Sunday, January 1, 2023

What can we say September 24? 17th after Pentecost

    I’ve never quite marshalled whatever it takes to pull off preaching from 2 texts in a single sermon. I might allude to one, but a dual focus tends to scatter my attention – and it’s worse for the poor souls listening! But it’s tempting here, as Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16 illuminate one another in thoughtful ways. And the average churchgoer is familiar enough with both so you don’t have to start from scratch. Both are about food production, one miraculous, the other by labor – but with some miraculous economics.

   Both are, at the end of the day, about what it means to have “enough.” We did a series called Enough right before the pandemic. How much is enough? Am I enough? When do we say ‘Enough!’? I’m straying in my mind to Flannery O’Connor. Once, after blurting out to a friend, who spoke warmly of communion as symbolic, Flannery said “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it” – but then added more graciously and theologically, “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” That is, the Eucharist is enough.

    Exodus 16:2-15. “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:19). Or is the harder question, “Can this freed people stay free?” Check out photos of the Sinai. Paint the picture for your people. Not making a beeline for the Promised Land, but detouring far to the south through daunting terrain, the people had to wonder “Are we being led? Or are we merely wandering?” If they sang “I am bound for the promised land,” it wouldn’t have been bouncy and enthusiastic the way we sing it, but more of a dirge.

   With what will become monotonous whining, the people murmured – and God answered their murmuring, not with a curse or thunderclaps from heaven, but with bread. This is sheer, unadulterated grace: God replies with mercy, not to prayerful repentance, but to doubt-riddled whining. God gave them Manna – a wonderful word whose Semitic origin means “What is it?” Well, if heaven isn’t really up, this bread that came down – what was it? 

   In Bible times, Josephus the historian described the Sinai’s honey like deposits of the tamarisk (packaged and sold as souvenirs today!); insects suck off shrub’s sap and deposit the surplus on the branches; the residue crystallizes and falls to the ground; but this manna, not very tasty but rich in carbohydrates and sugars, succumbs to ants not long into the heat of the day. 

   Questions abound: it’s not a miracle? Or it’s the miracle of the tamarisk and insects? They saw this provision as a divine gift. And clearly the story begs us not to get derailed with the murmuring of historical questions. Flannery O’Connor resisted the idea of Eucharist-as-symbol, but there is much symbolic in this story. The double portion on Friday to cover the Sabbath… although the Sabbath commandment hasn’t been given just yet! No wonder devotional guides play on this ‘daily bread’ image; did Jesus have the manna in mind? You have to look out for it every morning; you can’t save up for a few days… etc. You have to love the way God not only responds to the murmuring with mercy; then when God gives them the bread, there are conditions. I admire B. Davie Napier’s phrasing (in Come Sweet Death, pondering the tree in Genesis 3, but it fits the manna as well): 

 Behold, God’s wondrous gift is given

   – with strings.

   All glory be to thee, uncertain giver,

   Who wants to have his gift

   and give it too.

   There are plenty of theological ruminations to be made on this scene. Brevard Childs (in his commentary which is unfailingly brilliant) points out that Exodus 16 does precede Exodus 20: “The sign of divine grace preceded the giving of the law of Sinai.” And then the riveting, profound scene narrated in John 6, when Jesus not only feeds thousands but explains his mission. It’s not about bread; the point of the bread is learning about every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Then Jesus raised it all to fever pitch: “The bread I give for the life of the world is my body.” He’d gone from feeding them, to pushing them toward Scripture, and now he’s dreaming of crucifixion. 

   Jesus gave them enough – not just enough bread, or just enough Scripture, but his own crucified body, which really is enough, just as the manna and the commandments to come, and the promise really were enough. Which lead us to…

   Matthew 20:1-16. This text about laborers in a vineyard is a splendid example of Jesus’ teaching, which is the antithesis of conventional wisdom, the kind of thing Clarence Jordan called a Trojan Horse: you let it in and Bam! Preachers typically preach to people who’d say I’m a 12 hour or a 9 hour kind of guy… but maybe they really are just one hour people, or maybe they aren’t in the field at all. It’s about the miracle of grace – and not last minute conversions. Grace is for everybody, and it’s enough for everybody. And there might even be a bigger surprise in the story – as I discovered when researching my book, Weak Enough to Lead. I’ll share this excerpt, which passes along a framework for how to read Matthew 20 that I find to be entirely persuasive, and alluring. Here goes:

   Jesus made up a shocking story about a vineyard owner who hired laborers in the morning, then some more later in the day, still more in the afternoon, and finally a few with only an hour left. When they lined up for their pay, he gave every last one of them a denarius. Quite fair – for a full day’s work. Not surprisingly, the guys who put in more time were furious. We are tempted to put some clever spin on the story, as if it is about late in life conversion, or even the magnificent bounty of God’s saving grace.

   But Amy-Jill Levine, rightly pointing out that “Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than how we get into heaven,” asks an intriguing question: “Might we rather see the parable as about real workers in a real marketplace and real landowners who hire those workers?” Our gut reaction is No way! But wasn’t Jesus the kind of guy who wanted everyone to have enough? If the guys who were hired late, through no fault of their own, only got one-twelfth of a day’s wage, their family would starve. This is the same Jesus who told a rich man to sell everything, who directed party hosts to invite those who couldn’t invite them in return, who spoke of lenders forgiving massive financial debts, who included despised and untouchable people in his close circle, who visited Zaccheus and left him so staggered he gave his hard-earned money back with interest to those he’d earned it from.

