Monday, January 1, 2018

What can we say come October 21? 22nd after Pentecost

   If you’re continuing a series on Job (we’re to the whirlwind now!), go to the bottom of this blog -- or watch my 15 minute sermon on Job, "Everything Happens for a Reason." We’ll start this blog with the Gospel, then explore Hebrews (not just for preaching it, but what it reveals about ministry).

    Mark 10:35-45. Jesus has clearly altered the plot of his story from striding about amazing people to this beleaguered journey toward Jerusalem to suffer and die. Along the road, he’s explaining this way of sorrows, and how following him similarly puts you in harm’s way, a road of downward mobility, a route toward suffering and death. 

    How dense are the disciples? The sons of Zebedee, acting this time without their pal Peter, sound like those Christians you’ve known who “claim promises” and feel sure God will do their bidding: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Did Jesus chuckle? Grimace? Instead of chiding or correcting, Jesus quite typically followed up by asking them to continue. They seek the glory of sitting next to him in his glory. Posturing, jockeying – and don’t think clergy are immune from the allure of dreams of glory, sitting on the right hand of the bishop, sitting just to the left at one of the grand pulpits. Clergy: are you moving on up? Or resentful of those who are?

     Did Zebedee raise his boys with quite proper American-style ambition to succeed? Matthew 20:20 interestingly casts Mrs. Zebedee as the one seeking position for her boys.

    Jesus, continuing themes they’d missed, points out that his glory will involve “drinking the cup I drink,” that is, being arrested, beaten, and crucified. Even on hearing this, and perhaps they even understood a little, they cockily declare “Lord, we are able!” My theology professor at Duke, Bob Cushman, once told me his least favorite hymn was “Are Ye Able” – which similarly boasts “Yeah, the sturdy dreamers answered, to the death we follow thee. Lord, we are able!” But they are not able, and neither are we. God wants availability, not ability. And God’s realm is an upside down kind of glory. There is no hierarchy in God’s kingdom: “Gentiles lord it over others; but it shall not be so among you.” Or rather, there is a hierarchy, and it’s a flattened pancake on the ground of humility. Whoever can go lowest is closest to Jesus.

    James, as fate would have it, was martyred a decade later (Acts 12:2). John apparently lived to old age. Their naïve confusion on the road in Mark 10 was surely replaced by a mature, humble realization that Jesus’ way was the way, and that the world’s path to glory isn’t merely dangerous but a deceptive lie. Frodo understood that the ring had to be destroyed at Mordor, or the power of the ring would destroy him and the shire. When I preach on such themes, I am not optimistic people will be able to hear. Sometimes I settle for incremental gains: maybe somebody is a tad humbler, maybe somebody engages in some hard service for God. But the revolution Jesus envisaged: we have to look to the St. Francises of the world, the Dorothy Days, the Teresas and Thérèses of the world (Avila, Lisieux, Calcutta), maybe an Albert Schweitzer or maybe somebody you know who bought into the Jesus revolution with abandon.

     Our Epistle, Hebrews 5:1-10, is typically Hebrews: dense, profound, mystifying, moving. And obsessed with Melchizedek. I want to grow up to savor Melchizedek – but for now, the yawning gap between me and the early Christians is the way they got totally jazzed about the mention of the obscure king, and I just skate on by.

    The author compares and contrasts earthly priests with Christ as our priest – affording us a hopeful glimpse into both. I think it’s wise, on occasion, to talk about what it is to be a priest, like you, the preacher – not to elicit sympathy or to assert your authority. Every few months, as the context provides an opening, I tell my people that I love them, I think of them when they aren’t around, I worry about them, I pray for them. It’s my job; it’s my calling. 

    Hebrews speaks of the weakness of the priest. Apply for an open pulpit, or ask for a move from your bishop, and tell him/her you’re weak. No, we profess our strengths, our savvy, our work ethic, our robust theology. But I wound up writing a book entitled Weak Enough to Lead after teaching a doctoral class on biblical leadership – and noticing how the Bible simply doesn’t supply snappy formulas for how to be a strong leader. A weak bunch – as they are, and should be, these Bible leaders. Hebrews doesn’t speak of weak priests and then demand they get strong. Their weakness is their strength. 

    And why? They are able to sympathize, and be gentle. When I get hard on my people (in the privacy of my mind, of course), I am forgetting my own foibles and flaws. We are all broken. Rainer Maria Rilke (in his letter to a young poet friend) was right:  “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled. His life has much difficulty and sadness. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find these words.” Knowing this, and even daring to speak of it, might remind the critics and fault-finders that they are a bit off track, and refocus church life on compassion, not fixing people or even the world, but being with one another, not judging but overflowing with mercy.

     Jesus himself wasn’t superman come to earth, he wasn’t a man of steel. He himself was meek, lowly, woundable, wounded. Verse 7 poignantly reminds us of Jesus’ “loud cries and tears.” Gethsemane, yes (and I’d commend watching this scene from Jesus ChristSuperstar, and even better from the at-times weird but provocative film, The Last Temptation of Christ) – and weeping over Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives, yes. But the text implies more, something regular. Jesus loved deeply. Jesus was one with the heart of God. Whatever broke God’s heart broke Jesus’ heart (in the words of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision). Those who travelled with Jesus, and asked him to teach them to pray, witnessed his sorrows, his crying out to God in prayer.

