Sunday, January 14, 2018

What can we say come April 29? Easter 5

     The Old Testament – Acts 8:26-40?? – is actually about the impact of reading the Old Testament on one of Christianity’s first converts.  So in a way, the Old Testament reading is Isaiah 52-53, the elusive, profound poem about the suffering servant.  I preached on this three years ago (video here).

    The preacher can portray the dual identity of this Ethiopian. There is something exotic about him and his native land, home of the Queen of Sheba, the mysterious source of the Nile, perhaps the place where the ark of the covenant has rested all these centuries… But then he’s black, he’s African, and he has an alternative sexual identity.

    He’s been to Jerusalem – and we know that because of his identity, he wasn’t admitted.  Stunning: he still went, still was obsessed with the Scriptures even though he was excluded!  I’ve noted this in United Methodism: people we exclude, whom we don’t “condone,” who can’t receive the church’s blessings, keep showing up, keep coming back, keep seeking to be a part of the community that ostracizes them.  Some miracle in that…  reminding me that this text appeared in the lectionary the Sunday after our 2012 General Conference, and I could not help but comment on the parallels (video here).

    The text’s question, Do you understand? intrigues – as this Suffering servant text (Isa 52-53) still is a puzzle.  But for all of Scripture, we need guidance – we the clergy, and we the people to whom clergy preach.  There is a study/intellectual level at which we need guidance; but more importantly, we need real life practical guidance.  St. Francis was the master interpreter of Scripture – not because of any clever insights he had, but because he read the Bible, and it became his to-do list for the day.

    The text’s next question, Does he speak of himself, or another? is still batted around. The answer, certainly, is Yes.  The prophet has been afflicted in his ministry to the exiles; yet his servant role is theirs, unfulfilled, or perhaps one they are being summoned to fulfill.  We can read Jesus in, as Phillip and the Ethiopian did – but the original text stands well enough on its own; I’d commend John Goldingay’s lovely exposition (in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah) of how a prophet suffered for his message, and that suffering came to be understood as redemptive – and this does give us some clues about how God chooses to be God, and hence what God was doing in Jesus.

    And the text’s third question, What is to prevent me being baptized? quite tragically gets answered. There’s a class, you have to be a member, you have to believe and repent, you can’t be this identity unless you repent, you have to be touched by a duly ordained person, etc.  What a rich text, teeming with homiletical possibility.

     Psalm 22:25-31 is certainly fascinating – if we reckon with the notion that Jesus, in utter agony on the cross, called to mind a Psalm he had learned as a boy from his mother, beginning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Did he, as many did, hold in mind not just that phrase, but the entire Psalm – which as we see here winds up with dramatic words of steadfast hope in the face of severe adversity?

     1 John 4:7-21 goes on a bit of a ramble – but his points are well-taken and entirely preachable.  I shiver a little when people say something like God’s love is the love people share – but 1 John surely underlines that when we love, we do partake of God’s love.  But for him it’s not only that God’s love = human love – which is a dicey proposition.  It all begins, continues and ends in God’s love for us – and not a mood in the heart of God, but a specific, concrete action in the crucifixion of Jesus. 

    “Perfect love casts out fear” is the text’s best line – although discerning what “perfect” love is can be elusive.  I admire Scott Bader-Saye’s great book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.  His wise reflections on good and necessary fear versus irrational, overstated fear – and then how the desire for security, especially in our post-9/11 world, crowds out faith, courage, boldness, discipleship. “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good. When we fear excessively we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good. Fear causes our vision to narrow, when what is needed is for it to be enlarged… Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life.”  Or we may well say, by the love of God in Christ Jesus.

     John 15:1-8 exhibits yet one more of Jesus’ riveting “I am” statements.  His identity, and thus the revealed identity of the very God Moses inquired into, is declared – but in images, like living water, the good shepherd, and here, a vine.  If you can, interview somebody who knows about growing things, how vines work or don’t, how they bear fruit or don’t. 

