Monday, January 1, 2018

What can we say January 27? 3rd after Epiphany

  Interesting week: Nehemiah is always suggestive, and how do you not talk about Paul on the Body? Maybe we learn more about what it means to rebuild the walls, and more about being the Body, if we look closely at, and preach faithfully on Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:14-21. Mind you, the story continues through verse 30, which the lectionary completes... next Sunday. I'll comment here for both weeks.  {Here's a sermon I preached last time around on this text - including leaving the pulpit, sitting in a chair, and thumbing through the Bible...)

   Context, context, context: Jesus has just returned from being tempted in the wilderness, far to the southeast, barely surviving a brutal bout against heat, brigands, predators, and the devil himself. After the harrowing, he wanted to get back home – understandably. But not really to rest up or escape the troubles of the world for a while.

   Jesus went to the synagogue – “as was his custom.” I will mention, but hopefully not nag, that Jesus and all people close to God through history have made it their custom to be in God the Father’s house.  No single Sunday wins the day. Attending sometimes is an exercise in frustration.  It was Sabbath. Jesus went.
    No one there knew where he’d been, or what he’d endured. Church people might remember this when they see someone not entirely hospitable on the pew, or someone who is in a chilly mood. We are attentive to the ways people have been through a lot they’ve not shared with us (at least not yet) – and we welcome, accept, bear, love, and understand.  It’s our custom, right?

   Nazareth is where Jesus was “brought up.” I’ve often thought that the greatest proof that Jesus was really the one is that his brother James and his mother Mary wind up as disciples. If anybody knows you have feet of clay, it’s the family, the neighbors who knew you when you were a little kid, an adolescent. I might linger on this thought for a few moments… like those Gnostic gospels that narrate Jesus being picked on as a child, retaliating, and then relenting.
  Jesus, on this Sabbath, is the reader of Scripture. Was it his turn? Did they ask him, noteworthy holy man come home? He took the scroll. To me, as a preacher, this is well worth lingering over. He didn’t have a whole Bible, just one scroll – the book of Isaiah.
 We oddly enough have a scroll of Isaiah from Jesus’ day, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, displayed in the Israel Museum/The Shrine of the Book. It’s long (24 feet when unrolled!), and heavy (maybe 50 pounds?). For Jesus to take it in his hands, and unroll it all the way to chapter 61? This would have taken some time, and a good bit of physical strength. In my sermon I will simply ponder this amazing moment, the pregnant pause as people waited – and perhaps how reading and understanding Scripture for us takes a lot of time, and considerable effort and strength.

  The Isaiah scroll, quirkily enough, was the first one found at Qumran – as if God wanted us to find this one first, and ponder Jesus’ reading from one just like it. Scholars didn’t find it either! Some shepherd boys, messing around, peeked into a cave. One threw a rock in, and heard a clatter. Who will find God’s word? And how?
  Jesus reads from Isaiah 61. Was it Jesus’ choice – which would tell us a lot about him? Or was it the lectionary reading for the day – which would tell us a lot about God’s coincidental timing in play here?  Isaiah 61 is a text about being sent on a remarkable mission – and it’s about God’s people returning from exile. N.T. Wright has helped us understand how Jesus’ ministry is the fulfillment of Israel’s long yearning to return home from exile writ large.
  This is fascinating: the initial response of Jesus’ lifelong friends was that “all spoke well of him.” “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” – which has a touch of irony, doesn’t it? Like, Yes, but… Jesus could’ve basked in their praise – but instead went on a little rant about Elijah and Elisha in which he exposes the lackluster faith in Israel, the homers, and how God sought out and healed the despised foreigners instead.
  No wonder they got mad. The preacher might explore the ways we may not really want Scripture to be fulfilled. We like to read it in a safe classroom, or hear about it, or pick and choose moments in Scripture that pander to us. But the fulfillment of the biblical vision? Scares the daylights out of us – and we may recoil in rage.
   Talk about physical strength: they grabbed not a heavy scroll but Jesus’ own body and hauled him out to the edge of town, ready to throw him off a cliff. When I take groups to Israel, we visit the “precipice,” an impressive dropoff with astonishing views. Reading well past the lectionary’s cutoff (which we should in this case), Jesus narrowly escaped (again!) – and in verse 30 we read the startling notice that “Passing through the midst of them, he went away.” The mob, about to hurl him off the cliff, still angry, stood helpless as he simply walked, not sprinting or desperately scrambling, among them, and safely home. Reminds me of the little noticed moment in Gethsemane when the soldiers stormed up to arrest Jesus. “When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). Jesus’ physical presence must have been sething.
  Back to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah: if we were like St. Francis of Assisi, we’d make this our to-do list. And Jesus’ reading also shows us how to be the Body in the Epistle reading. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has reflected (in his book Reconstructing the Gospel) on Jesus' first sermon - and what it tells us about his priorities, and what ours probably should be too: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19).
    Jonathan points out that churches, for some reason, ignore this mission, and instead we build up and support "an institution where people like us show up to receive spiritual nourishment. Whatever material ministry the church engaged in was secondary... Works of mercy are imagined as auxiliary ministries. But what if the church was something else? What if it was the movement Jesus invited people into when he invited them to join together in setting the oppressed free?"
  His church got out a map of Goldsboro (where he was a pastor) and drew a circle with a 2-mile radius around their building and said "This is where we're called to set the oppressed free. Whatever is enslaving people, we commit to fighting it by the power of the Spirit."
 
