Sunday, January 1, 2023

What can we say June 4? Trinity Sunday

    {Check out my 28 minute talk, "Hope as Arsenic," which I was supposed to give in Minneapolis for the Festival of Homiletics, but due to my hospitalization and the doctor grounding me, it's on video now for their video package - and for you to view too!}

    It’s Trinity Sunday – not a day for theological explication in the preaching setting, but in worship. Trinity isn’t a thing; it is in fact the thing. Then all texts are Trinitarian, all Sundays are Trinity Sunday. A preaching booboo this week might be to attempt an intellectual explanation of the Trinity. Save it for the classroom. In the liturgy, in sacred space, we don’t disentangle, analyze and explain the Trinity. We worship. We listen. We join that Holy Circle. We let the Trinity speak for itself.

   In last year’s post on Trinity Sunday, I speak of my theology professor’s agony trying to theologize about this, how the structure of a musical chord helps us make sense of things, how visuals like the Rublev icon help (or don’t) – and more. I would strongly commend to you now the video of a conversation I had with the brilliant and pastoral theologian Jason Byassee on “God as…Trinity.”

   Genesis 1, hardly a good prooftext for the Trinity, but so thoughtful regarding our probing of the heart and mind of God! My 17 minute video talking about religion and science – much of which involves Genesis 1. I love thinking there about someone like Richard Dawkins – an avowed and militant atheist, from whom I have learned, happily and gratefully, so much.

   I also lucked into a podcast conversation with Dr. David Wilkinson, that exceedingly rare astrophysicist who’s also an ordained Methodist pastor. That is well worth listening to – and pondering. I love his earthy reflection on why it took God so long to make the world. His illustration? When it’s his birthday, his wife spends much time in the kitchen baking him a cake, and it’s a mess once she’s done. When it’s her birthday, he purchases a cake. Which one exhibits the most love? God’s love takes time, and it’s messy.

   Wilkinson calls Genesis 1 not a science textbook (of course), but a ballad, a poem speaking of God creating everything; science shows us how God did so. Stephen Hawking, of course (in his Theory of Everything), explained that you can explain everything without recourse to God. I do believe God is fond of this. You don’t have to believe. It’s personal. You choose to vest yourself in it not being accidental – for which there is solid scientific backing.

   I was moved, and shall never forget, hearing an early lecture in seminary on how God brought order out of chaos – and that this is God’s business, bringing order out of our chaos! Wow.

   On a different level, how lovely is Ellen Davis’s thought (in Preaching the Luminous Word) that in Genesis 1, “God is stocking the pantry,” as Genesis is downright verbose in describing food sources. And so, “Eating is at the heart of our relationship with God and all that God has made… Eating is practical theology – a way to honor God with our bodies.” Indeed, “Our never-failing hunger is a steady reminder to acknowledge God.”

   The first people, and thus all of us, are created in God’s “image.” Which is…? Russ Reno puts it well: “that characteristic that makes us capable of receiving the consummating gift of the 7th day, the gift of fellowship with God.” This “image” is thus the “basis for our supernatural vocation, the life in Christ greater than any possibility resident in our natural power, but which is nonetheless a genuine exercise of our nature powers.” Lifting these contradictory but fitting ironies up in a sermon is wise, faithful, and hopefully will tease out some thought from our people.

   Psalm 8 ponders all this poetically, and fabulously. Faith is precisely soaking in that God made all those universes even the Webb telescope can’t fathom, and yet the small human being gazing up at it all – and that they are interconnected, and profoundly one in the heart and mind of God! I love a statue just outside Assisi at the Eremo delle Carceri – of St. Francis lying on his back, on the ground. He did this – constantly – and pondered the grandeur of God, come down and touching his small, humble existence. What is man – me, Francis? And when medieval theologians saw “man,” they thought of Christ – which some of us think is good cause not to re-translate such texts with plural “people” and such. Who is “man” – the man being Jesus. This lying on the back, looking up: not a bad “Go thou and do likewise” sermon piece.

