Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say November 1? All Saints Day

   After many years, All Saints day actually falls on a Sunday! – and as I write this weeks in advance, we are preparing for the possibility of not being together in the sanctuary. Hauntingly fitting, as this is the day we take note of being together with those who aren’t here, who have departed, the communion of the saints.

   How to preach All Saints, without being sappy or boringly predictable? Our texts open windows for us into broad spaces that are far more intriguing than simply Mama has gone to heaven or Daddy’s playing golf with grampa every day and we’ll join them by and by. How vapid and self-indulgent is so much of what our people believe about heaven? And they probably derived all this from some place…

   I do love the notion of church as a family of love, perhaps on All Saints more than any other day. In Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Animal Dreams, we read how the citizens of a town called Grace observed the Day of the Dead: lavishly decorating the cemetery, nothing solemn, but much laughter, running, and many flowers. "Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones.  The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care.  It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead.  In these families you would never stop being loved.."

   And before turning to our texts, I'll add a great line from Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Jack. Della, who falls in love with Jack, the prodigal of the Boughton f
amily, speaks of the mystery, the image in all of us and those we've loved: "Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery – you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it."

   Consider these 3 texts: Revelation 7:9-17. John is granted a glimpse into heaven, not a gigantic palatial estate in the sky where you go after death, but ultimate reality right now, as dual plots are being played out before our very eyes. The world is plodding along in horrific directions; but Augustine’s “city of God” is there too, for those who can see, a cosmic battle being waged over our souls and history itself.

   For those who can see – and hear. Fascinating that John “looked” (v. 9) – but then the report is mostly about what he “heard.” We cannot see eternity, or heaven, but we hear, we overhear, and the hearing induces hope and confidence. Heaven, as we hear of it, is lots of bowing and worshipping. Not like going to church all day every day, but being awed and allured by the stupendous wonder that is God that we just won’t be able to take our eyes off the throne of grace.

   I wonder as we near the end of 2020 if it’s worth being attentive to “Those who have been through the great ordeal.” Bible and the life of faith are about enduring ordeals. The first readers (hearers actually!) of Revelation knew family and friends who had lost their lives, not to a disease but to Roman persecution. They wear white robes washed in red blood (gory… and what does this image do to ways we try to think about race?). And I just want in my sermon to name, and ponder, without any explanation, that “the Lamb will be their shepherd.” Lambs need shepherds. The shepherd manages the lambs. But in God’s redeemed creation, the lamb is the shepherd. In preaching, we don’t have to explain everything or provide a takeaway. It’s just a real ahhhh moment.

   1 John 3:1-3. You could preach a pretty long series of sermons on this text, which should be read very slowly, maybe repeated, pausing on this or that marvel. We are, not we hope to be, God’s children now. And yet there is a “what we will be” not revealed to us yet. When will that be? Not “When we all get to heaven,” but rather “When he is revealed.” It’s all about him, not us! In that realization, “We will be like him.” Am I now? Yes, we’re God’s children now. Am I unlike Jesus? Heck, absolutely. But then we will be like him – just as he became like us in the incarnation.

   As my father died this year, I am toying with telling how, late in his life, when he was alone in his nursing home under Covid restrictions, and not facile at a laptop or the phone, I started copying out on big pieces of paper photos of him from his life: a few I had from his childhood and adolescence, when he was in the Air Force, his parents, his siblings. He loved this. Understatement. It gave him joy, and regret. The photo I found of his wedding to my mother: he called me (a rarity), beamed over how very beautiful she was, and cried that he'd been unable to love her enough to keep their marriage together. "We are not yet who we will be." We're not nothing! We're a lot, a lot of memories, dreams, delights, wounds, fears. God will redeem all of that, not shuck it or leave it behind when we become "like him."

   But how this will happen? “We will see him as he is.” When we see him, really see him, not our fantasies about him or projecting our image of whatever onto him, but as he is, that will make us like him, we will be awed and unable to take our eyes off him – and thus we will be like him, as he will be our vision, our heart, our total reality. I’m circling. Preachers can circle. Let people be drawn into the circle. There’s no moral takeaway, no “go thou and do likewise” here. It’s just a marvel to behold. We may rightly covet the saints we’ve lost, for they are already living fully in this circle of being lost in wonder, love and praise. They inspire us.

   “See” is idete, like Behold! And then there’s that little nothing of a word, “what.” What what? According to Raymond Brown, this “what” expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.” Volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of): God’s love makes us God’s children.  Jesus spoke of becoming like children – and I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”

   Matthew 5:1-12. I explored the Beatitudes in another blog for All Saints 3 years ago, touching on each line and its implications – a little digest there of my book The Beatitudes for Today. There, and often, I’ve said this text is not prescriptive, it’s not a list of commands, like “Go be meek!” or “Go make peace!” Jesus simply blesses people. And it’s autobiographical – so the blessed are those who are like him (echoing 1 John 3!). But I do wonder, today, as we draw near to the end of 2020, if we might lean in a bit to suggesting Jesus is commending habits and dispositions here. In our day, we might strive for some poverty of spirit. We have good cause to mourn; so many griefs and losses, all the more if we ponder what Bob Pierce envisioned (“Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”). Meekness would serve us political ideologues well. Mercy, purity of heart, making peace. Even being persecuted, suffering ofr faith. We live in a day when this actually happens, although it’s usually in surprising ways, right?