   Shares of stock in a company run by Jesus would plummet in value. But he is our leader, the childlike one who never tired of asking hard questions. Could we his followers lead in very different ways, in weaker ways? Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms and creator of the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible, was a bold, no-holds-barred Christian, one of those once in a generation believers radical enough to dare to do what’s in the Bible. One Sunday he preached at a gilded, high steeple church in Atlanta. After the service, the pastor asked him for some advice. The church custodian had eight children, and earned a mere $80 per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise, but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute, and then said, “Why don’t you just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn’t require any extra money in the budget.”

   Jesus was like the child who can’t stop asking questions, like the child who sees a homeless person by the road and asks Mommy, can’t he live at our house? Maybe a leader can’t pull off the vineyard wage maneuver, or even the salary swap. But is there a way to lean in that direction, to engage in something dramatic to veer a bit more toward Jesus than business as usual? Jesus asks leaders, not merely to obey the law or even to be kind, but to be different.

   End of excerpt. When is, and how much is… enough? Douglas Meeks (in God the Economist) was right when he described our culture’s sense of scarcity: no matter how much you have, there is this lingering fear it might not be enough. Enough for what? Fill in the blank… And then you complicate the question by asking how much is enough for the other guy, or the stranger. 

   Sometimes “enough” is simple contentment – a holy, divinely-purposed goal: it is enough. Gratitude is believing It is enough instead of It’s not enough. Grace, being God’s child, living as one in God’s image, etc., is enough. Enough describes divine intent regarding resources: God wants everyone to have enough. There’s the old Haitian proverb: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.” The idea is that God has given us enough – enough food, enough water, enough of all the basics of life. It’s up to us to share, instead of hoarding or blocking the sharing.

   Oh, and Philippians 1:21-30 isn’t a bad text at all! If we back up and include verse 20, we understand Paul’s obsession here. Paul does not mind if he is disgraced, as long as Christ is honored – or “magnified” (which is the meaning of the Greek verb megaluno in verse 20). When Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she visited Elizabeth, and sang an eloquent song: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Do I magnify the Lord? If a magnifying glass were held up to my life, would God’s reputation be enlarged in viewer’s eyes? Or shrunk down or hidden? Would I be ashamed?

   Paul’s prayer is that the Lord be magnified in his body. Too often we think of our faith as something spiritual, invisible, an emotion, an event in the soul. But the body is what matters: what do I do with my body? What do I put into it? Where does it go? Do I use my hands, my face, my back, my legs, to magnify the Lord? Your body is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

   “If we are called to magnify Christ in our bodies, in the face of all the forces seeking to exert control over us, then we must be as intentional about all aspects of our life as Paul was. The desires we manifest, our patterns of consumption, the ways we get, hold and distribute wealth, can all be occasions where either we are disgraced, or Christ is magnified” (Stephen Fowl).

      At his age, and in the prison cell of Rome, Paul knew he was perilously close to death. But he wanted to die a good death that would somehow be a credit to God. In our society, death is such a terror, something we just don’t talk about – and so we deny our mortality, and lose all chance of dying well. We go to extreme measures to prolong life – understandably! But then the dying never get to say goodbye, to bless family left behind, to glorify God.

   St. Thérèse of Lisieux lived just 23 years. Frail in health, her keen awareness of the fragility of life wrought in her a remarkable intimacy with God. She grew eager to die, praying that God might take her without delay into his eternal embrace so that “I may be able to tell you of my love eternally face to face.”

To die of love is what I hope for,
on fire with his love I want to be,
to see him, be one with him forever,
that is my heaven – that’s my destiny.

This readiness, even eagerness to die changes how we look at life now. I am less likely to be greedy, or cautious. I am generous, I love freely. I live for others, not for myself. Paul did not say “to remain in the flesh is good for me,” but “for me to remain is helpful for you.” To live for others, and so for God, is joy.

   One and only one thing matters: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel.” How infrequently do we think about this! We measure our worth by our property value, size of our portfolio, corporate position, pace of fun and consumption… Is my life “worthy” of what Christ has done for us?

   Part of the worthy life is being of “one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel.” Although I might prefer it, Christ does not permit me to go off and be pious by myself, to insulate myself in some solo spirituality. I must connect with others. Christ died and saved me to be a part of his Body, the Church. Are you striving with others for the faith of the Gospel? Or are you just too busy? too caught up in your own agenda?

   To strive for the faith will feel like conflict with the world. We are citizens of a counter-culture – but do we act as if we are? How many Christians, and churches, lead innocuous lives, blending seamlessly into the landscape? Could it be that, until we follow Jesus closely enough to provoke hostility, we will never know courage, hope and joy?

What can we say October 1? World Communion / 18th after Pentecost

    I love World Communion Sunday, although really every Sunday is just that, as is every Eucharist. I alternate between focusing on the unity of the church across the globe (which is to speak aspirationally and theologically more than realistically!), and fixing on the world itself and our mission to that world.

   Exodus 17:1-7. Christians, forever confused about grace, sense that grace is some valuable favor God offers – if we accept it, ask for it, believe in it. These Israelites only ask greedily, then grumble, foolishly ready to abandon freedom to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. God responds with… shocker! – grace, mercy, water in the wilderness. God’s like that.