  What if your church, if my church, laid out a map and drew a circle with a radius of 2 or 5 miles, and asked this question: Who's oppressed, and why? And what can we do (besides the frequent resort to blaming or ignoring)? What enslaves people? Alcohol? Work pressure? Outsized expectations? Lousy work environment? Racial prejudice?

  And then we make it our business to join Jesus in his business of bringing good news to those places and to those people, to work for freedom and recovery. That, indeed, would be the reconstruction of the Gospel, the dawning of God's kingdom right here, where we live, work, and worship.

What can we say February 3? 4th after Epiphany

     Super Bowl Sunday! Wait, that’s not a liturgical day. Reminds and humbles us about the degree to which not just the calendar but people’s passions are driven by passions not of our making. Maybe we can do a bit of reshaping. Epiphany 4 texts aren’t about competition, winning, or money-making, but calling, love, risk and even being a loser.

     The call story in Jeremiah 1:4-10 is a wonder you never tire of contemplating. Hopefully, the preacher will reflect on her own call – perhaps not in the sermon, but in devotion and preparation. You were called… when? How? Circumstances? Was it earlier than even you realized? Jeremiah’s call wasn’t in the womb but actually before he was in his mother’s womb!  I’m writing a book that involves a big section on life in utero. You once were ridiculously small, min-microscopic, entirely vulnerable, hardly a chooser. Doesn’t God’s call predate your independent choices, or even hearing? A fetus can detect sound at about 26 weeks! Can it hear God? At 26 weeks, still eggplant-sized, you may well have attended worship, overheard the hymns (if muffled) – and you were nourished on the Eucharist.

     Jeremiah nixes the fantasies of those who cry that religion and politics don’t mix. Jeremiah’s life and ministry didn’t just happen during the reigns of Josiah and Jehoiakim. He was directed their way, to their policies and the foolish public behavior of God’s people. And what a moment in time! Josiah ushered in soaring dreams and immense success – political, economic, and even religious. But then, tragically he was killed at age 39 (like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frederic Chopin, Amelia Earhart). What a plunge into darkness was the reign of his successor, Jehoiakim. Faked religion, cruelty to the needy, idolatry and suppression of prophecy. In both settings, Jeremiah proclaimed a message of repentance and hope.

I think I learned the word “chiasm” while studying this text. The words
     pluck up       break down
        build             plant
form an X topically. Christ was crucified on a big X, and God’s way is always pluck up and then plant, break down and then build. We would prefer God just build and plant. Marianne Williamson memorable suggested that when you invite Christ into your life, you think he’ll spruce up the place a bit. But you look out the window one day, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear the thing down; you need to start over at the very foundations.

   The preacher will be wise to make note of the call pattern in Scripture. God speaks to someone, usually unexpectedly and uninvited. The individual responds with flat out good reasons God can’t use such a person (Isaiah isn’t holy, Moses can’t speak, Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, Mary hasn’t been with a man). But God counters, needing not ability but availability. Jeremiah is too young.

     How old was he? Who knows how old a na’ar was. Fourteen? When John Paul II was inaugurated into the papacy on October 22, 1978, he spoke to the young people, telling them “You are the future of the world. You are the hope of the church. You are my hope.” We might get sentimental about youth and their naivete. But honestly: Talk to some teenagers and children about your sermon, and what God is asking the church to do. Talk to one in your sermon. See what unfolds.

    The call, like the life of the church, is about love, love for God, love for one another. I went into the ministry, not because I wanted to influence committees, meet budgets, complete denominational forms or even preach sermons. I loved Jesus, and hoped I could run a few errands for him.