   Of course, as it’s All Saints’ Day, the accent may well fall on “Blessed are those who mourn.” We come mourning, indeed – but we grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Again, I trust the reading of the names in God’s holy place more than I trust my frail words to express the hope of the Gospel!

What can we say November 8? 23rd after Pentecost

   I wonder how these texts will play the Sunday after a hotly contested election - and what mood people will be. I suspect they all speak, to grief, to hope, the "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (theologically presuming neither "side" is the one way to do so).

   1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a rich text that in a way reiterates All Saints: “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” The world does its grieving, but it’s trivial, isn’t it? At a funeral “gathering party,” for there was no service, everyone sang “I Did It My Way” and then danced the Macarena, fondly recalling the deceased. Insufficient. Cute. We say a person lives on in memory. But not for long. We have hope, and not just for a ticket into heaven to continue endlessly the life we’ve enjoyed (like dancing the macarena, or even hearing Elvis himself….). Hope is finding yourself by sheer grace as a small but infinitely important and beloved part of God’s redemption of all history and all creation. And everything is transformed. No surprise Paul could say, in v. 18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” I’m encouraged just suggested that we encourage one another with these words.

   Paul’s phrase “The Lord shall descend” found its way into Horatio Spafford’s hymn composed in the wake of the deaths of his children at sea, “It Is Well.” Upper Room is publishing a book I’ve written about the theology of hymns – and on this one, my mind is drawn to Julian of Norwich. Seminarians may recall nothing else about her, except that she said “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Actually, those were words Jesus himself spoke to her. In the year 1373, she had a series of visions in which she saw the crucified Christ, who conversed with her. The “All shall be well” is the centerpiece of much profound theological exploration in her report of her visions.

   It may seem a bit naïve to sum up the Gospel as “All shall be well.” This is the kind of trivial spirituality people love, that everything is good, life is sweet, and tomorrow will be a happy day. But Jesus said this to Julian as she wrestled with stark realities of suffering and sin. She lived in a small brick cell in the city of Norwich during the Great Plague of Europe. More than half the population of Norwich perished. The Hundred Years War was simultaneously raging, and the worst schism in history was tearing the church asunder. In such a terrifying, insecure, bleak moment, Jesus told her, and those who listened to her, and us who read her today, “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

   Part of me wants to argue with him, or her. Yes, but… Yet seminarians remember those words, and they linger in my heart. Just hearing them, defying muddy reality, despite the news of the worlds crumbling around us, and our own personal losses and fears, brings inexplicable but certain comfort. I believe it. All really will be well. In the moment of hearing it, or saying it myself, I believe. Or singing it…

   I never quite warm up to Matthew 25:1-13, although I love the catchy anthem, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” It’s weirdly easy to moralize about such an eschatological text. Jesus could get away with it. But me? And is it sound to get creative with such a text? Gerhard Lohfink complains about modern readings that sympathize with the foolish virgins, who are shut out as the “stigmatized, suffering and humiliated.” We should share our oil with them! The Darwinian prepared virgins lack solidarity and harbor “concealed violence” against those unprepared: “This shears the point off of Jesus’ parable and perverts the whole thing. The issue is not one of solidarity, readiness to help or tolerance, but the neglected kairos, the hour not seized.”

   So I will preach on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. I rarely title sermons, but I may go with “As for me and my house,” the title of Walter Wangerin’s fantastic book about marriage, which I’d commend to you, as I do to couples preparing to marry or trying to recover. The Christian couple focuses on values, on serving the world, on being Christ’s Body, on (as we say in the wedding liturgy) being “a haven of blessing and peace”… “so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”

   Geography matters here. Shechem, today, is part of the contested, tense West Bank. The topography is rugged, rocky, not the easiest drive. Back in the Bronze Age, Israel hadn’t conquered the entire land. Canaanites still controlled the main roads, and the marginalized Israelites had to scrape for whatever they could manage.  In other words, Israel lived in a hostile environment, as a minority, and religiously, as a downright weird sect. {The same was true for early Christianity...}

   The question for them was the same for us: What does it mean today to make the choice they made – that we will serve the Lord, this Lord, the biblical God, Jesus Christ, and not all the others? The preacher is wise, periodically, to remind good Christians that many gods compete for our attention and loyalty.

   In the case of Joshua 24 there is even a peculiar wrinkle: Joshua says “Put away the gods your fathers served.” Does he mean Mesopotamian or Egyptian idols? Or even the gods known to Abraham, Lot, Jacob, etc.? What idols did your parents, whom you love and adore and owe so much to, serve? Jesus spoke of pitting father against son. He’s not stirring up family strife, but pressing for a choice. Many of our parents imbibed the whole civil religion thing of the good American life, American superiority, maybe the god of money and upward mobility, maybe those darker deities that bedevil us still on race or jingoism. How do we invite our people to shed even their parents’ lovely ideals, which may even have panned out marvelously, in order to serve the true and living God?

