Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7). I love the
charming and ancient fresco in Ravenna depicting the visit of the three
strangers to Abraham and Sarah under the Oaks of Mamre. What a lovely
place-name! Trees mark the spot! It’s hard not to interweave chapter 17’s
details of the same moment – and (my seminary training notwithstanding!) it
isn’t illegitimate to do so either!
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees Abraham (after the foibles of Adam, Eve,
Cain, Noah) as “a new human type.” Until now, people viewed God’s command as “a
constraint from which they strive to break free.” For Abraham, God’s command is
his life. He calls him the “unheroic hero,” as it’s not about him, but about God.
He’s flawed, laughable at times. And then the last laugh comes.
Three strangers. Of course, Christian
theologians have lunged toward the Trinity. But why not simply think
“strangers.” The Triune God is active any and everywhere, including when strangers
materialize. Isn’t mature spirituality seeing strangers, noticing them, and
maybe discerning something angelic or even divine in them?
These three somehow though know of Sarah’s
impending pregnancy – and they can even read her silent thoughts just inside
the tent. Robert Alter’s rendering is vivid: “Sarah no longer had her woman’s
flow. And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying ‘After being shriveled, shall I have
pleasure?’” The laugh, yitzak
is cynical, and ironic – since we know the baby is coming, and that his very
name Isaac, yitzak
laughter. The sermon just has to play on this, how we might snicker at the
possibility of new life, and then how when it comes we laugh – for the joy, or
even at ourselves for our prior snickering.
How to preach hospitality – in an unsafe
world? The question isn’t do we do hospitality, but how. How to preach
impossibility? I doubt many people I preach to expect anything extraordinary or
beyond human capacity from God – and that’s likely because I as their pastor don’t
expect so much either.
Romans 5:1-11. Paul is finally
warming up to his greatest eloquence after his midrashic meanderings about
Abraham and faith. Every time I imagine Paul pacing around a room, dictating
this letter, I get slackjawed with wonder. There was no New Testament, no
theology textbooks – and off the top of his head he came up with this!
Inspired, sure. Still amazes me. What was the secretary thinking? Wow,
this guy is on fire today. I ruminate on this in sermons sometimes. No takeaway,
I like Michael Gorman’s new commentary on
this (and most other Romans texts!). Romans 5 forms a “bridge” between the 1st
4 chapters and the next 4 – so it’s pivot. Our text forms an “artfully composed
chiastic form,” shaped like the Greek letter chi
(v 1-2a): Justification as peace thru Christ
2b-5): Hope for future glory
(v 6-8): Christ’s death as God’s love
(v 9-10): Hope for future salvation
A’ ( 11): Reconciliation through Christ
since Christ’s death is the center, the fulcrum, of God’s justifying,
reconciling work. And “reconciliation isn’t something separate from
justification”; they are used in the “same breath.”
Faith: is it ours? (as most would assume) or
Christ’s (as theologians think)? Paul stressed that the initiative is always God’s
alone, and even its completion. “God’s grace is the means of justification, and faith is the mode of justification.” Hence it is “not mere assent but is robust:
a sharing in the faithfulness of Jesus” (Gorman).
Notice how for Paul “the road to glory is
bumpy and has a cruciform shape: it includes, or will include, suffering.” The “will”
matters; it’s not “might,” which we would prefer!
5, the preacher should note, is entirely in first person plural. It’s not I
have peace with God, or you, you
individual person out there, have access to God. It’s we
: we who are part of the Body. God doesn’t intend for us to do
this alone. The logical consequence of all Paul has declared in chapters
1-4? Peace. C.E.B. Cranfield reminds us that eirene
isn’t “subjective feelings of peace (though these may
indeed result), but the objective state of being at peace instead of being
enemies.” It’s a fact. Done. And not by you but by Christ, and at immense cost
K.A. Smith, in his marvelous On the
Road with Saint Augustine
, paints a homiletically intriguing picture of
what our pursuit of peace is: “Like the exhausted refugee, fatigued by
vulnerability, what we crave is rest (‘You have made us for yourself, and our
hearts are restless until they find rest in you’)… Joy, for Augustine, is
characterized by a quietude that is the opposite of anxiety – the exhale of
someone who has been holding her breath out of fear or worry or insecurity. It
is the blissful rest of someone who realizes she no longer has to perform; she
is loved. We find joy in the grace of God precisely because he is the one we
don’t have to prove anything to. "
"But it is also the exhale of someone
who has arrived – who can finally breathe after making it through the
anxiety-inducing experience of the border crossing, seeking refuge… The
Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge.”