   2 Corinthians 13:11-13 is a lovely text, hard to preach upon (for me) – Trinitarian, yes, but actually replete with how we greet and bless one another. I benedict at most of my services using just these words from verse 13. Does it matter to people? Does it bless them in some mystical ways they aren’t even aware of? I have wondered (for instance, in my book Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week) if we have more capacity to bless others than we realize?

   Matthew 28:16-20. The so-called “Great Commission,” although Jesus’ other commissions, not nearly as vague as “make disciples of all nations,” imply touching untouchables, feeding the hungry on your doorstep, not laying up treasure on earth, befriending enemies… No wonder we made this clarion “great commission” such a big thing! – since it can be a bit innocuous. Do we “make disciples” ever, anyhow?

   What Jesus asks of us is in fact encapsulated in this text. Just as Jesus, at his birth, got the nickname “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” here, as his parting words, he clarifies he won’t be the great heavenly fixer, the insulator from all woes – but that simply he will be “with” us. Sam Wells, in his marvelous Nazareth Manifesto, suggests that the most important theological word in the Bible is “with.” God is with us. No small thing, if you ponder it over some time.

   Jesus’ commission is troubling, challenging, seemingly impossible. Go to – Afghanistan? Vietnam? The Congo? And simply tell the Good News – and they’ll fall in line and convert? Laughable. But how do we Go in our day? By loving, praying, showing up to drill wells or lift up orphans?

What can we say June 11? 2nd after Pentecost

    {Check out my 28 minute talk, "Hope as Arsenic," which I was supposed to give in Minneapolis for the Festival of Homiletics, but due to my hospitalization and the doctor grounding me, it's on video now for their video package - and for you to view too!}

    Genesis 12:1-9 is a great text, one of the key turning points in the Old Testament – or we should say in God’s history with the world. First, there’s a call. Abraham is called (how did he hear??) to go – where? “To a land I will show you.” Which would be…? Like the disciples who drop their nets and traipse off after Jesus: not knowing where they’re going, what the strategy is, what safeguards there might be, how it will all turn out, etc. They just go. Abraham just goes, uprooting self, family, and not heading a few miles away like the disciples, but to a genuinely foreign land, knowing nobody, strange language and customs. Walter Brueggeman names this as “a call for a dangerous departure from the presumed world of norms and security” – which is preachable.

   Interestingly, we tend to delve into the psyche/self of the one called (or not called). Am I called? Or even Is he or she called? But a more intriguing question is What is God doing? Why does God call – in generally, and specifically now, and here? Russ Reno gets inside God’s head: “Because the children of Adam and Eve are beholden to the lie that worldly life can satisfy our desire for rest, God must interrupt the cascading flow of time, tear out a family from the drumbeat of the generations, in order to cut to the joints and marrow of human history.” Eloquent. And pinpointing God’s motive: to rescue all of us from what is really a lie. And already, so early in humanity’s history!

   So there’s the call, and then the buttressing promise. Reno links call to promise, underlining the context – that this call is right on the heels of the catastrophic Tower of Babel story: “Now God promises to give Abraham-in-particular what humanity-in-general sought to achieve by its own hands when it gathered to build a tower to heaven: a place, a nation, and a name.” I do like that Reno suggests that instead of rejecting the false hopes of the Babel generation, God rather redefines them!

   And so the promise really is for a place, a nation, a name. This threefold promise seems lovely, even powerful – until we consider the dreadful consequences throughout history of the children of Abraham fighting to fulfill that promise. So many horrific episodes through history, the Crusades, the 7-day War, and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence get traced back to the idea that “This land is my land!” – and claiming the divine imprimatur of Genesis 12. Not what God had in mind…

   I recall sitting in intro Old Testament in seminary and hearing Prof. Lloyd Bailey explain the dynamic of the “blessing” portion of this promise. God will indeed bless this people – but not so they can be special to the exclusion of anybody. They are blessed to be a blessing. Sounds trite – but it is God’s call to Abraham’s descendents – and fits the summons of the church to be, not a club of the blessed, but those who go out to the highways and biways to be the gifts of God in the world.