   And what does this theological God-choice look like? Not just mental assent, but very practical stuff, how you farm, your job, what you buy, how you treat people, especially different people. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord – so do we grab the latest gadget? Do we join in neighborhood banter making fun of somebody? Do we give church a skip to get to the golf tournament? Do we turn off the gadgets and TV and observe Sabbath? Examples abound.

   If it’s a Communion Sunday: “as for me and my house” involved food. How do we eat, what do we eat (and drink), and why? With whom do we eat? Jesus gave us a very do-able yet rarely-heeded command: “When you give a dinner, do not invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor, maimed, lame and blind – and if they don’t come, go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.” As for me and my house… we are at least going to try this.

   I laugh out loud when I get to Joshua 24:19. Having stirred the crowd into a resounding commitment to serve, Jacob surprisingly replies, “But you cannot serve the Lord.” What?? I can’t serve the Lord you just asked me to serve? We have here a humbling, a recognition at the outset that our most determined zeal to serve God will falter, be imperfect, or just a huge mess. I’m drawn to C.S. Lewis’s clever wisdom in Screwtape Letters, which envisions the devils plotting to do us in. I love this one: “My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”

  My newest book, Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life series) is out - and as we're heading toward Advent, my book on carols and their theology might be of use in preaching or in groups: Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections.

What can we say November 15? 24th after Pentecost

   Sometimes, for fun, I’ll do a little quick romp through the lectionary texts, teasing folks with “I thought on Monday I’d talk with you about text #1… but by Tuesday I was pondering text #2…” (with little hints, a few details from each one as I go), “but then I settled on text #3.” This week is perfect for this – and the very method draws people’s attention to the variety and wonder of Scripture, and that Christians do what you’re doing in front of them, pondering, digging around for something.

   Judges 4:1-7 is the kind of text that could well induce people to read more Bible – although how would you squeeze a sermon out of it. Jabin rules in Hazor (which is a fabulous archaeological site!), illustrating that Israel clearly had not conquered all of the land. Back in the Bronze Age, Palestine was segmented, not a nation at all, with tribal chieftains defending and occasionally expanding their turf.

   The mighty Deborah – how we wish we knew more about her! Antiquity features the occasional woman of valor and fame – although each is the exception that proves the rule we still live with in much of the world. What a lovely detail: “She used to sit under ‘the palm of Deborah’ to judge.” This must have been a memorable visitable tree long after Deborah was no more.

   Here’s the vivid, movie-worthy moment: in v. 7 she says “I will draw out Sisera and give him into your hand.” In short order, he was not only drawn out, but wound up with a tent peg hammered into the temple of his head – only slightly less graphic than in the previous chapter when Ehud, pretending to bear a secret message, plunges a sword into the obese King Eglon’s belly – and the sword disappeared into the folds of flesh.

   Such stories might help people understand how the Bible isn’t a collection of sweet spiritual platitudes, but exposes real life at its most grim – and that somehow God is there too.

   1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is similarly titillating, so I’ll touch quickly on the bizarre simile that the Lord will come “like a thief.” But not only are you not ready (unless you have some guns? - who would dare to preach "If you're armed to protect your home, you might kill Jesus coming to visit"?), but the thief comes to rip you off. “Keep awake, don’t get drowsy” is fair counsel to your people while you’re preaching (I love the old joke about the preacher who dreamed he was preaching, and when he woke up, he was). Paul speaks of a couple of armor items here, clearly not as fully developed as Ephesians 6. “Encourage one another” truly could stand as a 3 word sermon. I’ll tease them and say “I thought I’d preach this 3 word sermon and just sit down, for this could keep y’all busy all this week and the rest of your life.”

   Matthew 25:14-30. However, we will delve a bit more fully into the Gospel reading, so vapidly treated in so many sermons. I’m groaning or snoring already, hearing the grinning preacher ask “What talents has God given you? Use them for the Lord, don’t hide ‘this little light of mine’ but ‘let it shine.’” Gerhard Lohfink quite right points out that shortly after these words, they arrested Jesus and crucified him: “Nobody is executed for teaching nothing more than bourgeois morality.” I’d add that, while we think the kingdom will dawn if we get out people to fill out spiritual gifts inventories, those religious strengths-finders, the larger truth is that in Scripture God doesn’t seem to use people’s abilities so much as their frailties, their brokenness, their avail-ability. Moses can’t speak, Jeremiah is too young, Isaiah isn’t holy, Jonah bolts in the opposite direction, Gideon has too many soldiers. What are your weaknesses? Where are you broken? That’s where the Spirit will use you.

