Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What can we say come September 24? 16th after Pentecost

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   Typically I pick one text from the lectionary options, and then occasionally I will allude to another text for the day.  But sometimes the pairing of two texts can stagger me with the way they illuminate one another.  Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16 do just this.  They feel different: one is a legendary kind of moment in historical time, while the other is a made-up story that no one would conceive as a real happening – although we’ll ponder this later on.  Both are about food production, one miraculous (sort of) and one by the labor of hired hands. 
     And both are, at the end of the day, about what it means to have “enough.”  If I titled my sermons, this one might be called “Enough” – and I’m straying already in my mind to Flannery O’Connor.  Once, after blurting out to a friend, who spoke warmly of communion as symbolic, Flannery said “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it” – but then added more graciously and theologically, “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”  That is, the Eucharist is enough.

     Exodus 16 answers the question posed by Psalm 78:19: “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”  Maybe the harder question is Can this freed people stay free?  Photos of the Sinai can give you the feel of the region.  Not making a beeline for the Promised Land, but detouring far to the south through daunting terrain, the people had to wonder Are we being led? Or are we merely wandering?  If they sang “I am bound for the promised land,” it wouldn’t have been bouncy and enthusiastic the way we sing it, but more of a dirge.

     With what will become monotonous whining, the people murmured – and God answered their murmuring, not with a curse or thunderclaps from heaven, but with bread.  This is sheer, unadulterated grace: God replies with mercy, not to prayerful repentance, but to doubt-riddled whining.  God gave them Manna – a wonderful word whose Semitic origin means “What is it?”  Well, if heaven isn’t really up, this bread that came down – what was it? 
In Bible times, Josephus the historian described the Sinai’s honey like deposits of the tamarisk (packaged and sold as souvenirs today!); insects suck off shrub’s sap and deposit the surplus on the branches; the residue crystallizes and falls to the ground; but this manna, not very tasty but rich in carbohydrates and sugars, succumbs to ants not long into the heat of the day. 

     Questions abound: it’s not a miracle? Or it’s the miracle of the tamarisk and insects?  They saw this provision as a divine gift.  And clearly the story begs us not to get derailed with the murmuring of historical questions.  Flannery O’Connor resisted the idea of Eucharist-as-symbol, but there is much symbolic in this story.  The double portion on Friday to cover the Sabbath… although the Sabbath commandment hasn’t been given just yet!  No wonder devotional guides play on this ‘daily bread’ image; did Jesus have the manna in mind?  You have to look out for it every morning; you can’t save up for a few days… etc.  You have to love the way God not only responds to the murmuring with mercy; then when God gives them the bread, there are conditions.  I admire B. Davie Napier’s phrasing (in Come Sweet Death, pondering the tree in Genesis 3, but it fits the manna as well): 

   Behold, God’s wondrous gift is given
    – with strings.
   All glory be to thee, uncertain giver,
   Who wants to have his gift
   and give it too.

     There are plenty of theological ruminations to be made on this scene.  Brevard Childs (in his commentary which is unfailingly brilliant) points out that Exodus 16 does precede Exodus 20:  “The sign of divine grace preceded the giving of the law of Sinai.”  And then the riveting, profound scene narrated in John 6, when Jesus not only feeds thousands but explains his mission.  I heard Fred Craddock, in an elegant sermon, summarize the plot of the entire chapter:  Jesus gave the hungry bread, and they certainly were delirious with delight; they expected the Messiah to do such things.  But then Jesus basically said You can’t live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  Some who’d been excited begin to drift away.  Then Jesus ratcheted up the stakes further by explaining that “the bread I give for the life of the world is my body.”  He’d gone from feeding them, to pushing them toward Scripture, and now he’s dreaming of crucifixion.  Plenty flee at this point – until not very many at all are left.  Jesus asked, “Will you also go away?” – and Peter rather pitifully and yet with immense commitment responded, “Lord, to whom would we go?” 

Craddock’s sermon’s title was how he ended his sermon:  “I’ll stay.”  After observing how many leave the church or even the ministry, he offered his humble, simple affirmation in solidarity with Peter:  “I’ll stay.”  Great preaching.

     Jesus gave them enough – not just enough bread, or just enough Scripture, but his own crucified body, which really is enough, just as the manna and the commandments to come, and the promise really were enough.  Which lead us to Matthew 20:1-16, today’s Gospel lection. 
This text about laborers in a vineyard is a splendid example of Jesus’ teaching, which is the antithesis of conventional wisdom, the kind of thing Clarence Jordan called a Trojan Horse: you let it in and Bam!  Preachers typically preach to people who’d say I’m a 12 hour or a 9 hour kind of guy… but maybe they really are just one hour people, or maybe they aren’t in the field at all.  It’s about the miracle of grace – and not last minute conversions.  Grace is for everybody, and it’s enough for everybody.  And there might even be a bigger surprise in the story – as I discovered when researching my new book coming out this month, Weak Enough to Lead. 
I’ll share this excerpt, which passes along a framework for how to read Matthew 20 that I find to be entirely persuasive, and alluring.  Here goes:

     Jesus made up a shocking story about a vineyard owner who hired laborers in the morning, then some more later in the day, still more in the afternoon, and finally a few with only an hour left. When they lined up for their pay, he gave every last one of them a denarius. Quite fair – for a full day’s work. Not surprisingly, the guys who put in more time were furious. We are tempted to put some clever spin on the story, as if it is about late in life conversion, or even the magnificent bounty of God’s saving grace.

