Friday, August 18, 2017

What can we say come November 12? 23rd after Pentecost

     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is (for me) a curious blend of the pastorally profound, and then the apocalyptically curious.  Paul’s admonition, “that you may not grieve as those who have no hope,” bears much reflection.  You grieve!  Sometimes Christians get into this “it was God’s will” or “he’s in a better place” business that is cruel to many, and theologically vapid.  Paul doesn’t say You don’t grieve.  You grieve, and heavily – but you grieve as those who have hope.  The “caught up in the air” is more problematical, especially for physics lovers and three-story-universe-skeptics like me.  To all this Paul adds, “Comfort one another with these words.”  Not God will fix everything now.  It’s thoroughly eschatological.  We are perhaps not as gifted at comforting each other with full allowance for grief and yet a firm eschatological hope.

     I like the Matthew 25:1-13 text when I first glance at it; hey, my daughter got married this Fall!  And I love that terrific choral anthem, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” and would admire my choir singing it to match my sermon.  But the text never works well for me.  The ending is harsh – which doesn’t mean it isn’t preachable.  Just gets moralistic in a nano-second.

     I’ll go with Joshua 24,one of the pivotal and eternally applicable texts in all of Scripture.  I rarely title sermons, but this one will be “As for me and my house.”  This is the title, by the way, of Walter Wangerin’s fantastic book about marriage, which I’d commend to you, and may touch on in the sermon – as he demonstrates a good bit of what it means for “me and my house” to serve the Lord.  The Christian couple focuses on values, on serving the world, on being Christ’s Body, on (as we say in the wedding liturgy) being “a haven of blessing and peace”… “so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”
     The place to which Joshua summons everybody matters.  Shechem, today, is part of the contested, tense West Bank.  The topography is rugged, rocky, not the easiest drive.  In the Bronze Age, if we read between the lines we realize that the Israelites didn’t conquer the whole land, as if by blitzkrieg, and then enjoying total dominance.  They won a few places, and not the most fertile; the Canaanites still controlled the main roads and marginalized the Israelites who had to scrape for whatever they could manage.  In other words, Israel lived in a hostile environment, as a minority, and religiously, as a downright weird sect. {The same was true for early Christianity...}

     The question for them was the same for us: What does it mean today to make the choice they made – that we will serve the Lord, this Lord, the biblical God, Jesus Christ, and not all the others?  The preacher is wise, periodically, to remind good Christians that many gods compete for our attention and loyalty.  In the case of Joshua 24 there is even a peculiar wrinkle:  Joshua says “Put away the gods your fathers served.”  He’s thinking pagan, Mesopotamiam, and Egyptian idols, many of which had strong footing in Palestine.
    But for us:  what idols did your parents, whom you love and adore and owe so much to, serve?  Jesus spoke of pitting father against son.  He’s not stirring up family strife, but pressing for a choice.  Many of our parents imbibed the whole civil religion thing of the good American life, American superiority, maybe the god of money and upward mobility, maybe those darker deities that bedevil us still on race or jingoism.  Joshua was worried about those Egyptian golden bulls; we have our own golden bull on Wall Street in New York!  How do we invite our people to shed even their parents’ lovely ideals, which may even have panned out marvelously, in order to serve the true and living God?

     And what does this theological God-choice look like?  Not just mental assent, but very practical stuff, how you farm, your job, what you buy, how you treat people, especially different people.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord – so do we grab the latest gadget? Do we join in neighborhood banter making fun of somebody?  Do we give church a skip to get to the golf tournament?  Do we turn off the gadgets and TV and observe Sabbath?  Examples abound.

     For us, it is Communion Sunday.  So As for me and my house… involved food: how do we eat, what do we eat (and drink), and why?  With whom do we eat?  Jesus gave us a very do-able yet rarely-heeded command: “When you give a dinner, do not invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor, maimed, lame and blind – and if they don’t come, go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.”  As for me and my house… we are at least going to try this.