   Lohfink notices something I’d not noticed: the businessman is not just wealthy, but a “boaster.” To him, these huge sums are “a few things, or “a little.” His business practices are exploitative: “I reap where I did not sow.” Slaves 1 and 2 are worthy of him, matching his finagling, lightning-fast action, risk taking strategies. Lohfink muses: “What a bold move, to make a statement about the reign of God in terms of immoral material.”

   Here’s the other thing about these “talents.” The Greek talanta isn’t an ability. We should translate talanta as “a huge bucket full of solid gold” or “a bank CEO megabonus” or “winning the Ohio lottery.” Only the muscular could even pick up a talanton, as one might weigh fifty or seventy five pounds. Each would be worth around 6,000 denarii, which today (by some scholars’ reckoning) would be much more than I have earned in my twenty five years in the ministry, or twenty of those flasks of pure nard Mary wasted on the feet of Jesus that so mortified the disciples. Jesus’ stories always do this: outlandish hyperbole, mind-boggling, absurd in scope, to make his point about the unfathomable marvel of the kingdom. The kingdom is that valuable.

   Imagine the listeners, poor laborers: no one listening would have the slightest clue about how to invest a single talanton, much less 5, any more than you or I would know what to do with $74 million. You just let your jaw drop, lost in wonder, love and praise. What a far cry from the little The Kingdom Assignment book churches were snapping up a few years back. Pastor Denny Bellesi doled out $10,000 in $100 increments to church members, declaring that 1. The $100 belongs to God, 2. You must invest it in God’s work, and 3. Report your results in 90 days. Those reports were startling: people made money hand over fist to contribute to the Church, creative ministries were hatched, lives were transformed, people wept for joy – all covered by NBC’s Dateline.  So American. Why on earth would I give somebody $100 and say “This belongs to God,” implying that the other half million in his investment portfolio is his? Or to suggest God is the best “deal” ever?

   What about the dumb, wicked servant? In Jesus’ day, burying money was regarded as prudent, and he no doubt expects to be commended. But he gets a verbal thrashing from the master. If this parable is Jesus’ intimation that an astonishingly ravishing gift has been unloaded upon an unsuspecting Church that has not the faintest notion how to handle, then might it be that the parable solicits from us not the offering up of our individual abilities, but rather the frank, embarrassing admission of our corporate inability? We populate Church committees with the best people for the task at hand, and in meetings they confidently offer insights from their education and professional experience.

   But maybe what God needs is people who will huddle up, shake their heads and confess, “We just have no idea; the Treasure is too big, too heavy.” Maybe then, and only then, we can dare something for God. God gives the Gospel not to me so my ability can be put to good use, but to us so our inability might be exposed, and God thereby glorified.

   If it’s stewardship season, you have to ask if this thinking would ruin or prosper your campaign. But is your current campaign approach fruitful, or just numbingly dull and ineffective. I wheedle and cajole, we print and mail catchy material, I plead from the pulpit. How pathetic. Isn’t that the equivalent of the burial of the one talanton, and isn’t it the harbinger of the burial of the Church? The Gospel isn’t being unleashed if some percentage of Church members start to think of an extra $100 or so as belonging to God, or even if the most clever stewardship campaign in history magically seduced a majority of mainline Protestants into actually tithing. The Gospel is too big for such trifles. Surely it is only to the dumbfounded, to the clueless, to the overwhelmed, to those who are under no illusion they have ever known quite what to do because of Jesus and don’t pretend it could ever be otherwise – to those alone this crafter of Trojan horses says “Well-done, good and faithful servant.”  
  My newest book, Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life series) is out - and as we're heading toward Advent, my book on carols and their theology might be of use in preaching or in groups: Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections.

What can we say November 22? Christ the King

   What an intriguing day, this 57th anniversary of the deaths of John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis! Peter Kreeft imagined a fascinating conversation between them - and Aldous Huxley, who also died on November 22, 1963! - in his quirky book, Between Heaven and Hell.

   Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. We don’t linger much over the line in Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down,” and this lying down is repeated and pivotal in Ezekiel 34. For sheep to lie down, for anybody to chill, you have to be safe. You don’t have to run. You’ve been fully bed. How many in our world flat out can never just “lie down”? But God’s goal for all people, not just the enfranchised, is that they be able to “lie down.”

   Israel, along with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, often depicted their leaders as shepherds.  We overdo the Oh, poor, humble shepherds notion.  In that culture, flocks could number in the thousands, requiring immense administrative skill. 

   It is lovely to ponder the image that God, Israel’s ultimate shepherd, “will search for my lost sheep” – the basis of one of Jesus’ greatest parables.  The tenderness of this shepherd is evident: seeking good pasture, arranging for the sheep to lie down and rest, binding up the crippled sheep (instead of just leaving them) – all summarized by the homiletically pregnant “I will feed them in justice.”  Ah, justice, mishpat in Hebrew, the kind of biblical justice that says everybody will be cared for; that’s the just society.  This is the kind of realm where Christ is king; he is this kind of King.