     Gisela Kreglinger has written a fascinating book called The Spirituality of Wine. She grew up in a wine-producing family, and teaches us much about how alienated urban people are from the land and what unfolds there.  As archaeologists have found thousands of winepresses all over Israel of Jesus’ day, we realize he spoke to people who knew vines, vineyards, winepresses, and so his very vivid image of life with him would have been utterly memorable – and as listeners found themselves back at work, pruning, pressing, keeping the bugs away and such, would have seen, felt, and smelled quite tangible images of their relationship to Jesus.

    Acknowledging the woes of alcohol mis-use, Kreglinger shows how flowing wine is a constant image of the dawn of God’s kingdom. Then, her details drawn from viticulture are intriguing – and preachable. Sap from the rootstock journeys through the vine and gives life to the grapes. There’s this: “When a vine lacks water and is under stress, it is forced to develop deeper roots… The deeper the roots, the more the roots interact with and drawn from different layers of soil, and the more complex (and desirable) the wine becomes.”  Vintners can’t just grow the maximum amount; sustainability requires some restraint, a long-terms care for the soil.

     And then there’s this: “Left to themselves, vines grow like weeds… Part of cultivating the vines is to prune their branches and tie them onto wires….” Pruning has its homiletical possibilities – and Kreglinger suggests that the wires onto which vines are tied “are like the structures and rules in a religious community; we need them… they give us support and stability.”  I find all this to be wonderfully suggestive, and may well preach a sermon in which I reflect in a leisurely way over vines, roots, being stressed, pruning, trellising (especially if I can track down a vineyard worker for an interview!).  After all, monks back in the Middle Ages became the great wine producers, and tended their vines as a spiritual practice accompanied by prayer. Even we grape-juice Methodists, with our peculiar and unhappy relationship with fermented grape juice, can ponder with profit the image of Jesus as the vine.

    This business of fruitfulness is always ripe for preaching.  (Pun intended).  Bearing fruit, from the vine’s perspective, is different from the way we think about being good.  Ripening fruit doesn’t grit its teeth and strive really hard to get bigger and change color.  It’s a passive thing, nutrients being pumped into the fruit, entirely dependent on uncontrollable rainfall and sunshine, and processes that are hidden underground where no one can see.  Holiness is like this; do you remember how the doctrine of Sanctification actually works?

    And then I recall when I was in the thick of writing on The Will of God.  I asked a bunch of theologians about the subject – and one replied quite simply by saying “If you want to do God’s will, start with the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.  That can keep you plenty busy for the rest of your life.”

    Prepositions matter in theology. A lovely hymn prays, “Abide with me.” But Jesus doesn’t speak of being beside us, but actually in us, and we in him. Mind you, Jesus isn’t going for any bland “I feel God in me” or “God is in each one of us.”  It’s way more serious, and downright fleshy than all that.  Jean Vanier rephrased it, “To abide in Jesus is to make our home in him and to let Jesus make his home in us.”

   Raymond Brown rightly says this vine language has “eucharistic overtones.”  To think of the Lord’s Supper – in my book, Worshipful, I quoted Austin Farrer and then explored this thought and its inversion: “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.” When a disciple is filled with Jesus, he remembers what his physical body is to be: a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)… As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”…To ingest Jesus is intriguing: we take Christ into ourselves, and he is then within us. This goes beyond even the closest human relationship, even sexual intimacy. If Jesus is in us, there is zero distance between us. Over time, creative theologians would reverse the image: we are consumed by Jesus. We enter into his body; we get inside Jesus himself. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke imaginatively about this: “My penitence, my salvation, are His food. I myself am His food. I am chewed as I am reproved by Him; I am swallowed as I am taught; I am digested as I am changed; I am assimilated as I am transformed; I am made one as I am conformed.

   He lives in us, and acts through us – and so as not to thwart this, we need to be cleansed or pruned. Jean Vanier speaks of asking to be pruned of our fear, compulsions, our frenetic pace in life, sense of failure, spending ourselves on success and power.  “Choice implies loss Fidelity in love can cost a lot. To grow in love we have to pass through pain and anguish. It is the same in our relationship with God. In order to be more present to God, we have to be less present to other things.


 My book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!  

