Sunday, January 14, 2018

What can we say come January 21? 3rd after Epiphany

    I’m going with Mark this week. Jonah 3:1-5, 10 is the most artificial, least believable portion of the story… The early part is riveting, and chapter 4 (on Jonah’s displeasure over the gourd) is even better (if you go there, by all means dig into Hans Walter Wolff’s brilliant insights on this moment).  Psalm 62:5-12 is lovely and profound – drawing me to this song (which I might play while preparing, even if not on Psalm 62!) by John Michael Talbot: “Only in God.”  1 Corinthians 7:29-31 has this apocalyptic urgency, a weird origami of mood: the married act unmarried, the mourning don’t mourn, the joyful don’t rejoice, all because “the time is short.”  If you want urgency though, look no further than our Gospel text!

     Mark 1:14-20 begins a short walk through Mark 1 over the next 3 weeks of lections.  You might find it worthwhile to invite your congregation to read all the way through Mark over a few weeks.  We did this a few years back with Matthew, with great results.  I love Rowan Williams’s general introduction to Mark’s Gospel, including: “Mark sets out two challenges for the reader. The first is simply to let yourself be addressed by the central figure. Mark is writing out of a relationship, a compelling relationship which it is his purpose to make real to you, so that whether or not you want to be in the same kind of relationship, you have to pay attention to the fact of the relationship as presented.  Second, you have to grasp and share in the changed state of affairs to which the story testifies which is now being official announced, a press release from the palace, which has changed the regime.” 
He then reminds us of the touching moment in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia when the children first hear about the lion, Aslan. Susan asks, “Is he – quite safe?” Mr. Beaver replied, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  Williams adds, “No accident that Mark’s traditional symbol in Christian art is a lion.”

     Some little textual notes that are interesting, and pregnant with preaching potential:  John was “handed over.” The Greek verb, paradidomi, is the term that will portray Jesus holy, humble, willing submission to betrayal, arrest and crucifixion at the end of the story.  For now, Jesus emerges on the stage of history as in control, making things happen – but after Caesarea Philippi, he becomes passive, is increasingly acted upon – which is the plot of our own lives… and Jesus thus ennobles that plotline in the face of society’s pity.  John foreshadows all this at the outset.

     The “time is fulfilled.”  It’s kairos, not chronos, the elusive Greek term implying timeliness, not just clock-passing time.  What only seems to be the ongoing passing of time, just another hour or day, is in the case of Jesus walking onto the stage of history, decisive, epochal, literally exploding with meaning, purpose, possibility.

    The kingdom “is at hand” (the Greek implies “has come near” – so it is really close but not fully embodied just yet??).  The kingdom is the realization of God’s way and reign, of course – but the reality is that this kingdom that draws near is actually Jesus himself, the community he is beginning to assemble around himself, and their movement toward the least and the lost, and to the powerful and clueless.

     What could anyone do in the wake of this movement than to “repent” and to “believe.”  Churchgoers have sadly thin perspectives on these two verbs.  “Repent” renders the Greek metanoia, meaning a “change of mind.”  New thinking, an altered perspective, a Copernican revolution of viewpoint, a radically fresh understanding and direction – all picking up on the Old Testament’s verb shûv, meaning to make a 180° turn.  I like to embody this when I am preaching: as I describe it, I face left, then as I’m talking, I swivel my body to the right.  They not only hear me; they see and thus experience and maybe interiorize the turn.  “Believe” isn’t “give mental assent,” but is a full-bodied, heart-plunged flinging of your self into this new, changed reality.  I’m fond of the thesis of Matthew Bates’s Salvation by Allegiance Alone – which urges upon us the truth that faith is the acting out of allegiance and fidelity to Christ.

     I wonder, with all the kerfuffle around the National Anthem at NFL games this year, if we might take the “pledge of allegiance” and ask about our allegiance to Christ.  Risky… as people might get touchy, or be inflamed by undue patriotism – or perhaps worst of all, treat Christianity no more seriously than they do saying the Pledge of Allegiance: standing on cue, mouthing words, then living the same old life.

     After the little overture to Mark’s Gospel in verses 14-15, we move into what Joel Marcus calls the “honeymoon period” of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus announces himself in word and deed, and his popularity swells.  But notably, first, before dazzling the crowds, he forms a community.  You might think he’d dazzle, then collect some followers.  But he starts with a circle of people to accompany him.  Community matters. 