     But Amy-Jill Levine, rightly pointing out that “Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than how we get into heaven,” asks an intriguing question: “Might we rather see the parable as about real workers in a real marketplace and real landowners who hire those workers?” Our gut reaction is No way! But wasn’t Jesus the kind of guy who wanted everyone to have enough? If the guys who were hired late, through no fault of their own, only got one-twelfth of a day’s wage, their family would starve. This is the same Jesus who told a rich man to sell everything, who directed party hosts to invite those who couldn’t invite them in return, who spoke of lenders forgiving massive financial debts, who included despised and untouchable people in his close circle, who visited Zaccheus and left him so staggered he gave his hard-earned money back with interest to those he’d earned it from.

     Shares of stock in a company run by Jesus would plummet in value. But he is our leader, the childlike one who never tired of asking hard questions. Could we his followers lead in very different ways, in weaker ways? Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms and creator of the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible, was a bold, no-holds-barred Christian, one of those once in a generation believers radical enough to dare to do what’s in the Bible. One Sunday he preached at a gilded, high steeple church in Atlanta. After the service, the pastor asked him for some advice. The church custodian had eight children, and earned a mere $80 per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise, but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute, and then said, “Why don’t you just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn’t require any extra money in the budget.”

     Jesus was like the child who can’t stop asking questions, like the child who sees a homeless person by the road and asks Mommy, can’t he live at our house? Maybe a leader can’t pull off the vineyard wage maneuver, or even the salary swap. But is there a way to lean in that direction, to engage in something dramatic to veer a bit more toward Jesus than business as usual? Jesus asks leaders, not merely to obey the law or even to be kind, but to be different.

     End of excerpt.  I want in my preaching to explore this concept of “enough.”  Often it’s a turning point, like “I’ve had enough.”  Sometimes it’s when we feel a keen lack: I’m not good enough, I don’t have enough money.  Douglas Meeks (in God the Economist) was right when he described our culture’s sense of scarcity: no matter how much you have, there is this lingering fear it might not be enough.  Enough for what?  Fill in the blank…

     Sometimes it is contentment – a holy, divinely-purposed goal:  it is enough.  Gratitude is believing It is enough instead of It’s not enough.  Grace, being God’s child, living as one in God’s image, etc., is enough.  Enough describes divine intent regarding resources: God wants everyone to have enough.  There’s the old Haitian proverb: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.”  The idea is that God has given us enough – enough food, enough water, enough of all the basics of life.  It’s up to us to share, instead of hoarding or blocking the sharing.


   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

What can we say come October 1? World Communion Sunday

October 1.  World Communion Sunday.  Tempting to speak thematically – although for me, the discipline of accountability to a text presses me toward better preaching than vaguely meandering on a theme, even a beloved one like the idea of communion everywhere.  Inevitably, the text for the day will serve well enough.  I’m choosing Philippians 2:1-13, which will compel me to highlight not the world so much as the world’s Lord. 

The Gospel, Matthew 21:23-32, has surely been preached upon well by a holy host of clergy.  But for me, it feels like, with the end drawing near, Jesus in a bit of a cantankerous mood.  This is not his best “a man had 2 sons” story.  Jesus clearly isn’t interested in the kinds of churches we spend our lives in, which so blandly are defined by the old “a nice place where nice people do nice things with other nice people.”  It’s the kooks, the suspect, the sketchy, the people that church people would deem irreligious:  this is the band of followers Jesus would gather.  If I were pressed to preach on this, I’d lean back toward that Tony Campolo story about the late night diner birthday party for Agnes the hooker.  Or St. Francis (whose feast day will be Wednesday October 4) – who touched lepers and befriended Muslims.

Exodus 17:1-7 is rich with possibilities.  Back on September 10 I preached on Exodus 12, the Passover text – and we used the occasion to teach our congregation about Judaism’s practices.  Same here: by luck of the lectionary draw, this Wednesday is the beginning of Sukkoth – the Feast of Booths, commemorating the wilderness wanderings.  Jewish families create little shelter-like structures in their homes.  Fascinating.  Talk to a rabbi.  See if you can get invited over for a glass of wine.  In the sermon, tell about your visit.

This business of demanding proof should draw many people in.  Anselm, Aquinas and a host of brilliant people have devised proofs for God’s existence.  Logic can’t bend the will, or the heart though.  As we’ll see in Philippians 2, Jesus ‘proved’ God by utterly ungodlike actions:  humbling, debased, being abused and killed.  There.  That’s the only proof you get. 

Like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the people are thirsty – and then they also are thirsty.  This story figured prominently in the rest of the Bible.  Psalm 81 and 95 remember and issue dire warnings based on it.  “O that you would listen to me, Israel!  Do not be stubborn as you were at Meribah.”  As C.H. Spurgeon put it, “Let the example of that unhappy generation serve as a beacon to you; do not repeat the offenses which have already more than enough provoked the Lord.”