He then invites us to imagine Augustine’s City of God “as a tent city, a
refugee camp… Think of Dadaab in Kenya, the Sahrawi camps in Maghreb.” Not my
usual image of the City of God - but there it is.
access” in v. 2: F.F. Bruce vividly explains that the Greek, prosagoge, means “the privilege of being
introduced into the presence of someone of high station.” Verse 3: “We rejoice
in our sufferings” – which is aspirational more than true.
There is beauty in suffering; Ray Barfield
spoke at our church on just this (check out his little book, Wager: Beauty, Suffering, and Being in the
, on this). People know if you press them: “I was with my mother when
she died, and it was a beautiful moment.” Paul has in mind some origami in the
soul that suffering initiates. His lovely litany is memorable, and worth
repeating (or cross-stitching): “Suffering produces endurance, endurance
produces character, character produces hope.” I’m tempted to edit Paul a little
by inserting the word “might” or “sometimes.” Suffering can make you bitter or
mean. Why does it produce character and hope sometimes, and not in others? It's
too cheap just to say "If you have faith, if you trust God." Isn't
community involved? Doesn't God have mercy on is when suffering drowns us in
does not disappoint.” Christopher Lasch clarified how optimism, the sunny view
that tomorrow will be a better day, and it’s up to us to make it happen, is
vastly inferior to hope, the substantive faith that all will be well, even if
tomorrow is worse – for this future is in God’s hands ultimately.
may fiddle around with the “poured out” image from v. 5, a picturesque image of
the lavishness of grace. Jesus’ blood poured out, pouring coffee in the
morning, the pitcher pouring water into the baptismal bowl, Jesus pouring water
over the disciples’ feet, the bartender pouring you a drink, the woman pouring
oil over Jesus’ head, the priest pouring wine into the chalice, your mother pouring
you a glass of milk, a waterfall, water over a dam, a garden fountain. Is there
a way all of these and more not only symbolize but actually are the pouring out
of God’s goodness?
we were still weak” reminds me of a terrific story. In 1980 I was running
“Helping Hands,” a ministry to folks in need at Myrtle Beach, S.C. Our most
problematical guy was named Belton. I drove him to the job I’d helped him get;
when I came back for lunch he’d quit. I bought him groceries; he sold them to
buy queludes. He tore up the temporary living quarters we found for him.
Finally the board and volunteers met to decide how to cut him off, I think. All
was proceeding in that direction until a woman said “You know, the Bible says
‘God helps those who help themselves.’”
nodded, except a very old, frail woman, who countered: “That’s not in the
Bible. That’s Ben Franklin, in Poor
.” I was impressed. She then opened her New American Standard Bible
Romans 5:6 and read “While we were helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And
she added “That would be all of us.” The vote was unanimous. We’d keep doing
whatever we could for and with Belton. I wish I had a happy ending, like He got
on his feet, went back to school, and now is an executive at Bank of America.
But no. We hung together another month or so, and then he just vanished. Did we
fail? I don’t think so. We kept one of God’s helpless children alive a little
longer, which is good. And God’s other helpless, ungodly children got a refresher
course in theology from the physically weakest but most spiritually astute one
in our group.
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23)
an intriguing snapshot into a turning point in Jesus’ ministry – between when
he dazzles the crowds and draws a following to his sending out his followers to
continue, expand and even augment his ministry. Matthew reports that Jesus has
been curing “every” disease and “every” sickness – which can’t be reality.