     I love Mark’s simple observation about why Simon and Andrew were casting nets: “for they were fishermen” – as if to underline they aren’t superheroes of holy men.  The Greek word of “casting” is amphiballontas, “throwing around,” implying circular tossing.  Vivid detail, waving the hands to illustrate, or showing an image can draw people into the biblical moment.  The reality of this fishing can also be brought home by pointing to the “Jesus boat” which archaeologists discovered in 1986 – from the time of Jesus!  Wish “S.S. Simon Peter” were carved into the prow…

     Jesus rather surprisingly says “Follow me” – and more surprisingly, they do.  Rabbis didn’t invite an entourage to traipse around after them.  And these guys, it appears, just now met Jesus.  Why on earth would they follow?  There had to be something compelling, alluring, even beautiful about Jesus (so do we sing “Fairest Lord Jesus”?).  And they follow “immediately,” a key word for Mark: euthus.  It’s happening, and now, not a second too soon.  When Jesus calls the next two, the immediacy is in Jesus: “Immediately he called…”  He didn’t size them up, sort through their credentials, or check out their potential for discipleship.  The image here is Jesus just grabs any and everybody.

     Caravaggio’s painting, The Call of St. Matthew, might be instructive. Evidently, when Caravaggio was working on this haunting, inviting work, he grabbed some guys who were just standing around on the streets, dragged them into his studio, and boom! They were disciples of Jesus.  No special saintly gene, no grand training in Scripture, no history of piety is needed for Jesus to swoop you up into his movement.  And they start moving with him before they understand much about him – which fits the old principle of St. Athanasius, that you won’t understand Scripture until you’re actually living it…

     The sons of Zebedee were “mending their nets.”  Here’s a debate: many argue the fishing happened at night, so this mending happened by the light of day.  Although this is probably correct, Joel Marcus wonders if they fished by day, and so their mending happened at night, in the dark – a suggestive image of Jesus, the light of the world (John 8:12), coming to those “who walked in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).

     How much hay could be made with this? “They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants.”  If they have hired servants, then this Zebedee family isn’t a bunch of unlettered rural bumpkins; they have some measure of affluence and security.  Leaving it was significant.  And “they left their father.”  So poignant.  Did Zebedee try to talk them down?  Did he fume at Jesus?  What did he say to their mother?  How did he run the business without them?  History reveals so many great heroes who couldn’t become heroes without leaving father behind.  St. Francis was sued and then spat upon by his father, Pietro Bernardone, for abandoning the family business and embarrassing him by living as a pauper.  Martin Luther disappointed his harsh father who demanded he go into the law.

     So many others – including me.  Does the preacher use this moment to tell her or his own call story?  I think maybe so – especially if told in a way to invite others to discover or recall and revivify their own.  I was on track to go into engineering or science or law or something profitable.  But got dragged to church – which wasn’t my thing.  Some guys kept nagging me to go to a Bible study, but that was way, way too crazy; they should have been grateful I was showing up at church at all.  But then one night I had a very palpable dream:  Jesus (how did I recognize him?) was standing before me, and he said two words: “Follow me.”  I woke up, a little dazed – and remembered the Bible study invitation for that evening.  Decided to go – and my feelings of immense discomfort there grew way more uncomfortable when the leader opened his Bible and said, “This evening, I’d like us to talk about Mark 1:17 where Jesus says ‘Follow me.’”

 

 

What can we say come January 28? 4th after Epiphany

   Our blog for this week will focus on the Gospel.  Mind you, Deuteronomy 18:15-20 expresses a promise of a great prophet to come – not a prediction of Jesus but most certainly a promise Jesus lives into thoroughly.  And 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 may work well as an illustration of the kind of evil spirit Jesus silences in Mark 1 (we’ll get back to this idea later). 

     So, Mark 1:21-18.  I like to paint a picture for people of what ancient Capernaum was like. 
Artists have depicted scholarly visions of the place – including one spectacular discovery in 1968.  Archaeologists have dug up a neighborhood of connecting homes from the time of Jesus in Capernaum.  One particular house was like any other in most ways:  stone walls, pottery and fish hooks lying around on the floor.  But just a couple of decades after the death of Jesus, somebody put half a dozen layers of plaster on the stones.  As time passed, religious graffiti were scrawled on the walls:  the names Jesus and Peter, and phrases like Kyrie eleison and Amen.  This house must be the actual house where Jesus stayed and healed.  Surely someone would have remembered the right house, and Christians would have set it aside for worship.  In the fourth and fifth centuries, using this same house as its foundation, an octagonal church was constructed.

     The image is riveting:  a church built on the foundation of a home.  Church ought to be like a home, in the best sense of the word:  a place of comfort, a zone of acceptance, an atmosphere of unconditional love, a sense of belonging.  Robert Frost called home “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  We feel in our hearts some nagging homesickness, a longing for home, a yearning finally answered only by God, but for now hinted at most profoundly in the life of God’s people.

