Monday, July 31, 2017

What can we say come August 6? 9th after Pentecost

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Ordinary time, and now two of the most un-ordinary, extra-ordinary texts in all of Scripture.  Genesis 32:22-32.  I’ll offer some comments, and offer you this sermon I preached on this 3 years ago – and it’s hard to beat Frederick Buechner on this story, vintage Scripture meets vintage Buechner, who’s given us not one but two spins on the story, one called “The Magnificent Defeat,” and the other from Son of Laughter.  Sometimes I think it’s the kind of story you just stare at, and marvel.  I’m not sure there’s a lesson or a takeaway at all.  It’s Wow, what an amazing night for Jacob. 

It’s tempting, and inviting, to psychologize.  I love the song Sara Bareilles wrote for the musical Waitress – of a woman who’s lost her self somewhere along the way, like Jacob:  It’s not simple to say, Most days I don’t recognize myself – these shoes & this apron, this place & these patrons have taken more than I gave them. It’s not easy to know, I’m not anything I used to be, it’s true, I was never attention’s sweet center & I still remember that girl: She’s imperfect but she tries, she is good but she lies, she is hard on herself, she is broken but won’t ask for help… she is messy but she’s kind, she is lonely most of the time, she is all this mixed up & baked in a beautiful pie, She is gone but she used to be mine /Not what I asked for, sometimes life just slips in thru a backdoor, I would give it up for a chance to start over & rewrite an ending or two for that girl I knew.
The Bible doesn't speak of not being the person you used to be.  But it gets at the heart of human existence, is "biblical" without being in the Bible - and the song is the sort of secular song one could use in worship without needing to baptize it....

Edgy and aggressive, yet alienated and floundering: Jacob gets jumped – or did he do the jumping? & he wrestles all night with – God? an angel? A stranger? Himself?  Preachers here can just tease and ask, no need to answer, no need to choose. 

I love his “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”  Is this the exemplary prayer?  The blessing somehow though is the struggle; the blessing somehow is the wound, causing him to limp away.  Buechner understood this so well.  Sort of exposes those “touched by an angel” stories as vapid; if an angel touches you, you’re wounded.
I love to play with Bible names.  Jacob would have been the Hebrew name of Jesus’ brother James.  Did they ever wrestle?  What is it to engage with God, barely survive, and stagger away?  No simplistic prosperity Gospel here, and please don’t then simplify or trivialize it.  Watch Jacob in the shadows, and be lost in wonder.
Then the Gospel – the feeding of the 5,000.  I preached on this at Duke Chapel six years ago; the sermon starts at the 32 minute mark.  I started with some humor about how people at church dinners ask the pastor about multiplying inadequate food… and about a horrible stewardship sermon I heard on this text. 

The text’s better moments are:  when the disciples point to hungry people, Jesus says You give them something to eat!  Love it.  Then a little boy, unlikely – fulfilling once again that “a little child shall lead them” – or in this case, “a little child shall feed them.”

The leftovers simply amaze me.  In my Duke Chapel sermon, I explored this at some length.  Jesus should have dazzled them with precisely the amount of food needed!  Or maybe he should have been like even our churches, giving them just a smidgeon to get by, questioning them sternly regarding why they were out of food….  But there is this lavishness, this bounty, this superabundance.  Sam Wells has written so profoundly on this aspect of God’s nature, and what it means for us as a Church (in God’s Companions, for instance). 

Can we recall any moment of God’s superabundance?  I preached in Haiti a few years back – in a rural, poor-by-Haitian standards place.  We had stuffed two suitcases full of cookies.  When the service ended, my daughter had set all the cookies out.  The children squealed with delight.  Yes, they needed food, which we were working on, and economic stimuli, and education, and lots of other things we were laboring toward together.  But for one moment, there was sheer glee over the bountiful gift, a waste really. 

My daughter painted an image of a little girl from that day, holding her Bible, dressed for church, yet clutching beneath her Bible an oreo, trying to look churchy, barely masking her giddiness over the chocolate.

Other illustrative thoughts I have are contained in the sermon video shared above…

   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What can we say come July 23? 7th after Pentecost

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My strategy this week will be to have Genesis 28:10-19a and Matthew 13:24-30 read.  I will begin with Genesis, and ponder “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” – which is the story of our lives, isn’t it?  Here is a sermon I preached on this 3 years ago.  Then I will explore one of the ways the Lord is present in ways we do not realize or comprehend – in the church, this field of wheat and tares (more below).  We won’t read Romans 8 at my place, but I will touch on Paul’s image of what it means to call God Abba (more below).