   The Jewish festival of Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths, commemorating the wilderness wanderings, is happening now. Jewish families create little shelter-like structures in their homes. Fascinating. Talk to a rabbi. See if you can get invited over for a glass of wine. In your sermon, tell your people what you’re doing. They’ll be jealous.

   Israel’s demand for proof will seem familiar to us modern self-appointed arbiters of truth! Think about it: Anselm, Aquinas and a host of brilliant people have devised proofs for God’s existence; and a now larger number of wickedly smart people have debunked God’s existence. Logic can’t bend the will, or the heart though. As we’ll see in Philippians 2, Jesus ‘proved’ God by utterly ungodlike actions: humbling, debased, being abused and killed. There. That’s the only proof you get. 

   You could devise a whole sermon around the question of all questions there in verse 7: “Is the Lord among us or not?” How would we discern a Yes? Can we allow the space for those who’d say No, or I wish, or Used to be, or Maybe?

   Philippians 2:1-13 is one of the high water marks in all of Scripture, almost a creed-like distillation of the entire story of redemption. Scholars think it was an early Christian hymn. The joke’s on Leigh Teabing and The DaVinci Code, claiming Constantine made up the divinity of Jesus stuff in the 4th century. Here’s a song from 2 decades after Jesus, extolling him as God come down. Karl Barth: “A text like this can hardly be approached with sufficient care and concentration, for it offers so much is so few verses – a little compendium of Pauline testimony.”

   Little things charm me here (and so does the big thing…).  “If there is any encouragement…” A big if indeed! Nobody gets too much. Christians encourage. Do it. Invite others. It opens up the possibility of “being of one mind,” so elusive for us, even in church life. The culture never tells you to “Regard others as better than yourselves” – which is curious, since we seem quite naturally to do two weird things constantly: we harbor dark feelings of insecurity, suspecting others have it better, scanning Facebook with envy, etc.; but then we pass snarky judgment on others as if we’re superior – no more than a kneejerk reaction to our sense of inferiority. Paul wants neither, but the clarity that is humility. Humility is simple honesty.

   “Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” No politician since John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”) has ever uttered such words, and neither have advertisers. 

   And then the last 2 verses!  Can you hear the paradox: “Work out your salvation, knowing God is at work in you.” Do I work? Does God work? Do I work and then realize God’s the one doing it? Yes.

   The hymn proper begins in v. 5. Translators differ on how to render the very beginning. Should it be the familiar “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? or the equally valid “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? God didn’t temporarily suspend being God, masquerading as empty, humble, obedient and slave-like for a season. God, in Christ, showed us God’s heart, what it always has been and will be like. His wasn’t to grasp (can we picture Adam and Eve grabbing that fruit? or Prometheus seizing the fire of the divinities?), or to consume, but to be emptied, poured out, “born.” God thought I want them to know and love me – so I’ll do this: I’ll become an infant, totally vulnerable, dependent, the antithesis of power. Maybe then they will be tender toward me and each other.

   As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “In the Incarnation, the triune God has not simply helped the world, but has disclosed himself in what is most deeply his own.”  Infancy, and crucifixion:  this is God.  Paul moves into glorification – but as Barth reminds us, when the crucified one is glorified, “the abasement is not washed out or cancelled – it is he [the crucified one] who is exalted; it is to him the great name is given; it is of him who abased himself that all that follows is said.”

   This downward mobility, this life as emptying, will be ours the closer we are to Jesus. Think the whole life of St. Francis. My book, Weak Enough to Lead, got its title from Hudson Taylor, a pioneer English missionary to China: “God chose me because I was weak enough. God does not do his great works by large committees. He trains somebody to be quiet enough, and little enough, and then he uses him.”

   My preaching on this text focuses not on us or a Christlike demeanor or behavior, but on Christ. Stephen Fowl: “The best way to think of Christ’s manifestation of the glory of God is in terms of Christ’s beautiful body, a beauty that is not diminished but enhanced by taking the ‘form’ of a slave.” 

   George Hunsinger, in his brand new Brazos commentary, is especially wise on this. “Christ Jesus does not consider his glorious mode of existence as something that cannot be relinquished. He can relinquish it without ceasing to be who he is. Indeed he is never more fully who he is than in the act of relinquishing it. He relinquishes his glorious mode of existence without ceasing to be God. He does not refuse to act selflessly, at cost to himself, for the good of others.” Jesus’ “emptying” (kenosis) isn’t a subtraction, but addition (in keeping with the view of Athanasius, Aquinas and Barth!).

   Let’s ponder relinquishment. My book, Birth: the Mystery of Being Born, has a chapter on Adoption – and I am awed by Kelly Nikondeha’s wisdom (in her lovely book, Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World), pondering her own adoption as a baby: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then, pondering the woman who bore her, she tries to fathom if her giving her child up was a rejection? or rather a relinquishment? The woman who did not have to carry the child for so long actually did, at considerable physical cost. What if surrendering your child at birth is a loving relinquishment, not rejection, a humble acquiescence in the face of crushing circumstance? Is there a surprising kinship between a birth mother relinquishing her child for another so both can have fullness of life, and Jesus laboring for us in life and in death so we might have life?

   Notice I’m shrinking from offering illustrative material here. There’s really nothing like what Jesus did. Can the preacher trust the Jesus story, or the image of the crucified One, without dressing it up or lunging to “make it relevant?” Ours is to retell the story, and to be in awe and wonder. The preacher leads the way for the people. The preacher exhibits her own awe, his own wonder, inviting the people to join us in singing our own hymn about the glory of the humble Christ.