     I laugh out loud when I get to Joshua 24:19.  Joshua has just stirred the crowd into a resounding commitment to follow the Lord!  His response?  “But you cannot serve the Lord.”  What??  I can’t probe Joshua’s theology, or even that of the Deuteronomist very incisively.  But we have here a humbling, a recognition at the outset that our most determined zeal to serve God will falter, be imperfect, or just a huge mess.  I’m drawn to C.S. Lewis’s clever wisdom in Screwtape Letters, which envisions the devils plotting to do us in. I love this one: My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”

     Joshua’s passionate tribes still had feet of clay – which we see as the story unfolds.  Mind you, Lewis continued that letter by pointing out one of the most surprising perils for the new convert, or the one making a renewed commitment to serve the Lord:

     “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.... Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants—’sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own’. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt...."
   ** My two newest books, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, and Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, are now available!
The images are Giotto's fresco of Francis kneeling before the crucifix, and David Roberts's print of what Shechem looked like in the 19th century.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What can we say come November 5? All Saints Day / 22nd after Pentecost

     We do All Saints on Nov. 5, and those are the lections I’ll treat here.  It would be hard not to address Revelation 7:9-17 – but I am finding some intriguing linkages between 1 John 3:1-3 and Matthew 5:1-12.  Maybe you’ll go there with me…

     In his classic Anchor Bible commentary, Raymond Brown calls 1 John 3:1-13 “an emotional aside” for the epistle writer, amazed over what God has already given, more moved by what is to come.  The opening verb, “See,” is strong, more like “Look!” or “Behold!” (ίδετε).  Also, visibility must matter:  the Father’s love must be tangible, viewable – in Christ, and in the life of the Body.

     Reading slowly (always recommended), the second word, “what,” is ποταπήν, which, according again to Raymond Brown, expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.”  Volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of): God’s love makes us God’s children.  Jesus spoke of becoming like children – and I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”

     How fitting for All Saints – and every day: “It does not yet appear what we shall be.”  “Is that all there is?” was a sappy song Peggy Lee made a career of singing – its message being if this is all there is, then “let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”  Maybe we break out the wine and celebrate our Lord’s supper and its anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

     “When he appears, we shall be like him.”  Wow.  Jesus doesn’t save me so I can keep being like me; our portrayals of heaven (playing golf, lavish meals, sunshine) are so vapid.  We will be like him (and we can’t be sure, but most likely the writer means God, not just Jesus).   St. Athanasius and a holy host of theologians unblushingly spoke of deification: we will become glorious – 
or as C.S. Lewis put it in his astonishing sermon “The Weight of Glory,” “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

     This “being like him” implies something counter-cultural.  “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  C. Clifton Black (New Interpreter’s Bible) calls this purity one of the “family traits” of God’s children.  The preacher can speak of her own family traits (like the Howell men get white hair early but it stays attached, or the Johnsons are big talkers, or the Whiteheads are given to depression).  God’s children are pure, or at least aim for purity – and they are liberated, motivated, and energized to do so because of that immense love (with all the volume and quality).  I like Black’s questions: “Can it really be doubted that a hunger for assurance that they are ‘children of God’ persists among many of our society’s children, whose destruction of self and of others stems largely from never having known the love of even a human parent, much less the love of a heavenly one?  Does not a deep yearning for this assurance gnaw even at the soul of the church, which is beset by the alluring but finally heartbreaking promises of fulfillment in our jobs, wealth and politics?”

     Maybe what we shall be is envisioned by Jesus in the Beatitudes.  I cannot think of Matthew 5:1-12 without remembering Mother Teresa’s visit to the Charlotte Coliseum.  Just as she came out on the stage, the whole crowd was singing that wonderful David Haas, “Blest Are They.”  My daughter Sarah, who was 8 at the time, saw her face on the jumbotron and said “Daddy, she looks like somebody in the Bible.”  Indeed.  It occurred to me she looked like the Beatitudes.

    But which one?  Poor in Spirit, yes, merciful, yes, a peacemaker, yes.  I spent a lot of time with this text while writing The Beatitudes for Today – and two important realizations came to me (from the wisdom of others, not any brilliance on my part).  The Beatitudes aren’t a list of distinct things; they are a set, or a ladder, or a painting of the life of God’s children (1 John 3 again).

     And the Beatitudes can be read as autobiographical.  Whom most flawlessly do Jesus’ words describe?  Jesus himself.  Weaving this together with 1 John 3, it may make a wise sermon to say We will be like Jesus – in these ways.