Donald Hagner calls the “every” here “hyperbolic and symbolic.” People still
had cancer and Alzheimer’s and tooth decay and deafness after Jesus left town.
If anything, his healings weren’t so people could feel better, but so serve as
object lessons for his sermons. His #1 cure was for blindness – and he always
then pointed out how the righteous people thought they could see but couldn’t.
Jesus, the one who wept when Lazarus died and prayed in intense agony, had
“compassion” on the crowds. The Greek esplanchnisthe connotes
a twisting pain in the entrails, a writhing, intense emotion. It’s a common
translation for the Hebrew riham,
which means “womb” and then the pangs the womb underwent during the agonies of
childbirth. Watch a woman in labor: that’s how Jesus felt when he saw the
crowds, total strangers – and yet he knew them so intimately.
didn’t blame them for their plight, or pity their lackluster, colorless, futile
existence as the utterly impoverished and despised people in the Roman empire.
He understood that they were “harassed and helpless.” How harassed are your
people? By their employers, by heartbreaking friends and family, by the chipper
Facebook culture that depresses them, by the rancor of political ideology, by
ads, by loneliness. The Greek for “helpless,” errimmenoi, means literally
“cast down to the ground.” The preacher portrays, imitates and embodies Jesus
himself by simply naming the miseries and niggling frustrations people undergo
all the time.
In Jesus Christ Superstar
, Jesus, besieged
by throngs seeking help, sings “There’s too many of you; don’t push me; there’s
too little of me; don’t crowd me.” He needs help, more of himself. In our
Gospel, Jesus asks his laborers to pray for more laborers! How do we join him
in this prayer today? By poking around for laity who’ll get busy? Connecting
with non-church people who might turn out to be the naïve, zealous type of new
Christian who doesn’t know to be a lazy Christian yet? Or even investing time
with sharp young people, middle- and high-schoolers, college students, and
daring to ask if they’ve thought about ministry? I became a laborer in the
field because an Episcopal priest took an interest in me, somebody with a zero
religious resume, and asked if I’d thought about ministry. Never, ever… but it
planted a seed that grew years later.
does the relationship with Jesus look like? I’m fond of “following” as the
image. Jesus goes, I try to stay close. He sets the path, I simply trail behind
in his wake. In Matthew 9, Jesus looks at his followers and “sends” them. That
is, without him – unless you count spiritually or mystically. They have to
figure out where and how to go, and what to do. They have “authority” – but
what would that be for us? Not an M.Div. or that some bishop laid hands on me.
It’s something more organic in me, or despite me. Maybe it’s just being fool
enough to try: is that the authority? Is it trying to get out of the way and
let Jesus be where I am?
love it that the Gospels provide names of the twelve – although the lists are
happily inconsistent. A dozen – with some wiggle room. They are in stained
glass in my sanctuary, and little biographies (95% of which is total
guesswork/fiction!) are posted in our children’s building.
unhappily for me, directs them not to go to Gentiles but only to the Jews. I wish
he’d urged the opposite, given anti-Semitism and often strained relationships
with Judaism. Hagner reminds us that this limitation is “temporary,” as
Matthew’s Gospel later on sends Jesus’ people to the whole world. Maybe, if
you're white, we translate this into our world as We begin with white people.
So much to work on in here before we can connect and change out there -
although dithering on self for long is so lame.
we do go to the Jews first – not to proselytize, but to find common ground. As
you saw above, my greatest learning in Scripture lately is from Rabbi Sacks (who died just too young for my tastes and homiletical needs!). In
our city of Charlotte, we have more in common, and can work more effectively
with the synagogues than with many of the churches – including my own
cantankerous Methodist denomination!
St. Francis heard Jesus’ words about “take
no bag, no silver,” and he and his friars (Italian for “brothers”!) did just
that. I can't get there. I'm taking my bags, checking out my pension portfolio,
garnering funds. I can only stand in awe, with a restless sense of penitence