    This blog labors toward good preaching. Maybe we should, instead, strive to be clergy who pray, who have tears and cries for our people, for the troubles of the world, for ourselves. I too often am annoyed, angry, frustrated with my people, and the world, and myself – and I am positive that even if I smile and talk sweetness and love, my inner mood bleeds out through my pores, and they feel it. 

    You may be a stalwart in prayer for your people. I for one am humbled when I consider someone like my wife’s grandfather, Charles Stevens – who was known for his all-night prayer vigils and intensity and length of supplications for people, challenges, big decisions. And it’s not that such prayers “work.” We just pray. Jesus, after all, prayed for the cup to pass from him – and the result only superficially contradicts the words of Hebrews 5: “He was heard for his godly fear.” Ah, but he was. God never adored his son more than in Gethsemane, and throughout Good Friday. 

    The diciest moment in Hebrews 5 is this notion that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” He suffered because he was obedient… and people have heard lots of pablum about God teaching people lessons through smiting them or inflicting harm on them (the whole premise being overturned in Job!). God is in the suffering. God suffers what we suffer. Knowing God is growing into that awareness – not sticking with the calculus of I am suffering, so what is it God is trying to teach me by sending this my way?

    In Weak Enough to Lead, I looked to a fictional priest who sympathizes (in Father Melancholy's Daughter): “The humble, nameless leaders who are office-holders, the steady as you go solid rock at work, those uncreative readers of our holy books may play the steady, reliable role we need when the charismatic leaders are out there doing who knows what. Consider Gail Godwin’s marvelous assessment of Father Gower: ‘He’s not trendy; he doesn’t pose. He’s neither a self-transcendent guru nor one of these fund-raising manager types who have become so sought after lately by our Holy Church. He’s just himself—himself offered daily. He worries about people, he worries about himself. . . . He goes to the hospital carrying the Sacraments in his little black case. He baptizes and marries and buries and listens to people’s fears and confessions and isn’t above sharing some of his own.  He scrubs the corner cross with Ajax. . . . He makes his services beautiful; he reminds you that the whole purpose of the liturgy is to put you in touch with the great rhythms of life. He’s a dedicated man, your father. He’s lonely and bedeviled like the rest of us, but he has time for it all and tries to do it right. He lives by the grace of daily obligation. He’s what the priests in books used to be like, but today he’s a rarity.’ Priests in Old Testament times offered themselves daily, and their services were beautiful. And we can be sure they worried about people. Only an insensitive dolt could have watched the same sorrowful woman bringing her modest sacrifices, weeping in the sanctuary, and not felt her pain. There was a pastoral tenderness in the implementation of ritual as we see in the story of Hannah. Barren and taunted by her husband’s other wife, Hannah prayed repeatedly and with such intensity that Eli surmised she must be drunk. After she explained her plight, he engaged in his regular priestly function by offering her a word of blessing: ‘Go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him’ (1 Sam 1:17).”

     And finally Job. After Job rails against God and his pseudo-friends for so long, while God is entirely silent, the shocker is that God finally speaks in chapter 38. The lectionary only offers us a few verses; the preacher will need to account for God’s entire speech without explicating every detail. The details are stunning, the poetry and imagery eloquent and vivid; Robert Alter's brief comments in The Wisdom Books, and Francis Anderson's Job are both brilliant on these passages.

     God doesn’t supply simple “answers,” or any smooth theological explanations of why bad things happen to good people. God doesn't explain how the moral calculus works or doesn't. God instead takes Job on a tour of creation – and not the pretty places in creation, but the wild, inaccessible, puzzling, explicable places. God doesn’t point to the house cat or the hunting dog who do our bidding, or a caged parrot. God indirectly suggests to Job that God fashioned, not a neat world where everything fits together snugly and all is fair and placid. It’s dangerous out there, it’s amazing out there, and in here too. The speech clearly undercuts a too-small-God theology – or an anthropocentric theology.

     Partly God invites us to hear God’s voice in nature – and not in the pretty sunsets or photogenic hills with grassy meadows nearby. John Muir, after exploring Yosemite, wrote “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near to the heart of the world as I can.”

It's worth noting that it's not just the wildness God points to. There's a lot of birthing going on - startling new life. Job cursed the day of his birth, and feels everything is over. But God shows him new life bursting forth in the wild haunts of animals - and even the ocean is spoken of as being birthed.

    Martin Buber, weighing the speech of God in light of the progress of the entire story, suggested wisely that the book of Job guides us from the view that God is cruel (chapters 1-2) to a retributive God (the friends’ speeches in 4-11), to a hidden God (the one who simply refuses to respond to Job through chapters 3-37), and finally then to a God of revelation, a God who is present, relational. Job doesn’t get answers. But Job does get God. Preachers need to help our people to see that God doesn’t float down rewards or blessings or things. God’s gift is… God. Jesus gave them his body and blood – and invited them to continue receiving him. His nickname, after all, is Emmanuel.