     The Beatitudes aren’t commandments: go be poor in spirit, and then go be merciful and make peace too.  Jesus looked out at a bunch of nobodies, who felt oppressed, not blessed, and this messianic one blessed them.  It’s a stunning moment; they must have been perplexed and delighted.  Blessed are the poor (Luke’s version)? Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  We think of blessings as comforts, success – but in Jesus’ upside down world, things are inverted, and for this we should give thanks to God.

     It’s important to remember two things.  Robert Schuller wrote The Be Happy Attitudes – a fundamental misconstrual of God, us, and the text.  The translation “Happy are those…” (so μακαριος is rendered in the Common English Bible) confuses readers whose whole life quest has been that elusive, ill-defined “happiness.”  This isn’t a path to what you’ve always been looking for.

     It’s also crucial to take note of what Jesus didn’t say – like “Blessed are the successful, blessed are the healthy, blessed are Americans, blessed are the white people, blessed are the good-looking…” (expand on your own!).

     I think I will touch a moment or two on each Beatitude, and hopefully attach a person to each one – and, as it is All Saints Day, I’ll fixate longer on the Mourners, and the Pure in Heart (in keeping with 1 John 3!)

   Blessed are the Poor in spirit (or poor): Jesus doesn’t glamorize poverty.  But the spiritual advantage, the humility, the empty, available space, the lack of stuff to cling to, the absence of false buttresses to your self-worth could be probed.  Jim Forest said, “Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be” – and Gustavo Gutiérrez spoke of a desirable “spiritual childhood.”  Knowing my impoverishment, my brokenness: this is the opening to life from God.

     Blessed are those who mourn.  We pity, or avoid those who mourn, and hope I don’t join their ranks any time soon.  But Jesus blesses them – and how lovely, on All Saints’ Day.  If you’ve not read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, his reflections on the death of his 23 year old son, you should.  Immense heart and wisdom there.  Over time, his grief lightened a little, “But it has not disappeared” (and never will).  “That is as it should be.  If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.  Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved…  Every lament is a love-song.”

Wolterstorff said he would for the rest of his life look at the world “through tears.  Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see… The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for the day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence….  The mourners are aching visionaries.  The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm.  Disengage yourself.  Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world.  Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony.  But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.” 

     And then Richard Rohr (in Jesus’ Plan for a New World): “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it.  That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom.  The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible….  The weeping mode allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in.”

     Blessed are the meek.  Try putting “meek” on you resume…  and yet the humble, the teachable, the small and unlikely are blessed by Jesus.  My mind is drawn to Tolkien’s hobbits – and then the principles I articulate in my new book, Weak Enough to Lead: with God it’s not about skills and strengths, but vulnerability, brokenness.  Meekness. 

     Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Not those who are righteous.  Just those who crave it, seek it – like those Cappadocians, getting a taste of righteousness which only brings the realization of how much farther there is to go, which then whets the desire for more.

     Blessed are the merciful.  Reflect on Pope Francis’s ministry, and comments we’ve made earlier in this blog series on Walter Kasper’s book, which influenced him and me, Mercy.  What everybody wants, so hard to find.

     Blessed are the Pure in Heart (as in John 3!).  The Greek καθαροι – catharsis, implies having been though a cleansing.  Søren Kierkegaard wrote a duly famous book entitled Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.  The human predicament is that we let ourselves get frittered away in multiple directions, trying to be and do everything, when we were made for just one thing, for the one thing that finally matters:  God.  If purity of heart is “to will one thing,” then focus is everything.  The pure, like a race-horse, need “blinders” to block out their peripheral vision, so they keep their eyes on the one goal, straight ahead, the finish line.

     Our diffuse, scattered lives do come into focus on occasions, like those we mark on All Saints, whether we seek purity of heart or not.  The phone rings in the middle of the night, or the doctor informs you that “it is malignant,” or someone runs a red light.  Suddenly your calendar, which loomed over you as a relentless taskmaster just moments before, suddenly flies out the window, and nothing else matters but the one thing.  Anna Quindlen’s novel, One True Thing, tells the story of a daughter who leaves her life and career to care for her mother, who is dying of cancer.  Her love for her mother was “the one true thing.”  When asked, “Did you love your mother?” she replied, “The easy answer is yes.  But it’s too easy just to say that when you’re talking about your mother.  It’s so much more than love – it’s, it’s everything, isn’t it?  When someone asks you where you come from, the answer is your mother.  When you’re mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past.  It’s so much more than love.  Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life.  I did love my mother, but I didn’t know how much until she was gone.”