I also suspect that this story lay in the background of that mystifying moment in John 7:37-39.  The festival’s climax was reached when the people gathered around the waters from the spring Gihon flowing into the Pool of Siloam at the foot of Mt. Zion.  The priest would dip a golden pitcher into the water and carry it at the head of a procession of singers and wavers of palm branches up hill to the Temple precincts.  After marching around the Temple seven times, the priest would pour the water out on the ground.  Jesus, in that year narrated by John, stood to the side and said to those who could hear, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”

Philippians 2:1-13 is one of the high water marks in all of Scripture, almost a creed-like distillation of the entire story of redemption.  Karl Barth: “A text like this can hardly be approached with sufficient care and concentration, for it offers so much is so few verses – a little compendium of Pauline testimony.”

Little things charm me here (and so does the big thing…).  “If there is any encouragement…”  A big if indeed!  Clearly the if implies what there should be, what the church should be about, what we all crave:  encouragement, consolation, love, sharing, compassion, sympathy.  From these, the possibility of “being of one mind,” so elusive for us, even in church life, inevitably follows.  Where in our culture will you be told “Regard others as better than yourselves” – which is curious, since we seem quite naturally to do two weird things constantly:  we harbor dark feelings of insecurity, suspecting others have it better, scanning Facebook with envy, etc.; but then we pass snarky judgment on others as if we’re superior – no more than a kneejerk reaction to our sense of inferiority.  Paul wants neither, but the clarity that is humility.  Humility is simple honesty.
“Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  No politician since John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”) has ever uttered such words, and neither have advertisers.  And then the last 2 verses!  Can you hear the paradox: “Work out your salvation, knowing God is at work in you.”  Do I work?  Does God work?  Do I work and then realize God’s the one doing it?  “End of faith as its beginning”?

But then the glorious climax: to be one with Jesus, we ponder his story in the words of what scholars of course think was an early Christian hymn.  What a terrific hymn!  I close my eyes and try to picture a couple of dozen Christians gathered in somebody home in Antioch, or after hours in the marketplace in Philippi.  What was the tune?  What did their voices sound like together?  {I like in preaching to raise such questions – just to tease the imagination; no need to take it further.}

Translators differ on how to render the very beginning of the thing, but I feel sure I know the right way!  Should it be the familiar “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? or the equally valid “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”?  God didn’t temporarily suspend being God, masquerading as empty, humble, obedient and slave-like for a season.  God, in Christ, showed us God’s heart, what it always has been and will be like.  His wasn’t to grasp (can we picture Adam and Eve grabbing that fruit? or Prometheus seizing the fire of the divinities?), or to consume, but to be emptied, poured out, “born.”  God thought I want them to know and love me – so I’ll do this:  I’ll become an infant, totally vulnerable, dependent, the antithesis of power.  Maybe then they will be tender toward me and each other.

As von Balthasar wrote, “In the Incarnation, the triune God has not simply helped the world, but has disclosed himself in what is most deeply his own.”  Infancy, and crucifixion:  this is God.  Paul moves into glorification – but as Barth reminds us, when the crucified one is glorified, “the abasement is not washed out or cancelled – it is he [the crucified one] who is exalted; it is to him the great name is given; it is of him who abased himself that all that follows is said.”

This downward mobility, this life as emptying, will be ours the closer we are to Jesus. 
I will speak of St. Francis, not only because he is the patron saint of peace in our broken world, but because his to-do list every day was to be one with Jesus in this humble self-emptying.  He shed his wealth, he consorted with the lowly; he even prayed to share in Jesus’ wounds – and his prayer was answered with the mysterious wounds he experienced in his hands, feet and side.

The eloquence of the hymn writer in Philippians 2 (or of Paul, or both) is mind-boggling, and inspiring – and calms you down considerably.  “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”  This is what will happen, is already happening in a partial, anticipatory way when we gather for worship, when we imagine joining hands with fellow believers all over the world on this communion Sunday.   I’ll be preaching and standing behind the Lord’s table on Eastern Standard Time –
 and I will remind my beloved people what I learned from a sermon by Albert Outler (in his sermon, “The Table of Our Lord,” preached at Highland Park UMC in 1969:  “This particular Sunday began twenty hours ago at the International Dateline in the western Pacific – and the earliest celebrations were in palm-thatched chapels in Fiji, Samoa, and Micronesia.  Then, as the day fled westward round the globe, other Christians in other countries gathered in their churches to invoke the living presence of Christ in his sacrament and to receive his healing power in their hearts and lives – in Japan, the Philippines, Asia and Australia; in Turkey and Greece and Russia; in Africa, Europe and the Americas – Christians of every race and color, of all languages, dress and custom, in every conceivable circumstance of life and fortune.  Christians, we now know, are a minority in the world, but on such a day as this we loom larger than usual because of our self-conscious community, generated and sustained by this universal sacrament of God’s love in Christ.”

This lovely riff reminds me of something Mark Noll wrote about the nature of worldwide Christianity – and fits flawless into the way Jesus “was born in human likeness and found in human form.”  This is cool:  Christianity appears more and more as an essentially pluralistic and cross-cultural faith. It appeared first in Asia, then Africa and Europe. Immediately those who turned to Christ in these ‘new’ regions were at home in the faith. When they became believers, Christianity itself became Asian, European and African. Once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place. It also challenges, reforms and humanizes the cultural values of that place. The Gospel comes to each person and to all peoples exactly where they are. You do not have to stop being American, Japanese, German, or Terra del Fuegian in order to become a Christian. Instead, they all find rich resources in Christianity that are perfectly fitted for their own cultural situations. It is by its nature a religion of nearly infinite flexibility because it has been revealed in a person of absolutely infinite love.”