   Matthew 21:23-32. Very much like Socrates before him, Jesus answered questions with questions. I love the way this text delves into the privacy of their minds, struggling how to reply to the one they thought would struggle. Fearful, they try “We do not know.” Then, with considerable cheek, Jesus injects, “Then neither will I tell you.” Davies and Allison read this as indirect confirmation of Jesus’ authority: “He need not submit to question. His refusal is in fact veiled affirmation.”

    We’re fonder of Jesus’ other “A man had 2 sons” story. This one is edgy. He lobs an easy question at his critics. They tumble right into his trap. The point here isn’t that actions are more important than words; we’ve all seen that made up quote from St. Francis, “Preach always, use words only when necessary.” Jesus is interested in who actually shows up, who actually follow him instead of hiding out in pillared religious zones.

   Plenty of stories present themselves. Tony Campolo tells his funny, moving story about Agnes’s birthday in Hawaii. Greg Boyle tells about Mario, the tattooed ex-gang member. In Northern Lights: Resurrecting Church in the North of England, Jason Byassee tells a great story of a church of ex-cons, homeless and drug users being birthed in a barbershop. Better if you have one of your own, of course.

What can we say October 8? 19th after Pentecost

    Matthew 21:33-46. The best moment in this unimaginative text (I mean, Jesus must have had his in-your-face, simplistic preaching moments, like you and I do) is in verse 45: “The chief priests and Pharisees realized that he was speaking about them.” How could it take any time at all with this thinly-veiled allegory? Maybe that’s how the smug righteous continue to be smug and righteous, by cultivating the dimmest conceivable awareness of their own flaws, how no one in their right mind could question them.

   Exodus 20:1-20 is where my preaching focus will be. I preached on this last time around; you can watch it here. What more contested, politicized, misunderstood and trivialized text could there be? Do we harbor a mis-spun view of Paul and regard the law as a fossil to be discarded? Do we lean into the commandments? But those who do typically treat them as stones to hurl at those they would judge, rarely in critical self-reflection.

   Psalm 19 shows us the way to envision the commandments, not chafing under the law, but in a multisensory way relishing and delighting in the law. Sweeter than honey! Reviving the soul, rejoicing the heart, more desirable than gold. I love how Zora Neale Hurston (in Moses: Man of the Mountain) imagines that Sinai moment:

   “Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. It comprehended the world. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. ‘Joshua, I have laws. Israel is going to know peace and justice.’”

   Martin Luther grasped the Gospel shape of this freedom, noticing how immense grace is tucked inside each commandment. What better sermon could you preach that to narrate the way God in mercy relieves us of our burdens by declaring “You don’t have to have other gods, you can rest, you don’t have to covet.” 

   Context matters here (and everywhere. These commandments didn’t float down chiseled in stone into courthouses or houses, universally applicable laws God has decreed absolutely. The commandments are the first of hundreds – and all of them are part of a longer story of people crying out under oppression, God hearing (and caring!), sending Moses, the miracles/signs (a la Jesus in John’s Gospel), the deliverance at the sea, and even the extraordinary patience of God in the wilderness, showering the people with manna when they deserved lightning bolts. God’s commands come after, in the thick of, and as a prelude to the merciful gift of salvation; obedience to the commandments isn’t a credential to qualify as a good person, or a way to curry God’s favor, but the reflexive, grateful life in startled reply to God’s abundant gift of love.

   The Gospel isn’t the end of the law (as in, it’s over and irrelevant) – or we might finesse the word and say the Gospel actually is the end (as in the goal/purpose) of the law (Romans 10:4’s tantalizing ambiguity!). God did tender these laws with a fair expectation we could follow them or at least get in the ballpark. There is such a thing as holiness, as a deep desire to fulfill God’s will. Brevard Childs: “The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.”

   The preacher could pick one command and zero in – or you could do what I plan to do, just a quick, breezy touching on each one with an explanatory note or two. No other gods? Luther clarified that our god is whatever motivates us, changes your mood, embodies the good life… so who is your God? No images of God? We are made in God’s image, and Jesus is the flawless image of God – so other creature-like images (the Egyptian or the Wall Street golden bull, you name it…) mislead. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain?  The worst offenders are our politicians who paste God’s name on much that is not of God, all posturing; and we church folk do the same, attaching God to much that is grievously not of God. 

   Remember the Sabbath?  Can we switch off our gadgets and actually rest? And did you notice the lectionary lops off the longer explanation of the Sabbath? There must be good reason it gets “more air time than any others” (Brueggemann) – as if we’d miss the comprehensive nature of it or wriggle our way out. Don’t kill? Jesus went deep, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder (and in our rancorous culture, where anger management is a big thing, aren’t we rabid killers?). 

   No adultery (in a culture where sex as impulse, pleasure and self-fulfillment is all over the media)? Jesus said if you harbor lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. No condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters an adulterer in order to set her free. No stealing? What did John Wesley say about a lack of overabundant charity to the poor – that it’s theft? No coveting? Coveting is the engine of capitalism! But God would liberate us from the stranglehold of always wanting more – or really, wanting what is new and different. I don’t want more iPhones. I want the latest iPhone – largely because I saw one in my neighbor’s hand.