     Months passed, and then as she looked back, she had to confess that “what was important… was that we had so misunderstood her, this woman who had made us who we were while we barely noticed it…  And being so wrong about her makes me wonder now how often I am utterly wrong about myself.”

     Purity of heart is to will one thing.  To use Quindlen’s words, purity of heart is about our relationship that is really more than love with the one from whom we all came.  We would have our hearts purified, for we are a mess of misunderstandings about God, and therefore we are a mess of misunderstandings about ourselves.  One thing is needful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  The wounds we mourn in life can bring the needed healing, yielding what Marilynne Robinson called “an earned innocence.”

     I’m also driven back to Psalm 73, which redefines “God is good to the pure in heart.”  Purity – not moral blamelessness, but the simple desire to be “near God.”  And this good?  It is nothing but God’s own self.  On his deathbed, Thomas Aquinas heard a voice he assumed was God: “Thomas, you have written well of me.  What reward would you ask for yourself?”  Thomas replied, “Nothing but yourself, O God.”  And Jesus says the pure in heart will see God – again, identical to 1 John 3!

     Blessed are the Peacemakers.  Not the peace-wishers, or the lack-of-peace-complainers, but the peace-makers.  I think of Father Elias Chacour and his brilliant ministry bringing together warring people in Israel/Palestine.  The steps into his church in Ibillin are emblazoned with one Beatitude after another.

     And blessed are the persecuted.  All the martyrs through history, those harassed for their faith today, all who suffer on account of Christ.  Don’t pity them.  They are God’s children.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What can we say come October 29? 21st after Pentecost

     We’ll observe Reformation Sunday on 10/29, and two of our lectionary texts, Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Matthew 22:34-40 speak well to the day.  I preached on Deut. 34 three years ago; it’s on YouTube.  One of the most poignant texts in Scripture: Moses has been in a long filibuster-like speech to the people, lots of commands and even threats on how they should behave once they finally – finally! – enter the promised land.

     Then Moses withdraws to a moment alone with God, the God he’d met 80 years earlier on another mountain.  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 punch in the gut: Moses will die there, then, heartbreaking, crushing.  Why did Moses have to die? For the sins of people (Deut 1:37, 4:21)? For striking the rock (Num 20:12)?  Bible students seize on this, but don’t consider how petty it makes God seem – who was unfailingly patient with so many other and worse sins…  How are we privy to this private moment anyhow?  Did Moses write prophetically?  Ibn Ezra attributed it to Joshua, who might have tagged along.

     Maybe Franz Kafka was right: “Moses fails to enter Canaan, not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.”  After decades of arduous labor, having finally gotten a glimpse of the broad expanse of the land from his viewpoint atop Mt. Nebo, Moses died. He wasn’t there to see or enjoy the fruit of his life’s work.

     Isn’t this always the way? We are all part of something bigger than ourselves – at least we hope we are.  Reformation won't happen today or even in my lifetime; it's unending, which isn't then frustrating but a privilege to be a part of?  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.”  Just one of many memorable Reformers in the wake of the one he was named for, Martin Luther. 


  Spoiler alert: in the new War for the Planet of the Apes film, which is surprisingly moving and way more outstanding than I'd have guessed, Caesar (the lead ape) somehow manages to get his people released from imprisoned service to a cruel taskmaster, leads them through the desert to a beautiful land - and then dies as soon as they get there.  Original plot??

  We might also ponder Reinhold Niebuhr’s pithy wisdom: “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.”

     Isn’t it interesting that the Torah, the primal Scripture in Judaism, ends here, just short of the climax?  It is as if each generation has the same choice:  will you enter God’s rest, and if you will, then how will you live?  This is pertinent for Reformation:  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.

     The mummies of pharaohs have been studied; Aaron’s tomb is visitable – near Petra.  But Moses’ tomb?  Many rabbis believed Moses didn’t die at all, but was translated directly into heaven.  He appears, of course, in Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17) - toting his commandments, if Raphael got it right.  The NRSV translates “He was buried” – but by whom?  The text quite straightforwardly says “He buried him.”  He who?  Is the Lord the implied subject?   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 has some promise, but leaves me with a bit of a yawn when I've got Deut. 34 and Matt. 22 staring me in the face.  I did a little preaching commentary on this for Christian Century 9 years ago, if you're interested.  But for now, on to the Gospel!

