Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What can we say come March 18? Lent 5

     Intriguing texts we have this week. I doubt I’ll focus on Jeremiah 31:31-34, although to try to imagine the small scroll scholars believe chapters 30-31 once were – a small roll indeed, yet full of promise and hope, and for the very people Jeremiah had been castigating for years! That’s something – like a long pamphlet of hope. I very much admire Elizabeth Achtemeier’s wisdom on the need for the law to be written on the heart, for a radically new and different covenant:  “It is obvious from this passage why moralistic preaching does no good. It does not and it cannot produce any change in people’s lives, for they have no power in themselves to change.. They are like prisoners – slaves of sin – and exhorting prisoners to be good is like telling them to fix up their prison cages a little – maybe to hang a picture on the wall or to put a rug on the floor. But what is needed is someone to come and open the door!”

     Even if you don’t preach on Jeremiah, you hold that thought in the back of your mind… I believe I will preach on Psalm 51:1-12, as somehow I don’t think I’ve ever done so. {And I even co-authored a book, with Clint McCann, called Preaching the Psalms!}  What a great, famous, heavily-used and oft-quoted Psalm – and what could be more fitting for the season of Lent? The seven “Penitential Psalms” in general could draw more attention during Lent. I love this: when St. Augustine was confined to his deathbed, his eyesight failing, he asked that the 7 Penitential Psalms be printed in oversized hand on huge pieces of paper and hung on the walls around his bed.

     In seminary you learn that the headings attached to Psalms aren’t original.  It is interesting that whoever pieced the Psalter together to find its way into our canon saw a fit between Psalm 51 and the sordid, telling tale of David and Bathsheba – and the temptation is then to launch into a digression and wind up preaching on 2 Samuel 11-12. A worthy text! On that text, though, I’d urge you to read Robert Barron’s brilliant, probing insights in his fabulous Brazos commentary, which I reviewed in Christian Century; after assessing David’s balcony view as “a parody of God’s providential presidency over creation,” and the way David “seizes the prerogatives of divinity, like Adam did,” he pairs the story to Psalm 51 and shrewdly points out that “David does not need a program of ethical renewal; he needs to be re-created.”
 Wow. And we also have Robert Alter’s clever translation of the Psalm 51 heading, noting the Hebrew wordplay which he dubs “a barbed pun”: “Upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.”

     Humble, eloquent, heart-rending contrition: Psalm 51 hardly needs explication. As a preacher, it would be too easy and simplistic just to default to an old-timey sermon plot: yes, you sin, and yes, God forgives if you ask. But the Psalm happily complicates things – and we do too. The Psalm is after, as Barron mentioned, not a plan of ethical renewal, or a determination to do better, but a radically new heart, like the one Jeremiah 31 dreamed of – and maybe this is the sort of thing Jesus had in mind when he said we must be born again.
 This text isn’t after the mere absolution of guilt. It’s about reconciliation, a healed, renewed relationship with God that only God can achieve. Randy Maddox helped us see how for John Wesley, grace isn’t just God letting bygones be bygones; grace has a medicinal, healing power.

     The Psalm also highlights the image of being wiped clean – very different from the accounting of sin being erased. I love this thought: in his Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis ponders something John Henry Newman wrote in his “Dream of Gerontius.” A saved soul, at the very foot of God’s throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed before continuing in heaven.
 “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so sir.’”

     Relevant preaching will touch on why sin is an elusive topic nowadays. Yes, the Psalm implies “original sin.” Unsure how much the preacher should delve into that. 
I love Mark Twain’s quip, that when we sin, there’s nothing very original about it! We fall in line – and then his other thought: “I don’t know why Adam and Eve get so much credit; I could have done just as well as they did.” Or Whitney Brown’s Saturday Night Live humor: “Any good history book is mainly just a long list of mistakes, complete with names and dates. It’s very embarrassing.”