   Romans 4:13-25. I find Paul’s intricate theological arguments difficult to refashion into a sermon; even Fleming Rutledge skips this passage in her great collection of sermons on Romans (Not Ashamed of the Gospel) – but I am a bit tempted to try after reading Michael Gorman’s thoughts in his new commentary. He points out how “cryptic” verse 16, verbless in Greek, is, sort of “Therefore, from faith, so that by grace.” The foundation, the basis, the cause isn’t faith, but grace – so important for us Protestants who unthinkingly turn “faith” into the work, the only work but no less a work. Paul’s focus is on Christ’s faithfulness, not ours.

   He goes on to notice how translations of verse 18 (like the NRSV) “may hide what Paul actually means: ‘not to those who adhere to the law alone but rather to those who share the faith of Abraham’” (his translation). He calls Abraham’s “a kind of proto-Christian faith.” Justification is what the Creator and Resurrector does. I love his plunge into the bleakness of Abraham and Sarah’s situation. Her womb isn’t merely “barren”; the Greek nekrosis conveys “the stench of death.”

   Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26. Jesus keeps calling people, almost raising the ante by calling ever more unlikely and unliked people. Now it’s Matthew – the tax collector? A hated man in Capernaum. Not our tax auditor types or the one that threatens to garnish your wages. Matthew probably threatened to break your knees if you complained about him gouging you for too much money – and not for the public good but for those jerks in Rome. The Pharisee gripe makes total sense – although they lump together “tax collectors and sinners,” as if sinning were an occupation! In the 1950’s, politicians like Joe McCarthy and bureaucrats like J. Edgar Hoover tended to lump together “communists and homosexuals,” as if the pairing made it more dastardly.

   Their smug judgment though should alarm us, especially in our day when so many churches assume their calling is to be society’s “moral police.” No one is listening, nor do they care, when Christian people cockily “stand up for something!” Jesus was a radical alternative to the moral police – back then, as he still is today. But he doesn’t scold. He resorts to irony: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” You can bet most Pharisees didn’t get it, and though Yes, we are well.

   And Jesus lifts a verse from the prophets, one that punctuates key turning points in Matthew’s Gospel: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). There’s no mercy in judging – and Jesus had not much earlier said “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Perhaps, like the older brother in Jesus’ “Prodigal Son” parable, they did not think they needed any mercy – although you know that deep down, in some subterranean, crusted over place in their guts, they were desperate for some mercy. Why else behave in such calculating, morally superior ways than being duped into believing this was the ultimate coverup?

   And now the healing narrative. Two, actually, dovetailed unforgettably. Not quite as vivid as its parallel in Mark 5:21-43, is it? I was taught in seminary to stick to the text at hand and don’t veer into another Gospel. And you don’t want to read a lot in from elsewhere – but in this case, why not preach all we know from this mind-boggling episode from Jesus’ life?

   Matthew plagiarizes (the term we’d use today!) from Mark’s story – and thus his storytelling technique, which in this case is impressive. Or maybe things just unfolded in the way he reports. Jesus is asked, pleaded with to visit a child, the daughter of a powerful Roman military man, Jairus. In Mark, she’s sick and near death. In Matthew, she’s already died! – which must indicate this man’s faith is even greater! Or that his desperate sense of loss is more intense.

   Jesus, on such an important mission, is unfailingly “interruptible.” Important things to do, yes, always, but along the way there’s always a person, someone requiring just some compassion, a kind look and word. Jesus shows us how to be attentive while we’re headed toward wherever we’re going.

   There’s a painting I’ve loved since I first saw it – in a lovely new chapel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the village of Magdala, Mary Magdalene’s home town. At ground level, this painting shows the woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment - from her lowly, ground-level perspective.