   Sometimes I like, in preaching, to imagine things we don’t know about.  I try to picture the shepherds in Bethlehem, the ones who heard the angelic choir – but a month before Jesus was born.  One more dull night, then another, with no idea what was coming, or if anything was coming at all.  I wonder how much we live like them, bored, stuck, and yet there is something marvelous on the horizon we can’t predict or detect.

   Then Ezekiel takes a harsher turn, with sheep and goats (or fat and lean – even worse!) being differentiated, judged, treated shabbily even if fairly.  Of course, our Gospel reading portrays the very same scenario.  There is judgment.

   Ezekiel’s other unanticipated turn is questioned by Robert Jenson: “Does not Ezekiel contradict himself? He has made much of how great it will be when the Lord himself takes over from the earthly shepherds. But suddenly David is to be the shepherd.”  Theologically, “the Good Shepherd must be at once God and a descendent of David. And that is exactly what classical Christology says of Jesus the Christ.”  Lest you think he is imposing a later Christian reading on an Israelite text, he semi-snarky rejoinder: “Our reading is alien to the text only if the Christian doctrines adduced are not true.”  Vintage Jenson.  Preacher beware, though… Don’t rob the OT of its specificity – or from our friends the Jews, for whom this is their Scripture.  The text can stand on its own.

   Turning to Ephesians 1:15-23.  What a dense, stunning, rich marvel this is; you could preach a long series on this text.  Turns out in Greek it is one very, very long single sentence of 169 words!  The NRSV sticks 3 periods in, but it’s just one sentence.  I dare you to diagram that sentence! Gratitude is a dominant theme, fitting for this week of Thanksgiving.  Again, what is the Christian to be grateful for?  A boatload of food and a comfy den?

   Paul is reporting on his praying. Do we have a gimme-list, a health update as our praying?  Paul prays for “wisdom and revelation” – and that “the eyes of your heart will be enlightened.”  You might turn to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince:  “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 
 I am more drawn to this: St. Francis of Assisi came to be St. Francis because he prayed a single prayer, over and over, day after day, while kneeling before a crucifix in the small, crumbling church San Damiano: “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do what is truly your most holy will.”

   We need enlightenment, and wisdom; and Francis’s dream in this prayer was that he might not just know but actually do God’s most holy will.  In Eph. 1, Paul’s purpose is “that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”  Three things about hope.  (1) It is not a shriveled up thing, but something too grand for the mind to comprehend.  Allen Verhey and Joseph Harvard (in that Belief theological commentary series), noting the primal theme of hope in this overwhelming spillage of verbiage, suggest “This hope is immeasurable – and almost unspeakable. But Paul speaks it anyway.”

   (2) Hope, for Paul, isn’t a spiritual attitude.  Markus Barth, in his massive and rich Anchor Bible commentary, explains: “When Ephesians speaks of hope, the emphasis lies not so much on the mood of the person hoping as on the substance or subject matter of expectation.  Hope is equated with the thing hoped for.” 

   I love Christopher Lasch’s impeccable distinction between hope and optimism.  “Hope doesn’t demand progress; it demands justice, a conviction that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope appears absurd to those who lack it.  We can see why hope serves us better than optimism.  Not that it prevents us from expecting the worst; the worst is what the hopeful are prepared for.  A blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”

   (3) And notice how Paul deftly hinges hope to calling – almost as if calling comes first.  The called are those who have hope.  Because you’re called, you have hope.  Getting it backwards leaves people trying to figure God and their personal future out before listening to anything vocational.  That’s inverted, from Paul’s point of view.

    All preachers would be wise to spend time with Walter Wink (Naming the PowersUnmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers), or others who have probed this notion of “principalities and powers.”  We read the world too thinly if we just see politicians and armies and social trends.  There are cosmic powers behind it all, in it all, and tugging on you, me and the church at every moment.

   And speaking of the church:  clearly Paul has zero interest in personal salvation.  We have hope and are called as members of Christ’s church.  What a beautiful, fitting and compelling image of our life together!  Paul explicates this more fully in 1 Corinthians, of course.  But the Body is right here in Ephesians – and we may humbly recall Martin Luther King’s eloquent assessment in his letter from the Birmingham jail:  “I see the church as the body of Christ. But oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformist.”

   Matthew 25:31-46. I used to love this text – a weird thing to say, I know. Before I get to why I did, let me share my hesitancy nowadays. The whole idea of separating sheep from goats appeals to way too many people. I love the wheat and tares story: we are better together! I don’t want my people for a nanosecond to drool over feeling sheep-like in distinction from those goats over there.

   But it’s Jesus, right – and his very last sermon before facing crucifixion. Salvation, for Jesus, evidently is way more or even far different from responding emotionally at a revival, or saying Yes at Confirmation, or declaring I was born again on June 18. There is doing, action, a whole lifestyle – not of “goodness,” but the harder yet more joyful work of God’s kingdom.