So first, Genesis 28.  Paint the physicality of the scene: Jacob is in a desolate place, sleeping out of doors, a stone for his pillow.  I may allude to St. Francis sleeping on rocks and in caves – which he loved doing, believing it put him closer to God’s most enduring creation, and also in solidarity with Jesus, our ‘rock,’ who slept (or tried to sleep) on that Maundy Thursday night in Caiaphas’s prison.

I don’t think it’s eisegeis to speak of finding yourself in a hard place.  I envy people like Franklin Roosevelt – who, as President during the Depression and then World War II, said he did the best he could all day, then turned in and slept like a baby.  I struggle – and so do many of our people.  Can it be that, during such agonizing, sleepless nights, “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it”?  Psalm 56 says “Lord, you have kept count of my tossings” – in the night, when God seems absent or silent or both. 

Obviously, this text begs the preacher to use “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” as a cadence, a refrain, repeated at the end of each “move.” 

During the night, Jacob sees a – ramp?  This might be a better translation, but “ladder” works, and is familiar (from “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”) – and enjoys the benefit of Thomas Merton’s wisdom when he said We spend our lives climbing the ladder of success, but then when we get to the top, we realize the ladder is propped up against the wrong wall.

I’m tempted to play with an idea that the Church is the ladder, at least for us, the way to God, or the way angels come down to us.  There’s some agitation in that, right, that an angel might show up?  Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.”

Thomas Traherne, in the 17th century, declared that the Cross is our ladder from earth into heaven, from our heart into the heart of God.

Whatever the ladder, the large point here is that “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it.”  I love the way God is there when we aren’t aware, when we aren’t praying or seeking God at all.  I wrote something of a memoir called Struck From Behind: My Memories of God.  It’s not a dull account of my career or life, but a collection of memories, of ways God was there when I didn’t realize it at the time, but only in retrospect, years later (playing on Thoreau's "Truth strikes us from behind, and in the dark").  I love inviting people into this kind of exercise:  think back in the memory of your life.  Where was God when you didn’t seek God or realize at the time God was there?  A preacher could play with this one all day.

If you delve into memory, you find family weirdness – or most of us do.  Notice God doesn’t say to Jacob “I am your God,” but rather “I am the God of your father, and your father’s father…”  A premise of Peter Scazzero’s wonderful Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (which we did as a whole series with videos, books and emails – and I’d commend this to you and your church) is that we are never healed or one with God until we probe our family history and discover who’s there and what therefore we carry around inside:  trace your family tree and you find horse thieves, alcoholics, workaholics, philanderers, depression, strains of cancer or heart disease.  We don’t mind inheriting family money – but inheriting family depression or health or personal issues?  It’s all there – and “surely the Lord was even in that place, although we did not know it.”

If the Lord is in such places, even when we are unaware, then we are invited into the other great prayer Merton offered:  whatever the circumstances, whatever happens, “Lord, let this be my consolation – that wherever I am, You are loved.”

God may as well be loved, for God is our Father, our Abba.  Romans 8: the heart of it is that Jesus’ surprising and alluring habit of addressing God as Abba, Father, is picked up by Paul.  It isn’t that you just decide, Oh, I’ll call God Abba.  It is the Spirit that enables and empowers this “cry” (so it’s a plea for help?).  It’s not the word Abba that carries any magic; it’s the deep sense of the intimate relationship.  We are children of God, no small thing… and then heirs (getting better…) – but then Paul has to add “provided we suffer with him.”  Not “in case, by some remote chance, we suffer.”

But I’m planning, for the second half or third third of my sermon, to think of a way the Lord is present and we do not realize or understand it:  in the life of the church, broken and riddled with lunacy as it may be.  Matthew 13, the wheat & the tares:  I hope that the scholars who say the ‘interpretation’ in 36-43 doesn’t emanate from Jesus but is spin from early church leaders are correct.  Jesus’ lovely, realistic, merciful parable is twisted into something ominous and threatening.  The question in Jesus’ simple, unexplained parable isn’t Am I wheat? Or tares?  You’re both, of course – The story is about the community, the people of God.  The Church is wheat, and tares, both, and we like to think we know who’s who, as if you could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify who’s who.  Tares?  Sit in the back on the left… Wheat?  Up front, on the right…

Robert Farrar Capon points out, "This is no way to run a farm.  Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter... Programs designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do.  Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody."  He suggests that the devil's best strategy is to sucker good people into taking up arms against one another, while he sits back and laughs.

Churches divide – grieving Jesus’ heart, who prayed for unity on the last night of his life (John 17), and still does.  I’d commend my blog on why unity is required of us as United Methodists; all churches tend to want to separate wheat and tares, which Jesus said we keep them together.

Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of evangelicalism, wrote about the way we fail to love within the church: Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.”  We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

Ephraim Radner, in his dense but wonderful A Brutal Unity, speaks of the solidarity to which we are called: “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.” 

I love this scene in Stephen Bransford's novel, Riders of the Long Road.  Silas Will, a circuit rider back in the 18th century, was grilled with hard questions by a young man about God, evil and suffering.  His response? 
"'God sees much more than we see.  He sees the beginning and the end of things and He is doing what is best from all that He sees.  God would never kill a child.  But there is an invisible war that goes on around us while we live here on earth.  God promised to destroy the Devil.'  The young man asked, 'Why won't God finish it now?'  Silas was thoughts for a moment, and then suddenly leaped up, bent over with excitement.  'They asked Christ the same question.  Look here, watch down here.'  He bent over.  'Christ said the Kingdom is like a sower who sowed good seed, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.  See, here are the good grasses' - his hands stroked the grass - 'and this pennyroyal here is like the weed.'  One hand closed upon a large mint-leaves pennyroyal stem.  'Look at it, and look what happens when I pull it out.'  Silas yanked the pennyroyal up by the roots.  It exploded from the ground, showering both of them with dirt from its spreading roots.  'This is what Christ said.  The people urged Him to pluck all the weeds from the wheat field, but He said, no, let them grow together because to pull them out now will destroy much innocent wheat.  See the grasses that have died here because I pulled up the pennyroyal?  We know pennyroyal roots grow under ground, tangled beneath the other grasses.  God knows the roots of evil grown around every sickness since Adam and Eve.  Yes, God can purge the world of sin and death right now, but He doesn't because all have sinned and we are all so tangled with the corruption of sin that He would destroy us and the whole world in that selfsame moment.  What kind of God could do that?'"

  {the image of Jacob's ladder is one of several painted by Marc Chagall}


   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

What can we say come July 9? 5th after Pentecost

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My plan had been to preach through Genesis this summer, tracing the lectionary route.  But while I’m happy to tackle any text, Genesis 24, about this curious courtship, gazing at her carrying water, she spies him lifting heavy things in the field, and then the climactic verse I dare you to make into a sermon: “I put the ring on her nose” (Genesis 24:47).  Plus it’s so long-winded.  I think I will instead pair Romans 7:15-25a with Matthew 11:16-30.  And I think I'm going to position a chair up in the altar area - and find my way toward what Thomas Merton wrote when he was photographing a Shaker village:  

"The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."

Scholars argue over the main point of Romans 7.  Who is the “I” who is speaking?  Is Paul speaking autobiographically?  Representatively? Is he speaking of his Jewish experience outside of/prior to Christ? Or his life in Christ?  To me, the pre-conversion Saul/Paul strikes me as a man utterly devoid of struggle; I’m fond of the idea that faith isn’t the resolution of struggle, but the introduction of, the inducement of newer, deeper struggles. 

Michael Gorman and many others may be right when they conclude that the “I” in Romans 7 is simply unredeemed humanity.  But really, for me as a Christian, and as I try to serve as a pastor, it rings entirely true that “I do not understand my own actions; I do not do what I want, but the very thing that I hate.”  Oh, I suppose we all preach to those who feel confident, have a sunny disposition, and find ways to justify themselves.  But the serious, biblical Christian, striving for holiness (inner and outer) in an unholy world and with what T.S. Eliot called our moral “shabby equipment, badly deteriorated,” will get it.  How does the pastor gently but surely invite the sunny, self-justified into Paul’s struggle?

Romans 7 is a text that is probably better read aloud, slowly, that explained.  And yet little asides might assist.  “Nothing good dwells in me.”  I love Winston Churchill’s bon mot: on hearing a sermon on “I am a worm,” Churchill mused, “Yes, and I am a glowworm.”  We are worms indeed, but depending on your theological, denominational foundation, you may be able to see that the experience of “Nothing good dwells in me” is only possible because there is a glow in there, the image of God hanging on by a thread but not entirely vanquished, or we would never imagine that “nothing good dwells in me.”

 “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”  Sin isn’t rule-breaking or being human.  Sin is a personal, aggressive vulture-like force.  Surely Paul would have imagined that tragic moment in Genesis 4: when Cain’s jealousy was kindled, the Lord said to him, “Why are you angry?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  Walter Brueggemann, probing this moment in his Genesis/Interpretation commentary, draws our attention to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which discusses this very text, then concluding: “It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’  But think of the glory of the choice!  That makes a man a man.  A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey.  There’s no godliness there.”  Steinbeck is perhaps more confident than Paul in the human ability to choose well.  The preacher is wise to explore the ambiguity – which people feel, surely.
 Of course, as a Lord of the Rings fan, I am drawn to the flashback scene in The Return of the King where Sméagol kills Deagol over the ring of power (watch here!).  Tolkien was surely envisioning not just Cain and Abel but also the bondage of the will according to Paul.