     This Sunday will be just two days before the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door to spark the Reformation.  It was a long story of course, well worth pondering as we see today’s church in crisis/demise.  I would commend Martin Marty’s short book, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World, or his similarly short bio.

     A lot can be said about the original Reformation or the one required today.  I suspect we would be wise to fix our attention on Jesus’ greatest commandments, as Church, reformed or malformed, means nothing apart from loving God and loving neighbor (our text, Matthew 22:34-40).  More on how to preach about this “love” in a few moments.  For now I think of ways to process what’s wrong with the church.  It’s not that many in church life disagree with my pet biases or preferred versions of how the universe should be arranged.  It is all about ways we are not yet (or not much) conformed to Christ, which is the same as how we have not yet (or not much) been transformed by Christ.  Love needs reforming - and then that reformed love is what will reform the church; the reformation of the church's love is similarly what will reform love.

     Two great quotes occur to me:  “The tools we are given to taste the beauty of the divine – scripture, the church, religion, theology – cease to be windows to God and become mirrors that reflect back our own stupidity and cruelty” (Wendy Farley, in her magnificent Tragic Vision & Divine Compassion) – and then “The church is the cross on which Christ is crucified.  And yet Christ is never far from his cross” (Romano Guardini).  These ideas matter, as the Church’s misdirection crucifies Christ all over, repeatedly – and yet Christ is there.  It really is about beauty, looking through a window to that beauty, instead of into the mirror of our own vapid knuckleheadedness.
    The whole love thing provides the preacher such a stunning starting point.  God asks for, even needs, not our goodness and obedience so much as our love.  How risky; how vulnerable; how wonderful.  I picture God singing along with Bonnie Raitt when she unintentionally spoke for God: "I can't make you love me."  Or in the Don Schlitz  country song, when the man asks his Lord "How much do I owe you for giving me this day, and every day that's gone before?  Shall I build a temple? Make a sacrifice? Tell me Lord, and I will pay the price" - and the Lord said, "I won't take less than your love."
    God wants love from the church, not just the individuals in the church.  To speak of love with respect to church can mislead.  I love (!) the great song by Beth Nielson Chapman, “All that Matters in the End is How we Love.”  But then love can easily become 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.  Matthew 22:34-40 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. 

     I am likely to say something about the controversy in the church about love - namely whom people love and the church's blessing.  Do I dare suggest (as many have, and not wisely) that "Love wins," so whatever claims to be love is championed by the church?  Jesus is pro-love, but it's deadly serious business, isn't it?  Do I suggest (which I do wonder) if the reform the church is called to today is precisely on this issue of love (whichever way you're persuaded it must go...) and get there in an embracing, hospitable way - together?? 

     How wise of Jesus to give his dual reply.  Two loves, which are really one.  It is mandatory for you, preacher, to pull out your parallel Gospels and compare Matthew (where Jesus uses heart, soul and mind) with Mark and Luke – and then also to go back to Deuteronomy 6 (and Leviticus 19).  This is the premier text in Judaism, apart from Jesus.  Call a rabbi friend – or make a rabbi into a friend by calling and asking, Tell me about Deuteronomy 6.  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.

     These words are called the “Shema” – a Hebrew word meaning “Hear!”  Deuteronomy 6:4 begins, “Hear (Shema!) O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God…”  Moses was repeating what God had taught him to say – and the setting is intriguing.  The people of Israel had wandered through the land for decades.  Finally they were on the brink of the promised land, gazing across the river, about to realize the promise – and Moses stopped them and said “Hear!”  Listen!  The beginning of love is always listening.

     What are the people of God to do to live into God’s promises?  They are to love God with every fiber of their being, not casually, not when it’s convenient, or just when there’s trouble.  To be sure they understood God wishes to be loved all day long, every day, in everything, Moses added “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.
     Jesus grew up with this kind of disciplined love for God.  He’d lived it, and understood the benefits of a constant attentiveness to God, repetitious reminders to love God.  Scot McKnight calls You shall love the Lord with heart, soul and strengththe Jesus Creed.”  Christians would do well to memorize this creed; Jesus mercifully kept it short so we could… and then to repeat it on waking and before sleeping, and to recall it throughout the day.  Scot says the Shema has become a “silent partner” in his life. 