Or, as Anderson puts it, “That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God…. It does not matter much what they talk about. Any topic will do for a satisfying conversation between friends.”

    Robert Frost, in The Masque of Reason, imagines God finally explaining everything to Job – and his thinking is maybe the most on point assessment of Job ever written:

I've had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you someday for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There's no connection human can reason out
Between their just deserts and what they get.
Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed.
Twas a great demonstration we put on.
I should have spoken sooner…
Too long I've owed you this apology
For the apparently unmeaning sorrow
You were afflicted with in those old days.
But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn't understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realise by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.
My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
At first… I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.
You are the Emancipator of your God,
And as such I promote you to a saint.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

What can we say October 28? 23rd after Pentecost

   If you’re tracking the Job readings, this week’s (chapter 42) is the dud of all endings to a book, surely the original ending to the old corny story the rest of the book is designed to debunk.

     Hebrews 7:23-28 intrigues, especially as (for us) we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  I like always at the end of October to touch on Martin Luther and the church’s ongoing need for reform. Without sliding into supersessionism or anti-Semitism, it’s possible to notice that Hebrews diminishes the power of the earthly priests; Jesus renders them less essential or even unnecessary. This was, of course, one of Luther’s key principles, the priesthood of all believers, and thus an end to the abuses of clericalism. I wonder in our day if we have the opposite problem: not too much power in the priesthood, but trying to function while viewed as a laughingstock with no authority at all. Best we can do is point to the high priest, like a docent in a museum, exhibiting in our preaching and praying our own devotion to what he has accomplished for all of us.

     Hebrews offers the highest possible Christology (what George Lindbeck called “Christological maximalism,” our theological burden to glow as enthusiastically as possible about Christ), and yet with little human, earthy touches. Jesus’ priesthood never ends – for the simplistic reason that the others die! “Mortal priests are therefore necessarily multiple” (as Luke Timothy Johnson wryly put it). Hints of Platonism here, where the many are inferior to the one.

     I’m not preaching on Hebrews, but I love to play with the merging of roles in Jesus. He is the priest, he is the sacrifice, he is the judge, he’s all in all – and what that means for us is he gives not blind justice or fairness. This judge is entirely biased – as he’s also the defense attorney, and the one offering the most profound sacrifice ever, his own self. We’ve got it made with such a priest.

     The Bartimaeus text is astonishingly rich.  I think it happened.  I think it’s richly symbolic. Both. Here is a sermon I preached on this a couple of years ago that I felt pretty good about. Interestingly, we often speak of the plot of Jesus’ life shifting at Caesarea Philippi. Before that, he’s a man of action, in control, dazzling the crowds – but afterwards he becomes passive, bent on facing his fate in Jerusalem. The exception is this vignette in Jericho – which I think makes it stand out all the more. This miracle is a shimmering emblem of them all. Yes, a blind man sees – but it’s about everyone seeing, seeking mercy, and finally following.

     The Jericho in question isn’t the breadloaf-like hill from the Bronze Age most tourists visit (where the wall came a-tumblin’ down). Below a few find their way to what remains of Herod’s winter resort (how many resorts did one man need?). But the linkage to Jericho has its resonance: Jesus is a new Joshua, invading the Holy Land, not to seize it but to reclaim it, not by savage force but by suffering love.

    A close, slow reading of the text reveals so much we might miss. His cry isn’t “Jesus, heal my blindness,” but “Have mercy on me.” That’s the pain, that’s the need: some mercy. Pope Francis deemed 2016 as the “Year of Mercy.” Should have made it a decade… Like the children clamoring to see Jesus, this blind man is rebuked, hushed by the ever vigilant and dimwitted disciples.

   Then notice this. Jesus stops: the consummately interruptible one… and says “Call him,” which is a little odd. They say to him, “Take heart, he is calling you.” Not “Take heart, you’ll be seeing soon.” He can take heart because he is called. We tend to think if we get healed or blessed, then we might tune in for God’s call. But the very fact of God calling is cause to take heart. For all Bartimaeus knows, Jesus will be calling him – as a blind man.

     Instead of simply taking charge, Jesus again, with more questions than answers, leaving people space instead of commandeering them, asks “What do you want me to do for you?” He had just asked this of the sons of Zebedee, and their reply was their vain pursuit of power and glory. Bartimaeus keeps it simple. He wishes to see – and the text invites us to realize our deep need to be able to see. Joel Marcus relates this to a Holocaust survivor who wore dark glasses while giving testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her points, which she clarified, was that she appeared to be blind – but then with dramatic force she said “I saw everything.”

   And I love this: Jesus says “Go your way.” Not “Follow me,” or “You sure owe me.” And yet, Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” Those are pregnant words, implying he didn’t follow for 100 feet and then go home. He followed (which is what disciples do with Jesus) “on the way,” the road, which is the long, symbolic road of discipleship. And they’re headed to Jerusalem for a massive crisis and terrible danger. Why, after all, did they remember Bartimaeus’s name? He had to have been among the company of the early followers.