There are deep political implications.  When the early Christians said “Christ is Lord,” that was politically subversive, for it implied “Caesar is not.”  And let me suggest that this business about Jesus emptying himself has implications for how we as clergy lead, in preaching and everywhere else.  Here is an excerpt on this text from my new book, Weak Enough to Lead.

   Hudson Taylor, a pioneer English missionary to China, was onto something: ‘God chose me because I was weak enough. God does not do his great works by large committees. He trains somebody to be quiet enough, and little enough, and then he uses him.’

     The liberation in learning you are weak enough to lead is twofold. First, it is always theologically truer to say I am weak and broken than I am strong and capable. This isn’t self-recrimination, wallowing in self-pity, and clinging to negative messages absorbed in childhood. It is the joyful clarity that humility brings, and the holy bonds we discover with others. We need not wait for the physical collapse of someone before noble things happen. We are all broken already. Let the outpouring of mercy begin.

     And second, when we lead out of our weakness, we are very close to Jesus, who was handed over, silent before his accusers, meek before his attackers, and inert as he was laid in the tomb. Jesus led with nothing but love. When Jesus led in weakness, he was not pretending, as if playing out some divine charade. What we see in Jesus is who God truly is. I’m fond of what may be the better translation of Philippians 2:6: instead of ‘Although he was in the form of God he emptied himself,’ we should read ‘Because he was in the form of God he emptied himself.’ Indeed. It was precisely because he fully was God and transparently unveiled the heart of God that Jesus came as a humble nobody and consorted with nobodies, and laid down his life, bearing shame and abandoning all privilege. Michael Gorman called the cross ‘the signature of the Eternal One.’ The Christian leader, while properly interested in things running smoothly, staff relationships, and bottom lines, is above all else obsessed with Jesus, wanting not just to please or follow him, but even to be like him, to be one with him.

     So leaders embrace their inevitable weakness, their created limitations, and are unafraid to share and live out of that weakness…


   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What can we say come October 8? 18th after Pentecost

I love Ordinary Time, and what feels to me like an expanded opportunity to explore Old Testament, Psalm or Epistle texts we might veer from during the Jesus-focused seasons.  The need to preach wisely on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 (but I wouldn’t skip 5, 6, 10 or 11!) is self-evident.  What more contested, politicized, misunderstood and trivialized text could there be?  Most Christians mis-spin Paul and take a negative view of the law; but then other Christians lean strongly into the commandments, wishing for them to be posted in public, but always in judgment of others, rarely in critical self-reflection.

  {I preached on this text 3 years ago; you can watch it here}

Christians should converse with Jews about the Torah, and immerse themselves in texts like this week’s Psalter.  Psalm 19 does not chafe under the law, but in a multisensory way relishes and delights in the law.  Sweeter than honey!  Reviving the soul, rejoicing the heart, more desirable than gold.  I think of the fabulous moment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses:
“Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. It comprehended the world.  Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. “Joshua, I have laws. Israel is going to know peace and justice.”

This path to freedom was well-understood by Martin Luther, who noticed the immense grace of God in each commandment.  Certainly they stand before us as a mirror, revealing our sin – which then is the beginning of grace.  And the mercy hidden in each command!  What better sermon could you preach that to narrate the way God in mercy relieves us of our burdens by declaring “You don’t have to have other gods, you can rest, you don’t have to covet.” 

Preaching Exodus 20 begins (and ends) in directing people’s attention to the context.  These commandments didn’t float down chiseled in stone into courthouses or houses, universally applicable laws God has decreed absolutely.  The commandments are the first of hundreds – and all of them are part of a longer story of people crying out under oppression, God hearing (and caring!), sending Moses, the miracles/signs (a la Jesus in John’s Gospel), the deliverance at the sea, and even the extraordinary patience of God in the wilderness, showering the people with manna when they deserved lightning bolts.  God’s commands come after, in the thick of, and as a prelude to the merciful gift of salvation; obedience to the commandments isn’t a credential to qualify as a good person, or a way to curry God’s favor, but the reflexive, grateful life in startled reply to God’s abundant gift of love.

The Gospel isn’t the end of the law (as in, it’s over and irrelevant) – or we might finesse the word and say the Gospel actually is the end (as in the goal/purpose) of the law (Romans 10:4’s tantalizing ambiguity!).  God did tender these laws with a fair expectation we could follow them or at least get in the ballpark.  There is such a thing as holiness, as a deep desire to fulfill God’s will/wishes.  Brevard Childs: “The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.”

The preacher could pick one command and zero in – or you could do what I plan to do, just a quick, breezy touching on each one with an explanatory note or two.  No other gods?  Luther clarified that our god is whatever motivates us, changes your mood, embodies the good life… so who is your God?  No images of God?  We are made in God’s image, and Jesus is the flawless image of God – so other creature-like images (the Egyptian or the Wall Street golden bull, you name it…) mislead.  Do not take the Lord’s name in vain?  The worst offenders are our politicians who paste God’s name on much that is not of God, all posturing; and we church folk do the same, attaching God to much that is grievously not of God.  Remember the Sabbath?  Can we switch off our gadgets and actually rest?  And did you notice the lectionary lops off the longer explanation of the Sabbath?  There must be good reason it gets “more air time than any others” (Brueggemann) – as if we’d miss the comprehensive nature of it or wriggle our way out.