     Mark tells us that “immediately” (so frequent in Mark!) Jesus entered the synagogue.  Mark has his theological urgency in mind – but in the ancient town, it would have been literally immediately, as Peter’s house is about 25 steps from the synagogue!  Pilgrims take photos of the white limestone synagogue – which was built in the 4th century.  But just under northwest corner, we can see clearly a gray basalt foundation – which would have been the stone floor of the synagogue where Jesus taught and healed!  I feel helping people to see the reality of Bible places help them anchor the story in their minds and feel its tangibility…

     Jesus walks in, and is immediately confronted by a demon.  I love Joel Marcus’s wry comment: “It would probably have been smarter for the demon to keep a low profile… but Markan demons seem to experience a fatal attraction to Jesus.”  At least they recognize Jesus and his fullness more than the people who know him best!  I love that the demon speaks in 1st person plural – reminding me of the silly scene in Ghostbusters when Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is seduced by Dana (possessed by Zul, played by Sigourney Weaver), and he says “Sounds like there are at least two people in you already.”  In Mark 5, the possessors are “legion.”  The loss of singular identity, the confusion of voices are at the heart of what goes awry in people. 

     So, the plural question: “What have we to do with you?”  The Greek is literally “What is there to us and to you?” which connotes both “What cause of enmity is there between us?” and also “What do we have in common?”  Marcus refers to Ernst Lohmeyer who notices the demon’s use of biblical language, which “may be an attempt to employ holy words and thus control Jesus – as if to exorcise him!” 

     Jesus doesn’t strike of pulverize or electrocute the demon(s).  Instead he simply says “Be silent.”  That’s way too polite a translation…  phimotheti verges on slang, and would have struck listeners as rude.  To the demon Jesus says “Shut up!”  “Muzzle it!”  “Hush!” 
Fascinating: healing involves the silencing of voices.  This is how it goes in the head of the one battling mental illness, or anxiety, or all sorts of maladies.  Even sleeplessness:  dark thoughts pop up, and you try to squash each one, but it’s like playing whack-a-mole.  Get one down, others pop up.  Jesus brings, not loud religious chatter, but silence, the welcome calm of stillness. 

     Much sensitivity is required to speak of the healing of the demon-possessed.  How do we address the reality of inward torment without implying demonic possession in its more freakish impressions? 
Kathryn Greene-McCreight addresses this well (and from the viewpoint of someone who’s experienced it) in her thoughtful Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.  My church, right now, is engaged in a series on mental illness/mental health, addictions, etc. – so crucial to end the shame and stigma, so challenging to the Body to embrace people and not expect sunny, simple fixes.

     The whole business of Jesus’ healings in general:  how do we speak of his healings when we don’t see them so often – or ever?  When Jesus healed, was it so the person could get better, or to make some larger point?  Who wasn’t healed back then?  I’d commend this brief video I did to you as one way to process the healing stories.

     Jesus’ teaching astonished everyone – and why?  “He taught as one who had authority.”  I can’t preach on this without observing how, in postmodern culture, authority isn’t permitted to anybody, unless we listen to the loudest, most shrill, most ideologically extreme voices.  How do we preach with authority? Or better, how do we lift up the authority of the Scriptural story?  My best guess is this thought, via an early sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring an illustration from mythology, which I related in my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word):

    The sirens sang seductive songs that lured sailors into shipwreck.  Two, though, managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully, and King contrasted their techniques.  Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his rowers and strapped himself to the mast of the ship, and by dint of will managed to steer clear of the shoals.  But Orpheus, as his ship drew near, simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them. Every preacher knows how to declare resolutely that the Bible is inspired, that truth is revealed only in Scripture, and so we strap ourselves to that mast, and try to cram that Word into their ears. But think about Orpheus.  Calmly, deploying some simple artistry, Orpheus trusts the beauty of the song, and he plays.  Frankly, if the preacher wants to be “effective,” we have to reckon with the harrowing truth that most Church people nowadays won’t let you stuff anything in their ears.  They could care less if you are tied to the mast of all those slogans we fall back on, like “The Bible is the Word of God,” or “The Church is of God,” or whatever we say Baptism or Scriptural Christianity requires.  If we are to persuade, if we are to give voice to the mysteries of God, then we must take quite seriously the task of picking up the lyre and playing the song in ways that are lovely, although perhaps in the way a young semi-talented guitar player might woo his lover, the sincerity and courage of the attempt compensating for lack of talent.  St. Augustine urged preachers to marshal their rhetoric, “to teach, to delight, and to persuade… When he does this properly he can justly be called eloquent, even though he fails to win the assent of his audience,” although Augustine clearly believed all preachers could teach, delight and persuade. {end of excerpt}