   The purpose of the commandments is stated right there in Exodus 20 – “to prove you.” We avert our gaze from the fact that the Bible repeatedly suggests we are being tested, we are being proven; the so-called “temptation narrative” (Matthew 4) really is a testing, just as Abraham was tested/proven (Genesis 22). Beyond the proving, the simple dream of the commandments is “that you may not sin.” Not “to uphold civil society in America.” God sincerely wants to help us not to sin – and Exodus surely believes this is a real possibility.

   Philippians 3:4b-14 is a terrific text. Paul does his boasting thing – while clarifying he’s not boasting! – but with the clincher: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss.” We sing “My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” We sing this hymn – but do we get the depth of the sentiment expressed? What are my people thinking (if anything) when singing such words?

   Paul’s counsel is Lose anything, everything, for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” We Americans think we can have our cake and eat it too; we can keep all our stuff and also know Jesus. But there is inevitably a sacrifice, a loss, an emptying before Jesus can be known – and once he’s known, there is an emptying. And why? In the prior chapter, Paul spoke of having Christ’s mind – which was one of kenotic self-emptying (although as we commented on Philippians 2, we should think not “although he was in the form of God he became a servant,” but “because he was in the form of God…”).

   Paul’s abiding goal is “to be found in him.” Paul was found by Jesus – interrupted on the road to Damascus. The notion isn’t We are seekers, but rather We are lost, we are wanderers, we are on the run – like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”: “I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the mist of tears I hid from him……”  I love Stephen Fowl’s phrasing: “Christ is no longer a commodity to be gained but a place, a home where the lost Paul is found.”

   We like “know him and the power of his resurrection” – but then Paul adds “and may share in his sufferings.” To desire Christ’s sufferings? We hope his suffering will shield us from suffering. 

  But ponder St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer before the crucifix: “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: one is that I might feel in my body, as far as possible, the pain you underwent in your hour of passion; and the second is that I might feel, as far as possible, the love with which you were inflamed so as to undergo such a passion for us sinners.” Mind you, Francis’s prayer resulted in the stigmata, in constantly bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side. Do we fear Jesus might actually join with us in his sufferings?

   Karl Barth (along with others) is vigilant to be sure we don’t make faith into a work: “Paul has no intention of supplanting the Pharisaism of works by the far worse Pharisaism of the heart… There is no bridge from here to there, but solely the way from there to here – the way that from beginning to end and all along is God’s way.” 

   Paul in a picturesque ways conceives of this union with Jesus as a runner pressing hard toward the prize. Fowl’s rendering is helpful: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me.” Let the preacher take his or her own risk at athletic metaphors. I heard a preacher once tell about running in the state finals of the 100 yard dash, starting poorly, but rallying and winning. I wasn’t inspired…

What can we say October 15? 20th after Pentecost

    I cannot decide whether to preach on the Epistle, which is so dense, in the rich sort of way, or the longer, revealing narrative of our Old Testament lection. I just can’t dig into Matthew 22:1-14. I could deconstruct the thing and engage in some expositional gyrations – but time would be up, and what would really be gained? Perhaps you have some wisdom to shoot back my way on how to engage this straight up and make a holy, hopeful sermon out of it; I’d love to hear from you!

   So: Philippians 4:1-9, which Karl Barth called “one of the liveliest and most allusive in Paul, or anywhere at all in the New Testament.” And it’s so personal. Paul calls out two people by name! This has been a go-to text for me for so many funerals – although it’s fixated on life, and an abundant one in the thick of loss and suffering. I picture Paul pacing his semi-imprisoned space, dictating – and the amanuensis must have dropped his quill pen a few times, staggered and in awe by what we can only call “inspired.”

   To start on the backside, in verse 8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” With so much negativity and rancor, and even in the religious world where so much chatter is sin and forgiveness, what excellent counsel! It’s not – be careful on this! – positive thinking. It’s finding, and attending to the beautiful. Jewel’s best lyric goes like this: “It doesn’t take talent to be mean / Please be careful with me / I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way. / I have this theory that if we’re told we’re bad / Then that’s the only idea we’ll ever have / But maybe if we are surrounded in beauty / Some day we will become what we see.”

   We are, of course, if we but notice – and then dare to realize how all the beauty all over the place is crystallized and definitively embodied in Jesus, who is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise. St. Augustine’s adulation is memorable: “He is beautiful as God, beautiful in heaven, beautiful in his mother’s womb, beautiful in his parents’ arms, beautiful in his miracles, beautiful under the scourge, beautiful in laying down his life, beautiful in taking it up again, beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the sepulcher, beautiful in heaven.” Ponder him, his beauty, his excellence, his grace. Anxiety will slide down a little. Be grateful. Know some joy.

   So Paul conceives of all this as a reflex to his thoughts on “Rejoice always” and “Do not be anxious,” which must have been temptations for Paul, and which feel like endlessly elusive ideals for me. I mean, I’m already anxious, and veer toward melancholy – and here’s Paul (or is it God?) ordering me to feel differently. Like, it was bad enough already…

   George Hunsinger, in his fairly recent Brazos commentary, is wise on this: “It is not a matter of elation but of resilience. Nor is it basically introspective but Christocentric.” He quotes Martin Luther King: “Abnormal fears and phobias expressed in neurotic anxiety may be cured by psychiatry; but the fear of death, nonbeing, and nothingness, expressed in existential anxiety, maybe cured only by a positive religious faith.” I think I’d lean way more sympathetically toward mercy on the anxious and fearful, who aren’t so easily fixed. But the notation of “existential anxiety”: that’s huge. It’s what we can genuinely and faithfully address in the church.