Don’t kill – and Jesus went deep, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder (and in our rancorous culture, where anger management is a big thing, aren’t we rabid killers?).  No adultery (in a culture where sex as impulse, pleasure and self-fulfillment is all over the media)?  Jesus said if you harbor lust in your heart, you are an adulterer.  No condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters an adulterer in order to set her free.  No stealing?  What did John Wesley say about a lack of overabundant charity to the poor – that it’s theft?  No coveting?  Coveting is the engine of capitalism!  But God would liberate us from the stranglehold of always wanting more – or really, wanting what is new and different.  I don’t want more iPhones.  I want the latest iPhone – largely because I saw one in my neighbor’s hand.

The purpose of the commandments is stated right there in Exodus 20 – “to prove you.”  We avert our gaze from the fact that the Bible repeatedly suggests we are being tested, we are being proven; the so-called “temptation narrative” (Matthew 4) really is a testing, just as Abraham was tested/proven (Genesis 22).  Beyond the proving, the simple dream of the commandments is “that you may not sin.”  Not “to uphold civil society in America.”  God sincerely wants to help us not to sin.

Philippians 3:4b-14 is similarly an extraordinary text.  Paul does his boasting thing – while clarifying he’s not boasting! – but with the clincher: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss.”  We sing “My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”  We sing this hymn – but do we get the depth of the sentiment expressed?

Paul’s counsel is Lose anything, everything, for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  We Americans think we can have our cake and eat it too; we can keep all our stuff and also know Jesus.  But there is inevitably a sacrifice, a loss, an emptying before Jesus can be known – and once he’s known, there is an emptying.  And why?  In the prior chapter, Paul spoke of having Christ’s mind – which was one of kenotic self-emptying.

Paul’s abiding goal is “to be found in him.”  Paul was found by Jesus – interrupted on the road to Damascus.  The notion is We are lost, we are wanderers, we are on the run – like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”: “I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the mist of tears I hid from him……”  I love Stephen Fowl’s phrasing: “Christ is no longer a commodity to be gained but a place, a home where the lost Paul is found.”

We like “know him and the power of his resurrection” – but then Paul adds “and may share in his sufferings.”  To desire Christ’s sufferings?  We hope his suffering will shield us from suffering. 
But ponder St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer before the crucifix:  “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: one is that I might feel in my body, as far as possible, the pain you underwent in your hour of passion; and the second is that I might feel, as far as possible, the love with which you were inflamed so as to undergo such a passion for us sinners.”  Mind you, Francis’s prayer resulted in the stigmata, in constantly bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side.  Do we fear Jesus might actually join with us in his sufferings?

Karl Barth (along with others) is vigilant to be sure we don’t make faith into a work:  “Paul has no intention of supplanting the Pharisaism of works by the far worse Pharisaism of the heart… There is no bridge from here to there, but solely the way from there to here – the way that from beginning to end and all along is God’s way.” 

Paul in a picturesque ways conceives of this union with Jesus as a runner pressing hard toward the prize.  Fowl’s rendering is helpful: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me.”  Let the preacher take his or her own risk at athletic metaphors.  I heard a preacher once tell about running in the state finals of the 100 yard dash, starting poorly, but rallying and winning.  I wasn’t inspired…

The Gospel, Matthew 21:33-46, is another that feels harsh and simplistic.  Probably Jesus had his in your face, utterly simplistic preaching moments – as we all do.  The most promising moment in his tirade is his quotation from Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone…

   ** My two newest books, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, and Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, are available.

What can we say come October 15? 19th after Pentecost

     It would be hard to name a passage more revealing of human nature, and more mind-boggling in terms of what God is like than Exodus 32 (which the lectionary weirdly crops way short at verse 14; we will continue to v. 24…).  The people: impatient, still stuck in Egypt in their souls, amnesiacs, irresponsible… and then God: raging, then changing the divine mind, talked off the ledge by Moses.  I can’t do much better than this excerpt from my new book, Weak Enough to Lead – which introduces the idea that Moses led God:

     Moses had to have lived in a constant state of exasperation, for Martin Buber was right: “Whenever he comes to deal with this people, he is defeated by them.” Exodus 32 provides the most dramatic example of his failed leadership, but in that moment Moses discovered a renewed calling.

     Moses was far away on top of the mountain for longer than the people had anticipated. So they concluded that Moses was delaying (why?), and began to refer to him as “this man Moses,” not “our beloved Moses.” So they fashioned an idol, a golden bull, the kind they’d seen back in Egypt, connoting strength, potency, virility. At that very moment, God was telling Moses what their gold was supposed to be used for: to adorn the tabernacle.

     The Lord saw their lunacy first and told Moses, speaking of them not as “my people” but “your people” whom “you” (Moses, not I, the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Moses turned the tables just as swiftly, referring to them not as “my people” but as “your people whom you” (the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Down in the valley, Aaron his brother had proven to be an effective but wrongly directed leader. Once the calf was finished, they threw a big party. When Moses happened upon the scene, Aaron violated Jim Collins’s rule for Level 5 leaders (leaders attribute success to others and apportion blame to themselves) and explained how “they” were set on evil. He bore no responsibility. Hilariously he recalled what transpired: “I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ So they gave it to me, I threw it into the fire, and out came this bull calf!” (Exod 32:24).