     Our bigger challenge isn’t persuading anybody of the doctrine of original sin. It’s getting anyone but the most conservatively-reared, guilt-riddled Christians to understand sin is a real thing. 
A generation ago the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote Whatever Became of Sin? – and it’s a better question now than then. But it’s no use hammering on people (as I’ve tried a few times), saying You don’t think much about sin, but you really are a sinner! People can’t conceive of sin as an impudent violation of God’s commands – with which we only have a passing, thin acquaintance anyhow. And if sin is breaking a rule, then we fail to understand what revolutionized Martin Luther’s ministry 500 years ago – that sin isn’t this or that action but our entire nature.

     How do we explore the human condition and then help people realize the trouble they are in? 
Douglas John Hall (in his wonderful Professing the Faith) rather wonderfully suggested that we don’t feel so much like Prometheus, defiantly scaling the heights to steal fire from the gods, but rather we feel like Sisyphus, valiantly pushing that stone uphill, only to have it roll down again; we are weary, hollow, frustrated people.  We are dogged (and you needn’t persuade anyone) by all kinds of brokenness. Such as these:

     Sin, today, is being enmeshed in a culture that is not of God; the “seven deadly sins” (pride, sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, envy and wrath) are the very definition of the good life in America we mindlessly pursue and accept!

     Sin, today, is our irrational attachment to and ultimate trust in our political ideology, which is today’s idolatry. If your god is what you rely on, what can make your day (or ruin it), what you believe can deliver the fullness of life, what unites you with some other angry people, then political ideology (and perhaps especially for those who vehemently insist politics not be spoken of in church!) is sin.

     Sin, today, may well be our bland niceness, and believe it passes muster as a Christian life. All of these, and even old-timey garden variety rebellion against God, mean-spirited sins, indulging in the more sinister aspects of our culture: all are manifestations of fear, fear of isolation, fear of pointlessness, fear even of God, fear there may be no God, fear I’m insufficient somehow, fear of missing out, fear of death.

     The Psalm urges us toward what Luther figured out. My witty and brilliant professor of Church History, David Steinmetz, explained things this way (in Luther in Context). As a young priest, Luther encountered the common medieval understanding, which sounds hauntingly like the common modern church understanding of religious reality: “Although Christ died for the sins of the world, it is still the responsibility of the sinner to act on behalf of his own soul by rigorous self-examination, by good works and self-denial, by prayer and pious exercises.  God is willing to forgive the sinner, but there are conditions which must be met – and which lie within the power of the sinner to perform.”
 But then, after a deep reading of Paul, and thrashing through his own personal struggles and guided well by his mentor John Staupitz, Luther arrived at a very different, more mature, and theologically on target view of things: “The problem with human righteousness is not merely that it is flawed or insufficient (though it is both).  The problem with human righteousness is that it is irrelevant.  God does not ask for human virtue as a precondition for justification.  God asks for human sin.” I love that. God asks for sin. And we’ve got it.

     A few other details in the Psalm might merit attention. “Cast me not away from your presence”: the very is more like “Hurl” or “Fling me not away…” And this: the craving is to be “whiter than snow,” which got erased from “Have thine own way, Lord,” in the hymnal; but if you rail against this as political correctness, you are exposed as the very sinner in need of being washed. And the opening verb, “Create,” renders the Hebrew bara’, which is used rarely in Scripture, and only with God as its subject – as in Genesis 1!

     Our other texts? Hebrews 5:5-10 has always left me puzzled. This “order of Melchizedek” business meant so much to early Christians, but then for most of us it’s just plain mystifying. How fascinating is Hebrews 5’s narrative – that Jesus prayed “with loud cries and tears.” In Gethsemane? On the cross? And “to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.” Really? The Gospels imagine Jesus’ prayer not being heard, or being heard but resolved quite differently. Or is Hebrews envisioning the resurrection? I think not, but who knows?