   Regular anxiety might be something we can help with too. Read the text slowly. “Have no anxiety… but with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be we file our requests, and if God complies, then we give thanks – right? No, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We begin with gratitude. Jesus invited the crowd to be rid of anxiety by pointing to the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field: they are arrayed in beauty, God provides for them (read Matthew 6:25-34!). Notice what God has done, feel the blessings you neglected to pay attention to (which is probably why you got into the anxious mess you’re in…). Could it be that gratitude is the antidote to anxiety?

   The psychiatrist Martin Seligman has written (in his great book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) about anxiety – and shares that studies show how gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression (not entirely, but by a significant, measurable percentage).  My personal observation is that it is impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time.  Something about gratitude – and not merely feeling thankful but actually expressing it in a note, a phone call, whatever – calms and even reverses anxiety, at least in the moment.

   That’s when the joy comes in: “Rejoice always.” How? By not being anxious. How? By sharing your requests with God – with thanksgiving. And then, when this becomes habitual, and natural, we get to the goal of the thing: Peace. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (v. 7). And then that excellence stuff too.

   How intriguing that Paul dictates out loud, with the emperor’s Praetorian guard listening through the bars, that God’s peace will “keep” your hearts: the Greek word means to “guard.” Paul is in prison, guarded by men with weapons – which is how Caesar guaranteed his much bragged upon pax romana. But who’s really free, and who isn’t? In God’s hidden script, it’s the armed soldiers, and the emperor himself, who are not free but are in chains, while Paul is free as a bird, protected from them by the peace of God.

   Exodus 32:1-14 (but really, you must continue past v. 14 to the end of the story to make any sense of this!) always makes me laugh out loud, or shudder. The sheer psychological genius of the narrator invites us into a theological intimacy that is stunning. The people, their souls still stuck back in Egypt, grow impatient at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They deduce that Moses is “delaying.” Why would he delay? Isn’t it just their rush to move on, or to shrink back? They refer to him as “this man Moses,” not “our beloved Moses.” Martin Buber was right: “Whenever he comes to deal with this people, he is defeated by them.”

   They fashion an idol, a golden bull, the kind they’d seen back in Egypt, connoting strength, potency, virility. Hard not to take a hard look at the golden bull on Wall Street in New York! Up on the mountain, God was even then telling Moses what their gold was supposed to be used for: to adorn the tabernacle. Hard also not to grin over the adjacent statue, the "Fearless Girl." Is that the Church, not cowed by the bull and all its cultural trappings?

   The Lord saw their lunacy first and told Moses, speaking of them not as “my people” but “your people” whom “you” (Moses, not I, the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Moses turned the tables just as swiftly, referring to them not as “my people” but as “your people whom you” (the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Down in the valley, Aaron his brother had proven to be an effective but wrongly directed leader. Once the calf was finished, they threw a big party.

   When Moses happened upon the scene, Aaron violated Jim Collins’s rule for Level 5 leaders (leaders attribute success to others and apportion blame to themselves) and explained how “they” were set on evil. He bore no responsibility. Hilariously he recalled what transpired: “I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ So they gave it to me, I threw it into the fire, and out came this bull calf!” (v. 24). Out came. I’m not big on a sermon retelling a story in great detail. But this one is just so delicious, so revealing of human nature at its most religious and most flawed.

   What Moses accomplished next astonishes. Moses talks God out of raining wrath down upon the people. “The Lord changed his mind” (v. 14). Philosophically, this is absurd. But the Bible’s God is in this with us, with give and take, suspense, jockeying back and forth – which is what love does. Failing in leading the people, Moses leads God – as Michael Walzer observes, Moses was “rather more successful with God than with the people.” Does this text tell me something about how to lead my people? – maybe by leading God? or advocating for them with God instead of venting my frustration with them?

   The preacher need not provide moralistic take-aways, although they are the low-hanging fruit. Let the story stand. Let people see themselves and others in it. Let them most important get a glimpse of the severe holiness of God struggling with the tender mercy of God.

   The violence at the end leaves me numb. I recall what I learned from Jonathan Sacks on a similar passage: 1 Kings 18. Elijah slaughters the Canaanite priests – but Sacks points out that the rabbis were appalled, noting that God never told him to kill them. I think it’s healthy and hopeful for clergy to wonder out loud if Moses, or the writer of Exodus mis-heard God – just as we all do. Scripture is still very much inspired – precisely in sharing moments when people act in ways contrary to the larger heart of God known throughout Scripture.

What can we say October 22? 21st after Pentecost

    Hard to select among such texts. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 has the intriguing offer for readers to look into “what kind of people we are,” and to take Paul and company as “examples to be followed.” Daring, I think. Do I see myself as an example to my people? I should, certainly more than I do! – and do I reply to their need for me to frame being a “kind of person” with “Hey, I’m just a guy”? If the Gospel is real, to me as a guy, don’t I dare to expect myself to be a guy who is somehow exemplary, or at least someone in whom God’s Spirit is actually effecting something cool?

   “Our message came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” Easy to mutter some pietistic platitude about this. But the best we can do is talk as well and faithfully as possible. If hearts are changed, if the world tilts on its axis, it’s God’s work, not ours. Luther famously said it was God who reformed the church while he (Luther) was in the pub with his pal Philip drinking Wittenberg beer.