     What Moses achieved in this moment astonishes us. God was determined to pour wrath down on the people and be done with them. But Moses argued with God, marshalling his case that God should relent: “Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind” (v. 12). And Exodus 32:14 reports that “the Lord changed his mind.” Moses led God! Oddly enough, as Michael Walzer observes, Moses was “rather more successful with God than with the people.” Moses, struggling to lead the people for decades, had pretty fair results in leading God, pleading successfully on behalf of his people.

    {here endeth the excerpt!}

      The preacher need not provide moralistic take-aways, although they are the low-hanging fruit.  Let the story stand.  Let people see themselves and others in it.  Let them most important get a glimpse of the severe holiness of God struggling with the tender mercy of God.

     The violence at the end staggers.  I recall what I learned from Jonathan Sacks on a similar passage: 1 Kings 18.  Elijah slaughters the Canaanite priests – but Sacks points out that the rabbis were appalled, noting that God never told him to kill them.  I think it’s healthy and hopeful for clergy to wonder out loud if Moses, or the writer of Exodus mis-heard God – just as we all do.  Scripture is still very much inspired – precisely in sharing moments when people act in ways contrary to the larger heart of God known throughout Scripture.

     Our Epistle reading, Phil 4:1-9, is my parade example for beginning Bible students on the virtue of reading slowly and interrogating the text as it interrogates us.  In quick succession, Paul says Rejoice always.  Do not be anxious.  With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  These three are tightly knit together.  Let’s ponder how – now as we prepare to preach, and in the sermon itself.

     Phil. 4:6, the least obeyed command in the Bible:  “Have no anxiety.”  We are anxiety-riddled – and the very demand not to be anxious feels like piling on.  I was anxious.  Now I’m anxious about my inability to be non-anxious and I’m failing God.  How should we have no anxiety?

     “Let your requests be made known to God.”  OK, Lord, cure my anxiety – or fix the situation giving rise to my anxiety.  But read Paul more slowly:  “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known…” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be we file our requests, and if God complies, then we give thanks – right? No, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We begin with gratitude.  Jesus invited the crowd to be rid of anxiety by pointing to the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field: they are arrayed in beauty, God provides for them (read Matthew 6:25-34!).  Notice what God has done, feel the blessings you neglected to pay attention to (which is probably why you got into the anxious mess you’re in…). Could it be that gratitude is the antidote to anxiety?

     The psychiatrist Martin Seligman has written (in his great book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) about anxiety – and shares that studies show how gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression (not entirely, but by a significant, measurable percentage).  My personal observation is that it is impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time.  Something about gratitude – and not merely feeling thankful but actually expressing it in a note, a phone call, whatever – calms and even reverses anxiety, at least in the moment.

     That’s when the joy comes in: “Rejoice always.”  How?  By not being anxious.  How?  By sharing your requests with God – with thanksgiving.  And then, when this becomes habitual, and natural, we get to the goal of the thing: Peace.  “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

     The Roman emperor boasted that he was the guarantor of peace, the pax romana.  But how did he keep the peace? By wielding a bigger sword than anybody else. If you marshal enough well-drilled troops with clashing armor, you get peace – right? Or was Dorothee Soelle right? “Armed people have no peace.”

     God’s peace is never won when the vanquished cower before threatening spears, or when everybody in the house walks on eggshells, fearing the one who demands on peace at home. God’s peace is a gift, it lifts up and ennobles the weakest, it delivers justice and hope; God’s peace is all love, compassion and that curious strength that embraces rather than strikes.  It thrives in the soil of gratitude; joy is its flower.

     How intriguing that Paul dictates out loud, with the emperor’s Praetorian guard listening through the bars, that God’s peace will “keep” your hearts: the Greek word means to “guard.” Paul is in prison, guarded by men with weapons; but who’s really free, and who isn’t? In God’s hidden script, it’s the armed soldiers, and the emperor himself, who are not free but are in chains, while Paul is free as a bird, protected from them by the peace of God.

     Then the other piece here, the culminating strategy to discover joy and peace, is this text I often read at funerals: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” 
Robert Hughes wrote insightfully about the Culture of Complaint in which we live. Political campaigns, relationships, reactions to schools, government, and the guy cutting you off in traffic – all causes of rancor, and we harbor suspicion about everything and everybody.

     But Paul suggests that having the mind of Christ requires another mental posture; if we are to have any chance for joy, it will never come if we seek out reasons to carp and grouse. The Christian is one who focuses on what is true and honorable, who delights in justice and purity, who notices the lovely and gracious, appreciates and strives for excellence. We praise; we encourage; we choose to think on the good. 
Jewel’s best lyric goes like this:

It doesn’t take talent to be mean
Please be careful with me
I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.
I have this theory that if we’re told we’re bad
Then that’s the only idea we’ll ever have
But maybe if we are surrounded in beauty
Some day we will become what we see.

The beauty that is everywhere was crystallized and definitively embodied in Jesus, who is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise.

     I’m skipping the Gospel.  Matthew 22:1-14 just strikes me as yet one more of Jesus’ angrier, mystifying parables.  Too much value in Exodus and Philippians to go there.

What can we say come October 22? 20th after Pentecost

     As I get older, I am learning increasingly to savor the many texts that don’t have an obvious moral or takeaway – those texts that simply tell us about the wonder that is God.  Ours isn’t to moralize or get busy making the kingdom come.  We can just get lost in wonder, love and praise.  Sermons can help people do this.