     And then John 12:20-33 is a rich text. In the wake of being anointed, and of Palm Sunday, and then just before the footwashing, we find this public scene where some Greeks approach Philip (the one disciple with a Greek name!) and ask “We wish to see Jesus.” I heard a sermon years ago that used this as a cadence throughout, the whole homily playing on what it means to wish to see Jesus, how to find him, what we see when we find him, or are found by him. This is our request, and I suspect this is even the request of a cynical, unbelieving world – in our Christ-haunted landscape.

     I love the way Philip told Andrew, then and Andrew told Jesus. There’s something hidden in there about the nature of community, but I’m not sure what. Jesus’ “hour to be glorified” is near – and for John, that glorification isn’t on Easter morning but as he breathes his last on the cross. How startling is the way this Johannine text picks up on Paul (“unless a grain falls into the earth”) and the Synoptics (“he would would save his life will lose it,” and the voice from heaven!): it’s as if this text is an overture, a big musical climax, a “greatest hits” explicating Jesus. And then (and I recognize it’s past our reading), what is that in verse 36? “And he hid from them.”


My new book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available now! 

Monday, October 30, 2017

What can we say come March 11? Lent 4

   What texts this week! Numbers 21:4-9 introduces us to one of the most bizarre religious beliefs in ancient Israel, and then simultaneously provides a surprising, theologically suggestive and homiletically promising weirdnesses in all of Scripture. Circling around Edom near the Red Sea, the people murmur – which had to be so old, so trite by now. This region was infamous for its lethal serpents. Verse 6 uses the adjective seraph, “to burn” – so were they fiery? Poisonous by extension? What a harsh penalty for murmuring! – finally, after God and Moses have borne it patiently and even graciously for years. Think Indiana Jones: “Why did it have to be snakes?” Or maybe Genesis 3 – not the wily tempter, but the curse, that fallen humanity will suffer enmity with snakes.

   And yet these venomous snakes are the healing; it did have to be snakes. Think superstition, magic – or Israelite religion, with such a homeopathic antidote. An object is controlled by its own image or effigy. To gaze on an uplifted snake, they believed, could cure ill effects of the snakes on the ground. Lest you think this is a one-off, a bronze snake stood in the temple until Hezekiah finally smashed it (2 Kings 18:4). Israel shared this with their neighbors: Egyptian religious featured serpentine amulets, cobras denoted royalty. A bronze bowl engraved with a winged snake was discovered in Nineveh – booty the Assyrians swiped from Israel’s King Ahaz! And then archaeologists found copper mines near where Israel was meandering in Numbers 21 – and a 5 inch long copper snake affixed to a staff, dating to the time of Moses! (Think modern times also: 
Asclepius was symbolized by a snake and still is on that little medical symbol we pay no attention to.)

     You don’t have to tie this to John 3 (although John himself did!) – but it’s preachable. What is lethal is the way to life; the curse is the way to cure. Certainly the cross works this way: 
it’s a sign of horror, the killing of the Son, and yet it is itself the cure. Similarly, it is only in our dying that we come to life; it is the killing of our sin on the cross that frees us.

     So, before visiting Ephesians 2, which can also be woven into all this, let’s stick with John 3:14-21. Nicodemus has made his famous nocturnal visit to Jesus. His puzzlement over being “born again” is itself fascinating, and can’t be lopped off from our precise reading for today. Jesus speaks of a whole new life – and it’s not an emotional experience, this being born again (evangelical fantasies, and churchgoer confusion and guilt notwithstanding). It’s God’s work – and our verses explain how God pulled off regenerating us.
 I love Jean Vanier’s phrasing, unwittingly linking John to Numbers: “This journey, our pilgrimage of love, begins and deepens as we hear God murmur within our hearts: ‘I love you just as you are. I so love you that I come to heal you and to give you life. Do not be afraid. Open your hearts. It is all right to be yourself. You do not have to be perfect or clever. You are loved just as you are. As you become more conscious that you are loved, you will want to respond to that love with love, and grow in love.’”

