Sunday, August 13, 2017

What can we say come August 27? 12th after Pentecost

  If you’re like us, we have big back-to-school emphases on August 27.  So I find myself drawn to the OT, Exodus 1:8-2:10, a good Bible story (with children involved!), and also the Epistle, Romans 12:1-8, whose opening verses portray an alternate view of what we’re about with school – and life: it’s not education per se, or getting ahead, and thus it’s not about conformity!  The Christian gig is Transformation.  My college roommate’s girlfriend cross-stitched Romans 12:1-2 and hung it in our dorm room – perhaps a favorite verse, maybe as a bit of a warning to sophomoric college dudes… but it’s thus been an important, memorable passage to me. 

     Matthew 16, as demarcated in the lectionary, lops off the whole point, which unfolds after verse 20 – so we shall return to that the next week!  Check the blog below for Sept. 3.
     I preached on the Exodus text 3 years ago; you can view this sermon here, punctuated with illustrations from Mother Teresa, Alex Fleming, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIm9KsjZIaQ

It’s tempting but ticklish to open with a salvo against “empire” (as I was trained to do) – as people have such sensitive political antennae.  At the same time, Exodus clearly exposes with clear hints of mockery the massive yet anxious power of the Pharaoh.  Walter Brueggemann, in his lovely recent book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which I reviewed – glowingly! – in Christian Century), shows how sabbath is not merely a spiritual discipline, but an alternative to our busy, frenetic, workaholic consumer culture.  What socioeconomic system did the Pharaoh legitimate?  One different and yet scarily like our own…
     – and the preacher can speak of this in ways that people will comprehend, and feel loved and understood.  It’s about obsessive work, requirement for ever more production, money flowing upward toward the top.  With Egypt’s deities, like our society’s, work is never done.  I love his way of phrasing it:  “It is not accidental that the best graphic portrayal of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”  Who is the most anxious one of all in this anxious system?  The one at the top – which tells us something about that whole upwardly mobile pyramid.  He “dealt shrewdly with them” – and we have to laugh out loud, which the Hebrews couldn’t do back then.  He provides less straw, and wants to kill off the males – his labor supply, and also those who will father the future labor supply.  His nervousness makes his behave in self-destructive ways.

     But God knows, God hears, God comes down.  The saviors in the early portions of Exodus are the unexpected – following the Bible’s quirky logic.  Two young women, Shiphrah and Puah (whose names mean “little flower” and “lovely”), do not mind disobeying the law; civil disobedience has an honored place among God’s people, although for church people, one person’s civil disobedience is the other guy’s lack of patriotism or troublemaking.  I love the way they defy Pharaoh with a sassy impertinence: Why didn’t they kill the babies?  “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are so strong they give birth before the midwives can even get there!”  Revolutions – and God knows we need them today – require some pluck, and a bit of subtle braggadocio.  We are not merely victims!  Jonathan Sacks, in his wonderful Lessons in Leadership, commenting on the midwives, reminds us, “There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that ‘I was only obeying orders.’”
     Preachers can explore the heroic – in society, and certainly in the church.  I like to introduce this theme with Charles Dickens’s great line from David Copperfield (and used to great effect by John Irving in Cider House Rules): “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Your life must show whether you will be heroic.  So I’ll rattle off some instances.  Huge stories – like Albert Schweitzer, ridiculously brilliant, Bach scholar, consummate organist, the world’s leading New Testament scholar – and then he left Europe behind, became a doctor and moved to Lamparene.  Why?  “I wanted to make my life my argument.”  See preaching stuff here?


     Then I try to find simpler things.  Rosa Parks just sitting there is something really anybody could do, no muscle power or unusual IQ required.  Find examples in history (my little summary of heroes in church history, Servants, Misfits & Martyrs: Saints & Their Stories is my packaging of my favorites, all of which I’ve used in sermons) – and maybe some close to home.  Maybe it believable, doable, and even joyful.
Jochebed defied Pharaoh in her own way by hiding her son. But this gambit could not last long. In desperation, or in faithful hope (and we may ask how different these really are), she placed her three-month-old son in a basket and set it afloat on the Nile River.
The Hebrew word for this basket, tevah, occurs only one other time in scripture: and that is to describe Noah’s ark. Both ark and basket were rudder-less, lacking locomotion, carrying the future hope of humanity toward who knows where. This tevah floated right up to the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter happened to be bathing. Nothing is explicit, but we sense God somehow brought basket and princess together.  You could say she “cast her bread upon the waters” (Ecclesiates 11:1).