What can we say come May 6? Easter 6

    Pondering three texts this week, it occurs to me that they intersect in interesting ways – so reflections on one text might feed a deeper understanding of another, whether we read all three or two or one. 

    Psalm 98’s rousing delight inspires – and provides plenty of verbiage for the kind of sermon I don’t hear (or preach myself) nearly enough.  In The Beauty of the Word, I express a longing for sermons that are primarily about God, not us (ever notice how so many sermons are about my faith, my struggle, my mission, my doubt, my fulfillment, etc.) – and the whole genre of praise is a strange one in our culture.  In praise, we adore, extol and marvel at God’s greatness, quite apart from what God may have done for me lately.  Great saints have lived into this – but we functional American struggle, as we long for the useful God.

    I’ve always been so grateful that my Church history professor, David Steinmetz, explained with unwavering clarity how St. Augustine (in On Christian Doctrine) distinguished between uti and frui love.  Uti is love of use: I love money not because I want to fondle it or paper my walls with it, but because I use it to get other things I want.  Frui love is love of enjoyment: I love chocolate because… well, I just love it, and not because of what I get out of it, which is weight gain?  Augustine’s question is How do we love God?  Typically, with uti – which must break God’s heart, our going at God because we want to use God to get stuff we crave.  What if we grow toward frui love – simply loving God because God is lovable, because God loves and is love? 
Chapter 8 in Preaching the Psalms, which I coauthored with my friend Clint McCann, weighs in on preaching Psalms of Praise; I’d commend this to you beyond preaching Psalms.

    It’s Easter, so we can resonate quickly and happily to Psalm 98’s images: we sing a new song for God “has done marvelous things… His right hand and holy arm have gotten him victory.”  What was Easter about?  Not Oh good, we get to go to heaven now! but rather the vindication of Jesus in the face of intense rejection and criticism.  As the Psalm says, “He has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.”  And so we make a joyful noise, deploying various instruments – and then even hearing the noises of creation as additional instruments of praise.

    Two warnings.  I worry that preaching Psalm 98 in light of Easter will over-baptize the thing and we’ll miss out on original context.  The Israelites, knowing nothing of Easter, sang this lustily, and praised God for various victories, largely national in character.  Which dovetails into worry #2: it’s not just Easter that we praise God for.  The whole divine dispensation, from creation onward, elicits our praise.  I think of Christian Wiman, narrating his deepening struggles and understandings of God in the face of cancer and depression (in My Bright Abyss), telling us, “I am a Christian not because of the resurrection. I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in our suffering.”

    All this fits well with the Epistle, 1 John 5:1-6.  I’m unlikely to focus on this in my sermon, as the writer is reiterating repetitive themes from earlier in the letter once more (and the Gospel lesson does the same!).  A church member recently contested my claim in a sermon that all people are children of God, citing this text and its seemingly exclusive reading: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God.”  I suspect that this has to do with people realizing their beloved status as children of God way more than how people down here are viewed in God’s own heart.

    The preacher could do well probing “His commandments are not burdensome,” linking this appropriately to Matthew 11:25-30 (sometimes dubbed “the Johannine thunderbolt”!) and Jesus’ notion that his burden is light.  There are commandments, but the lightness of the load comes from being in sync with Jesus, whereas the unbearable weight of carrying all our other burdens and priorities is heavy indeed, perhaps akin to Sisyphus pushing that enormous rock uphill, only to have it roll down, leaving him (and us) exhausted (per Douglas John Hall’s diagnosis of the human plight in Professing the Faith).