     We see John 3:16 on billboards, t-shirts, etc.; some terrific music, my favorite being “God So Loved the World” by John Stainer (or this one by Bob Chilcott!) drives the verse home. 
The omnipresence is striking, and would have shocked most Christians through the centuries. John 3:16 was never the verse until the modern American revival movement – so chalk it up to Billy Graham I suppose. The verse isn’t a problem, although it diminishes the breadth of the Bible’s vision for us and creation. Or does it? If we read it slowly, we see it’s better than we dreamed. It doesn’t say “For God so loved you, you religious person, that he gave his son – that is, had him crucified in your place – so that whoever believes in him, that is, whoever confesses his sin and agrees Jesus saves him, will not perish but go to heaven.” Instead it says God so loved – the world, the kosmos, the whole thing!  He gave his son – but he gave him when the Word became flesh, at Christmas, and in his healing and teaching, and in his crucifixion and resurrection, which for John is way more about the glorification of God than me getting off for my sins. Belief, for John, is way more than mental assent or repentance and feeling forgiven. It’s following, it’s union with the living Christ, it’s being part of the Body.

     I’d say whether you preach on John or Ephesians, these two texts illuminate one another in lovely ways. Ephesians 2:1-10: the pivotal verse is 5, not 8 (which is cited so often). Paul (let’s give it to Paul and not confuse church people about authorship) begins by pronouncing us dead – as sensible, as we’re reading his words and hence very much alive, as Jesus’ counsel to Nicodemus to be born again. The word translated “dead” is nekros; I’ve gotten to walk around a few necropolises from Bible times. Eerie – including the catacombs where Christians worshipped.

     Sermons have to explain how we’re dead while we have a pulse; Walker Percy might help. His parents died while he was very young, and he barely survived tuberculosis. Deeply influenced by Kierkegaard (who had written wisely of our “sickness unto death”), Percy creates characters like Dr. Tom More (in The Moviegoer), who lives in Paradise Estates, but really it’s a living Hell. People “have it all” but they are hollow and miserable. Even the meek priest confesses, “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

   His later novels, especially Thanatos Syndrome and Love in the Ruins, play on these same themes. I’m struck again by the moment when More refused to take Samantha to Lourdes – because he was afraid she would be healed! Our worst fear is not that God is dead but that God is alive, and it won’t do just to drink and soak up pleasure. Again, in Numbers and John, it only in the confrontation with death, it is only by dying, that life unfolds, especially this miraculous life in Christ.

     Some preachers might resort to the Walking Dead as an image, but that’s just too creepy even for me... although R.C. Sproul, in his tiny book What Does it Mean to Be Born Again?, does say that before being reborn, "We were spiritual zombies - the walking dead. We were biologically alive but spiritually dead."

    Clearly, Ephesians 2 exposes how our plight is our whole person, not this or that misdeed. It’s my mind, my flesh, my thoughts, actions and cravings. And yet God is merciful. No, God is rich in mercy (the Greek is polyeleos, very merciful, manifoldly merciful!). Paul’s hyperbolic language should be noted by the preacher – as if words fail Paul (and hence the preacher). It’s not just grace, of the wealth or grace, but the surpassing wealth of grace!

    And then a close reading of v. 8 is instructive. Notice the Greek word order. Grace comes early – to emphasize its centrality. “Gift of God” is really “God’s gift,” God coming first, unusually in the Greek, to fix our attention on whose grace this is. Notice there is an article (the, that) before grace. So it’s not “For by grace you are saved” but “For by that grace you are saved” – that is, the grace celebrated in verses 5 and 7. Faith is not a work, it is not a clever, even spiritual decision. Faith is God’s work; faith is all gift. “End of faith as its beginning,” Charles Wesley shrewdly wrote. Faith, St. Augustine helped us to see, isn’t the human contribution to salvation. Otherwise you get spiritual cockiness, no matter how grinningly spiritual. Markus Barth wrote, “The bragger is man in revolt against God, and a tyrant over his fellow man. But he who boasts of God and accepts his own weakness gives God the glory he is due.”