     We may ask, What demons need silencing today?  Beyond what we assess as mental health/addiction issues, that is?  What about political ideology, which possesses any and everybody, eviscerating the soul and crippling holiness and generosity?  A disordered ego?  This Sunday’s epistle, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, might help.  Paul, while admitting knowledge is good (Faber College from Animal House, anyone?), pinpoints the peril: the knowledge “puffs up.”  Clergy, along with the abundantly over-learned laity who make their lives miserable, both risk this ungodly possibility of knowledge that is overweight and thus unhealthy.

   St. Francis of Assisi fretted over the dangers of books and learning; how ironic is it that within a generation, Franciscans occupied prestigious chairs in theology at leading universities! 
Anthony of Padua, one of his most zealous followers, lived a spartan life, but gained renown as a scholar and teacher.  Francis wrote him a letter, reluctantly granting Anthony’s wish to write and teach, but only “on the condition that you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion.”  To this day, Catholics sponsor collections of food for the poor, called “St. Anthony’s Bread.”  How lovely:  the most brilliant scholar of his day, one of the official “doctors of the Church,” remembered not for his theological acumen so much as for being one who fed the poor.

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 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups! 

What can we say come February 4? 5th after Epiphany

     We have three great texts this week.  Isaiah 40:21-31 is the luminous climax to one of the Bible’s greatest chapters, which begins with stunning words of comfort to exiles who’ve given up ever returning to Zion.  Even during their desolation, a way is already being prepared in the wilderness – and why?  Grass may wither but God’s word stands forever. Rich theological fare indeed.

     The final eleven verses need to be set in the context of these forlorn exiles who’ve lost all hope.  Walter Brueggemann has, as well as anyone, explored the way life in our world is very much exilic – although we do have more comforts and can fool ourselves more easily into thinking we aren’t in exile at all.  He says “Exile is not primally geographical, but it is social, moral and cultural.”  We’ve lost a sense of a reliable world, symbols of meaning are hollowed out; hopes are dried up, and we feel helpless.

     Political ideology and consumerism are feeble substitutes for the living God.  Before long we’ll be singing “O Come Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”  The preaching task “is to voice the felt loss, indignation and bewilderment… Extreme imagery is required to cut through the enormous self-deception.”  Many clergy have been indignant that Trump voiced so much of people’s indignation; but he only scratched the surface of how all exilic people inevitable feel, hunkered down and not experiencing the robust richness of God’s kingdom (although they cannot name the real absence and loss accurately).

     The preaching Brueggemann dares us to attempt is a “reimagining,” trying to create a “safe, liminal place” for the rediscovery of God’s real world, which isn’t any nostalgia for America way back when, but the sustaining memory of those moments further back when – when Jesus was born, when fishermen followed, when Israel marched home, when the early church prayed and served.

     The hope though is in this, as Brueggemann explains: “Exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation.”  This unnamed prophet raises rhetorical questions!  Instead of “I told you!” he says “Have you not heard?”   He points to God’s majestic grandeur, before whom people are like grasshoppers (recalling - and reversing! - the report of the scouts who investigated the promised land?); the heavens are like a curtain in his room; mighty rulers, such as the Babylonian emperor right now being dethroned in favor of the Persian emperor now arriving, as just little tiny people to God. 

     But then the prophet brings us to the nub of things: “Why do you say ‘My way is hidden from the Lord?”  No one listening to you has not felt forgotten and disregarded by the Lord.  Their reasons may seem more trivial than the political/geographic/demographic plight of the entire nation of Israel.  But hurts, sensing God’s absence, are all real, and to be spoken into by a powerful word from the Lord. 

     The preacher is tempted simply to repeat the prophet’s eloquence and let it be instead of watering it down or even ruining it by explanation.  Sometimes in such moments of preaching, I’ll name this situation:  Look, listen to what the prophet said, I can’t expand upon it or improve upon it, this really is God’s word to you, to me, to the world today.  And then I simply, firmly, peacefully and even slowly read verses 28-31.

     Sure, I might dabble a bit on why we are so weary.  I find when, in counseling, I ask people “Give me one word to describe how you feel deep in your gut,” the number one answer I get is “I’m tired.”  There is an immense weariness, an intense exhaustion, to life as we know it in this world, especially as casually distant as we are from the heartbeat of God.  Didn’t Jesus say “Come to me, you who are weary” (Matthew 11:28)?