    Love: 1 Corinthians 13. What a crucial, yet grossly misunderstood and winnowed down text. We hear it at weddings. But Paul wasn’t composing a poem to be read by enamored couples. Context: Paul is talking about the Body, how the parts of the Body differ, how those parts relate to one another, and how they together connect with God’s world. It’s love, pathetically vapidized in our culture – but the very fact that we know we abuse and skinny down it meaning reveals we believe in our gut there’s a real thing that’s amazing.

    My friend, colleague and copastor Uiyeon Kim preached on this at the Uniting Methodists conference in Dallas back in July. Moving, profound. Before we preach, we’d best size up how we love within the Church (or fail to), and only then ponder how we love as a Church.

   I like to ponder how church life, even administration, budgets, boards and meetings, are or could be about love; we shot this video a couple of years ago on love in church structure and administration. Jesus said the whole law is summed up in the command to love. So why not take it up any and everywhere?

    Paul is counseling the warring, arrogant Corinthians on how God’s gifts are to be used for the good of the Body. Tongues and prophecy can be divisive. Great knowledge and faith can destroy love. St. Francis of Assisi fretted when his friend St. Anthony asked to embrace a life of scholarship; he allowed it, but only with safeguards so charity would not be overshadowed. We all know people who know so much about God and the Scriptures that they lose their ability to love. St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) wrote that “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth cannot fly without Love, nor can Love soar without Truth; their yoke is one of unity.”

    The structure of 1 Corinthians 13 is instructive. Verses 1-3 speak of the necessity of love; 4-6 of its character (mirroring Christ, of course); and 8-13 speak of the endurance, the permanence of love. Paul calls Love the first of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) – so it’s not that we know how to love. Love is God’s work in, through and in spite of us. Love loves enemies. Love loves those God loves.

    Love can be daunting. In A River Runs Through It, the pastor, who lost one of his sons, preached that “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so 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.”

   Indeed. Mystery, failure to know and understand, are just fine within the Body, and in the Body’s love to the world. We see “in a mirror dimly.” Corinth was the world’s greatest producer of… yes, mirrors. The Greek, en ainigmati, as “in an enigma,” means “in a riddle.” We can love in the dark, we work to resolve what is a puzzle when we love. We listen. Or as Martin Luther King put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

    And then we come to the Gospel, Luke 4:21-31, which we covered last week when we looked at 4:14-21; check out my previous blog for that dramatic moment.

What can we say February 10? 5th after Epiphany


   Three great texts this week! Isaiah certainly, and probably 1 Corinthians also, are well worth the preacher exploring devotionally, apart from sermon preparations; both speak deeply to the clergy!

   Isaiah 6:1-13 is intriguing in so many ways. An unusually precise date and political context are provided, reminding us that Isaiah’s words aren’t the fruit of rumination, reflection or study. God spoke to him. And clearly he speaks to the political and social turmoil of his day, just as we preachers must, however delicately, however boldly we try to be courageous yet nonpartisan. Nobody called Isaiah nonpartisan…

   Isaiah 6 might challenge or heighten how we think about worship. He’s in the sanctuary, which is splendidly appointed. The room, its iconography and décor all come to life – but apparently no one else noticed. The prophet sees what others don’t see; the preacher must see what others don’t see or can’t see, or at least not yet. Did God come his way (as I’ve assumed)? Or was he what Walter Brueggemann called “an earthly intruder into the heavenly scene”?

    Might worship be as holy, as “hot” as it was for Isaiah? I remind my people periodically of what Amos Wilder wrote – so they might catch the vision: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks, the sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays, and you leave your watch outside.” Or Annie Dillard’s lovely thought: “I do not find Christians… sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

    Isaiah’s response to God’s immense holiness? He is awestruck (do we get awestruck? – as church people or even as pastors?), and as a reflex of that can only mutter “Woe is me.” Isaiah is no doubt a pretty good person, maybe even quite holy – but in the searing holiness of God’s presence, he realizes his woeful inadequacy. He is “reduced to nothing” (John Calvin). Maybe we miss out on God because we get too chummy with God.

    But he’s not shattered; being reduced to nothing, realizing our meekness is the opening for grace. Brueggemann again charts a move in this text “from the vision of splendor to the awareness of inadequacy to readiness for dispatch.” “Here Am I, send me” – and we Methodists will sing #593 (after opening with my lifetime favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”!).

   What stuns me, and might be a great help for all of us, is that God frankly informs Isaiah his ministry, which he must engage in, will in fact fail. We fret over failure; we worry about exhaustion. Otto Kaiser captured the hidden message in Isa. 6: “The preacher of the gospel, who faces the apparent failure of his ministry, and who is therefore tempted to despair, may recognize from the example of Isaiah that he is required to be wholly on the side of God in his heart, to let him be used by him as a tool, in whatever way God pleases.” – which yields “a peace and a freedom independent of outward success or failure.”