    1 John 5’s images of “overcoming the world” worry me a little, making me think of “prayer warriors” and other Christians who always imagine a skirmish (or larger conflagration), and claim victories in God’s name.  Yet the image is there, and real, well-explicated at the end of Romans 8 and also the idea of the armor of God in Ephesians 6 – and perhaps the preacher could explore how all this has been played out in music, from “We shall overcome” (the anthem of the Civil Rights movement!) or “Victory in Jesus!” (which I simply have trouble hearing without recalling a little church where I preached a revival a few years back where the throng energetically sang it as “Oh Vick-tree in Jesus”…

     The love/obedience theme, paired with good cause to praise God in Christ, carries over powerfully into the Gospel reading, John 15:9-17. The heart of the Gospel maybe isn’t that God loves us, but more primally that the Father loves Jesus and then, moving slightly toward the periphery which clings closely to the center, Jesus loves us – and then we, encircling that center, love one another.  This involves keeping commandments – just as Jesus did.  We aren’t fond of the whole notion of commandment keeping (except when we are judging others!), we fake-Pauline-people who are saved by grace. 

    But we forget that Jesus kept his Father’s commandments, and our attachment to him involves us in the same.  The commandments in question aren’t high in number, but the quality, the intensity is immense.  We are to love – but not just having warm, loving feelings or even actions we regard as loving. We are to love as Christ loved us – so we measure our love, we shape our love, after the kind of love Christ had for us, for lepers, for outcasts, for Mary, for the disciples, even for Judas and Pilate.  Jean Vanier can help: “To love people as Jesus loves them is to wash their feet, to serve them in humility; it is to help them rise up in truth and love.  To love is to lay down one’s life for others, to place their interests before our own. It is to reveal to them that they are loved by Jesus.  To give one’s life can mean communicating to another all that is precious. It can mean giving oneself to another in total trust and life. It can also mean risking my love to save someone who is drowning… The joy of human life is to leave this earth having given life to others.”

    Jesus clarifies that this is his whole point – “that my joy may be in you – and that your joy may be full.”  It’s not that God makes me joyful.  Rather, Jesus’ joy inhabits us; we feed off his joy as he is with us and in us.  I’d commend Christian Wiman’s new collection of 100 poems about Joy.  His intro is fabulous and wise: he begins by noting how “joy” is a “wounded word” in need of “healing.”  He asks if joy is an intensification of happiness or something very different – and then observes that poetry “does not think through such a problem so much as undergo it.”  Joy, when it happens, is very much present, “banishing all the retrospective and anticipatory mental noise we move through most of the time… Joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.”

    Wiman probes how joy happens in the thick of sadness or great loss – or even creates sorrow itself.  He cites Liesl Muller’s poem about hearing beautiful music: “It’s only music… that overwhelmed a young girl… It happens when we make bottomless love – there follows a bottomless sadness / which is not despair / but its nameless opposite / It’s not about loss / It’s about two seemingly parallel lines / suddenly coming together  / inside us, in some place / that is still wilderness.” 

    Wiman’s profound reflections continue: “Joy is a homesickness for a home you were not aware of having. A longing you hardly knew you had has been answered… There’s no forcing it.”  He cites C.S. Lewis, who says happiness is a disposition, but joy is being seized.  Happiness “is enlarging one’s self, whereas joy always involves some loss of self…”  Joy is a “seeing into the life of things,” or a “being released even from the search for meaning.”

    Then on his last page, Wiman brings it to climax: “Joy: that durable, inexhaustible, essential, inadequate word. That something in the soul that makes one able to claim again the word ‘soul.’ That sensation more exalting than happiness, less graspable than hope, though both of these feelings are implicated, challenged, changed. That seed of being which can bud even in our ‘circumstance of ice.’ There is no way to plan for, much less conjure, such an experience.  One can only try to make oneself fit to feel the moment when it comes, and let it carry you where it will.”  Wiman never names Jesus in all this – but it all feels very Jesus-y to me.

    While I’ve always been a little wary of people who think of Jesus as their best bud, their pal, he does invite us in this text to be not servants but friends.  “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  Mind you, friendship in the Greco-Roman world wasn’t people of similar interests having fun together.  Friends, at least as the philosophical ideal would have it, were committed to the care of each other’s souls.  As Aristotle famously put it, “The opposite of a friend is a flatterer.”  A friend is then someone who speaks the truth, who builds up your character; you have a shared commitment to helping each other to become good, wise, and holy.