   She must be a woman of considerable means, having spent huge sums on doctors, in a day when most people couldn’t afford any doctor ever. But all the cash and care money could buy didn’t bring her any health. She was sick and tired of being sick and tired – until she heard about Jesus. Due to her illness, she would have been regarded as unclean, not welcome in any crowd, much less coming face to face with this travelling rabbi / healer / maybe Messiah. But she presses forward, as close as possible without being noticed, barely brushing her hand against the low hem of Jesus’ robe.

   And, Voila! She is healed. Power flowed from him, into her – and he wasn’t even trying. No wonder we speak of the Master’s touch, the way simply being close to Jesus brings an unanticipated wholeness. Jesus notices, puzzling his disciples – and then he has more mercy on her, treating her like no one else would, as a whole, infinitely valued child of God.

   While we're still on the healing of a woman: Peter Storey, in his marvelous new account of his incandescent ministry in South Africa, tells of his first parish - and how some young adults, impassioned by what they were learning of the Gospel, changed many things, including... "There came a symbolic moment of liberation when they decided to attend church with hair uncovered. Because of the role hair texture played in the racialization and stratification of woman in this community, this was a massive step toward self-acceptance."

   Oh, the child. Jesus almost forgot – but probably not. He arrives at Jairus’s house – late, by Matthew’s or Mark’s timeline. If we read slowly, or just use our imaginations, we can overhear the loud wailing of her family and neighbors. Invite your people to feel their pain. Jesus did.

   I love the little details of this healing – more in Mark than in Matthew! He could have thundered a word from the yard. But he enters the home. He takes the girl by the hand. Ask your folks to picture that. Feel your hands. Precious Lord, take my hand… He speaks – and onlookers recalled what he said in his and their native language, Aramaic, so moving that Mark, writing in Greek, records the Aramaic! Talitha kum. Rise up, little girl. So tender. This 12 year old girl stood up. Imagine the sound of the shock, the rejoicing, maybe more intense than the wailing just moments earlier.

   And then, showing his immense compassion and understanding, Jesus speaks to her family: “Give her something to eat.” She’s been sick. She’s got to be famished. Let’s get back to normal. Little girls eat. Families feed their children. Envision Jesus standing in your home. It’s time to eat. He gets that you’re hungry. Enjoy. Be nourished. What a week to have Holy Communion!


   Check out my book on preaching - not how to preach, but how to continue preaching: The Beauty of the Word: the Challenge and the Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say June 18? 3rd after Pentecost

    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, means 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, no go-thou-and-do-likewise...

   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 (X):
   A (v 1-2a): Justification as peace thru Christ

     B (v 2b-5): Hope for future glory

        C (v 6-8): Christ’s death as God’s love

     B’ (v 9-10): Hope for future salvation

   A’ ( 11): Reconciliation through Christ

This matters, 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!

   Romans 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 to himself.

   James 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. 

   “Obtained 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 World, 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 depression?

   “Hope 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.

   I 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?

   “While 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.’”

   Everyone nodded, except a very old, frail woman, who countered: “That’s not in the Bible. That’s Ben Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack.” I was impressed. She then opened her New American Standard Bible to 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) provides 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.

   This 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.

   He 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.

   What 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?

   I 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.

   Jesus, 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.

   Maybe 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 and yearning.

What can we say June 25? 4th after Pentecost

    Genesis 21:8-21 is a harrowing text, with an unexpected hopefulness. Phyllis Trible (Texts of Terror) read the text from a feminist perspective: Hagar symbolizes countless women trapped and abused by the power of men. Patriarchy and race are written all over Abraham’s awful shunning of this woman. And yet she finally achieves liberation despite all that. She isn’t shunned by God, who sends a messenger, a promise, water in the wilderness, and comfort. 