     And I might probe what it means to “wait” – which the Bible constantly urges us to do,
and which we are no good at.  We hate waiting, we want to get moving, we can’t be still, we fear what is to come if we are just waiting.  Waiting at a traffic light, waiting on biopsy results, waiting for life to get happy, waiting for my prince to come…  I can think of no wiser exploration of the meaning of waiting than a wonderful lecture Henri Nouwen gave called “A Spirituality of Waiting.”  So worth listening to, soaking in for your own benefit, and then maybe even sharing with your people.  Only thing I’d add to Nouwen would be that waiting can also mean serving – as in “I am waiting on your table, sir.”  We wait for the Lord; we wait on the Lord and the Lord’s people.

     1 Corinthians 9:16-23: Probably much in there about how to fulfill one’s ministry. It’s not for gain; it involves being weak for those who are weak (hence my peculiar book on leadership, Weak Enough to Lead).  “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” reminds me of Luther’s hilarious declaration: “If we don’t preach the Gospel, we should be pelted with manure.”  Mind you, this requirement leaves us trying to balance bold courage with a delicate compassion.  I can speak the unvarnished truth frankly and simply alienate people who aren’t equipped to understand; or I can keep it palatable and never open up a space for radical growth.  This is the dilemma of preaching, isn’t it?

     So, Mark 1:29-39. As we pointed out last week (look there for images and more information!), the house where Mark 1:29-39 transpires has been excavated and can be visited – albeit within a shrine that, to me, looks suspiciously like the Millennium Falcon…  We hear of Peter’s mother-in-law but not his wife – but it seems Peter was married (1 Cor. 9:5).

     The four fishermen leave the synagogue and are immediately in the house: partly this is Mark’s theological keyword for the urgency of the unfolding Gospel story, and partly it’s there on the city map – as the synagogue entrance is about 30 feet from the door to Simon Peter’s home.

     Jesus almost effortlessly heals her of a fever.  I think there’s homiletical hay to be made over this: she is healed, and then right away “she began serving them.”  I mean, one might object to the patriarchy implied… but the Greek word, diakonein should strike us as familiar and something men and women who've been touched and healed by Jesus might do in response.

     They brought more people to Jesus “when it was evening, after the sun had gone down” – which might surprise unless we recall it was the Sabbath, which ends at sundown, hence only then could they engage in this loving labor.  Jesus would later contest the notion of healing waiting until after the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6 and others).  I have a slight hunch that I might attempt something about the growing shadows, the way they seek healing in the dark, the dark symbolizing their dire need for not just light, but the light…  Mark doesn’t press this, but I might… 

     I find myself more intrigued by another word that may or may not be all that pregnant:  verse 32 says they brought “all” those who were sick; and then verse 34 says he healed “many” – but not all?  Joel Marcus is pretty sure “pollous in 1:34 is scarcely a smaller group than pantas in 1:32.”  But I wonder if the Holy Spirit, which not only inspired the composition of the Gospel but also inspires our understanding of it, might uses this subtle distinction to remind us of the hard reality of being followers of Jesus.  Some, hey, maybe even many, are healed – but not all.

     I am sure that, whatever Mark intended, the majority of people in Capernaum continued to suffer whatever they suffered.  The arthritics still hurt, those with dementia were still confused, tumors grew undetected, tooth decay, gout, deafness and blindness were unabated.  Jesus didn’t walk into town and heal everybody.  In fact, not many were healed.

     And when Jesus healed, it seems he did so to make a point, not just so a person could feel better.  His point tended to be a sermon.  Jesus healed the blind to make a point to the theologically cocky who thought they could see and know all but were unwittingly blind.  Jesus healed to declare his identity, and that the kingdom really was dawning.

     Jesus’ love for everyone was real, even though most sick remained sick.  Jesus’ saving mission was for everyone, not just the few who were healed.  Preachers need to be very careful and deliberate about how we speak of healing; I prepared this short video a while back exploring a way to approach this problem. There can be a kind of theological sadism that trumpets God’s healing power – which then only isolates the sufferer from God in her hour of greatest need.

    I’m fond of Jürgen Moltmann’s wisdom: “In the context of the new creation, Jesus’ ‘miracles’ are not miracles at all. They are merely the fore-tokens of the all-comprehensive salvation, the unscathed world, and the glory of God. They point to the bodily character of salvation and to the God who loves earthly life… There is a difference between salvation and healing: Healing vanquishes illness and creates health. Yet it does not vanquish the power of death. But salvation in its full and completed form is the annihilation of the power of death and the raising of men and women to eternal life. In this wider sense of salvation… people are healed not through Jesus’ miracles, but through Jesus’ wounds; that is, they are gathered into the indestructible love of God.” (WAY OF JX) At the same time, it can be thin comfort to someone afflicted by suffering to pass it off as being something that will be fully cured “when we all get to heaven.” Better to sit with the sufferer in the dark and simply weep; or perhaps we read a lament Psalm or two.
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 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!
 