     The name: bar-timaeus means “son of a guy named Honored.” This beggar, probably shunned by many, pitied by others, is, like all who suffer or are poor, somebody’s son. I’ve always envisioned Bartimaeus casting away his cloak to get to Jesus – with the preaching trope where we ask What do we need to cast aside to follow Jesus? Morna Hooker suggests he may have had his cloak spread out on the ground in order to collect alms – so he would be pushing it aside more than taking it off.

   Either way, the abandonment of key clothing: I think of early Baptismal rites, where you shed your dirty work clothes, descended into the pool, then emerged to be clothed in a pure white robe. Or even better: St. Francis of Assisi, embracing poverty, sued by his father, removing the fine clothes his father had provided for him to return them, standing naked in the city square. Ridding himself of stylish finery, he donned the apparel of the poor in solidarity.

     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.

    Johnson teases out the way theologians over time have come to understand God posing as the beggar, awaiting our response of love.  I tend to think the stories that report the healing of the blind are a problem, as we don’t see this miracle much. But in my time, I have twice had a lay reader in church to read (from a Braille Bible) this very text. The first thanked me for asking him, and told me it was his favorite passage in the Bible.
 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

What can we say November 4? All Saints Day

   The texts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost could serve well for All Saints. Ruth and Naomi face intense sorrow, and together – and hope against hope for a future. Hebrews 9:11-14 once again envisions Jesus as overwhelming the temple/sacrifice system by entering permanently into God’s presence – and bringing us along in tow. And then Mark 12:28-34, reiterating the great commandment to love God: isn’t this what sainthood is finally about? Not perfection or superhuman holiness but simply love for God and neighbor? And Jesus: he didn’t merely command love. He loved. He demonstrated. He put it on display so we’d know the way, but his display isn’t just for watching; we receive his love, his embrace. That’s what makes us saints.

 This year I might explore the delightful ambiguity (or is it confusion) with the whole notion of a saint. We have the official saints, and even the famous yet still unofficial (or Protestant!) ones who show us the way, who were heroic in the dogged allegiance to God. When I was researching Servants, Misfits & Martyrs: Saints & their Stories, I found cool stuff, like “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints” (Frederick Buechner). Such exemplars, such flirtation devices are more important than ever in our vapid culture where we have celebrities who are (as Daniel Boorstin put it in The Image) famous for being famous… Christopher Lasch: “Celebrities are welcome in a culture of narcissism, for we lack courage and imagination. Demands are implicitly made by traditional heroes; celebrities are not imperatives.” We need saints who make demands. I have St. Francis images in my hallway – not only to admire, but to remember he’s watching me, he’s raising (or lowering!) the bar on how I’ll act today.

     And yet, as I wrote in the book, “These friends of God are not superhuman. Saints do not possess an extra layer of muscle. They are not taller, and they do not sport superior I.Q.s. They are not richer, and their parents are not more clever than yours or mine. They have no bat-like perception that enables them to fly in the dark. They are flesh and blood, just like you and me, no stronger, no more intelligent. And that is the point. They simply offer themselves to God, knowing they are not the elite, fully cognizant that they are inadequate to the task, that their abilities are limited and fallible.”

     Saint is a christological hero. Saint is a viable possibility if we have availability, not ability. And Saint is one who trusts and has trusted in the Gospel, and is finally redeemed 100% by mercy and God’s determination to win us in the end. The texts are lavish in their portrayal of the zealous heart of God. Isaiah 25:6-9 should probably be read and re-read instead of preached upon. I always wonder about the sermon that just relishes a text, the way a docent in a museum would say Wow, look at those brushstrokes; I just adore this. Revelation 21:1-6a is a shimmering window into God’s future which we lucky dogs get to be a part of. I could delve into lots of historical and cultural background about Roman persecution and apocalyptic symbolism. But again, the text speaks beautifully and triumphantly across the centuries. Besides, in our place we have special music, and we read the names of those who’ve died in the past year – which takes awhile… The names, the music, the hope in silence: that’s the Word of God for this day.

     Of course, the lectionary Gospel, John 11:32-44, picks up mid-stream of a long story at verse 32, with the hard questions our grievers will have been feeling. No surprise that in the catacombs of ancient Rome, this story was featured when artists adorned the walls. If I must as docent point to a few details, I’ll remind us that this text has the shortest, and yet most elegant and meaning-overflowing verse in all of the Bible: “Jesus wept.” There it is, the full heart of God on bold display. Verses 33 and 38 say that Jesus “grieved” or was “deeply moved” or “troubled.” The Greek, embrimaomai, has the connotation of anger or outrage. Is it their lack of faith? Scholars say yes, I say no. I think it is that Jesus is flummoxed by the cocky overreach of evil, that death has dared to reach into beloved human life. In Jesus’ gut, at this moment, I think he says of evil, I’ll show him. Clearly, in John’s plot, it is this miracle that provokes the Sanhedrin to plot Jesus’ death (11:46-53).

     A kind of anger is nestled into the heart of hope. St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see to it that things do not remain the way they are.” We might piggyback on Jesus’ embrimaomai and get mad, and then courageous, we people of hope, we would-be saints.