    Of course, it’s salutary that the lectionary didn’t clip things off after v. 8. Verses 9-10 debunk any overly simplistic notion of “We’re saved by grace not works” – as Paul then, as if to keep us off balance (or twisting in the wind!) explains that we are “created for good works.” Maybe it’s all in how we construe who we are, whose we are, what defines us, and what our doing emanates from.





Sunday, October 29, 2017

What can we say come March 4? Lent 3

     Exodus 20:1-17 (paired well with Psalm 19) was the focus of my blog for October 8, just 20 weeks ago – so I’ll refer you there for my stuff about Torah as dream, Zora Neale Hurston and more – and also this sermon from 3+ years ago, and this one from October 8.  I do like the idea of the commandments as a jumping off point during Lent – as we ponder what God requires, and how much repentance and mercy we require.

     1 Corinthians 1:18-25 focuses us squarely within the movement that is the season of Lent. As a preacher, I worry that when I preach on “the Word of the Cross is folly,” it will turn out that my words about the Cross will be folly.  The gravest risk for preachers who’ve grown up in our thin, vaguely revivalistic environment, is that we will minimize, individualize, trivialize and thus confuse and empty the Cross of its richer meaning.  If you had time to read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, you’d be well-served; suffice it to say that his endeavor is to broaden the context and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, which is more than Jesus died for our sins.  Such eloquence: “When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place…  The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion… Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.”  A revolution in all of creation began, and we aren’t saved from the trouble but are called to be active participants in God’s undeniable labor of reconciliation.

     We have pretty crosses adorning our churches, not to mention jewelry, posters, clothing… The cross in the first centuries was horrific, from which you would avert your gaze.  Christian art even avoided the cross for several centuries, and even then the first ones were golden and bejeweled (Robin Jenson’s The Cross: History, Art & Controversy is a lovely study of the cross in historic art). Consider the first instance of a cross – in that laughable graffiti found near the Palatine Hill in Rome – depicting a man bowing down before a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, with the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God,” clearly ridiculing a late second century convert to Christianity.

     We speak of “apologetics,” the intellectual defense of the faith.  Paul surrenders before beginning, making zero apologies for the absurd, unexpected and not prophesied idea that the Messiah would not crush his foes but be crushed by them; the Scriptures themselves indicated that being killed on a tree was an offense.  How can the preacher resuscitate the disgust, the offense, except just to name it?   Or maybe we show horrific images, maybe von Grünewald's Christ, pierced hundreds of times, 
or maybe that startling bronze crucifixion by Floriano Bodini… This is God?  Looks entirely God-forsaken – which is a pitch-perfect way of speaking of it, since Jesus screamed in misery, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  So many Protestant churches suffer from adornment with slick, brass, polished wooden crosses that are allegedly empty - due to Easter?  The crucifix tells the deeper truth of God's heart.  As Rick Lischer put it in his memoir about his son's death (Stations of the Heart), when battling the cancer, they looked into a church and saw a crucifix - prompting them to know this was the place for them, for such a church, and such a God, "is not freaked out by death."

     God certainly gave us brains God would have us use in the life of faith; but the perils of being so smart and learned are many – perhaps especially for the clergy.  Martin Luther, when castigating some foe, loved to label him “Mr. Smart-Aleck.”  Anthony of Padua was one of Francis of Assisi’s most brilliant followers – but Francis was exceedingly wary of the life of scholarship, fearing that books and learning would become property to be protected, and would puff people up.  Finally and reluctantly, in a fascinating letter, he agreed to allow Anthony to pursue a life in scholarship, but only “on the condition that you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion.”

     Speaking of St. Francis, and the folly of the Cross: while most devout Christians have gazed at the cross and felt considerable relief that Jesus suffered in their place, Francis longed so deeply to be one with Jesus that he prayed, “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus, underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.”  And with that, a seraph flew toward him and burned wounds, the holy stigmata, into his hands, feet and side, which bled intermittently until his death two years later.