   Check out Gustave Dore’s image, one among many artistic images of this haunting scene. Frances Klopper, the South African scholar, notes that “the frequency with which the expulsion scene has been painted testifies to a fascination with the fate of the slave-woman who has been wronged by her master and mistress.” Her tribe is legion indeed. Getting inside Hagar’s sorrow: the poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker imagined her thinking “She threw me away like garbage… But I still wonder Why could she not love me? We were women together.” Can the preacher use this moment as a time to lift up domestic abuse and how women still get short shrift?

   How cool is the image of the little boys Ishmael and Isaac playing together? What’s more intriguing is that, evidently after years of isolation, Genesis 25:9 reports that Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham. How did they get back in contact for the funeral? Jonathan Sacks, after raising this question, also asks Who was Keturah, Abraham’s way late in life wife and mother of his subsequent children? Among many medieval rabbis, Keturah was none other than Hagar! After Sarah’s death, Abraham found Hagar, redeemed and married her, reuniting Isaac and Ishmael – which Sacks sees as a Scriptural warrant for friendly relations today between Jews and Muslims.

   Romans 6:1b-11. I never encounter people who think I’ll sin more so grace will be even greater! We do presume upon God’s mercy, or maybe God’s laid back, laissez-faire attitude we fantasize God must feel. Voltaire famously quipped “God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Paul’s query, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” elicits the obvious answer: “Plenty of ways!”

   I like Michael Gorman's rendering of Paul's response to such craziness: "Are you out of your mind?" As he explains, "There is absolutely no place for cheap grace in the Christian life. In Baptism, we have been relocated." Relocated! "To believe the creed is not merely to assent to its truthfulness, but to enter it, even, in a sense, to become it. Creeds have consequences. Christ's story becomes our story, and our story is folded into his."

   Since Paul’s line of thought is so alien to how American Christians think, this is good cause to reiterate it and help people reimagine it. C.E.B. Cranfield opens a window by analyzing “four quite different senses in which Christian die to sin.” We die to sin in God’s sight; it’s God’s decision to crucify our sin. In Baptism, God seals and ratifies God’s own decision. Then death to sin is our calling to be holy – and as God calls, God simultaneously give us “the freedom to die daily and hourly to sin by the mortification of their sinful natures.” And death to sin is an eschatological promise; in eternity, sin will be no more.

   Austin Farrer’s terrific (and sadly out of print) The Crown of the Year puts it this way: “You are to become Jesus’ body. You are to be nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.” And another: being born again. In my Birth book, it’s a whole new life, a whole new identity, learning dependence, mercy.

   Death “no longer has dominion”? Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize by assessing how all our craziness and the havoc in our heads and relationships grow out of The Denial of Death. Recently I re-read Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, where he speaks tantalizingly: “You are so afraid of dying alone. Your deeply hidden memories of a fearful birth make you suspect that your death will be equally fearful… Maybe the death at the end of your life won’t be so fearful is you can die well now. Yes, the real death – the passage from time into eternity from the transient beauty of this world to the lasting beauty of the next, from darkness into light – has to be made now.” Unsure how to preach that – but I bet it’s important for us clergy to live into as people and would-be leaders.

   Matthew 10:24-39. I so long to say Beelzebub out loud in a sermon! Just fun to utter – as are the possible translations, “lord of the house,” “lord of dung,” “lord of the flies.” Jesus is all over the place in this text. Even if the lectionary has trampled over periscope divisions, Jesus must have talked like this, one topic, shifting to another, blurting out a reminder on something else. The preacher should take care not to latch on either the comfort or the severity themes here. Jesus clearly was comfortable with both, holding both together always.

   Our people believe (why??) Jesus brings family stability and happiness – yet the real Jesus comes, “setting a man against his father.” Examples abound, such as St. Francis divesting himself of his father’s goods – and how his father never spoke to him again, spitting in his direction as they passed on the streets of Assisi.