   Mother Teresa made a life out of taking this passage seriously, and actually doing it. The whole vision of What we do for those in need we do for Jesus is huge, and could transform everything we do as a church in outreach. Food? Do you drop it off or share it with a real person, befriending them? Clothing: do you drop off old, worn-out jackets or pants you don’t care for anymore? Or buy something new, or shop with someone? Visiting the sick. During coronavirus, I could not visit my dad. What is it to visit those who are hurting? Those in prison? We typically blame prisoners for being at fault, or a huge problem to society. But Jesus says Meet them, know them, love them.

   I recall a minister I met when I was young: Gordon Weekley, once a prominent Baptist pastor in Charlotte who succumbed to prescription medication abuse, then amphetamines, wound up on the streets – but then was miraculously cured and engaged in stunningly transformative ministry to the addicted and homeless. He handed me a copy of an anonymous piece I’ve seen many times since – but somehow, coming from him, I was transfixed, and determined to lead churches that are different:
   “I was hungry, and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger; I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release; I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance; I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health; I was homeless, and you preached to me of spiritual shelter and the love of God; I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God – but I am still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.” Jesus says Bring me, in the person of the poor, food.

   I wonder, in preaching, if I could find somebody near me who is doing each thing Jesus suggests. Whom do I know who visits the prison, and does he have a story? Whom do I know who welcomes strangers? People need to see these things in reality. I wonder if we have a set of signups, real live opportunities: this week, come with us to the local prison Tuesday at 4; this week, we are delivering food to the women at the shelter; this week, we are carpooling to the mosque for a hummus-making class with new Muslim friends.  Something…..

What can we say November 29? Advent 1

   I always count it as some good fortune when Advent 1 falls before December 1. No pressure to make things Christmasy. I wonder how Christmas will feel for people as the wind-down of the downright bizarre year we’ll never forget: 2020. All month I may ponder Madeleine L’Engle’s great poem about Jesus’ coming: “That was no time for a child to be born, with the earth betrayed by war and hate… In a land in the crushing grip of Rome; honor and truth were trampled by scorn – yet here did the Savior make His home. When is the time for love to be born? The inn is full on planet earth, and by a comet the sky is torn – Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”
   Isaiah 64:1-9, before it was a preaching text in the lectionary, was a communal lament. Biblical people knew how to come together, as a nation, not to cheer or fight but to lament, to confess, to plead together for God’s help and redemption. I don’t expect us to be able to do the same, but naming that they did and we can’t opens a window.
   Verses 10-12 shouldn’t have been lopped off the lectionary reading, as they clarify the devastation in question: Jerusalem reduced to rubble, cities burned, but then God’s thundering “silence” when some word is so desperately required. This notion of God hiding from us: not only does it feel this way to our people. Scott Bader-Saye reminds us that this image “disabuses Israel of any notion that God belongs to them or can be contained or controlled by them.”
   The very plea to “tear open the heavens and come down” implies there is a thick veil (in how we feel but even in reality!) between us and God. It required an almost violent act, a wounding, a cutting open. What we wish God would do, and what God will do, are not identical anyhow: v. 3, “You did awesome deeds we did not expect.” Can I think of a time in my life or in history when God did something that wasn’t what I wanted or thought I needed? I think of my church member giving me, as a parting gift after 12 years in his parish, his old pocket knife. I’d never wanted one – but it was the best gift ever, because it was his precious thing, and also that when he handed it to me he said “Carry this in your pocket, and when you’re having a bad day, feel it down there and remember somebody loves you.”
   St. Augustine must have loved v. 6: even our righteous deeds are like a dirty garment. We’re proud of what good we do. But it’s not only not enough. It’s not what God is seeking – our goodness. Bonhoeffer shrewdly exposed the way our goodness can be a dreadful substitute to doing God’s will. When we are good, we keep our hands clean. But God asks us to get our hands dirty for God. How to disabuse people, not only that God belongs to us, but that our goodness isn’t what God is looking for?
   Our text asks us to weep and lament. Not very Christmasy – but very Advent-ish. I wonder if this is the year we invite our people to sorrow, repentance, fasting, humility? A few years back I invited a local potter, not a religious person at all, to interview with me during my sermon time. It was fascinating. Clay is “wonky,” it must be “redeemed” (these are potter words, weirdly resonant theologically!) – and more. Find a potter. Chat about making pottery. Report on Sunday.
   1 Corinthians 1:3-9 won’t make my sermon – although as a preacher I should not Paul’s rhetorical strategy. He flatters his readers – as a prelude to diving into deep waters of trouble and summons to change! Can you feel his searing sarcasm in “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” given the rest of his letter?
   Mark 13:24-37. Oh my. I’m no good at preaching these apocalyptic texts, mostly because I’ve heard it done so badly, and have never quite recovered from my days of being badgered by friends who’d read Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series and, like clever gnostics, knew Jesus was about to come and I was toast. The hints and clues, like the fig, recur, don’t they, which doesn’t make this or that expectation wrong – but that the world is always in a heap of trouble, and we live on that “eager tiptoe of expectation,” or readiness. Hopefully. A sober realization of the mess, creation’s dire need for redemption to dawn, and soon, is light years from the arrogant Gnosticism that prides itself on its insider knowledge of heavenly timetables. I love the old idea from some medieval rabbi responding to the question, If you’re heading out to plant a tree, and you learn the Messiah is coming later that day, what do you do? Answer: plant the tree.
   On the “staying awake,” I admire Lillian Daniel’s wisdom (in Feasting on the Word) that our people are “already operating in a state of sleep deprivation.” Given how busy we are, especially during a month like December, this just may be “the season to pass out the sleeping pills or the chamomile tea, to a revved-up, overcaffeinated culture of busy-ness.” I might sit next to Jesus on the Mount of Olives and say “in 2020 though, don’t stay awake, but take a nap, rest, learn Sabbath, the solitude that isn’t loneliness.”