    For clergy and for your laity who feel they are failing, who are surely exhausted by the frustrating labor that is striving for God’s kingdom here on earth, I would urgently commend Marianne Williamson’s flat out brilliant Goop podcast. I’ve listened to it four times, and will again. It gives me courage, and good sense. Of course, Isaiah’s words are sealed up, and they do have an afterlife beyond his own life. A sermon may have zero impact today or tonight or this week. But years later? After you and I are dead and gone? Who knows?

    1 Corinthians 15:1-11 strikes me as a neglected but hugely important text. It’s like the creed used by the earliest Christians, has that poetic cadence, etc. What a lavish claim: people saw Jesus – not just a handful of biased guys with a vested interest, but to 500. It’s like a dare: go ask them! Hard to fool 500 about something like a resurrection. Clearly, the resurrection in question was no myth or spiritual insight. It’s physical, a real body, albeit a “spiritual,” transformed body – and it was sufficiently awe-inspiring (like Isaiah’s flying seraphim and cherubim!) as to incite less than brilliant fishermen to risk life and limb preaching the Gospel all over creation.

   Paul adds his own personal testimony. I suspect in our culture, so bogged down and confused by novels/movies like The DaVinci Code (Sir Leigh Teabing, played by Ian McKellen – Gandalf, right?? – sure looks smart and right, but it’s sheer fiction) and all those bestselling Christ-hater books, for the preacher to be able to say I know the questions, the speculations, the critics; but I, as a guy, not officially your preacher but as a person, I really do believe Jesus rose from the dead. I’ve staked my life on it. And it’s not just a belief qua belief. It is “the good news” – “in which we stand.” We stand, we don’t sit, we don’t observe. We stand up. As I have standing in, stand up for.

   And then Luke 5:1-11. Archaeologists, in one of the most amazing excavations in history, found a fishing boat in the Sea of Galilee dating to the time of Jesus. Wish it said S.S. Simon Peter on the prow! This is a boat Jesus most certainly saw. Might have stepped into it. A real boat – and so Jesus’ calling to these fishermen, for me, takes on a reality. Nothing mythic or spiritual.

    The story about the huge catch of fish is doubly interesting: Jesus does his miracle thing, but probably more importantly, their fishing business has never been better! David Lyle Jeffrey (Brazos/Luke): “At the absolute peak of their success as literal Genessaret fishermen, they forsook all and followed him.” Real guys with a business that’s booming, finally – and they abandoned all that to trek off to… well, they had no idea where, or what would happen, or how it would turn out.

    Of course, the church fathers made a big deal that a sanctuary might just look like a ship that’s upside down. The Latin word for boat, navis? Like the “nave” of the sanctuary? We are a boat. The Jesus boat, cast out onto the waters of the world, fishing for people, saving lives, bringing them safely to shore. Corny? Yeah… and holy.

What can we say February 17? 6th after Epiphany

   While I adore Psalm 1 and its clear echo/reiteration in Jeremiah 17:5-10, I do not believe I have ever preached on either text.  The image is vivid – and one the preacher would be wise to ponder for her/his own personal life.  The shrub in the dryness is contrasted with the tree planted by the river. I recall a brilliant sermon I heard (on cassette tape, if that dates it…) about trees, and how the most important things happen in the dark, unseen (the roots holding the tree upright, feeding it with water and nutrients, etc.). What’s interesting is that such a tree “will not fear” and “will not be anxious.”  Somehow coping with, embracing and redeeming fear and anxiety are about deep roots, locating oneself near flowing water. Baptism image? Jesus as living water image?

   The linkage of our Epistle and Gospel remind me of All Saints’ Day, when we ponder the resurrection hope and also the Beatitudes! The lectionary offers the preacher a four week run through the long, profound and hugely important 1 Corinthians 15. This is week 2, following week 1’s creedal and personal testimonial business about the eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. This week, 15:12-20 reveals a deep, emotional appeal, almost a pleading yelp from Paul, his rhetorical masterpieces that underline why Easter matters and all that is at stake: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain as is your faith,” and “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” and “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  The preacher will be wise simply to lift these up, with pauses and emphasis. Hard to improve upon Paul’s plaintive directness.

    It is once again essential to notice how Paul ties the resurrection to forgiveness. It’s not “If Christ isn’t raised, your faith is futile and you stay dead when you die,” but “you are still in your sins.” The New Testament everywhere gets jazzed up that Jesus was raised – for now there is forgiveness! How is forgiveness a liberation from the cold, dark bondage of the tomb? How is forgiveness as miraculous as a dead person up and walking about?