   Jesus wants to be acknowledged, not denied – not as a double dare you, but because of the blessing to the acknowledger and any who notice, and the dissonance in the soul of the one who denies. What does denial look like in 2023? Myriad stuff, like conventional living, fitting in, letting a racist slur slide on by, on and on. I wonder if piety can be a paradoxical denial of Jesus? You make sugary but harmful theological remarks (“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “Everything happens for a reason”) – which deny the more robust reality of Jesus who doesn’t deny but embraces suffering?

   Taking up one’s cross? Losing one’s life? I really appreciate Joel Marcus for reflecting on Alexander Solzhenitsyn in (of all places) his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark! “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.  At the threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My former life is over, I shall never return.  I no longer have property.  Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious to me.’”

   Jesus points to the sparrow! We have the new hymn, “God of the Sparrow,” which is lovely – but it’s tough to top that oldie, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It’s been recorded countless times: by Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Holliday, Sandi Patty, Marvin Gaye, and even Michael Jackson but I’ll take Mahalia Jackson any day. Here’s a reflection on the hymn, and on Jesus’ regard of sparrows, for my book, Unrevealed Until Its Season:

   When I was a young pastor, I had a handful of members who were most unhappy with our “new hymnal” (which was nearly twenty years old at the time!) for several glaring omissions, the most egregious being “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” 

   “We should never have replaced the old Cokesbury Hymnal!” They had plenty of copies on hand, but none of my people really needed a book to sing “Why should I feel discouraged?” Despite my resistance, a warbly soprano I loved deeply would do it as a solo now and then, although I detected a few semi-restrained eyerolls when she’d sing it. I just found it to be kind of corny, sentimental, not made of strong enough stuff for the tough theology I was lifting up to my people.

   I must have been just the kind of guy Jesus hoped would overhear when he told people who didn’t matter in the world’s eyes that in God’s eyes they were fabulously precious. Thankfully I’ve fallen back in love with this old hymn I heard my grandmother sing while she went about her chores. Jesus asked us to see God’s handiwork and sustenance in mere sparrows. 

   Walter Brueggemann (in A Glad Obedience) calls them “model citizens in the Kingdom of God.” They nest inside the glorious temple itself, too high to be swooshed away by the priest and their acolytes. God feeds and clothes them, quite naturally; these non-acquisitive, trusting creatures have no worries.

   Easy for sparrows, I’d say. The hymn asks “Why should I be discouraged?” Let me count the ways. “Why should the shadows come?” is worth pausing over, not merely to count all the darkness that imposes itself in every life. 

   Ray Barfield, in his book on beauty and suffering called Wager, speaks of “reverencing my shadow.” If you’re in the world, you cast a shadow; it’s proof you’re here. If there’s light, there is shadow, and if there’s shadow, then there’s light. Obviously – but that is why the shadows should come.

   What’s so lovely about the hymn is that it doesn’t pledge or expect a quick fix or any fix at all. It’s not God will do what I ask, or God will repair everything tomorrow. It’s simply that God cares. God sees. His eye is on the sparrow – and as virtually worthless as a sparrow might seem to be (Jesus pointed out that five are sold for two pennies!), God miraculously cares intensely for each one. 

   God sees the sparrow, and you and me. And it’s not just a passing glance. Birdwatchers are patient, focused people, gazing at length through their binoculars, noticing the slightest flutter of a feather, turn of the head, opening of the beak or twitching of a talon.

   Who was Jesus? Who is he? His nickname at birth was “Emmanuel,” God with us. And his parting words were “I will be with you.” Not a magical fulfiller of wishes or fixer of all troubles. He is with us. That’s what my grandmother was singing about while sweeping and ironing. God’s abiding presence infused her with joy and strength. She was still dirt poor, and her arthritis pained her. But Jesus was her “portion,” a lovely echo of Psalm 73:26.

   Indeed, my grandmother and my warbly soprano soared to the climactic high note in the hymn, which occurs on “I’m free.” Not free American-style, the paltry notion that I can do whatever I dang well please. No, I’m free, like a bird, as in Paul’s ringing declaration that “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Free from the cruel bondage of sin, anxiety, fretting over self-worth or terror of mortality.