     I’m intrigued by Jesus clarifying that we don’t choose him; he chooses us.  We think of faith as our free choice – but we are indeed chosen, and if we feel like we’re choosing him, it is the playing out of his choosing us.  This resonates with me, as I am writing a book that involves a section on balancing our sense of being choosers with God’s choosing with the utterly embarrassing, humbling truth that the most important things about us are entirely unchosen.  You don’t choose your nationality, gender, skin color, parents, proclivity to disease, height, birth order, and a zillion other things that finally determine who you are and how your life will unfold. 
Trevor Noah reflects on this in humorous and heartbreaking ways in Born a Crime; his fate was largely set by being born of mixed race in South Africa – and his life story is the playing out of the challenges and hard consequences of that unchosenness.

    And then I get just plain tickled when I hear Jesus say that “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, I will do.”  Sounds like Prayer works!  But prayer in reality doesn’t work well at all – that is, if we think of it as a machine to get God to do favors for us.  My son, when he was little and learning to pray, scoffed at the requirement that we conclude prayer “In Jesus’ name.”  He said, “Doesn’t make sense.  Jesus’ name is… Jesus.  So instead of saying ‘In Jesus’ name,’ why don’t we just wind it up by saying ‘Jesus.’”  I had no reply whatsoever.

    Clearly the hook added to “Whatever you ask,” that hook being “in Jesus’ name,” fundamentally alters what we ask.  “Jesus’ name” isn’t a magic formula.  It’s a commitment, a discernment, an expression of my full awareness of Jesus and his agenda.  It’s kin to “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.”  We dare not pray for things out of kilter with Jesus and his kingdom by attaching his name to something he’d be appalled, or bored by.  We dare to utter the sacred name only when we’ve immersed ourselves in Jesus’ teaching, the story of his compassion, healing, crucifixion and resurrection, and have cause to believe we are pretty much in sync with what he would pray for us, and in us.

    On this, I would commend to you James Dunn’s book, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?  He carefully analyzes various texts and concludes that “Christ seems to have been thought of as on both sides of the worship relationship – as in at least some degree the object of worship, but also as the enabler or medium of effective worship… Jesus was understood very early on as the human face of God, the one who made the unseen God known…  The first Christians could only explain inadequately that to be in the presence of Jesus was to be in the presence of God – not, be it noted, in the presence of a god, but in the presence of God.”

What can we say come May 13? Easter 7/Ascension

   What is May 13? Mother's Day? Easter 7? Ascension?  My people attending are 97% thinking Mother's Day.  So easy to be schmaltzy, to regale people about the wonder of Mom.  But then I’m one of the people for whom it’s an uncomfortable day, and I’d resent you or just stay home if you did the Mom & Apple Pie sermon. 

   At our place, we cope with Mother’s Day by mentioning it in the pastoral prayers, where we can thank God for mothers who are a blessing, ask for solace for those grieving a lost mother, and pray for healing of fractured relationships – and for those for whom infertility has made Mother’s Day all but unbearable.  I like, every time I can on Mother's Day, to talk about Mary, Jesus' mother - how she carried him in her womb, heard his first cry, nursed him, taught him to talk and walk, watched him walk away, felt more wounded than anybody when he was executed - and if tradition is on point, was the first person he appeared to after rising (admittedly, not in the Bible...).

    For me, I'll track the unfolding Christian year by attending to the Ascension.  The Psalm (47) is splendid, although we'll probably only use it as a call to worship.  The ancient Israelites watched as the ark was carried in procession into the temple, and they cried out "God has gone up with a shout!" - and more.  Fabulous.

     So, my personal focus will be Acts 1:1-14 (as, oddly, Acts 1:1-11 is prescribed for Ascension Day, Acts 1:12-26 for Easter 7! – plus I just love vs. 13-14).  I preached on this 3 years ago, if you'd like to watchSkeptics hoot over the idea of Jesus defying gravity (Wicked, anyone? or John Mayer, anyone else?) and floating up into heaven.  The art is all hokey - of course.  Own it.  What better time to say to the skeptic, the intellectuals, the doubters, that yes, there's room in church for you too.