     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?
     Here are links to the sermon series: 5 of them, so more than just Matthew…  You shall love, With all your Heart, With all your Soul, With all your Mind, With all your Strength – and then more on neighbor…  I would urge you to think about doing such a series yourself.  It helped our church tremendously, and I hope permanently.  I tried to dissect each aspect (What is your heart – or what was it in Bible times? etc. – and you can find this in any handy commentary… but I wonder if the texts are suggesting a comprehensive “with all you’ve got, with all you are” instead of “love in these 3 ways,” as if those can be distinguished, or worse, checked off, as in a list…).
     A few thoughts on love:  How wonderful is it that, when Jesus wanted to zero in on what really matters, he said “You shall love the Lord.”  Not “You must obey,” or “You must be perfect,” but instead, “You shall love.”  I know it’s a command, and it’s worth pondering that love can be commanded – so love isn’t a fleeting emotion you feel or don’t feel; it’s something you really are able to do!  But there is the future nuance in “You shall love.”  Maybe you don’t think you love God just now, but ultimately you will.  I believe this for each of us reading right now:  eventually, you will love God.
   God had a choice when God created everything.  God could have insisted on God’s will always being done.  We could have been marionettes, unable to do anything except God’s bidding.  But God isn’t a God of control.  God chose not to be in control because God decided to seek our love – and you can’t control love.  You have to wait and let the other love you – or not.  God constantly isn’t loved.  But God risks the heartbreak.  God invites us, and pleads with us, to love God and each other.
   The reason?  The very marrow of God’s being isn’t power or law or even greatness.  The core heart of God is love, unfathomable love, unending love, unlimited love – and it is this love that fashioned the universe with all its grandeur and beauty, and it is this love that wove you together in your mother’s womb and has been behind, beneath, above and before you for every breath you have taken.  The only conceivable reply to such love is … love.
   Evidence of God’s love is all around you, and inside you – and God’s need for your love is inside you too.  All your life you’ve needed, sought, and been downright desperate for love.  God made you this way as an echo of God’s own heart.  You are your loves; your identity is that you are beloved – by God and others. 
   Love doesn’t shield us from suffering, but love can and will take it.  God suffers over our broken world, and God suffers our busy, presumptuous taking God for granted – but God can bear this, because God loves.  When we get the mercy, we will love God.
   If you recall falling in love:  love is reckless, love doesn’t count the cost or the passing of time.  Love loves with every fiber of our being.  Deuteronomy 6:4 says we are to love God with heart, soul and strength.  Jesus added a fourth:  mind.  If he’d lived longer he might have added a fifth, sixth and seventh.  How do we love God?  Let us count the ways.
     A couple of useful “love” quotes. Mystics can guide us into this love for God.  I greatly admire Thérèse of Lisieux, whose short life was all about intimacy with Jesus:
Ah, how sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! 
It was a kiss of love, I felt that I was loved,
and I said: ‘I love you, and I give myself to you forever!’ 
My heaven is to smile at this God I adore.
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:
by love to live.

     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.”


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Monday, August 14, 2017

What can we say come October 22? 20th after Pentecost

     As I get older, I am learning increasingly to savor the many texts that don’t have an obvious moral or takeaway – those texts that simply tell us about the wonder that is God.  Ours isn’t to moralize or get busy making the kingdom come.  We can just get lost in wonder, love and praise.  Sermons can help people do this.

     Exodus 33:12-23 is such a text.  Here is a sermon I preached on it 3 years ago.  Context matters:  Moses is still steaming with exasperation after the raucous partying and golden calf making in chapter 32.  He’s just been on intimate terms with the Lord on the mountain for weeks.  Yet he is still eager to know more about God – or perhaps we should say, to know God, to love God, to be one with God. 
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.

     Moses wanted more of God, but God is always too much.  Tenderly God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered him with God’s hand, passed by and let Moses see just his back side. 
This text was best understood by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa. God gives us just a tantalizing taste of God’s presence, a hazy glimpse of God’s utter beauty, only to draw us forward again as if we had never tasted that beauty.  “Moses’ desire is filled by the very fact that it remains unfulfilled… And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied.”  True satisfaction “consists in constantly going on in the quest and never ceasing in ascent seeing that every fulfillment continually generates a further desire.  Far from making the soul despair, this discovery is actually an experience of God’s fuller presence.  It becomes a yearning which fills the soul more fully than any actual possession.”