   Civilla Durfee Martin wrote this poem, later set to music by Charles Gabriel, after visiting with her friend, a Mrs. Doolittle, bedridden for over twenty years. Martin’s husband asked Mrs. Doolittle her secret of joy in the thick of affliction. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” That was in 1905. It was back in maybe the year 28 that Jesus said pretty much the same thing. No wonder the hymn, and more importantly, the reality of God’s tender care for sparrows and us people, lingers despite failing to make the hymnal committee cut.

What can we say July 2? 5th after Pentecost

    Romans 6:12-23 feel timely as we approach July 4: freedom isn’t my right to do as I wish, so cherished by Americans, but being set free from slavery to sin, and for obedience! In fact, instead of celebrating my freedom, I grieve my shackled self. In this text, whose topic Michael Gorman calls “the present character of resurrection,” Paul’s psychological insight is striking. Sin isn’t a deed, but a tyrant who “makes you obey their passions” (v. 12)! It’s me, but it feels like some alien in me forcing me against my own will – by crushing the shreds of will I have left – to do its bidding. We are indeed “slaves.” Plaster that on your float for the July 4 parade! “Slaves of America! Your wills are bound.”

   On Ash Wednesday, I told a story about my dog, Abigail. My first parsonage backed up to hundreds of acres of woods. She loved to run and gambol in them. But one day she didn’t come home. I traipsed all over the place, and finally heard her whimpering, crying. Back in the day, somebody had strung up a barbed wire fence. It has tumbled into the leaves and brush over the years – and she was hopelessly entangled. The more she struggled, her lacerations only worsened. All I could do was speak softy, and stroke her gently. Shhh. Be still honey. Be still. You’re ok. Finally she rested, and I could pry the barbs from her flesh, take her in my arms and back home to begin to bind up her wounds. So it is with us and the sin that entraps us. Strive hard to be good! – but you’ll only get more enmeshed. We have to be still, to let God extricate us, and then heal our wounds.

   It’s worth pointing out that Paul isn’t obsessed with narrow personal holiness, the avoidance of sin – although it involves that. It is rather “an appeal for a radical identification with God’s purposes in the world over against powers and forces that oppose God’s purposes and ways” (Gorman). Don’t fritter your self, your energies away. Save up, expend yourself on the things of God.

   Matthew 10:40-42 is short, a bit simplistic – and therein is its power. “Whoever gives a cup of cold water”? Seems easy – but it requires proximity, and tenderness. You don’t drop off a cup of cold water in a collection bin. Think of that pair of corny but still powerful moments in Ben Hur. Judah has been taken captive, and as he trudges miserably, so parched, a shadowy figure gives him a drink. Hint hint: it must be Jesus! Of course, later Jesus is struggling under the weight of the cross – and it is Judah Ben Hur who bolts from the crowd to give him to drink.

   Genesis 22:1-14. Ellen Davis made me laugh: “Here we are, only 22 chapters into the Bible, and already our skin is crawling.” Most listeners will shudder, unknowingly siding with Immanuel Kant, who asserted that if you hear a voice commanding something contrary to moral law, it is not God’s voice. Only a deranged person would harm a child!

   But don’t we sacrifice our children on quite a few altars? Don’t we bind them to the altar of money, or alcohol, or dizzying busyness, or our anxiety or society’s false deities? A conservative might say we sacrifice the unborn, a progressive might say we sacrifice the born but disadvantaged. No shortage of sermon material here! We’re all unwittingly bad parents. Tom (in The Prince of Tides) tells his children, “‘I know we’re screwing you up a little bit every day. If we knew how we were doing it, we’d stop, because we adore you. But we’re parents, and we can’t help it. Do you understand?’ ‘No,’ they agreed in simultaneous chorus. ‘Good. You’re not supposed to understand.’”