     Exodus 33:12-23 is such a text.  Here is a sermon I preached on it 3 years ago.  Context matters:  Moses is still steaming with exasperation after the raucous partying and golden calf making in chapter 32.  He’s just been on intimate terms with the Lord on the mountain for weeks.  Yet he is still eager to know more about God – or perhaps we should say, to know God, to love God, to be one with God. 
I’m reminded of St. Francis, who went day after day into a cave to pray.  When he came out each day, Brother Leo would ask him, Did God say anything?  Francis said No.  Day by day he poured out his soul, and day by day he always answered No.  Finally, one day Leo asked, and Francis surprised him:  Yes, God did say one word to me.  Leo: What was it?  Francis:  More.  I love that.  God wanted more  - of St. Francis.

     Moses wanted more of God, but God is always too much.  Tenderly God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered him with God’s hand, passed by and let Moses see just his back side. 
This text was best understood by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa. God gives us just a tantalizing taste of God’s presence, a hazy glimpse of God’s utter beauty, only to draw us forward again as if we had never tasted that beauty.  “Moses’ desire is filled by the very fact that it remains unfulfilled… And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied.”  True satisfaction “consists in constantly going on in the quest and never ceasing in ascent seeing that every fulfillment continually generates a further desire.  Far from making the soul despair, this discovery is actually an experience of God’s fuller presence.  It becomes a yearning which fills the soul more fully than any actual possession.”

     Utterly counter-cultural – and yet I find when I preach this, people are drawn in.  I think of my theology professor, Tom Langford, who would lecture on something like the Trinity.  He would begin with logical sentences.  Then just phrases, some fumbling.  He’d take off his glasses, scrunch up his face under his hand and just sigh.  I think in this way he was speaking truly of the God Moses encountered.  Or this: one of my long-standing Bible study groups invited me to visit.  I asked how long they’d been together, and they said “Fourteen years – and we’re more confused now than when we started.”  I said, “Great.”

     We think we have to know and understand clearly.  But I love what Norman Maclean had the pastor say after losing his wayward son: “It is those we live with and should know who elude us.  But we can still love them.  We can love completely without complete understanding.”  How much more so with God?

      Moses’ request to see God’s glory might remind us of John 14 where Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Hear that “satisfaction” thing?  Jesus then did show all of them God’s glory – by being crucified. 
Martin Luther suggested that in the cross, God showed us all the glory of God we could bear – calling it “God’s hidden backside.”  Speaking of God’s back side:  the entirety of the Christian life is about following.  Jesus says Follow me.  If you follow somebody, what you see if precisely their back side!

     Other little details intrigue me.  In verse 15, Moses says “If you don’t go, don’t send us” (v. 15).  Simple – but if God’s not going somewhere we probably don’t want to go either.  In verse 19 God says I’ll pass by and then utter my name – which is what Moses wanted to hear in the first place.  This rare hearing of the divine name is a prelude to the high priest’s annual entry into the Holy of Holies to utter that unutterable name.  Moses is known as the one God knew “face to face” (Deut. 34:10) – but here he can’t see the face; Scripture is reaching for words to express the inexpressible, so logical consistency need not matter.  And then it’s the commanding God who just issued hundreds of laws who defines God’s self as merciful; Clint McCann reminds us that any telling of this “must preserve the tension which lies at the heart of a God who is both fiercely demanding and unfailingly forgiving.”

      With all this Moses/mountain stuff, I plan to use the great benediction of the late archbishop Oscar Romero:  “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”
     I’ll not dwell on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, although if Acts 17 is any indication (Paul’s visit to Thessalonica), his comment here, “You received the word in much affliction,” is an understatement.  I harbor some puzzled envy when I ponder the way the word must have come “not just in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” as a riot was touched off in the city – just as we recall happened in the early days of Methodism.  My preaching is way more likely to elicit a yawn or a snarky email than a riot in the streets…
     And then we come to the Gospel, Matthew 22:15-22, enormously important, and grossly misconstrued by the average Christian (perhaps suggested we clergy are guilty of what Rev. William Barber calls “theological malpractice”).  Jesus was not laying down a firm decree on the separation of church and state.  (And how mind-boggling is it now, that after years of us clergy trying to sort through how to speak the Gospel without diluting it and yet not appearing to be unavoidably “political,” President Trump has been about demolishing the Johnson amendment, saying clergy should be more vocal!  I suspect we’ll see what we’ve always seen:  church people get annoyed, reminding us of the Founding Fathers’ insistence on separation of religion and politics – but it’s always a code when they fuss at us.  It means “You said something that collides with my politics, so hush.”  If you says something they like, they never fume over your inability to keep things separate…

     This understanding hidden motives was Jesus’ strong suit.  In our text, instead of simply answering, he first pondered what lay beneath: he become “aware of their malice.” and responded in the best way, given such motives.  They deceivingly flattered him, then popped the impossible question: does God permit the paying of taxes to Caesar or not? An annual property tax, a denarius, had to be paid. Jews resented the levy, plus the coins bore the blasphemous image of Caesar, claiming he was a god. If Jesus said yes, he's in league with Rome and the tax collectors; if no, he's siding with militant revolutionaries.