     If we ponder the cross, we try to choose among or amalgamate various theories of the atonement.  I love Robert Jenson’s remark (in Systematic Theology): “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back.  There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives.  The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours.  Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”  Wow.  Can the preacher simply trust the story, which has worked for centuries, instead of over-explaining it?

     Paul’s rhetoric about the hope in weakness, that God’s weakness is stronger than our strength (by light years, not an inch, and not by a last-second basket), then weakness might be the key to a great many things for us, including leadership – which is what I tried to explicate in my newest book, Weak Enough to Lead.  I address Paul in the final chapter, as Paul ingenuously plays on the weakness of the cross and his own, and how this is God’s true way of redemption in the world. 

     Before turning to the Gospel, I think it is worth passing along a word of encouragement to preachers that I cite at the end of Weak Enough to Lead; it is from Michael Knowles, and reminds me that we preachers need encouragement more than we need material: 
“The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity.  And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it.  Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work.  The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness.  Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God ‘who raises the dead.’”

     John 2:13-22 poses a chronological challenge. The Synoptics locate the cleansing of the temple early in Holy Week, while John sticks it in when Jesus is just getting started, shortly after attending a wedding with his mother.  People ask, What Would Jesus Do?  If the Scriptures supply the answer, it just might include overturning the tables of the religious and chasing people out of church with a whip.

     Jesus waltzed right into the temple, and in a rage that startled onlookers, drove the moneychangers out of the temple.  Was he issuing a dramatic memo against Church fundraisers?  Hardly.  Like the wine at Cana, this was a sign.  He was acting out, symbolically, God's judgment on the temple.  The well-heeled priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out to the Romans.  Herod had expanded the temple into one of the wonders of the world - but he pledged his allegiance to Rome by placing a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate.

     The people were no better:  a superficial religiosity masqueraded as the real thing.  Within a generation of Jesus’ ministry, that seemingly indestructible temple was nothing but rubble.  Tell your listeners about the massive Herodian stones in this wonder of the ancient world.  Help them imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the moment.  I once set up a bunch of little tables with coins on them and proceeded to turn them over as my sermon began.  I’m not sure anybody heard anything after that, but you never know…..

      Jesus was not the first to denounce the showy façade of a faked religiosity among God's people. Through the centuries, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and John the Baptist had spoken God's words of warning to people whose spiritual lives were nothing more than going through the motions, assuming God would bless and protect them even though their lives did not exhibit the deep commitment God desired.  God's prophets who spoke this way were not honored, but mocked, arrested, imprisoned, and even executed.  Jesus was courting disaster.
    If we ask, Why did Jesus die? many might answer, For our sins.  But then ask, Why did they kill him?  Look no further than this moment: Jesus shut down operations in the temple and forecast its destruction.  No wonder the authorities wanted to kill Jesus!  In a way, Jesus would himself become a kind of substitute temple.  The temple was the place, the focal point of humanity's access to God.  Jesus, like the temple itself, was destroyed, killed - and his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday, became our access to God.

     Here’s a preaching point, beyond the wonder of Jesus.  Jean Vanier points out the people then as always made an idol of money – which is at the heart of so many injustices.  Everything gets commercialized – even church.  James K.A. Smith has quite shrewdly described the modern liturgy of the mall, with its entrances and cues and communions.  Jesus wants all places to be holy, and we’d best start with the holy place.  Jesus wants all bodies to be holy – as Vanier suggests, Jesus, by purging the temple, “is also crying out against the desecration of the temple of our own bodies.”

     And Fred Craddock has helped us discern the connection to the wedding at Cana.  Both are on the “third day,” both are polemic against religion centered on ceremony.  But the difference: “In Galilee is the wedding; in Judea is the funeral.” 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What can we say come February 25? Lent 2

   The pairing of the Old Testament (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) and Epistle (Romans 4:13-25) raises an intriguing question when the NT directly interprets an OT text: would you rather preach on the OT, illuminating it via the NT? Or preach the NT, acknowledging the OT background? I’d almost always prefer working from the Old – and almost grudgingly allowing the New perspective some space, believing as I passionately do that the OT has plenty of legs on its own, and that the NT at times lops off the narrative richness of the Hebrew text and even jams a square peg in a round hole to make it fit the Christian dispensation – apart from supersessionist concerns!  I’m teaching Preaching the Old Testament, and the lead textbook is John Goldingay’s Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself – which pretty persuasively lays down the notion that very little is new in the NT (except for the incarnation and Holy Week realities – although even the theological thrust behind those is very present in the OT!).