    The absence of forgiveness is very much a tomb. There must be no shortage of stories, images, and memories you might draw upon to show how resurrection, the unbolting of the chained door of death, the miraculous eruption of new life from the dead is entirely tied up with forgiveness – not that if you’re forgiven you get eternal life, but that forgiveness requires resurrection, that Jesus’ resurrection in particular is the one that unleashes a healing power so that impossible forgiveness actually happens. The Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, forgive the killer Charles Roberts, and assisted his family. For them, Jesus was raised from the dead, so they required and sought no vengeance; their sins forgiven, they could forgive.

    And then Paul’s “we are most to be pitied if our hope is in this life only.” You could easily say the life to come is fantastic and you’d be pitied to miss it. But I wonder if it’s especially pitiable to live the life of faith only for this life” – in two senses. If this life is all there is, but you’ve bet everything on eternal life, that is pathetic; you’d have been wiser to party hard and choose decadence. But then there is also the rejoinder to preachers – like me… - who get so fixated on justice and holiness and reconciliation and relationships here that we really do forget about eternity, when all we nag people about will effortlessly and simply be.

     U.C.San Diego psychologist Dr. Nicholas Christenfeld has studied whether knowing the end of the movie spoils or heightens your enjoyment of the movie – and he’s proven that it’s better to know how it’s going to end. Fascinating… and theologically intriguing. We know the end to the story – and so the rest of the story makes more sense, we get the struggle, the sorrows, the exasperation, and then we can calm down a little, and maybe be more courageous, and joyful.

     Luke 6:17-26 is, understandably, less popular than Matthew’s version of Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” Jesus clearly would have uttered these blessings many times in many places, with variations based on his crowd, what was unfolding in the news, his own temperament. Luke’s peculiarities? It’s a “level place,” not a mountain; and the immediate context is a rash of healings, and people stretching out just to touch him.

     But the major shifts are in his content. Jesus blesses not the “poor in spirit” (as in Matthew) but simply the “poor.” Clarence Jordan was once asked which was the better, original reading: “If you have a lot of money, you’ll probably say spiritual poverty. If you have little or no money, you’ll probably say physical poverty. The rich will thank God for Matthew; the poor will thank God for Luke. Who’s right? Chances are, neither one. For it is exactly this attitude of self-praise and self-justification and self-satisfaction that robs men of a sense of great need for the kingdom and its blessings. When one says ‘I don’t need to be poor in things; I’m poor in spirit,’ and another says ‘I don’t need to be poor in spirit; I’m poor in things,’ both are justifying themselves as they are saying in unison, ‘I don’t need.’ With that cry on his lips, no man can repent.”

     Recently sanctified Oscar Romero preached on this: “The world says: blessed are the rich. You are worth as much as you have. But Christ says: wrong. Blessed are the poor… because they do not put their trust in what is so transitory. Blessed are the poor, for they know their riches are in the One who being rich made himself poor in order to enrich us with his poverty, teaching us the Christian’s true wisdom.”

     The Greek word for “poor,” ptochoi, implies that they are not merely low on funds, but miserable, oppressed, humiliated.  So the miserable, oppressed and humiliated are blessed? By Jesus, yes. Remember the beatitudes aren’t commandments. Jesus looks on the poor, the humiliated, those ground into the pavement with no hope – and he blesses them, he sees them, he loves them, he makes outlandish promises to them.

     Something Matthew omitted: Jesus says “Blessed are you when they exclude you.” Being excluded, left out, passed over – an easy connecting point with your people, and maybe in your own soul, as clergy know about being excluded and passed over.

     Most intriguingly, Luke’s Jesus adds Woes. We might wish he’d stopped with the Blesseds. And his Woes are for those the world regards as blessed: the full, those laughing, the rich, those spoken well of. Again, this text, whether you preach it well or not, can cure the preacher’s soul. I want, I desperately crave to be spoken well of. Henri Nouwen pinpointed “popularity,” being liked, as one of the grave temptations of ministry. When they say Great sermon! or when they say Pastor is so wonderful! we should shiver a bit and dig deep to see if we are in sync with Jesus or not.

What can we say February 24? 7th after Epiphany

   Genesis 45:3-11, 15, that profound narrative, for me the theological high water mark of the Old Testament and maybe all of Scripture, has come up recently in the lectionary: see my August 20 post for reflections and images.