   Matthew 22:15-22 is a hugely important text. Terribly misinterpreted – as if Jesus were outlining the separation of church and state for modern people who would find such an arrangement to be very convenient for themselves and their political ideologies. They come to “entrap” him. Jesus’ strong suit was discerning hidden motives – and knowing theirs, and his downright Lincoln-esque ability to reply to tough questions with something clever to stump the questioners, they had no chance.

   They open with flattery. Aristotle pointed out that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. They indeed are what Jesus calls them: hypocrites, the Greek meaning play actors. They think they have the perfect question, unanswerable. If he says Yes, he appears sympathetic to the hated tax collectors, thus alienating all nationalists. If he says No, he’s risking a charge of sedition. Not surprisingly, Jesus serves up neither. 

   Let’s check out one of these coins, he says. Surveying it, he asks an easy question: who is this guy? Caesar. Archaeologists have found these coins, with an image of Caesar, and the inscription including the blasphemous (to Jews) word DIVI: he’s divine. On the flip side, the coin dubbed Caesar as PONTIF MAXIM, the “high priest.” Here is God’s divine son, our great high priest, studying this very coin.

   Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The Greek apodote means “give back,” as in return it to him. Must be his. Let him have it. Then the clincher line: and Render, “give back” to God what is God’s. And that would be… well, everything. Your life, these boats, the water, the fish, maybe even the minted coin with the blasphemous image. Heck, the emperor himself.

   Jesus’ wisdom was met with stunned silence; I wish my sermons were met with the same! There’s the sermon, with a clear imperative, an all-encompassing takeaway: Render unto God what is God’s, who is God’s. You can spend the rest of the day and your life working on that one. Grab a few examples here and there. Your lunch break at work. Your shopping this afternoon. Your conversation with a neighbor. The stuff in your closet. Your anxieties in the night. Your portfolio, or your debt, or your fantasies. Your time, your energy, your brokenness. It’s all God’s. Render it to God.

   So, my choice for Sunday: Exodus 33:12-23. Talk about a “thin place,” or a “liminal space.” Moses, on the (not a, but the) mountain with God. Wryly he chides God for telling him they’re going but hasn’t revealed whom the guide will be. The Lord says I’ll go. Then, with considerable cheek, or derring-do, taking his life in his hands, he asks to see God’s “glory.” The Lord responds to this bold ask by sneakily substituting “goodness” for “glory.” Want to see my glory? Here is some of my goodness. Maybe that’s how we see God’s glory, not head-on, which would overwhelm us, sort of like trying to look at the sun from 25 feet away. God’s goodness is a manifestation, an accurate shadow of God’s glory, an accommodated glimpse.

   The meaning of the name Yahweh is perhaps best explained in v. 19: “I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, I shall have compassion on whom I shall have compassion.” No predestination here. Rather, it is in God’s nature to be gracious and compassionate. It’s God’s choice, not our earning, not our goodness.

   Tenderly, God offers a viewing spot for Moses: in the cleft of the rock. “Rock of Ages, cleft for Moses.” How good of God to provide, in the tectonic shifts and geological upheavals that made mountains, to provide little caves and crevices for creatures to hide and rest. St. Francis of Assisi believed, as did many medieval people, that clefts and crevices in rocks, all the way in Italy, were created at that moment on Good Friday when, just as Jesus died, earthquakes rocked the land. Medieval theologians and artists also saw Jesus’ wounds as clefts in the rock in which we hide ourselves. So lovely.

   I’m reminded of St. Francis, who went day after day into a cave to pray. When he came out each day, Brother Leo would ask him, Did God say anything? Francis said No. Day by day he poured out his soul, and day by day he always answered No. Finally, one day Leo asked, and Francis surprised him:  Yes, God did say one word to me. Leo: What was it? Francis: More. I love that. God wanted more - of St. Francis.

   God shows Moses God’s “backside.” Fascinating to play around with, isn’t it. You see the backside as it moves. God isn’t a still life, but one who moves. Yahweh clearly is a verbal form, an action verb in Hebrew. And where are you if you see the backside? You’re behind. Jesus said “Follow me.” That is, keep behind me, watch my backside closely.

   Moses’ request to see God’s glory might remind us of John 14 where Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”   Jesus then did show all of them God’s glory – by being crucified. Martin Luther (worth dragging in, as the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg door is looming!) suggested that in the cross, God showed us all the glory of God we could bear – calling it “God’s hidden backside.”  

   With all this Moses/mountain stuff, I plan to use the great benediction of the late archbishop Oscar Romero: “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”


   Rendering unto God is worship, which is both liturgy and life. Check out my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, on the real life continuations of what we do in worship. A resource for clergy and a good group study for laity!

What can we say October 29? 22nd after Pentecost

 If you’re attending to Reformation Sunday, we have great texts!

   Deuteronomy 34:1-12. I preached on this last go round… One of many texts that reveals how Scripture isn’t some fabricated account to persuade the unconverted. Moses, the hero, God’s chosen one above all others, dies literally on the brink of achieving his life’s dream. After 80 years together, Moses and God have something of a private moment.

   A breathtaking panorama (on a clear day, that is; I’ve taken tour groups to Mt. Nebo only to be met with thick clouds!): like a surveyor sizing it all up. Moses’ eyes zigzag south to north (Gilead to Dan), zigging back down Jordan valley, zagging west, back through the southern Negeb up to Jericho, crazily zagging back south to Zoar. His heart must have soared; surely he gasped at this wide-lens view of his life’s purpose.