    I preached on Romans 4 three years ago; you can watch here.  If the center of gravity of your sermon is Genesis, you have to stretch beyond the prescribed verses, which lops the story off a nanosecond before “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (verse 17!), which is pretty pivotal, not to mention the reiteration/repetition in chapter 18, which more vividly sets the encounter “by the oaks of Mamre; here it is Sarah who laughs, and the theological clincher, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” polishes things off in verse 14.  If I fix on Genesis, I’d want to tie the story together with the birth in chapter 21, and the irony/pun in the name Isaac (which means “laughter”…).

     Paul doesn’t improve on Genesis.  He omits key elements I’d preach on (the cruciality of hospitality, the mocking laughter/doubt, etc.).  Paul steers the story in a kindred but distinct direction – the whole business of faith in God’s promise, resting entirely upon grace.  The most grave peril here, well-corrected by N.T. Wright, is that we over-personalize or over-individualize what Paul is about, trivializing it into the simplistic question of How do I get saved?  Abraham sure wasn’t thinking how to get into heaven, and Paul has a far larger agenda.

     The question addressed here is not “How do I get saved?” but “How do I become a member of God’s people?” and even more: “How do I become a participant in God’s larger work of the redemption not merely of humanity but of all of creation?”  I remember being struck, as an undergraduate taking a philosophy course on Existentialism, by Paul Tillich’s understanding of faith as “ultimate concern” – which appealed to me enormously, as my only definition of faith prior to this was a mental assent to propositions about Christianity, and then scrunching up my face and devoting myself out of fear to get out of trouble with the God who cooked up the propositions. 
    And yet, not just any ultimate concern would qualify as the faith Paul is after.  N.T. Wright explains: “Paul has in mind a specific form of faith/not general religious belief, an awareness of the other/It was trust in specific promises that the true God had made.”  Admittedly, as a Methodist I am drawn to and accountable to Wesley’s “warmed heart” experience, which made doctrinaire dogma quite personal (for me!) – but really it’s for us.

   I do like Paul’s probing of Abraham’s old age: “He did not weaken when he considered his own body” (v. 19).  We can weaken even when young and fit.  I picked up a prayer card when visiting the lovely Bolton Priory in the U.K. – which included this prayer: “ “Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness ... for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed ... ”

   The hope business, as we see many weeks, is quite different from optimism – never more clearly than with Abraham’s hope, which is quite alien to sunny optimism.  Christopher Lasch distinguished this very well in The True and Only Heaven:  Hope is not the naïve thought that tomorrow will be better.  Hope has braced itself, and is thus prepared to cope if tomorrow isn’t better.  It may take some time.  And hope doesn’t depend on you and me getting our act together and fixing things, like optimism does; no, hope depends on God, not us.
  In all this, we come to the Gospel, Mark 8:31-38, where the God who hears, cares, and then comes down takes on flesh in Jesus is nowhere more puzzling or wonderful than in this very clear apogee and turning point in the plot of Mark’s Gospel.  The preacher needs to clarify for the people what all is at stake in this most pivotal of texts.  Years ago I stumbled upon an audio recording of Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Waiting (which I can’t commend highly enough… just hearing his voice…)  In it, he expanded upon the work of W.H. Vanstone’s profound book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he directs our attention to the peculiar plot of the Gospels.  In the opening chapters of each Gospel, Jesus is in control, he is an actor on the stage of history, dashing off miracles, wowing the multitudes.  Then, in the middle of the story, everything changes.  At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has ventured far to the north, then turns his face toward Jerusalem, explaining he will be “handed over” and suffer and die.  From this point forward, Jesus is pretty much passive, with only a minor miracle left to do, one now acted upon, no dazzling (except by the powerful vision of compassionate, suffering love).