   Plenty of sermon fodder here, isn’t there? Bad parents, all of us… and if you’re a Family Guy fan, this hilarious clip about the worst dad in the world elicits a chuckle (but best not to run this video on your worship screens). And yet if it’s to false gods we poor parents sacrifice the children we adore, can’t church correct us, at least somewhat, and steer us in healthier, more spiritually wise directions?

   To me, the simplest homiletical conclusion to be drawn is that Genesis 22, written during the days when Israel’s neighbors did in fact sacrifice their children to placate angry gods, stands as a bold witness to say It shall not be so among you; this will not be done in Israel.

    But is that it? Isn’t there some mystery, some clue here about deeper discipleship, and what the heart of God is like? You can read the text as a one-off: it’s about Abraham, not you and me. There’s no (whew!) “Go thou and do likewise” in every text.

   As a young preacher, I praised Abraham as a shimmering example of total devotion to God. More recently, I’m leaning toward Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who makes a big deal of contrasting Noah, who said not one word in response to God but simply dished up blind obedience (which didn’t impact anybody else!), with Abraham, who talked back to God, who took responsibility, who instead of just letting Sodom and Gomorrah burn fought back, advocating for the citizens there. Why then is Abraham so meek and blindly obedient here? Sacks doesn’t offer us much, except this: “We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing… Judaism is a sustained discipline in not taking life for granted.”

   More than any passage in Scripture, Genesis 22 is to be read slowly. Each word bears so much weight, and the emotion – never stated! – is intense. Take your son. Pause… Your only son Isaac. Pause… underlining the ‘only,’ and thus the whole story of barrenness, and then reminding him of his name… which had just meant joyful laughter. Whom you love. Long pause… again, reiterating the obvious, expanding the interior horizon. The pace remains slow, rising early, and as he saddles his donkey.

   When they get to Moriah, he takes the wood, and the fire and knife. Then the text lingers: So they went, both of them together. Pause. Absolutely tender, harrowing. These very words are repeated two verses later. Isaac calls out to him “My father!” (which is how Jesus would teach us to pray). Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son” (echoes of Isaiah 6 but with the tender ‘my son’). I love it that the text never tells us how either of them feels. The intensity is greater than if the mood had been depicted in a bunch of adjectives. We read. We listen. We ponder. So moving. No mansplaining allowed.

   Søren Kierkegaard gifted us with a profound rumination on this text (Fear and Trembling), in which he points out that if Abraham had been heroic, he would have raised the knife and plunged it into his own chest: “He would have been admired; but it is one thing to be admired, and another to be the guiding star which saves the anguished.” Kierkegaard’s best line? “Only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.”

   Ellen Davis, in her wise reflection on this text in Preaching the Luminous Word, speaks of “vulnerability” as “the enabling condition of covenant relationship with God.” Abraham could not be more vulnerable – and he makes himself even more vulnerable by responding “Here I am.” Perhaps he should have run, hidden, or just said No way. “Here I am” is how we always stand before and with God.

   She considers the vulnerability of children in the face of their parents’ faith. How vulnerable was Isaac to his father’s piety? Might this cause the preacher to shudder a bit over the cost to our children of what we think we are doing for God?

   So we have a startling text. Abraham is “tested,” not tempted (as is the case for Jesus in the desert). Russ Reno (in his Brazos/Genesis commentary): “Trials and tests are consistent with divine love. They work against our hopeless hope that our finite powers can see us through. To be tested is to be brought back to reality. It is a spank that awakens us. Trials and tests not only purify us of delusions, but also prepare us for a proper loyalty to the world and its finite goods.”

   The best I can think to ask is What sort of test was the crucifixion for the heart of God the Father? We know Jesus’ cry of dereliction. How did God hear him? What was God’s swirl of emotion when the taunters jeered, “Save yourself”? There is some harrowing in that moment, some unspeakable agony – which words just cannot capture. Rembrandt’s pen and ink profoundly and unforgettably captures Abraham’s face just at the moment he is relieved of his crushing duty, when he who drew the knife actually got Isaac.