     Tourists can visit Lazarus’s tomb in Bethany. It is of the sliding stone, not rolling stone type – so not into the cave of a hillside, but down into the ground. Picturing the stone on the floor being shoved aside, and then Lazarus coming not out but up: wow. I think there is something profound in Jesus’ words, “Unbind him and let him go.” Yes, the corpse was wrapped in fabric. But there is also something about the resurrected life that is a being unbound, being liberated, being freed to be your true self, set free to follow Jesus.
 For fun, or for contemplation, I'm showing you Giotto's fresco from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.


 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

What can we say November 11? 25th after Pentecost

   The reading from Ruth would require a retelling of the whole story – which is one of high drama, romance and wheeling and dealing. Naomi persuades Ruth to get dolled up and seek out her rich kinsman Boaz, and lie down with him in the dark – but not until he’s had a few drinks… The scheme works, they marry and conceive an ancestor of David. Naomi’s bitterness (“Call me Mara”) is turned to joy restored (Naomi meaning “pleasant”). The “point” of so many Bible stories is not “Go thou and do likewise,” but rather noting the pluck, and courage, the resourcefulness of people in our heritage – and ours is to say Wow, great story.

     Hebrews 9:24-28 continues what Hebrews has been reiterating. Christ the priest offers the sacrifice of himself once and for all. Two fresh twists (if you’re preaching the Epistle). Christ enters a sanctuary “not made with hands,” reminding us of Paul in 2 Cor. 5:1 – where the body, your “earthly tent,” has a destiny of becoming a “house” in the heavens. In Heb. 9, heaven is now the sanctuary not made with hands. The temple we know isn’t, as it turns out, the real sanctuary at all, but merely a “copy” of the true heavenly sanctuary. The preacher could explore this, or just name it: we are sitting in a room that is a replica, an imitation, a xerox if you will of heaven, where worship goes on now and will forever. This is a paradise on earth. So we treat the room, and those in the room with us, very differently, finding ourselves together in this copy of heaven.
     The Greek word translated “copy” is antitupa, which means literally to strike against something hard and thus form an image. I think of Karl Barth’s powerful thought (in his Epistle to the Romans) – that the activity of the Church’s relationship to the Gospel “is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself…” And then Oliver O’Donovan (in Desire of the Nations) suggested ways the society, while not converted, bears the crater marks of the Gospel’s being lived among Christians.

     What do we do together in this copy of heaven? We worship, yes – and we “eagerly wait for him” (v. 28). Are we living, surviving, clinging to life as we know it, anxious for the future, or even hopeful? Hebrews suggests a disposition of waiting – not to die, or for the next titillating experience, or for any thing, but for him, for the coming of Christ. Maybe before Advent arrives we might sing “I’m looking for the coming of Christ; I want to be with Jesus” (“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”).

     I’m preaching on Mark 12:38-44. I preached on this last go-round, pointing (obviously) to myself as one of the guys “in long robes” Jesus warned about. I get and like favored seating. And I worry about my prayers being showy. I worry so much that I’m an anxious pray-er in public, and usually try to get others to pray. Often, visiting in the hospital, when the time comes for our closing prayer, I’ll ask the patient to pray. No show with them; and they pray wonderful, simple, from the gut prayers.
     Once there was a boy, born with an acute case of cerebral palsy, who was treated terribly as a young child, and then went to another home where his mother noticed how he watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She believed Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. Some foundation worked it out for Mister Rogers to visit this boy, and when he did, Mister Rogers asked, “Would you pray for me?” The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for anything. He was the object of prayer, not the one to pray for anybody. But now he prays for Mister Rogers and he doesn’t want to die anymore. A journalist, Tom Junod, witnessed this and privately congratulated Mister Rogers for being so smart. But Mister Rogers didn’t know what he meant. He really wanted the boy’s prayers, saying, “I think that anyone who’s gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.”

     Of course, the focal point of the text, and the poignant preaching opportunity is this: “Jesus sat down where they made their offerings and watched.” Without being too manipulative, I will ask people to imagine Jesus watching us and our offerings – which isn’t a fantasy, as it turns out.
   The temple was outfitted with trumpet-shaped offering boxes so that when people “threw” in their coins, the clanging announced loudly the generosity of the giver. It’s hard not to think of Luther’s annoyance at Tetzel and the sale of indulgences: the indulgence hawkers toted around large brass chests and sang their ditty, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
     Jesus contrasts the poor widow who would satisfy the old saying that “God notices not how much but from how much.” Of course, in church we have anonymous giving. This worried Martin Luther King Sr. (“Mike”) when he began his ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931. He believed “anonymous giving” provided a grand excuse for what he called “anonymous non-giving.” So he opened up the registers, and listed what each person gave for all to see. Donations soared in just a week.

     What we see in Jesus’ story is the poor giving to support the poor. It’s a Christian obligation for all… incumbent upon even the poor. The preacher can find some story about the poor being in powerful ministry. Here’s one I’ll tell – excerpted from my book Struck From Behind: My Memories of God – about a woman I know in Lithuania.