     Jesus responded brilliantly, asking for a coin, and then asking a question.  Preaching really should involve more questions than answers…  Archaeologists have found coins from the time of Jesus, featuring the image of the emperor, and the adjectives people were supposed to understand applied to him, especially divus – Divine!  The money you needed to live day to day reminded every Jewish person of the mockery, the blasphemy that was Caesar. That same money reminded you that the tax collector would be coming around soon to seize too much of what you’d earned – with the threat of breaking your knees if you didn’t pay up.  That same money then came to have a corrupt use as the very leaders of your own religious community gouged the severely impoverished with temple taxes – making it hard to get access to the God you needed because of the grind of the rest of your life.

     Jesus’ question was pitch perfect:  “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  Easy   answer: “Caesar’s.”  Jesus so shrewdly and truly responded in the only logical way:  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  What belonged to Caesar?  This coin, clearly, maybe the soldiers marching around, maybe the tax collectors – and maybe even you religious folk, sellouts that you’ve become…  But what belongs to God?  Jesus.  You, the other guy, actually also the soldiers, the tax collectors, even the emperor.  Not to mention the trees, the ground and sky.  It’s all God’s.  Sure, the emperor claimed to be God, but he was a charlatan, not merely lying but also utterly unable to be God, to deliver on the bogus title.

     Jesus’ wisdom was met with stunned silence; I wish my sermons were met with the same!  Those who tried to trap Jesus had no answer for his brilliant wisdom.
"Render to Caesar what is Caesar's." Though Jesus' foes (and we may wonder why they had such a blasphemous coin in their pockets - in the temple precincts!) were silenced, we seem to talk about this one a lot. Jesus isn't legislating the separation of Church and state. To Jesus, what belongs to Caesar is relatively trivial, and temporary. What belongs to God is. Everything! - including the realm of Caesar! Followers of Jesus can be good citizens, but when loyalty to Jesus clashes with the realm of political reality, Jesus trumps. Give to God what belongs to God.

     There’s the sermon.  It has a moral, a clear imperative, an all-encompassing takeaway:  Render unto God who is God’s.  You can spend the rest of the day and your life working on that one.  Grab a few examples here and there.  Your lunch break at work.  Your shopping this afternoon.  Your conversation with a neighbor.  The stuff in your closet.  Your anxieties in the night.  Your portfolio, or your debt, or your fantasies.  Your time, your energy, your brokenness.  It’s all God’s.  Render it to God.
     Here endeth this week’s preaching blog – although let me add as an appendix something Kavin Rowe (World Upside Down) wrote about Christ and Caesar – and how we parse simple truisms like “Christ is Lord,” clearly politically subversive in a world where most declared “Caesar is Lord.”

     “We think the Christians lifted up Christ as a rival to Caesar.  But no:  Because of the nature of his claims, it is Caesar who is the rival; and what he rivals is the Lordship of God in the person of Jesus Christ…  Yet, we would be mistaken were we to think that this rivalry takes place on a level playing field – an ontological basis, say , that is deeper than both Jesus and Caesar – as if there were two competitors playing for the same prize, the title ĸύριοѕ πáѵτωѵ is who Jesus is:  Jesus is completely inseparable from his identity as the universal Lord.  Caesar’s rivalry thus takes the form of wrongful (self-) exaltation to the sphere whose existence is exactly concomitant with the identity of God in Jesus Christ.  Politics, that is,

inevitably involves the questions of idolatry…  As Seneca would have the young Nero to say:  ‘I am the arbiter of life and death for the nations; it rests in my power what each man’s lot and state shall be; by my lips Fortune proclaims what gift she would bestow on each human being; from my utterance peoples and cities gather reasons for rejoicing.

     And yet, the Christian mission as narrated by Luke is not a counter-state.  It does not, that is, seek to replace Rome, or to ‘take back’ Palestine, Asia or Achaia.  To the contrary, such a construal of Christian politics is resolutely and repeatedly rejected…  To follow Luke’s narrative is to read Christianity not as a call for insurrection but as a testimony to the reality of the resurrection.  Yet, as any number of contemporary examples might remind us – Martin Luther King Jr., to take only the most obvious – the rejection of insurrection does not simultaneously entail an endorsement of the present world order, as if the fact that Jesus was δíĸαιοѕ necessitates Luke’s approval of the crucifixion.  In fact, according to Acts, the refusal of statecraft could well go hand in hand with the deconstruction of mantic-based economics or with the burning of magical books (Philippi and Ephesus).  Equally well would withstanding the temptation to messianic military might include, rather than preclude, the naming of traditional pagan deities as “vain things” (Lystra)…  Thus if the scene before Gallio articulates normatively the conviction that the state is not equipped to discern theological truth – or, to put it in more directly political terns, is not ultimately sovereign – Paul’s testimony before Festus clarifies theologically why this is so.  The gentiles attempt to see with closed eyes, in darkness, without light.

     Realizing that this Christological construal of universal lordship makes sense only in a reading of the world that from the outside appears upside down should help to facilitate a still further step in the reversal of our typical way of thinking…it does so on the basis of a more startling claim: Jesus, the bringer of peace, simply is the Lord of all, and the mode of being that is Caesar’s represents a violent refusal of this universal Lordship.  Differently said, Caesar is the challenger, not of course because Jesus wants to rule the empire, but in the sense that the self-exaltation necessary to sustain Caesar’s political project is inevitably idolatrous.”