 

What can we say come February 11? Transfiguration of our Lord

     Transfiguration Sunday – and we are blessed with two texts narrating the days two people slipped the bonds of mere peoplehood.  As I’m writing, I’m not sure if I’ll fix our attention on Elijah, or Jesus – or to try to connect the two, as 2 Kings is the premise for how Elijah was in a position to show up for Jesus’ shining, along with Moses, whose death and burial were left shrouded in mystery by the writer of Deuteronomy 34.

     Let me begin with Mark 9 before attending to 2 Kings 2:1-12, on which I wrote a blog (entitled “Onward to Mordor”) for Christian Century (the full article is displayed below).  When I try to wave my magic wand over the world of homiletics, the Transfiguration is the first text I point to – as it is the prime example of the understandable but deeply flawed way even well-meaning preachers take a text that is most clearly about God, and try to turn it into something about us.  In my preaching book, The Beauty of the Word, I explain how so many texts are about how amazing God is – and it’s sufficient just to ponder the amazingness of God in the sermon! But we have to make it about us, our faith, our to-dos, our doubts, our serving… and then we struggle and wind up botching things. 

     With the Transfiguration, I’ve read and heard so many sermons like a few I tried when I was young – with some ridiculous attempt at “Okay, you have a mountaintop experience, and then you go back down into the real world…”  All 3 Synoptic versions of this moment have as their “point” the simple fact that Jesus is amazing, someone to be worshipped, gawked at, and the only takeaway is to be lost in wonder, love and praise.  Mark shows us the way the plodding disciples tried what preachers try: Lord, let us do something.  Let us build three booths!  Mark’s comment reveals a kind of mercy on them, and on us: “For they did not know what to say.”  Indeed. 

     What the preacher knows to say is that Jesus quite shockingly started glowing, shining; the Greek means literally metamorphosized.  He shimmered.  No ordinary guy, this Jesus; we get a preliminary peek into his eternal glory.  The only conceivable responses are recorded in Scripture.  In Mark, Peter does offer the greatest understatement in religious history: “It is good that we are here.”  Matthew 17:10 is even better: “And they fell on their faces in awe.”

     I want to preach the sermon that simply causes me and my people to say “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place – and it is good that we are here,” or that would make me and them simply blush in awe.  This sermon won’t attempt to resolve any personal or societal dilemmas, it won’t allow notes to be taken to put into practice on Tuesday morning, it doesn’t even try to get me to do anything but observe a bit of a sabbath from doing things like building booths or even being religious, and simply let my jaw drop over how cool, how very different and glorious this Jesus is. 

     I have attempted this myself a few times.  Here are two samples on YouTube - on Mark 9 and on Matthew 17.

     Mind you, the material extolling the beauty and glory of Jesus is plentiful.  The birth, the incarnation – God becoming small to show us God’s heart.  Wow.  Jesus’ words, his holiness, the people he touched, the marvel of his healing.  The temptation narrative (another one we botch by making it about how we overcome temptation): we see Jesus achieving what you and I wouldn’t have a prayer of doing – resisting the devil’s seductive allure.  His suffering in silence, his compassion on the soldiers who just nailed him up, his tenderness toward a thief, his love for his mother.  “What wondrous love is this?” 

     Am I veering from Mark 9?  I don’t mind if I do – but the timing of Mark 9 invites this very speculation: Jesus has just asked the disciples about his identity, and he has just explained his vocation to go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, despite the strenuous objections of those who knew him best.

     Jesus.  His resurrection, and ascension.  Gee, I’m going to need a heckuva lot of time to explore “Fairest Lord Jesus, Beautiful Savior.”  Even the appearances of Moses and Elijah: people try to make hay with them as Law & Prophets, which may well be.  But for me, they may ‘represent’ something; but it’s way more important that these two guys, who last lived on earth centuries before, are standing there with Jesus shining.  This only enhances how unfathomably amazing Jesus is.

     The only remote takeaways might be two: first, to try to do the awe thing every day… and then second, as the voice from heaven (which echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism) quite sensible suggests, “Listen to him.”  Yeah, the guy who glowed, the one who is God and who healed and touched the untouchables and gave his life?  Listen to this guy and not all the other pretenders who’ve frankly never glowed for a nanosecond.

