begins so ominously, briefly encapsulating a dreadfully fractured relationship. “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; but Samuel grieved over Saul; the Lord was sorry he had made Saul king.” The preacher needn’t unpack all this for theological dogma. Can the Lord be sorry he did something? In the Bible, clearly, yes. Can you be angry with someone and grieve them? We’ve all been there, may be there today. God’s new thing is about to emerge, not because Saul, or Israel, or even Samuel gets it all together and flies right. It’s God’s thing, almost as if a womb of agony is what God needs to birth new life – the hope signaled by God asking Samuel to snap to: “Fill your horn will oil and go.”

   God’s new thing is by stealth, fudging on the truth (at God’s request), and much peril. Interesting: we think God wants us to be good, to keep our hands clean. But Bonhoeffer reminded us how our goodness can get in the way of God’s way; and that it is God’s will for us to get our hands dirty.

   Not hard for the preacher to dramatize the scene in Bethlehem. It’s worth noting the location – where eventually the very small one, the Lord God incarnate, will arrive to save the universe. The lineup of the 7 boys, tall and strapping, with military experience. One by one, Samuel examines each one, hearing (how?) God say Nope. Seven times. At the end of the row, Samuel – sure God hadn’t sent him on a wild goose chase – asks Is that all? Jesse, blushing a little, admits Well, there’s one more, little David, out in the field. For years I preached this as if Jesse thought David could not possibly be the one. Now I wonder: perhaps Jesse suspected he actually was the one, feared for him, and wanted to shelter him, keep him with him at home.

   The logic of Scripture seems to be God can use anyone. God prefers the small, the unlikely, the un-able. It works here – with the theologically quotable line, The Lord does not see as we see. But it then adds, The Lord looks on the heart. Was it that David had a good heart? As the story unfolds, we discover David has a wicked, conniving, do-anything-to-get-ahead heart. He was good-looking… which the writer seems to brag about, but it’s part of David’s downfall.

   2 Corinthians 5:6-17 echoes and explicates this theme of discipleship as alternate vision. John Calvin spoke of the inspiration of Scripture as putting on corrective lenses to see things clearly, or rightly. Paul’s rationale for seeing differently, the lens through which we now look, isn’t just Scripture but what Scripture delivers to us: the crucified Lord. It is Christ’s death that compels a new way of viewing the world, others and ourselves. Death and suffering alter the vision for pagans, right? A sympathy, which might be a terror that This might hit me as well calms our rancor, and we see broken humanity with some mercy. How much more when pondering the cross – the innocent suffering of God’s pure, beautiful, holy Son, not only as tragic victim but as the one dying for us, in our place?

  Folks miss this logic, which Paul is at pains to clarify to those Corinthians who were passionate zealots for salvation by grace alone. Christ died – why? “So we might no longer live for ourselves, but for him.” I recall exiting the theater after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A man, who’d brought his family, was sobbing outside. I asked him, Why are you crying? He said Jesus suffered, so I don’t have to. Then he and his family climbed into a huge shiny SUV with a Carowinds sticker on the bumper. Nothing evil there – but the idea that I live as I wish, and Jesus died so I get to go to heaven and escape difficulty is all over this man and most of American religion.

   Paul, poster child of the saved-by-grace people we like to think we are, clarifies in verse 10 that we “must appear before the judgment seat to receive recompense for what you’ve done or not done.” We saved by grace people are still accountable for what we do with our bodies, and minds, and time. I love Steve Martin’s comedy routine where he muses, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you died, and then suddenly you are in this court with God as the judge – and you’d think What? You’re kidding? That was really true? Oh no!!!” He’s thinking the joke is on the atheists – but I wonder about us saved-by-grace people. We will stand before a judgment seat. A preacher will have to labor strenuously to avoid being manipulative with such a thought, right?

   Paul’s ruminations move me, always. He’d rather be away from the body and with the Lord. No wonder we have so many hymns about heaven, or spirituals that long for heaven – or freedom, at least! We “walk by faith, not by sight.” I’ll never forget my Reformation professor David Steinmetz explaining how, for Martin Luther, the organ of faith is the ear, not the eye, which can deceive: “The eyes are hard of hearing.”

   Mark 4:26-34 interestingly also introduces an alternate seeing. We who typically read a Bible indoors might ponder the fact that most of what Jesus said and did happened out of doors. Here, he's certainly pointing toward a cultivated field, and some bushes nearby. What is the Kingdom of God like? It is like such a field, or a bush. Can you see it?

   Fascinating: Jesus points out how vegetables grow. The farmer does his thing, but the growth happens when he’s asleep. In fact, the farmer can neglect things, and growth still happens. There is some generative power in the seed, some impulse of life, that you can’t see when you look at a seed, and its sprouting you certainly can’t see as it’s underground, hidden, or it doesn’t sprout at all. God gives the growth. The Kingdom involves some efforts, some labor, some attentiveness. But the growth is from God, while the farmer takes a nap or does his other chores.

   Everything important works this way. The respiration going on in your chest right now, the beating of your heart, the circulation of blood, the digesting of your food: you can’t see it, but it’s life. Jesus’ words are echoed in the great Thanksgiving hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come”: “First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear… We are God’s own field… Grant, O harvest Lord, that we Wholesome grain and pure may be.” Go outside. Look at growing things. Be a growing thing, for God, for others.

   The connection between God’s work and ours is exemplified in the old joke: a priest, strolling through a beautiful garden, complimented the gardener, noting what can be achieved when “human toil and divine providence work together.” The gardener, wryly responded, “You’re right, but you should have seen this garden when nothing but divine providence was working on it.” We labor. The growth is God’s. Jesus would even delight in (and see God in) the mess of an uncultivated patch of earth.

   After meditating on a vegetable plot, Jesus turns to a mustard tree. Bush, really. He calls the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds,” which botanically isn’t accurate. He is impressed by how such a small seed defies gravity and becomes a bush that can be 7 or even 9 feet tall! A little nothing of a seed becomes a big bush that provides for God’s beloved creatures, the birds. I love St. Francis’s famous sermon to the birds, urging them to be grateful for trees, seed, water, air, their wings and beaks. If we ponder them and the bushes, we are ourselves transformed into something lovely, simpler, useful.

   I’m also intrigued that Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a 7 foot tall bush. You’d think he’d go for Cedars of Lebanon, or Redwoods of California, truly awe-some trees. The Church, God’s way in the world, isn’t impressive by worldly standards. God’s way is smaller, and humbler, more accessible. I used to complain a little about a shift in our culture: sketches of Colonial American cities show us that the Church steeples were by far the tallest structures, but not it’s the banking towers. I won’t lament that any longer. The dwarfed churches are like the mustard bush, in the shadow of larger trees, providing a little nest for birds. “Even the sparrow finds a home in your courts” (Psalm 84).