What can we say December 6? Advent 2

  The first two weeks of Advent always intrigue, puzzle, buffalo and challenge me. I want to observe and invite my people into the realities of Advent. They aren’t entirely in a Christmasy mood just yet, so there’s hope. I sure want me preaching on the texts to help them angle themselves toward the coming of the Lord.

   Psalm 85 is one of my favorite texts in any season. Verse 10 alone, to me, offers the most hopeful alternative to the hostile, angry, cynical world in which we find ourselves. A kiss: nothing tawdry or illicit here, but a tender kiss. The kiss: the gentlest affection. A mother kisses her newborn. I kissed my father’s forehead on my last visit before he died. It’s your mouth that kisses, the part of you that speaks, smiles, eats and drinks, takes in the body and blood of our Lord, the part of your body that sighs (think Romans 8!).

   This particular kiss is so counter-cultural, in its tenderness, in its compassion, in its hopefulness – but also in a world where ideology and spin will clobber one another in a nanosecond. Facts and biases fling mud at one another. But Scripture, here in Advent, suggest not winners and loser, or thumping foes, but a gentle kiss – after the meeting of the virtues and theological dreams we all harbor underneath all the rancor: it’s steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (’emet) that in this lovely Psalm’s vision simply meet, not fighting, but looking, listening, open, anxious but hopeful. And then: it is righteousness (zedek) and peace (shalom) will kiss one another.

   What genius. What inspiration – and in a Psalm! The love, the commencement of a tender, ongoing relationship, between realities estranged from all of us, weirded out in our world, yet enduring, godly, holy, the dream of the ages. Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace, gathering, not distancing, but embracing, even kissing. If I see, witness, contemplate, and get absorbed into what this is all about, I am transformed. So are the people to whom I preach.

   Mark 1:1-8. Astonishing that the lectionary’s Mark simply skips over the birth. As if Christmas was nothing! Perhaps Mark alone can reveal to us what Christmas really is about. It is good news – and news!!! The word “news” – in our world where we barely endure a torrent of bad news, not to mention issues of trust and spin over what is news, what is “fake news.” Jesus is good news. How does the preacher capture the surprise, the unexpected, in all this?

   Mark sees Jesus’ advent as the “beginning,” the arche, the Genesis, the creation. Something unprecedented is afoot, not a percentage improvement on what we’ve managed for ourselves, but something radically different, shocking, enlightening, hopeful.

   It begins in “repentance.” The Greek metanoia, is not feeling guilty, repentance as remorse, but as a change of mind – and one that entails forgiveness. The Greek aphesis derives from aphiemi, which doesn’t mean having warm fuzzy feelings about the other who’s wounded you terribly, but rather simply letting to, dropping the whole affair. You forgive, because of this Jesus. You let old stuff go. You drop it to the floor and don’t look back. How is Advent a season of letting go, of letting old hurts and wound go?

   Back to the Old Testament then: Isaiah 40:1-11. We’ll have some tenor sing Handel’s “Comfort Ye.” And I’ll speak of the great highways of victory the Babylonians paved and marched along in triumph – and how in this case God’s way for Israel was a very real road back home. The glory of God is God’s people returning home. I’ll ponder this in my sermon: “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us” (Frederick Buechner). During December, we’ll sing and hear “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and “Through the Years We All Will Be Together” – which I reflect on in my little Advent book on the theology of Christmas carols, Why This Jubilee? – which I’d commend to you and your people, as a group study but also for preaching.

   So thinking about these texts, and the whole idea of “home,” especially “home for Christmas,” I’d refer preachers to a fabulous podcast, “Dolly Parton’s America,” which is just stunningly good and entertaining. A couple of its best episodes explore this feel of “home” in light of her song, “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” She built a huge theme park around a replica of her actual childhood home. She calls this the “golden thread that keeps me tied to Eternity.” Tourists flock to it by the thousands. They’re having fun, but many report being touched by some deep memory and yearning. What’s downright shocking is how popular her song is in countries like Kenya, England and Lebanon, where southern hillbilly culture could not be more alien. It’s that home-shaped hole in the heart of every person, God calling to us “softly and tenderly,” “Come home.”