     The ancient view of a 3-storied universe becomes no real problem at all if we recall that Jesus was raised with a “spiritual body” (as we will be too) – a body, but a transformed kind of body that appears and disappears…  Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest, March 28) asks if we are loyal, first to my intellect and only then to Jesus?  “Faith is not intelligent understanding, faith is a deliberate commitment to a Person.”  How can we entertain solid science questions with candor, grace, and flat out interest, and yet stay committed to whatever is at the heart of the story of the Ascension - which shows up in our creed every week?

     I'll never forget a sermon I heard early in my ministry from a hardscrabble, not-very-pious preacher who tackled the Ascension story with loads of quibbles and questions - but then said "All I can figure is that this story gets Jesus back home where he belongs, with his Father in heaven."  Not bad.

     What commitments does this Person ask of us and inspire in us in Acts 1:1-14?  There are at least three – and John expands on those.  Jesus exits, leaving the disciples alone.  Think Lord of the Rings: Gandalf is with the hobbits for a while on their adventure, but then he leaves them on their own for some time.  They face horrific difficulties, requiring courage and hope; they need one another; they have to stick together.  Gandalf shows up again at the climax, but then bids them farewell once more.  The plot mirrors the Bible’s:  Jesus heals, dazzles, teaches, suffers, is raised – and then he leaves.  He trusts them - the little, unlikely ones. And he trusts us, we unlikely ones.  Instead of dominating them, or creating codependency, he entrusts his future to them.  We are Jesus here, now. 
In the words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world.  Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.  My first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, spent 100 pages explicating this.

     This takes us to the wonderfully suggestive phrase in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  That is, Luke’s Gospel is what Jesus began; Acts is Luke’s narrative of how his people continued what he began.  So, whatever Jesus did, we do the same kinds of things.  WWJD?  We can only answer this by becoming open-minded students of Luke (and Acts helps us) – as then it’s never mere niceness, or judgmental attitudes, but sharing property, touching untouchables, and more.  Does the church today – does my church today – continue what Jesus began, and what the first disciples continued?

Odd, in some ways, that Luke 24:44-53, the Gospel side of Luke's ascension, feels flatter and less inspiring than what he did in Acts 1!  All about opening up the Scriptures - and the resurrection (as we see repeatedly!) is all about forgiveness, not eternal life.  Intriguing promise of "power from on high" - not explicitly naming the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.

     And then I savor that Easter-morning-like query from the white-robed-guys: “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?”  Feels a little like a rebuke, although their gawking, like spectators at Cape Canaveral watching a rocket launch, is understandable: Jesus just defied gravity… And we might be well-served if we looked up into heaven more than we do!  But the question here is a commission, a sending forth.  Don’t just stare up, don’t just linger on memory, but get moving, go out into those rippling circles that define our mission field: Jerusalem, then Judea/Samaria, then the ends of the earth.  Do we do mission in our back yard or abroad?  Yes.

     If you’ve read my blog, you know I like those preaching moments that don’t have a go-and-do element, but just an admiring gaze at some Bible moment.  Verses 13 and 14 are one for me: they are in a room, and it’s the Upper Room! – and we hear their names.  I’ll read them during my sermon… Real people.  How revolutionary is this?  There were women!  And how tender: Jesus’ mother, Mary.  And then how astonishing: Jesus’ brothers.  If you want proof that Jesus was the one, look no further.  His brothers, who would be the first to fall prey to sibling rivalry, who could say He cheated at marbles! Or He stole my toy! Or He at the last piece of cake!  They are there, risking life and limb with everybody else, worshipping the guy they shared a bed and toilet with.

     Their togetherness, their oneness throws down the gauntlet to us.  John 17, the Gospel for Easter 7, words spoken in that same room on Maundy Thursday a few weeks earlier, and a theologically rich passage fixated on the glorification of Jesus – which is what Ascension is about – shows us Jesus praying for the unity of his people.  Wow.  To all who would split the church, be very sure that Jesus has a different purpose for his church – that we be one.