     Jesus does hush the disciples: Don’t tell anybody about this moment! – as if he intuited the way his shining would be misunderstood, and charlatans would try to capitalize on such dazzling.  Later, of course, once it was clear Jesus wasn’t just a dazzler, but a humble, holy, earthy one whose mission wasn’t dazzling but dying, they did tell loads of people, including us.

     So now we turn back to 2 Kings 2.   The mantle is intriguing; Gandalf's remark below is fabulous.  Pondering Elijah as Elisha's mentor is too; I'd commend a recent book I contributed to and edited on mentoring - Mentoring for Ministry.

    Regarding our text, I can’t do any better than the Christian Century piece I wrote: 

  Go back, Sam. I’m going to Mordor alone!” “Of course you are,” responds Sam, “and I’m coming with you!” He plunges into the river, gets in over his head and almost drowns before Frodo pulls him into the boat. Once Sam catches his breath, he explains: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.”

     As dogged as Sam, Elisha would not leave Elijah alone, although Elijah tried to shed Elisha like a pesky gnat. Why? Biblical narrative habitually refrains from reporting motivations and feelings. Was he sparing Elisha? Did Elijah simply prefer to die alone? When Jesus, who like Elijah had miraculously fed the hungry and healed dozens and gotten cheeky with the powers that be, said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” did the disciples think of Elijah trudging off to die alone?

     What complex feelings stir when a great leader, a wise sage, a stellar saint departs? Is our grief less because we know that the leader is with God? Or is our grief heightened because of the sanctity lost, or because of the liberation of the heart that was learned at the feet of the one we loved and lost? We cannot know if Elisha felt delight or dread in Elijah’s being whisked away into the heavens.

     We sing “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home,” although in all the annals of history we know of only one chariot that accompanied a homecoming. This chariot defies explanation—as the author no doubt intended. Too much of our preaching is confident, because we foolishly think our task is to make the mysterious clear. Elisha could do nothing to explicate the things of God except point to the mystery, shrug and thereby usher people into the presence of the holy and living God. Not surprisingly, it is the mystifying Elijah who shows up in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. The preacher had best close his eyes, shake her head, hem and haw, and then the sermon will be pitch-perfect.

     Most of us have seen no chariot of fire, no phantasms like Moses and Elijah. We still “mourn in lonely exile here.” Did Elijah feel lonely, even if his loneliness was self-imposed? I think of Roland Murphy, the Carmelite Old Testament scholar who was my dissertation adviser and lifelong mentor. He shared a lot of wisdom with me; I never made an important decision without exploring things with him. But he did not, as he could not, vouchsafe to me what his dying moments were like, or what he saw when the door of this life closed and he took the first step of his journey into . . . we do not know. He died on the feast day of Elijah—fitting for a Carmelite, and a Hebrew Bible guy! Were there chariots or some dimly lit, beautiful silence? We trust, perhaps because we harbor in our souls some mysterious confidence that all must be well with someone who lived so well and loved us so well.

     Elijah had his protégés, but 2 Kings narrates the life of only one. Elisha, pitifully and rather heroically, asked the dying Elijah for a “double share” of his power. Commentaries explain how an oldest son would receive a dual portion of an inheritance. But I prefer to think Elisha knew that with Elijah gone he would need not only his own resources or what he had soaked up from Elijah over the years, but an extra dosage. Evidently he received that extra dosage. Elisha’s miracle output exactly doubled Elijah’s, 16 to eight!

     Jesus promised the disciples that they would do “greater things.” How could anybody top Jesus? Of course, the church has never competed with Jesus, because the church is Jesus. We are the body of Christ down here. “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” The remarkable narrative in 2 Kings 2 invites us not to trust in our divinely endowed skills or to put our abilities to work for God, but simply to make a promise to plunge headlong into the water, to refuse to let the other alone: “I’m coming with you.” Feeling a bit foolish, having loved and lost, and with no real idea what the future might hold, we emerge from the water, and a mantle is draped around our shoulders. At first it doesn’t fit; we pray for a bigger share, some burst of power we know won’t really be enough. And the mantle?

     Gandalf rather unwisely left the course of affairs in Middle-earth to the diminutive, fun-loving, timid Hobbits. “Despair, or folly?” said Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”
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   The images are Raphael's Transfiguration, the Christ Pantocrator from St. Catherine's monastery at Mt. Sinai, the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf comes to the fellowship as the white wizard, a Russian icon's depiction of Elijah and the chariot of fire, and Gandalf with Pippin at the battle of Minas Tirith.
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 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!

Ash Wednesday - How to preach the homily?