     My daughter Grace and I discovered Regina Židoniené to be gregarious, hospitable but not fussy, more eager to talk about God than the weather. You and I might think of Regina as poor. Our small, cramped quarters did not feature running water – although it took us two days to realize the toilet didn’t actually flush.  Regina’s husband, who’d lost a leg due to inadequate healthcare years before, hobbled down to the creek while we slept to fill buckets with water to pour into the tank so we soft Americans wouldn’t feel inconvenienced.
     Regina was obviously a woman of immense faith. Like so many people in eastern Europe, she had grown up as an atheist. After she’d raised her children, she got to know the handful of women that were the heart of the fledgling Methodist congregation in Birzai, began to study the Bible, and then became a sledgehammer of belief and action. She had bragged to me about a little ministry she and the women ran: these women we’d rank as poor spent three days each week giving what little they had to the women they regarded as poor, those who lived in the “villages,” remote, outlying areas of extreme poverty. “Would you like to see our work?” she asked. It doesn’t take much for me to abandon manual labor, even if it is mission-related, so I said yes.
     We stopped by the grocery store, and I gleefully filled basket after basket with essentials, and paid for it all with somebody else’s money, plunking down the church credit card. I had no authorization or budget, so I made an on-the-spot, Robin Hood-like decision to steal from the rich to give to the poor. Then we drove out of the city.
     That’s correct: we drove. At first, Regina drove – like a banshee. She mashed the gas pedal as hard as she could, bounding over curbs and then skimming the edges of ditches, crushing bushes that frankly weren’t on the road, backed into a tree, jostling the food in the back out of the bags – as if she wanted to get to her destination right now, not in an hour; she pressed that ramshackle old rusty car to keep pace with her missionary zeal. After we got out and pushed the car out of some mud she’d driven into, she asked me in exasperation, “Will you drive?” Good Lord, yes I’ll drive.
     The first woman we visited lived in a tiny clapboard house – “house” being used loosely for this cold, breezy, varmint-infested awful excuse for shelter where she was raising her four children. As we approached, Regina told me she was gravely concerned about this woman’s romantic situation:  seems she had fallen in with a man Regina suspected of drinking, and being lazy. Regina banged her fist on what passed as a door, and we made our way in. The mom, I thought, would have been some sort of beauty where I lived, married to a doctor or lawyer and putting her kids in private school. But here she was poor, and embarrassingly so even by Lithuanian standards. She blushed, smiled and said Thank you (and jabbed her children with her elbows to remind them to say the same) as we placed what were thankfully non-perishables on a wobbly table as a few roaches scattered. 
     Then Regina got close to the woman, looming over her, wagging a finger in her face, and spoke sternly for quite a long time – a lecture about the ne’er-do-well boyfriend, no doubt. The woman cowered, but bore it as best she could. Rising to a crescendo of vehemence, Regina wound up her tirade, then paused, held out her arms to us and the children, and sweetly said, “Now let us pray.” And she prayed – at length, in Lithuanian, then in English, displaying a shimmering intimacy and strong urgency with God who most certainly hears such prayers. She thanked God for us, prayed about various health or learning challenges the children were facing, and then called down a curse on the soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. That poor guy was in some trouble.
     In all my days, I have never seen such stellar mission work. Regina, with virtually no resources except the little bit she and her handicapped husband could muster (but also with her extraordinary determination), banded together with other women like her, and went out to their poor. They didn’t simply drop off the goods; they got involved in their lives. Fearlessly she castigated her poor friend about a relationship she knew would harm her; and she prayed, offering blunt pleas to God on her behalf. And then we went to more such homes, until the food ran out.
     Grace filmed an interview I conducted with Regina in which she spoke of coming to faith in Christ, her love for her little church, and her ministry in the villages. I asked her, “Why do you do this?” – and she frowned, puzzled I would ask such a silly thing. “This is just what Christians do, isn’t it?” When we left for the airport the next day, I simply asked her to pray for us, and I am sure she has, and does and will, and I take comfort in being prayed for by someone who knows how to do what I could never in a million years figure out how to do:  deliver food, a lecture, and a prayer.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

What can we say November 18? 26th after Pentecost

     An interesting Sunday, with Thanksgiving in four days, and Christ the King falling afterwards this year. Hard not to select 1 Samuel 1:4-20, which explicates what giving thanks to God is all about. Hebrews 10:11-25, which I’ll touch on briefly, does remind us again of why we give thanks, not for things or “blessings” but for the infinitely precious work of Christ – and then how we love each other. Mark 13:1-8 is more of a segue into the kingship of Christ sequence we are approaching – not to mention how Jesus speaks of what his mother underwent: the pangs of childbirth.

     So Hannah. You feel for Elkanah, doubling his sacrifices for her, and pleading romantically with her: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” No answer is provided. Sometimes we don’t get the anguish of the other person, even a spouse.

     And there’s more psychological insight here. Peninnah’s taunting: isn’t it the case that our agony, our lack, is inevitably made so much worse because we compare ourselves to others, or are even unflatteringly compared, or even pitied. The worst plague of social media is you see everyone else seemingly having a blast while you’re hurting… and then we have to ask how we (by posting on social media, or by bland talk about being blessed) inflict this comparative pain on others.