     Utterly counter-cultural – and yet I find when I preach this, people are drawn in.  I think of my theology professor, Tom Langford, who would lecture on something like the Trinity.  He would begin with logical sentences.  Then just phrases, some fumbling.  He’d take off his glasses, scrunch up his face under his hand and just sigh.  I think in this way he was speaking truly of the God Moses encountered.  Or this: one of my long-standing Bible study groups invited me to visit.  I asked how long they’d been together, and they said “Fourteen years – and we’re more confused now than when we started.”  I said, “Great.”

     We think we have to know and understand clearly.  But I love what Norman Maclean had the pastor say after losing his wayward son: “It is those we live with and should know who elude us.  But we can still love them.  We can love completely without complete understanding.”  How much more so with God?

      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.”  Hear that “satisfaction” thing?  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.”  Speaking of God’s back side:  the entirety of the Christian life is about following.  Jesus says Follow me.  If you follow somebody, what you see if precisely their back side!

     Other little details intrigue me.  In verse 15, Moses says “If you don’t go, don’t send us” (v. 15).  Simple – but if God’s not going somewhere we probably don’t want to go either.  In verse 19 God says I’ll pass by and then utter my name – which is what Moses wanted to hear in the first place.  This rare hearing of the divine name is a prelude to the high priest’s annual entry into the Holy of Holies to utter that unutterable name.  Moses is known as the one God knew “face to face” (Deut. 34:10) – but here he can’t see the face; Scripture is reaching for words to express the inexpressible, so logical consistency need not matter.  And then it’s the commanding God who just issued hundreds of laws who defines God’s self as merciful; Clint McCann reminds us that any telling of this “must preserve the tension which lies at the heart of a God who is both fiercely demanding and unfailingly forgiving.”

      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.”

     I’ll not dwell on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, although if Acts 17 is any indication (Paul’s visit to Thessalonica), his comment here, “You received the word in much affliction,” is an understatement.  I harbor some puzzled envy when I ponder the way the word must have come “not just in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” as a riot was touched off in the city – just as we recall happened in the early days of Methodism.  My preaching is way more likely to elicit a yawn or a snarky email than a riot in the streets…

     And then we come to the Gospel, Matthew 22:15-22, enormously important, and grossly misconstrued by the average Christian (perhaps suggested we clergy are guilty of what Rev. William Barber calls “theological malpractice”).  Jesus was not laying down a firm decree on the separation of church and state.  (And how mind-boggling is it now, that after years of us clergy trying to sort through how to speak the Gospel without diluting it and yet not appearing to be unavoidably “political,” President Trump has been about demolishing the Johnson amendment, saying clergy should be more vocal!  I suspect we’ll see what we’ve always seen:  church people get annoyed, reminding us of the Founding Fathers’ insistence on separation of religion and politics – but it’s always a code when they fuss at us.  It means “You said something that collides with my politics, so hush.”  If you says something they like, they never fume over your inability to keep things separate…

     This understanding hidden motives was Jesus’ strong suit.  In our text, instead of simply answering, he first pondered what lay beneath: he become “aware of their malice.” and responded in the best way, given such motives.  They deceivingly flattered him, then popped the impossible question: does God permit the paying of taxes to Caesar or not? An annual property tax, a denarius, had to be paid. Jews resented the levy, plus the coins bore the blasphemous image of Caesar, claiming he was a god. If Jesus said yes, he's in league with Rome and the tax collectors; if no, he's siding with militant revolutionaries.

     Jesus responded brilliantly, asking for a coin, and then asking a question.  Preaching really should involve more questions than answers…  Archaeologists have found coins from the time of Jesus, featuring the image of the emperor, and the adjectives people were supposed to understand applied to him, especially divus – Divine!  The money you needed to live day to day reminded every Jewish person of the mockery, the blasphemy that was Caesar. That same money reminded you that the tax collector would be coming around soon to seize too much of what you’d earned – with the threat of breaking your knees if you didn’t pay up.  That same money then came to have a corrupt use as the very leaders of your own religious community gouged the severely impoverished with temple taxes – making it hard to get access to the God you needed because of the grind of the rest of your life.