   1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 continues the lectionary’s 3-week run on Paul’s climactic “resurrection” chapter. For this segment’s focus, I might add the importance of helping folks understand the “spiritual body” that is pledged in Jesus’ resurrection – huge, as people worry about lost loved ones, and their own futures. In The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching & Worship, I explained it like this: “When we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus’ soul survived the death of his body, and yet we do not mean the mere resuscitation of a corpse.  The risen Jesus is not recognized, but then is recognizable. He can be touched, but then he pulls back.  He materializes, and then he vanishes. Paul spoke of the resurrection as involving a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15).  A body, yes, but spiritual, not merely a spirit, but a body, totally transformed, animated entirely by the Spirit, not liable to disease or death. So for those whose understanding of anatomy makes a resuscitation seem ridiculous, the Bible narrates something different, and far better – better even than the immortality of the soul. The Bible promises the resurrection of spiritual bodies.  We can rejoice, even if we lack clarity on this matter: ‘The Church binds us to no theory about the exact composition of Christ’s Resurrection Body’ (Dorothy Sayers).”

    And then, our Gospel: Luke 6:27-38, continuing last week’s opening of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain,” paralleling but adjusting a bit from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” It isn’t entirely sufficient when Christians use slogans like “Love Wins” (although, of course, it does) – as we’re still in the mode of love-as-my-preference/desire. Jesus envisions a love that is commanded; love can be and is commanded! Kierkegaard probed this deeply in Works of Love – a bit of a testimony to his own dark experience of rejected love. Luke translates Jesus (who spoke in Aramaic!) as speaking of agapé, unconditional, giving, fixed on the good of the other love. No reciprocity with Jesus: he does not say Do unto others so they will do unto you!
 
   To illustrate the radicality, Jesus says we love enemies, and beggars. Who are our enemies? We might picture strangers or dangerous people; Jesus’ first listeners might have growled at the Roman or tax collectors. But perhaps the enemies we must love are within the church (given our divisions…) – and maybe even (not to psychoanalyze) within my own soul. Amy-Jill Levine humorously recalls that moment in Fiddler on the Roof when the rabbi of Anatevka was asked “Is there a blessing for the Czar?” Yes: “May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!”
 
    Ben Witherington, reflecting on Jesus and forgiveness, tells a story he heard Corrie ten Boom tell – how she encountered the Nazi who had treated her sister brutally, leading to her death, and found forgiveness for him. Jesus’ most ignored commandment might just be “Do not judge.” We should be relieved that this terrible burden is not laid on us; maybe the key to love within the church, and to those outside, is precisely refraining from judgment.

    Jesus also speaks of love of beggars: “Give to everyone who begs from you” (which poses daunting challenges, and doesn’t entirely answer how we give to them). Kelly Johnson has gifted us with a marvelous book on the history and theology of begging: The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Beggars make otherwise invisible poverty visible, unavoidable. Yes, begging can be sloth or avarice, but the beggar still is always a challenge to holiness, wealth, generosity. In the Middle Ages, the Dominicans and Franciscans, chose to become beggars – in solidarity with the poor, and deliberately distancing themselves to the church’s corruptions with wealth. John Wesley saw beggars as a question: “The Lord has lodged money in your hands temporarily; what return will you make?” And Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day’s mentor, repeatedly said “What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.”

     Yes, we have to parse dependencies, and how we contribute through agencies. But we can always be kind to the poor, to beggars, giving them the gift of love. Marion Way, a great friend and longtime missionary in Brazil, would always stop when encountering a beggar, ask the person’s name, lay hands on him and pray.
 
   Finally, we have that lovely admonition in 6:38, the sort of thing my grandmother used to rattle off and leave us children puzzled but impressed: “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” What? To be sure, the Greek kolpos, translated “lap” can mean “bosom.” Grain would get caught in the folds of a woman’s garment… Levine and Witherington notice in this pithy, agricultural wisdom a movement from the shortest and mildest (good measure pressed down) to the longest and strongest (shaken, running over). Maybe it’s one of those sayings you don’t explain; you just let it hang, and it finds its own way into life, longing and largesse.