     There is a theological quandary in the writer’s assertion that “the Lord had closed her womb.” The preacher may or may not engage the question – but it’s well worth pondering even in the background. Ask an infertility doctor why a woman hasn’t conceived, and she can explain to you facts about sperm counts, fallopian tubes and more. Did God so arrange such things to frustrate couples? Or do we see, again, the lovely faith of Bible people whose lives and realities were so hinged to God that they could not imagine anything apart from God? – and yet it is not that God blocks the pregnancy (which God should do a bunch of other times when God seemingly doesn’t…), but that she just hadn’t gotten pregnant?

     The text reminds us that Hannah’s hollow exasperation went on “year by year.” She wept – a lot. Finally Eli saw her praying, thought her to be drunk (anticipating the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:15). This is true prayer: total weakness, vulnerability, inability, desperation, nowhere else to turn. We need not wait for dire straits to get there either. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said “I only pray when I am in trouble. The problem is, I am in trouble all the time.”

     Realizing her deep prayerfulness, he blessed her – and (the plot smoothing itself out quickly) she becomes pregnant. In my book, Weak Enough to Lead, I wrote this about what happens next: “What staggers us is that she kept an outlandish promise she had made in her desperation. Trying to coax God into giving her a child, she pledged to give that child right back to God. She could easily have reneged on the deal once she cradled her precious son in her arms, nursing him and giggling with glee over his arrival. He was all she’d ever wanted. And in those days, a son was your social security, the one a woman needed to care for her in old age.

     But she took the boy to Shiloh and left him there to serve in the temple as an apprentice to Eli. What more poignant words are there in all of scripture than these? “She left him there for the Lord” (1 Sam 1:28). The world says grab the gifts you can, hang on to them, accumulate strength and resources. But Hannah, instead of clinging tightly, opened her hands and let go of the best gift ever. She chose to return to her weak, vulnerable state. “She left him there for the Lord.”

     After his election, Pope Francis handed back the powers of the papacy he’d just won by riding in a Ford Focus instead of the papal limousine, by moving into a guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, and by wearing a simple cassock instead of regal finery. Henri Nouwen left a faculty position at Harvard to live in a L’Arche community in Canada, where his job was to care for a single, severely handicapped young man named Adam. Maybe the most effective pastor I’ve ever known declined multiple promotions, quietly mentored dozens of young clergy, and, in her parishes, happily beamed offstage as her laity excelled as they never had before.

     Maybe you know such an obscure person you can describe in your sermon. There’s a little textual confusion in 1 Samuel 1, I think. Were her child named Saul, her pun would be perfect: she asked (sha’al) for a child, and got what she asked for (sha’ul). Hmm. Also, if you studied lament Psalms in seminary, you’ll recall this is the parade example of what happens when the Psalm shifts from lament to confidence: the idea that a priest hears your prayer, blesses you – and then the shift to hope. And then be sure to notice that the week’s Psalter isn’t a Psalm but Hannah’s song (anticipating Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:49-56!) in 1 Sam. 1:1-10!

     In keeping with all this, as it’s thanksgiving, I will use this lovely quote from Wendell Berry’s novel about a Kentucky farm mother (named Hannah too!), Hannah Coulter, who muses, ‘The chance you had in life is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be someone else. What you must do is this: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.’”

     Hebrews 10:11-25 reiterates (again!) themes of Christ’s once-for-all work, and our freedom to enter the sanctuary. The opened curtain here is Jesus’ pierced flesh… and most interestingly in verse 24 we read (in the RSV) “Let us consider how to provoke (Greek =  κατανομεν ) one another to love and good deeds. With so much provoking to anger out there… what if we used or provoking skills to prod others to love and good deeds?

     I love the opening of Mark 13:1-8. If you’ve seen the tumbled over (and some still in place) massive stones from Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, you can imagine the awed, gawking disciples exclaiming, “What large stones and what large buildings!!!” I like to describe the details (like that one ashlar you can inspect on the Western Wall Tunnel tour that is 40 feet long and weighs 600 tons!) of the massive, beautiful stones – which is crucial, as Jesus forecasts they will not remain standing one upon another. The crowd must have laughed their heads off… and yet, 40 years later, the temple was rubble.

     Preachers have to be careful not to sound anti-Semitic or supersessionist. Three centuries later, when Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they intentionally left the temple mount in ruins so they could point and boast that Judaism was toast. We grieve its destruction – and yet hear the point Jesus makes that the high and mighty wind up devastated
 (you could quote Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” here…). Jesus, more pointedly in John’s Gospel and Hebrews, theologizes that he, not any building, is the true temple, the connection between God and life down here. For Mark 13, Jesus moodily ponders a harsh, daunting future. When I hear any prognosticator of the end times pointing to current history and saying “Wars and rumors of wars” are upon us, I have to ask How many times in history have there been “wars and rumors of wars”?

     Were I preaching on Mark 13, I’d focus on the image of “birthpangs.” Birth, as Dr. Mark Sloan points out (in his wonderful Birth Day), is the only time pain is regarded as good, and we debate whether it should be alleviated or not. Pain is the necessary prelude to new life. On our end, yes. On God’s side, surely – I mean, the pangs of bearing with the constant insanity of human history strikes agony into God’s heart.