   But then, the gut punch: Moses’ time is up. Did he have to die for the sins of people (Deut 1:37, 4:21)? For striking the rock (Num 20:12)? Wouldn’t God, the one who answered murmuring with manna, have turned suddenly petty? How are we privy to this private moment anyhow? Franz Kafka, of all people, may have been right: “Moses fails to enter Canaan, not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.” 

   This dying without enjoying the fruit of a life’s work: isn’t it often or even always this way? We’re part of something bigger than ourselves – or at least we hope we are. Reformation won’t happen this weekend. Reinhold Niebuhr’s pithy wisdom comes to mind: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”

   Who can picture Moses’ final day without recalling Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours? In Memphis, campaigning on behalf of garbage workers, he spoke eerily of his possible impending death (and it's well worth watching/listening to again and again): “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight… Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

   Worth pondering also is that the Torah, the primal Scripture in Judaism, ends now, here, just short of the climax! Is the point that each generation has the same choice – to live into the promises, the land? Is this a Reformation theme? The church that feels it has arrived in Canaan is the corrupted church; the one outside looking in, pledging fresh commitment and passion, is the living church.

   We have the mummies of Pharaoh’s, and Aaron’s tomb is visitable. So what’s this tease with Moses? Rabbis taught he didn’t die but was translated right up into heaven. He does materialize at the Transfiguration. Hebrew is fun here: the NRSV translates “He was buried” – but by whom? The Hebrew quite straightforwardly says “He buried him.” He who? The Lord? The Pseudepigrapha includes the Testament of Moses in which Joshua, bidding Moses farewell, declares “All the world is your sepulcher.”

   1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 is promising. I did a little preaching commentary on this for Christian Century a few years back (entitling it “Childish Behavior,” based on a quirky Greek translation!) – if you’re interested.

    Matthew 22:34-40. What would the Reformation of the Church imply if not the recovery of love for God and neighbor? Love loses its mind and needs reforming too. Is God like Tevye (in Fiddler on the Roof) asking Golda, “Do you love me?” She explains all her labors over 25 years, but he still wants to know. Or is God like Bonnie Raitt crooning “I can’t make you love me”? God wants our love – but not society’s mushed down, trivialized, moody, sentimental thing that is kin to but far from the love Jesus spoke of, embodied, and died in consummation of. Jesus’ zeroing in on 2 Old Testament verses (well-chosen!) only makes sense in the light of creation, the Fall, Abraham’s call, the deliverance from Egypt, Mt. Sinai, the prophets, Jesus’ incarnation, his teaching and healing, and then his crucifixion. All of that is what love is. We absorb this as best we’re able, and then try to love God and neighbor. 

   How wise of Jesus to give his dual reply. Know how pivotal Deuteronomy 6 is in Judaism! Call a rabbi friend – or make one by asking about this text. When Jesus said the main thing is to love God with heart, soul, and strength, he wasn’t making it up out of thin air. He was a Jew, raised by Jewish parents, the descendant of generations of Jews, all of whom began and ended every day with those very words: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.

   The “Shema” of course begins with “Hear!” Listen!  The beginning of love is always listening, something uncommon these days. I love the line in Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water where a wise man is described at having 2 ears and 1 mouth, and he used them in precisely that proportion.

   For our very occasional Christians, who read a quickie devotional most but not all days, we may dwell on “Talk of these words when you sit in your house, when you’re walking around, when you lie down and when you wake up. Bind them on your hand, and as frontlets between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house.” On the door jamb of Jewish homes you’ll find a mezuzah, a little container with a tiny scroll of Scripture, looking something like a doorbell. (Christians too, can have them! I have one at home, and one on my office door, just one more little reminder...).

   You may have seen pious Jews with a little black box on the forehead, or straps on the wrists. They are taking literally what Moses intended – and what I find I need to stand any chance of being godly. I stick little cards and hang tags all over my world, in the shower, in my desk drawer, on the dashboard, to remind me to love and think about and ponder God throughout my day. My book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is an attempt to help us Christians think about how to think about our love for the Lord all the time. A challenge for me: I should attach something to my head, I think. If I hear myself thinking You shall love the Lord over and over, I actually shall love the Lord.

   Our church did an entire series called “You Shall Love.” A sermon series, and email series, and little cards we printed up for people to carry in their pockets and stick in their desk drawers and by the bedside. I even shot a video of me trying to explore how everything we do in church life – and that’s not just worship but also a finance meeting, what trustees do, personnel decision, etc., must revolve around Jesus’ dual directive that we love God and neighbor. I’d commend it to you – but more importantly, I would commend you having this conversation with your church leaders.  Can we make our budgeting, mowing the lawn, how we think about policies, all intimately linked to this touchstone of love?

   Thomas Merton, always helpful, prayed, “Let this be my consolation, that wherever I am, you are loved.” And speaking of prayer – which is love! – Madeleine L’Engle, over a long weekend waiting on biopsy results for her husband, kept praying “Don’t let it be cancer.” Some friend told her, “You can’t pray that, it already is or isn’t cancer.” Her thoughts on this? “I can’t live with that. I think the heart overrides the intellect and insists on praying. If we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings. And so I pray as my heart needs to pray.” Later, after the cancer was pronounced terminal, she wondered if her prayers had been wasted. But she concluded, rightly: “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted. Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hands outstretched to receive them, like precious pearls.”