     I like to tease people toward the coming Sunday, or Sundays – so in this case, build a little anticipation, reminding your people that they didn’t know how things would turn out; even those who clung to hope had to teeter on the brink of despair.  Things certainly got way worse before they got better…  But then we do have the larger perspective to know the end of the story.  That Pharaoh, if we calculate the way many historians do, was Rameses II, the greatest, longest-ruling and most powerful of all the Pharaohs!  How cool – that the deliverance came not under a wimpy excuse of a Pharaoh, but under the biggest dog of all; in much the same way, Jesus was born, not in the reign of one of the measley, impotent caesars, but when Augustus, the greatest of them all, ruled from Rome.
     The fate of all the scary powers is destruction.  All empires, the ones that loom through history and even today, including our own great nation, will eventually crumble.  I like to remind people of that poem about Rameses (whose Greek name would have been Ozymandias) penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley:  "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read, / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, / The hand that mocked them, & the heart that fed / And on the pedestal these words appear: / "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."

It is for this reason then that we cling to God, to Christ – and don’t vest ourselves in this world, no matter how shiny or scary it might be.  Which brings us to Romans 12.
N.T. Wright (in his New Interpreter’s Bible commentary) says “The opening 2 verses of this section are as dense as any passage in Paul.”  Agreed.  Read slowly.  Preach a whole series on the thing.  I won’t attempt every detail, but here are a few that leave me thunderstruck and appear to be fertile preaching ground.
The “Therefore” is huge!  Paul assumes you’ve just been listening to somebody read out loud chapters 1-11 – so remind yourself about grace, faith, the Spirit, baptism.  Paul seems to be shifting from faith to action – an unfortunate “seems,” as Christians forever focus on belief and then forget to get to ethics, simultaneously forgetting they are one and the same.  N.T. Wright again: “Belief and behavior are inextricably woven.  They are the breath and blood of Christian living, the twin signs of life.”

Paul gets at the nucleus of what the “therefore” is picking up from chapters 1-11 with the phrase “by the mercies of God.”  Notice the plural: mercies!  

Pope Francis has rightly catapulted Mercy front and center as the essential theme of what’s in God’s heart, what the Christian life is about, and how to be the church; I’d commend his favorite book on mercy to you: Walter Kasper’s Mercy.  Profound, wonderful.  On this topic and passage, John Calvin wrote, “Men will never worship God with a sincere heart, or be roused to fear and obey Him with sufficient zeal, until they properly understand how much they are indebted to His mercy.”

Mind you, in our culture there is so little mercy, and we even forget our need for God’s mercy – so some considerable re-education is needed.  Although… I find in preaching that when I pause and explore our hunger for mercy, and how hard it is to find it (I’ll say things like “There’s not much mercy at work, none at the mall – and lots of people don’t find a lot of mercy even at home” – and quite a few people flinch, or nod).

Paul “beseeches” (the Greek, parakalo, is an exhortation of intense urgency and earnestness!) them/us to “offer up your body as a living sacrifice.”  I remember playing football and our captain repeatedly shouted “Give up your body.”  Okay, not a brilliant illustration…  I admire Wright’s observation that Paul strikes “a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery.  Even the self-discovery, however, is the discovery of the new self one is called to become in Christ and by the Spirit.  Grace fulfills nature.”

We all worship some deity with our bodies all the time.  Paul blazes a path along which we might “please God.”  “Pleasers” are regarded dismally – but pleasing God is a profound, ennobling thought.  I tell my people: you can please God.  How cool is that?  How cool are you?  God made you with that ability.
But of course, we more typically fail to please God, or we displease God.  And it’s not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying harder.  Paul says it’s a matter of “being transformed.”  Ponder this:  the Greek metamorphousthe (do you see metamorphosis in there? does the preacher describe the caterpillar to butterly morphing?) is a passive imperative.  Amazing.  Imperatives imply Go do this – but the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, or don’t go actually, just let it be.
This metamorphosis goes hand in hand with the decision to abandon conformity.  The passive imperative is all about God’s doing; and yet we are responsible.  We need not be victims; I’m only human?  Humanity distorted is humanity in conformity.  I wear, buy, act and think in ways that are dumped into me by this vapid culture; I’m barely cognizant of it going on. 
But a good starting point is the way J.B.Phillips, in his perennially popular paraphrase of the NT put it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”  And then I dig C.E.B. Cranfield’s remark (in his fabulous ITT commentary on Romans): “There is only one possibility open to us – to resist this process of being continually moulded and fashioned according to the pattern of this present age with its conventions and standards of values.  The good news is we are no longer helpless victims of tyrannizing forces, but we are able to resist this pressure which comes both from without and from within, because God’s merciful action in Christ has provided the basis of resistance.”

Tying Romans 12 to Exodus 1-2?  Moses in that basket is obeying a passive imperative of sorts; and doesn’t being transformed, being metamorphosised, involve things like civil disobedience, not conforming, embracing the risks of faith, giving up the security of what we can control and manage?

And then every good sermon asks What kind of church does this text asks us to be?  To what degree do our churches conform to the paltry habits of society?  We baptize political ideologies, we pander to people’s self-interests and conformity, and we hardly look like a butterfly that used to be a caterpillar; we dare not disobey civilly.  Lord, have mercy on us.  It is worth pressing a little further into Romans 12:3-8, where we see that when I give up my body, I become part of the Body – which is what God intended for my body in the first place.

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   ** 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.

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