    There is a lot in Jesus' prayer about the disciples being in but not of the world - a pregnant, memorable framing of what our life is like, we whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  And then Jesus' culminating plea is that, just as Jesus has consecrated himself, his mission is that they may be consecrated - and verse. 19 adds "in truth."  We could use some of this consecration-in-truth, in our day of cynicism and ideology where nothing is what it appears to be and truth is negotiable and ideological slant more than a real, trustworthy thing.

What can we say come May 20? Pentecost

The day of Pentecost.  Regarding texts: at my place, we always read Acts 2 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.

First, some thoughts on the day of Pentecost.  Various churches have their customs.  In one of my churches, people wore red dresses and jackets.  In another, they hung striking bright yellow and red streamers from the ceiling.  At my current church, we have this swirly thing with colorful streamers someone waves at the front (which you can see in this video).  I always think lighting one of those Olympic torch things (borrowed perhaps from a special Olympics venue nearby?) would be cool – or hot, and maybe a serious fire code violation.

     Mainline Protestants love Pentecost, but suffer a kind of inarticulate reticence about the Holy Spirit.  For me, I’ve heard so much overwaxed 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.  To help myself, I taught a series on the Holy Spirit - largely to discipline myself and force me to explore the third person of the Trinity in some depth.  My studying became 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 a clergy person might try to explain the Holy Spirit to church people - and to themselves!

    I had shied away from much Holy Spirit talk - which may be fitting, weirdly.  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...

In the Gospel, Jesus tantalizes by suggesting things will be even better for the disciples once he's gone! But then the Spirit's business isn't a starring role at all.  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.

     The disciples catapulted onto the streets 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?).

     It’s not a prideful “speaking in tongues” (which some friends of mine use as a litmus test to see if you’re really saved…); there isn’t confusion or separation, but understanding and unity!  I’ve preached, with validity, I think, on the idea of Pentecost people, God’s Spirit-empowered church, find the language to speak to the people out there.  No more church jargon, and certainly no smug, judgmental declamations.  How do we talk about the best news ever to people who hear nothing but awful news and a jaded and cynical? 
     I love this, when rethinking Pentecost: 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). 

      Speaking of growing things:  I also love it that Pentecost was 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).  Too often we preach as if we 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, evidently, is placed here in Acts 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.  I have a friend though who is finishing up her D.Min. project on just this - how to recover in a fitting way Peter's approach to preaching.  In Acts 2, it is intriguing that salvation comes to – whom?  “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord” (2:21).  Not a set of dogmas or even behaviors, but a crying out, a plea, a calling on the Lord for help.  I love that.  Whom else would such a God save? Of course, the secret to early Christian preaching wasn’t merely the rhetoric.  It was the lifestyle that flawlessly and compellingly mirrored the vision.  Read Acts 2:42-47 and you’ll understand why the preaching worked – and perhaps some of why ours doesn’t.  A radical life of devotion, breaking bread, prayer, sharing possessions in common, insuring there was no needy person. 
 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.”

     I think of what we said about 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. 

    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.  "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 come May 27? Trinity Sunday

   It’s Trinity Sunday.  I always think it's best to preach the Word straightforwardly instead of trying to offer up a little lecture explaining why the Trinity is a thing – which will only create classroom banter and intellectual quizzicalness (in my view).  I teach sometimes on the Trinity – but in a class setting.  Mind you, there are texts that assume God’s Threeness and the lovely, moving interrelatedness that is the heart of God.  Romans 8:12-17, our epistle for the day is one of them.  The Spirit leads and speaks in our spirit so we know we are, just as Jesus was, children of the heavenly Father – whom we are invited to speak to intimately: Abba!

   And the Gospel, John 3:1-17, works any Sunday of the year, as we see the fleshing out of the heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I’ve commented on John 3:1-17 recently in this blog series (March 11, Lent 4).

   And then, to complicate everything, it’s Memorial Day weekend! – which creates a kind of pressure you may or may not enjoy.  Six years ago, after dodging, coping with and responding to criticism for being… insufficiently patriotic? I preached a whole sermon I’d commend to you explaining a Christian viewpoint on Memorial Day, which was semi-well-received.  If it helped no one else, it helped me to work through what I will do and won’t do on Sunday morning regarding patriotic holidays.  How do we own it, honor our people, but not enfranchise an excess of patriotism and a hawkish spirit?