Ash Wednesday preaching.  People come for the ashes, not a mountain of words.  And yet words are required.  I think for years my homily was nothing more than an intro to or defense of Ash Wednesday.  But that's not right.  I say something, maybe just a tease or a hint.  Perhaps such preaching should be poetic, and it wouldn’t hurt the preacher to ponder Malcolm Guite's elegant "Ash Wednesday," or T.S. Eliot’s moving “Ash Wednesday” as mental and spiritual preparation.  The power of coming forward, the palpable touch of ashes to the head, which they have to deal with after they've left the building: I think I can let it explain itself, or be sacramental, powerful, or at least a little unsettling.  

On some Ash Wednesdays, or when we have Eucharist or Baptismal renewal, and my people have to stand in line, I call attention to being in the line, and the time it takes - to preemptively speak to those who might groan or feel rushed - and invite them to relish the quiet time in God's presence, which they desperately need, always.  And then there is Martin Sheen's riveting insight, which he shared with Krista Tippett on On Being: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church?  I don’t have a clue.  I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith.  This explains the mystery, all the love.  Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, just watching people in line.  It’s the most profound thing.  You just surrender yourself to it.”

I find myself not working a text too much when I preach Ash Wednesday - which worries me, but not much.  I think I preach the day more than the text? Although there are texts.  Joel always buffaloes me.  Matthew 6, a marvelous jewel from Jesus, somewhat oddly tells us not to practice visible piety, and not to disfigure our faces but to wash them - on the very day we disfigure our faces publicly.  But the heart of embarking upon a fast for God is holy, of course... and then Psalm 51 is entirely promising as a text, but it's so long as to force you simply to touch on this or that element.  Or sometimes I think having done good exegetical work on a text, but then you don't report on it, makes your preaching way more profound, holy, and wise.  To explore Psalm 51, you can fast forward to my blog for March 18, where I offer reflections on preaching this text (or on preaching Psalms in general, my book with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms).

I think a lot about the “mark of Cain” (Genesis 4:15); in negotiating his guilty status for killing his brother and being exiled “east of Eden,” Cain is marked by the Lord – as a sign of his guilt, but also as a sign of protection.  Interacting with God on Ash Wednesday: we are guilty, and we are sheltered simultaneously by God’s mercy.

Of course, in our culture, it’s an uphill battle to persuade people they are in fact sinners.  When I was in seminary a generation ago, I read the psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s astute book, Whatever Became of Sin?
– and he was right to ask.  Through most of Christian history, you came to church to have your sins absolved; now people come to hang with people they like, and to see if the preacher agrees with their jaded views of the world.

And yet, as the preacher, you know it is futile to say You guys most certainly are sinners!  Jonathan Edwards, in his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” would be theologically correct, but couldn’t muster much of a crowd in our day.  How do we tease this out?

I love alternative images of sin to help people get the hang of things.  Sin is trying to be Atlas, trying to be God (a la Genesis 3), hoisting the whole world on your shoulders… which is exhausting, isn’t it?  Or you have blind spots.  Or you are just self-indulgent, self-focused – and isn’t that exhausting?  Wouldn’t it be a relief not to be the center of the universe?  Douglas John Hall suggested we are more Sisyphus than Atlas or Prometheus.  We labor hard, only to have that stone roll back down the hill; we are above all else exhausted.  And then, we also flat out hurt other people, even those we love.  Even ourselves.  This latter clarification is easy for people to identify with – and it’s crucial.

It probably isn't worth saying anything about President Trump, pro or con.  But the preacher might hold in mind that, while campaigning for election, he was asked if he had ever sought forgiveness from God (video here).  He shrugged, said “No,” and then clarified: “I don’t think in those terms.  If something doesn’t work I try to make it right.  I just try to do a better job.”  Pastors might want to ding him – but really, he expressed in those words where the majority of mainline Christians live.  We don’t think much about sin, and we really try to do better – missing the whole dynamic of sin / forgiveness / healing / empowerment! 
Not surprisingly, Trump named Norman Vincent Peale as his favorite preacher.  Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking was and is big in American religiosity… but it is most assuredly not biblical.  As my American Church History professor Stuart Henry used to say, “Paul is appealing, and Peale is appalling.”  Again, the preacher dare not ding Norman Vincent Peale.  We simply offer something more true, more heartbreaking, more hopeful.
 
Sometimes I wonder if Ash Wednesday preaching is simply a stammering, a shudder over our mortality, our brokenness, and the preacher, hardly saying anything at all, stands in awe with everyone else, pondering the sorrow of sin, and the enormity and tenderness of God’s mercy.  You just mutter a few phrases, then move on to the imposition of the ashes…
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 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!