I love the way Paul narrates his mounting frustration, building up to this exasperated yelp: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God…”  This will preach.  Once we plunge deeply enough into our abject inability to do God’s will or to be whole people, then at the bottom of that pit we cry out… and then have good cause to give thanks to God.

This kind of spiritual labor is exhausting.  Perhaps it is only once you have exhausted your own resources, once you realize how weary you are of your muscular, self-reliant, grittily determined, Atlas-like life, can you finally just rest and be delivered.  Here is Jesus’ reply to the people who understand Romans 7.  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Brueggemann (in his fantastic Sabbath as Resistance) wryly says that Jesus is speaking here in his “sabbath voice.”  We don’t know tone of voice or facial expression, but it’s worth trying to depict Jesus’ immense mercy and gentleness, his profound, inviting affection for worn out people.  Go deeply with this.  I sometimes report that, in counseling, I often ask people, “Tell me one adjective to describe how you feel.”  The #1 answer I get is “I am tired.”  No wonder.  Our culture is a rat race, a constant press of busyness and never doing or having or being enough.  Sometimes church contributes to the tension and weariness… 

Back to that Shaker chair.  A chair, a bench - all kinds of images suggest Come and rest, come and sit.  When Pope Francis began his work, he brought a chair out to the Swiss guard posted outside his office and invited him to sit down.  Lovely.  Rest is so elusive.  It's not about more vacations, or more time off.  It's something deeper inside; Lincoln once said he suffered from a weariness that many good nights' sleep wouldn't cure.  We need solitude, togetherness with God, making ourselves unavailable so we might be available to God.  During the Montgomery bus boycott, somebody offered a ride to an elderly woman named Mother Pollard.  She refused, saying "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested."

I wonder if the whole notion of Sabbath is the best gift we can give our people – and to ourselves.  Not the “take more time off” or “go on more vacations” or “maintain your boundaries” kind of faked sabbath.  Genuine sabbath, that is a robust time of rest and joy, time for God and each other, time to get disconnected from our gadgets so we can get connected to God and others.  Eugene Peterson, in his memoir, The Pastor, provided me a wake-up call regarding what I do day by day as a minister, and as a person.  Here are two excerpts that may or may not help your sermon preparation, but will embrace you with Jesus summons to you, as a person and as a pastor, to “Come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – which is more important than this Sunday’s sermon, and without which, this Sunday’s sermon won’t matter much.  Listen to Peterson: 

“Instead of calling people to worship God, pastors all over the country were inviting people to ‘have a worship experience.’  Worship was evaluated on the ‘consumer satisfaction scale’ of one to ten.  It struck me as a violation of the holy, a secularization of the sacred.  Taking the Lord’s name in vain.  I determined to reintroduce the rubric ‘Let us worship God’ for my congregation, and then really do it.  I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  The entertainment model for worship in America was pervasive.  And community.  The church as a community of faith formed by the Holy Spirit.  Church in America was mostly understood by Christians and their pastors in terms of its function—what it did: build buildings, become “successful,” change the neighborhood, launch mission projects, and create programs that would organize and motivate people to do these things.  Programs, mostly programs.  Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of ‘doing church.’  Far more attention was given to organizing and giving leadership to programs than anything else.  But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently nonpersonal.  A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are.  The more program, the less person.  Church was understood not in terms of personal relationships and a personal God but in terms of ‘getting things done.’  This struck me as violation of the inherent personal dignity of souls.  The abstraction of a programmatic approach to men and women, however well-meaning, atrophied the relational and replaced it with the pragmatic.  Treating souls for whom Christ died as numbers or projects or resources seemed to me something like a sin against the Holy Spirit.  I wanted to develop a congregation in which relationships were primary, a household of hospitality.  A community in which men and women would be known primarily by name, not by function.  I knew this wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t.”

And then this:

“I realized that I was gradually becoming more interested in dealing with my congregation as problems to be fixed than as members of the household of God to be led in the worship and service of God.  In dealing with my parishioners as problems, I more or less knew what I was doing. In dealing with them as a pastor, I was involved in mysteries, mostly having to do with God, that were far beyond my understanding and control.  I had been shifting from being a pastor dealing with God in people’s lives to treating them as persons dealing with problems in their lives.  I was not being their pastor.  I could have helped and still been their pastor.  But by reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as pastor.”


   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.