   Isaiah 6 is tabbed for the lectionary surely because the seraph called to the other seraph, not crying “Holy!” but “Holy, Holy, Holy!”  I once heard a sermon where the preacher bore in on this for a 3-point sermon on the three aspects of holiness: being set apart, being pure, and then social holiness (a profoundly Wesleyan emphasis! – works of mercy, advocating for peace and justice, visiting the prisons, etc.).  Tempting and a helpful trellis on which to grow a sermon! – but not what the seraph was thinking.  The preacher could paint some personal images of what holiness looks like – and I’d look for the non-traditional, not-so-pious examples from people I’ve known.

   My favorite hymn, which people had better sing at my funeral, is “Holy, Holy, Holy” – which I fell in love with as a child because of its repetitive simplicity.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s line (not Shakespeare's!!!) – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways – might work with God’s holiness.  What about a sermon that simply meditates on the holiness of God?  I love the sermons that don’t have obvious “points” or “takeaways,” but that fixate with devoted clarity on the wonder of God.  There are implied takeaways (like You be holy too – very biblical!) – but leave them as implied. 

   A marvelous guide to the holiness of God is A.W. Tozer’s less well-known little book, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life.  Chapter by chapter (23 of them in just 117 pages) he explores some holy attribute of God, from God’s mercy to God’s incomprehensibility, from wisdom to justice, from self-existence to omniscience.  Like turning a precious diamond in your hand, holding it up to the light, awestruck: we ponder God’s holiness. That alone would make a terrific sermon.

   Isaiah resonates in so many ways.  The text seems ethereal, metaphysical, this report of being transfixed and transported into the utterly unspeakable presence of God – and yet it is entirely nailed to a moment in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died” – a time of political uncertainty, confusion, threats within and without.  At such time, God still speaks; God is still God.  Do we not suffer from political chaos and instability?  What does the Holy God speak to us during such a time?

   The hotness, the unfathomable mind-blowing that is God’s presence in the holy place elicits awe – which we don’t know much about.  I admire what Amos Wilder tried to help us see about 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.

   And then we have Annie Dillard’s suggestion (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.” Mind you, no one will walk in the door looking for the sparks or wearing crash helmets… But somehow, naming it may foster some dim realization in at least a few who’ve shown up.

   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.

   And for anyone preaching, the bizarre interaction at the very outset of Isaiah’s ministry should humble us, discourage us, and bequeath to us great company.  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.  And so it is with preaching.  We preach, not to get results, not to grow the church, not to gauge my worth or their worth, and certainly not to roll up big numbers.  We preach because God says preach.  We preach, not to see if they like to respond to our preaching, but to please God.

   Parenthetically, there is a powerful word at the heart of the Trinity.  In our culture, we are wise to lean into J├╝rgen Moltmann's perspective in The Trinity & the Kingdom.  Some excerpts: "The triune God reveals himself as love in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  His freedom lies in the friendship which he offers; his freedom is his vulnerable love, his openness, the encountering kindness through which he suffers with those he loves."  If we reduce God to a single, absolute personality, we wind up with "justification for the world's cultivation of the individual" - an individualism God grieves and counters.  And there are political/social implications as well: "It is only when the doctrine of the Trinity vanquishes the monotheistic notion of the great universal monarch in heaven that earthly rulers, dictators and tyrants cease to find any justifying religious archetypes any more."  Wow.

   Clergy are fond of showing and talking about the lovely Rublev icon.  Once I spoke of it and imagined three bridge players very much wanting to play, waiting for a fourth – you, me, the church, maybe the stranger.  Makes me a tad uncomfortable, but hey – it’s better than a three-leaf clover!  I wonder about inviting people to imagine a family of four, but one is missing. They aren’t content, like Hey, we got 75%! That’s pretty good.  No, you crave the whole family being together – especially is one of the four is never coming… God’s Threeness yearns for the one who’s not yet there, maybe like that shepherd leaving 99 sheep to seek out the one.