   Yesteryear. For me, the home in my heart wasn’t a house where my nuclear family lived. We were a transient Air Force family that moved a lot, and my parents were at war with one another. So for me, it was my grandparents’ home in a sleepy middle of nowhere town called Oakboro. My memory of it is expansive, as if it were a huge mansion. When I went back to visit decades after my grandparents had died, I was a bit stunned by its actual size, just a small bungalow of no architectural distinction. Nostalgia, or my God-given ache for home, grew the place, the space in my soul. I wanted to go back still, and be welcomed home as I’d been as a wee one. I did stand in the yard for a few minutes, and wondered what it was like when my dad returned there from World War II, back in the days of no communication, so many young boys killed in action – but then my dad, in his early twenties, being embraced with shouts and tears, probably a lot like the homecoming Jesus pictured when that prodigal finally found his way down the road to home.

   What did St. Augustine tantalize us with? “You made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We know this restless sense of yearning for home but never quite settling in. Carl Sandburg wrote that Abraham Lincoln never felt at home in any one of the 31 rooms of the White House. Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant tells the story of Ezra Tull inheriting Mrs. Scarlatti’s restaurant, where he’d worked. He renamed it the Homesick Restaurant; instead of a menu, you’d share what food you were homesick for, and they’d cook it for you. God seems to have fashioned us with this hankering for home, and yet with the same weird wiring of reality that stirs the sensation that you’re never quite there. It might feel like some nostalgia for some hazy yesteryear that maybe wasn’t as marvelous as you recall it being. But what is nostalgia anyhow? The word derives from Greek roots meaning an ache for home. Maybe there’s no memory of such a place. But you want it, you crave it, you’re driven by the quest to figure out just where and what it is. Isn’t Advent precisely this search for home?

What can we say December 13? Advent 3

   Advent 3, during such a weird Christmas season. Our texts are difficult, distant prophetic texts (doesn’t John the Baptist feel more like an Old Testament prophet than a New Testament character?), as we’re drawing a beat on Christmas. I am leaning toward Isaiah, maybe John 1, or I might fiddle with both briefly before shifting my attention to Mary. The pink candle, her Sunday. Here is a blog from a prior year on the kinds of things I like to say about her and why she matters so much for us Protestants (along with a big stash of illustrative stuff for Advent and Christmas preaching in general!). And I’d commend my chapter on her as a real pregnant young woman and someone who endured brutal labor in my book on Birth: the Mystery of Being Born (in Baker’s Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series).

   Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. My mind quickens a little when we have a text that occurs in our common liturgy. You have to admire the prophet’s “instead of”s, which are polar opposites, reminding us that Christianity isn’t being or getting 7% or even 12% better or healthier or calmer. It’s an “instead of.” The Psalm for the day (126) echoes this.

   I wonder, since God’s people will be called “the Oaks of Righteousness,” if we try to pair that idea with the presence of chopped down trees (cedars probably, not oaks!) in our homes. Isaiah’s oaks “display God’s glory.” Can we see our Christmas trees as such displays of that glory? Thomas Merton memorable said “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree” – and then asks if God isn’t asking us simply to be ourselves, to be what God made us to be, instead of lunging for something else, something determined out there instead of within.

   God’s plan has to do with “repairing ruined cities,” and so we have to ask where the ruin is in our city, in our town, and what repairing needs to be done. Examples abound, and are local. And essential since “I the Lord love justice,” the Hebrew being mishpat, which isn’t fairness or the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Biblical mishpat justice is when everyone has enough, when the neediest are cared for. So a little spasm of sentimental charity, since it’s Christmas, won’t do will it? A needy child gets an abandoned worn out coat or a plastic shovel? Ruined cities require repair, not bandaids. Justice isn’t a quickie handout but a fundamentally different way of being.

   The secret lies in the verses the lectionary weirdly lopped off. Verse 5 is about the inclusion of strangers. In our lives, in our homes, at our tables. If Christmas is anything, it is a season that invites us (albeit with Covid precautions) into new relationships with people we’ve not met. Mary and Joseph found no room in the inn. We leave room. We after all are, in another lopped off verse, “priests.” It is ours to bless, to pray with, to share relationships and life with others. How to invite our people into this during a distancing season of coronavirus but then also during Christmas, which has as its norm frivolity with family and friends?

   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24’s counsel is for the preacher, and all of us, always: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances – but of special importance during December, “Test everything” (verse 21), especially all that goes on in the name of Jesus in December! How to engage in this daunting battle without scolding or judging our people? How do we lovingly invite them into something higher, nobler, more satisfying?

   John 1:6-8, 19-28. There he is, hairy, hollering John the Baptist. I heard a sermon years ago pointing out that you can’t get to the Christchild without going through John – and how he’s in the Christmas stories but never ever on a Christmas card. I mentioned this in a sermon, and someone listening created – just for me! – history’s first John the Baptist Christmas card. It is indeed, and always has been, a season of repentance, which isn’t groveling or guilt but a metanoia, a change of mind. Maybe, as 2020 has been quite the year, this is the year we will come to changed minds and hearts, not “getting back to normal,” but stepping forward into God’s new day.