     Jesus’ question was pitch perfect:  “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  Easy   answer: “Caesar’s.”  Jesus so shrewdly and truly responded in the only logical way:  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  What belonged to Caesar?  This coin, clearly, maybe the soldiers marching around, maybe the tax collectors – and maybe even you religious folk, sellouts that you’ve become…  But what belongs to God?  Jesus.  You, the other guy, actually also the soldiers, the tax collectors, even the emperor.  Not to mention the trees, the ground and sky.  It’s all God’s.  Sure, the emperor claimed to be God, but he was a charlatan, not merely lying but also utterly unable to be God, to deliver on the bogus title.

     Jesus’ wisdom was met with stunned silence; I wish my sermons were met with the same!  Those who tried to trap Jesus had no answer for his brilliant wisdom.
"Render to Caesar what is Caesar's." Though Jesus' foes (and we may wonder why they had such a blasphemous coin in their pockets - in the temple precincts!) were silenced, we seem to talk about this one a lot. Jesus isn't legislating the separation of Church and state. To Jesus, what belongs to Caesar is relatively trivial, and temporary. What belongs to God is. Everything! - including the realm of Caesar! Followers of Jesus can be good citizens, but when loyalty to Jesus clashes with the realm of political reality, Jesus trumps. Give to God what belongs to God.

     There’s the sermon.  It has a moral, a clear imperative, an all-encompassing takeaway:  Render unto God 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.

     Here endeth this week’s preaching blog – although let me add as an appendix something Kavin Rowe (World Upside Down) wrote about Christ and Caesar – and how we parse simple truisms like “Christ is Lord,” clearly politically subversive in a world where most declared “Caesar is Lord.”

     “We think the Christians lifted up Christ as a rival to Caesar.  But no:  Because of the nature of his claims, it is Caesar who is the rival; and what he rivals is the Lordship of God in the person of Jesus Christ…  Yet, we would be mistaken were we to think that this rivalry takes place on a level playing field – an ontological basis, say , that is deeper than both Jesus and Caesar – as if there were two competitors playing for the same prize, the title ĸύριοѕ πáѵτωѵ is who Jesus is:  Jesus is completely inseparable from his identity as the universal Lord.  Caesar’s rivalry thus takes the form of wrongful (self-) exaltation to the sphere whose existence is exactly concomitant with the identity of God in Jesus Christ.  Politics, that is,
inevitably involves the questions of idolatry…  As Seneca would have the young Nero to say:  ‘I am the arbiter of life and death for the nations; it rests in my power what each man’s lot and state shall be; by my lips Fortune proclaims what gift she would bestow on each human being; from my utterance peoples and cities gather reasons for rejoicing.

     And yet, the Christian mission as narrated by Luke is not a counter-state.  It does not, that is, seek to replace Rome, or to ‘take back’ Palestine, Asia or Achaia.  To the contrary, such a construal of Christian politics is resolutely and repeatedly rejected…  To follow Luke’s narrative is to read Christianity not as a call for insurrection but as a testimony to the reality of the resurrection.  Yet, as any number of contemporary examples might remind us – Martin Luther King Jr., to take only the most obvious – the rejection of insurrection does not simultaneously entail an endorsement of the present world order, as if the fact that Jesus was δíĸαιοѕ necessitates Luke’s approval of the crucifixion.  In fact, according to Acts, the refusal of statecraft could well go hand in hand with the deconstruction of mantic-based economics or with the burning of magical books (Philippi and Ephesus).  Equally well would withstanding the temptation to messianic military might include, rather than preclude, the naming of traditional pagan deities as “vain things” (Lystra)…  Thus if the scene before Gallio articulates normatively the conviction that the state is not equipped to discern theological truth – or, to put it in more directly political terns, is not ultimately sovereign – Paul’s testimony before Festus clarifies theologically why this is so.  The gentiles attempt to see with closed eyes, in darkness, without light.

     Realizing that this Christological construal of universal lordship makes sense only in a reading of the world that from the outside appears upside down should help to facilitate a still further step in the reversal of our typical way of thinking…it does so on the basis of a more startling claim: Jesus, the bringer of peace, simply is the Lord of all, and the mode of being that is Caesar’s represents a violent refusal of this universal Lordship.  Differently said, Caesar is the challenger, not of course because Jesus wants to rule the empire, but in the sense that the self-exaltation necessary to sustain Caesar’s political project is inevitably idolatrous.”


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