What can we say March 3? Transfiguration


    Not one or two but three great texts to mark the Transfiguration of our Lord! Exodus 34:29-35 – the day Moses’ face began shining. Today we speak of someone’s face “beaming” or “glowing.” But it’s not that Moses had a chipper disposition or a cheerful countenance. He had seen God, and the shining of God lingered, impressed itself upon him. I’m not sure there’s a “Go thou and do likewise” here (or in our Gospel text!). Maybe the writer simply wants us to be awed by Moses, a theological hero if there ever was one. Or if there’s a “go thou and do,” it’s captured in something the newly sainted Oscar Romero said: “When we leave worship, 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.”
    Context matters. Moses has just, in a holy rage, broken the tablets of the law. As the Jewish commentator Gunther Plaut put it, “The newly liberated people struggle to understand their God and God struggles to understand His people.” At least God and Moses ‘get’ one another. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, priests often wore a mask or veil when engaging in their sacred rituals. With Moses, it’s reversed: he wears the veil when he’s a civilian, with the people, and it comes off when he’s up close with God! It’s a kind of humility – maybe the way St. Francis hid his stigmata. Or he wants to shield the people from his excess of holiness; we pastors suffer the opposite in every church, those who are so very pious and flout it in your face!
    And Moses’ glowing isn’t a private experience for him to enjoy. He shines as the one God has chosen to lead, the one who is God’s earthly connection to the people. There’s also the peculiar way this shining entered into Western art. The Hebrew translated “shone” or “radiance,” qaran, is an inch away from qeren, meaning horn – and so it became, in the Vulgate, that Moses was “horned.” We see his horns all over, most famously in Michelangelo’s statue in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. In Bible times, horns symbolized power – but by the Middle Ages, horns represented the demonic. Moses became the epitome of anti-Semitic hostility…

    …and much of the fault lies with our dear friend, Paul. Our Epistle, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, exegetes why Moses hid his face, suspecting it was not humility but embarrassment, because the glory was fading (a notion unmentioned in our text)! The veil now cloaks them, the Jews, from seeing the truth. I can sympathize with Paul’s profound grief that his fellow-Jews, certainly including close friends and family, just didn’t see Jesus as the Messiah or Christianity as the way. It would be hard to preach this text now without lifting it up as one of the way we fail to ‘get’ others who believe in our God in a different way? Can we revel in the transformation, even the transfiguration, that is life with God without being dismissive of other faiths?

    There is a fading of the glory. Is it the gradual demise of the church? Is it our heightening secularism? Is it our fallen inability to see God? We at best know what we know with veiled faces; “now we see through a glass darkly,” and only “then face to face.” Maybe the preacher doesn’t reach for a “Go thou and do likewise,” but simply notices and points, like a docent in a museum, to the greatness that was Moses, and the competitive zeal that was Paul – and then primarily, on Transfiguration Sunday, to the amazement that is Jesus.

     Luke 9:28-36. What a text! and how easy it is to preach it poorly. The Transfiguration texts are, for me, exemplary of what goes wrong in much preaching. We make texts about us, our faith, our doubts, our serving, etc., when many texts are quite simply about God, or about how amazing Jesus is. The Transfiguration texts are my prime example in The Beauty of the Word: clearly these passages seek to make us amazed at Jesus. He dazzled them, he was in the company of Moses and Elijah. The lunge to build booths is what we always do: what’s the takeaway? I’ve heard “After the mountaintop experience, you go back down into the valley and get to work.” But this text isn’t about us! It’s about God. We are to be awestruck. The takeaways is the disciples were awed, amazed, stunned, moved. Can you preach a sermon that simply says Wow! Jesus is amazing!

   Luke’s Transfiguration episode is peculiar in that “They were speaking of his departure.” The Greek for “departure” is exodon, reminding us of the Exodus! ” Amazingly (to me), Luke reports that those with him are “sleepy” (as in Gethsemane!). Verse 33: “Master, it is good that we are here” must be the great understatement in all of Scripture! As in the Baptism texts, God says “Listen to him!” (as if God knows we won’t listen to Jesus!).

   At best, the takeaway is that we who are awed by Jesus listen to him. Or maybe we just adore and worship him. “Jesus, I adore you, lay my life before you, how I love you.” Or maybe Dorothy Day got it right: Robert Coles was interviewing her late in her life and asked her to jot down some autobiographical remembrances. She responded with this: “I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me. The other day I wrote down the words ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to try to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most – but I couldn’t do it. I just sat that there and thought of our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!”

What can we say March 10? Lent 1

   Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, March 6 (which requires a short homily on my part, and maybe yours). Then Lent 1. The Old Testament intrigues me: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, which I recall from seminary was dubbed a “creed” by Gerhard von Rad, shows how your offering to God is linked to remembering what God has done – for you, and through all of salvation history. I’d think the preacher could probe this profitably… or use the Psalter: I love Psalm 91. I’ve seen my wife offer up liturgical dance to “On Eagle’s Wings.” Lovely stuff. 