     I also think of the lovely narrative Henri Nouwen shared with us (in Our Greatest Gift) about fraternal twins in their mother’s womb. One day the girl said to her brother, "I believe there is life after birth." Her brother protested vehemently, "No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing else to do but to cling to the cord that feeds us." The little girl insisted, "There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light where there is freedom to move." Still, she could not convince her twin brother.

     After some silence, the sister said hesitantly, "I have something else to say, and I'm afraid you won't believe that, either, but I think there is a mother." Her brother became furious. "A mother!" he shouted. "What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let's be content."

     The sister was quite overwhelmed by her brother's response and for a while didn't dare say anything more. But she couldn't let go of her thoughts, and since she had only her twin brother to speak to, she finally said, "Don't you feel these squeezes every once in a while? They're quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful." "Yes," he answered. "What's special about that?" "Well," the sister said, "I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our mother face-to-face. Don't you think that's exciting?"

The brother didn't answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk of his sister and felt that the best thing would be simply to ignore her and hope that she would leave him alone.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

What can we say November 25? Christ the King

     Pentecost (or “Ordinary Time”) ends with anything but an ending. The long story of the Christian year “ends” with a crowning – reminding Tolkien fans of the grand climax to The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn is finally the king, although he and the rest bow to the smallish hobbits, who are the true heroes of the story. Tolkien totally got biblical royalty and theology.

     Jesus’ kingship was the one he declined to describe to Pilate, the one that refused power “over,” the royalty whose palace was a manger, whose regiments were missionaries, whose attendants were the unwanted, whose throne was a cross, whose crown was made of thorns, whose treaties were with the needy. On the road to Jerusalem he’d spoken of those who lord it over others: “but it shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:43).

    Revelation 1:4b-8 is a stunning passage, inviting us to marvel more than to explain or preach. In the days when there were as yet no Christian scriptures besides to Old Testament, there were Christian prophets, who would be inspired by the Spirit to stand up and reveal God’s powerful and ultimate intervention to beleaguered, persecuted believers. Jesus, just a few years after his crucifixion, was extolled as “the one who was, who is, and is to come, the faithful witness” (the Greek here is martus, martyr!), “firstborn of the dead, the ruler of all the other kings.” Investigators poking around to expose Christians who refused to bow down to the emperor must have laughed their heads off at such chatter. Again, the earliest Christians followed what we now call George Lindbeck’s “rules” – to say as expansively as possible how great Christ really was, is, will be.

     How subversive was their worship of Jesus? It could cost you your life. It did cost them ridicule, and business suffered. Yet for those who attached themselves to this alternate king, “they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:12). Hard to envision in our world where being a Christian, or going to church, elicits a yawn. And yet aren’t people looking for something costly? Something worth dying for? Something painful? Is this why so many get tattoos? – to be marked, to endure pain? Jesus was, after all, pierced.

     Jesus’ tattoos (thinking imaginatively here!) might be conceived as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. God in Christ overflows all language, he exceeds creation itself, even as he embraces all of creation. He even embraced all those powerful images of the emperor the Christians saw daily – in architecture, iconography, statues and public festivals. Into such a world, Christ spoke and then the Christians spoke simple words, “Grace and peace,” not as a polite greeting, but as the very irruption of God’s way into the world.

     Fixated in awe and wonder as we should be on Jesus, he came, and now rules, so we might be his Body, or as Revelation 1 puts it, “a kingdom of priests.” I am a priest. My job is to help my people live into their own priesthood. The Latin pontifex, “priest,” means “bridge-builder.” We build a bridge to God, not merely for ourselves, but for others. Can I be a bridge to God? I might get walked all over – which is the goal, right? And anybody can be such royalty and priesthood. The Roman emperors claimed the title pontifex; we rules with Christ legitimately in this way. I love the moments in John Irving’s Cider House Rules when Dr. Larch would read Dickens to the orphans at night, and then leave the room just after saying “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”

     John 18:33-37. How fitting then that we also read the pathetic yet glorious moment from Jesus trial before Pilate. Was Pilate a sniveling miscreant, as he is cast so often – as in the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar
I vastly prefer the portrayal in the 2000 video production in which Fred Johanson masterfully and movingly portrays Pilate as physically imposing, muscular, powerful – and yet with deep emotion, a huge, troubled heart: watch his “dream” and also the absolutely stunning “trial” scene. 

    Jesus’ comment, “My kingdom is not of this world,” has given much solace to overly-spiritual people who prefer a Christianity that is unpolitical, nonphysical, an unhinged from the realities of a world needing change almost as much as the spiritual people do. But his kingdom is so very relevant precisely because it has a different, holy, eternal origin, and paradoxical, inverted strategies of implementation. 
Listen to Raymond Brown: “Jesus does not deny that his kingdom or kingship affects this world… but he denies that his kingdom belongs to this world” – and “Jesus does not deny that he is a king, but it is not a title that he would spontaneously choose to describe his role.”

     Jesus’ vocation is truth – which is always sacrificed in the world’s securing and application of power. 
I love Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel image of Jesus before Pilate – whose face is at once etched in frozen rage and yet a puzzled intrigue. We too should be fascinated, not having Jesus figured out at all, waiting longingly to see what this rule will be like. Advent and Christmas will be the answer to Pilate’s query – and ours.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.