     Of course, the Psalm sits in this place because it’s cited in the Gospel lection – by Satan himself! Just because somebody quotes Scripture doesn’t mean they’ve delivered God’s true word. Even Shakespeare, dinging Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, beyond noting that “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose… An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek,” has Bassanio declare “What damned error, but some sober brow / Will bless it and approve it with a text, / Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?”
  So: Lent, typically, begins with the Temptation narrative, and in this year it is Luke 4:1-13. For me, this is a classic example (discussed in my The Beauty of the Word) of the way we mis-read texts in preaching. Way too often we make texts about us: my faith, my struggle, my serving, my doubts, my discipleship. But most texts aren’t actually about us. They are about God, or about the Body of Christ. The Temptation narratives, if mis-read as being about us, press us toward the common, and frightfully dull and discouraging sermon whose plot is, “We’re tempted just as Jesus was; so we can overcome temptation the way he did!” – which is ridiculous. Not one of us would stand a chance against the assault of this evil one. For holy and charitable purposes, we’d turn mere stones into sorely-needed bread for the hungry. We’d take the power, as so many religious people want to do.

    The point of this story is how amazing Jesus is. He did what you and I could never do, and that we (what a relief!) don’t have to do. Jesus isn’t our moral example, showing us how to combat Satan. Jesus is our Savior, for all the times, for all of life, when we succumb, when we drink the koolaid and fall for the devil’s wiles. This story should make us fall on our knees in awe. Jesus. Wow. What a Savior.

     In chapter 3, Luke sets Jesus’ ministry in the context of the political powers of his day: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod. Does Luke imply in chapter 4 that Satan is the source of their power? Luke’s genealogy of Jesus traces his lineage back to Adam. Luke 4 shows Jesus succeeding where Adam failed; with Paul in Romans 5:12-21, we see Jesus correcting and healing the Fall.

     Luke’s version is unusual. Jesus, Luke alone mentions, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” He’s not beaming or having a titillating emotional experience. The Spirit, for him, stiffens his resolve to be at one with God the Father in the most arduous circumstances imagineable. And he’s not alone out there! The preacher might contrast solitude with loneliness. Jesus seems never to be lonely, although he’s often alone. Luke makes his solitude-ness explicit: the Spirit is with him, in him. When we are alone, we get lonely because we hear voices in our heads, negative messages… Preaching should make some attempt at comfort – while still fixed on the fact that this story is about Jesus, not us.

     It’s helpful for the preacher to describe the locale. Not a “desert,” like a stretch of sand with cacti. The Judean wilderness was a rocky zone full of cliffs and caves, with dangerous predators lurking behind every rock. A gravity-defying monastery clings to a cliff there, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ testing. It’s a wilderness, again reminding us where Israel was tested (and failed). Again, Adam failed, Israel failed, we all fail. Jesus alone is our Savior.

     I love Nikos Kazantzakis’s image of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ: every time young Jesus reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples.  He shrieked and fell down on his face.”  His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help.  The rabbi shook his head.  “Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?”  “Is there no cure?” the wretched mother asked.  “It’s God, I tell you.  No, there is no cure.”  “Why does he torment him?”  The old exorcist sighed but did not answer.  “Why does he torment him?” the mother asked again.  “Because he loves him,” the old rabbi finally replied.

     People mis-conceive the devil. Red guy, pitch fork, whispering in your ear to eat that extra brownie… Real evil is far more sinister, elusive, and hidden from view. The devil’s great wiles? To persuade us he doesn’t exist, or to dupe us into seeing the devil behind every rock. Thomas Merton spoke of “the theology of the devil,” suggesting that what the devil wants most of all is attention. Clearly, if evil is alluring, we should look to things that are beautiful, attractive, even appearing to be holy – and that’s where evil sets its trap for us, as it did for Jesus. David Lyle Jeffrey points to Tintoretto’s “Temptation” as one of countless examples of artists portraying Satan as a beautiful, innocent youth.

     Luke reverses temptations #2 and #3 from Matthew’s version. Like Matthew he begins with the bread. Jesus, born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” is the “bread of life,” and invites us to refrain from every appetite (so we don’t wind up like Paul’s folks “whose God is their belly,” Philippians 3:19). The offer of the kingdoms: I can’t talk about this without lifting up Tolkien’s marvelous Lord of the Rings, in which he quite wisely showed that the ring of power shouldn’t fall to those who believe they’ll wear it well; it must be destroyed for there to be peace and goodness.

     Jesus is taken (spiritually? in the imagination? or literally?) to the “pinnacle” of the Temple. Does Luke mean the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, looming 400+ feet over the Kidron Valley? How many televangelists, or even parish pastors, would indulge in a bit of razzle-dazzle? Henri Nouwen (in In the Name of Jesus) reminds us that we clergy fantasize about doing something impressive for God. But this is not God’s way. The angels adored and worshipped Jesus – but clearly, in the end, they not only let his foot be dashed against those stones near the Temple. They let Jesus blood be shed, his body be pierced. This story points toward that day – as Luke adds the tantalizing, haunting footnote that once Jesus won round 1, Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.”