     This stuns Vanstone and Lewis (and me too) – as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence – and we loathe any turn toward dependence.  I had a close friend with colon cancer.  A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.”  We shudder; we pity – but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life.  Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry.  But the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them.  Even his resurrection was passive:  he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him.  We age; our bodies "weaken."  Then comes our glory - which isn't ours, but that glory that reflects God's.

     Everything in us, especially as can-do Americans who cherish our independence above all else, rebels against and shrinks back from this.  No wonder Genesis 17 and Romans 4 are hard to digest.  But this is God.  Matthew's Peter (ch. 16), like us, chides Jesus for even thinking of such a path.  But Jesus says “Get behind me” – which, ironically, is precisely where we need to be.  We follow Jesus – and you can only follow from behind.

     You might consider Philippians 2 as background music to our text.  Paul explains God’s ultimate nature:  “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself” – and I concur with those who translate this not as although he was God he did this humbling thing, but rather because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself.  Jesus isn’t play-acting or pretending for a short time to be humble, vulnerable, and suffering.  Jesus shows us the very heart of God, God’s truest, most core nature when he turns his face to Jerusalem and gets mocked and gruesomely killed.

     And when he is in solidarity with all sorts of people. Marianne Meye Thompson wrote a great article in which she explains how "having the mind of Christ" isn't just trying to be like Jesus, but also identifying with the characters in the Bible on whom Jesus had mercy.  "Perhaps we need to learn not only to be like Jesus, but to be like the sinful woman, and like Simon Peter.  To have the mind of Christ is to hear what Jesus says about us and to us, to hear in his words to the woman his words to us: Your sins are many; your sins are forgiven; go in peace. We are the recipients of God's generous mercy and God's expansive holiness in Jesus Christ: we are the beneficiaries of 'the mind of Christ.'"  Our Gospel, and our Epistle, both draw us into a revolutionary way of being in the world.

     You see, Jesus uttered those words about turning his face to Jerusalem to be passive, vulnerable, and to die, not in a church or with a beautiful sunset in the background.  He was in Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to pagan deities for centuries, then more recently dedicated to the emperor, who was increasingly viewed and treated as a deity strutting the earth.  This artist's depiction of the city in Jesus' day shows temples to the Greek gods, to the emperor, affixed to the cave dedicated to the nature god Pan - which was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld ("and the gates of hell shall not prevail...").  Painting the physical place might help in a sermon; and the theology of the clash between the world's gods and the humility of the true God must be clarified.
 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!     


Friday, October 27, 2017

What can we say come February 18? Lent 1

    For Lent 1, the Gospel curiously retreats to Mark 1:9-15, verses that were split just last month between the Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany 3, two weeks later. I think the purpose is to fix on the little sliver that was skipped then, verses 12-13, Mark’s severely abbreviated narration of the temptation in the wilderness.

     You have to love his version, though. Jesus didn’t just traipse out to that rocky, daunting zone of the Judean wilderness. The Spirit (capitalized in many translations – but Mark doesn’t quite have a well-developed 3rd person of the Trinity!) drove him out there: the verb ekballo is picturesque, meaning threw or hurled him out!  And, as we’ve seen is so common for Mark, this happened “immediately.”  Such urgency – even on the Spirit’s part.  For 40 days Jesus was tempted (“tested” is better) by Satan – and then Mark adds what Matthew and Luke don’t: “and he was with the wild beasts.”  There are predators, scorpions, all sorts of dangerous creatures out there; but the image is that of an untamed creation in need of its Lord. He’s not alone: “and the angels ministered to him.”

     I totally get opening Lent with Jesus’ testing by Satan, but then I shrink back and wish for another text – primarily because I think we so easily misread what this text is about. As I share as often as I can (as in my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word), preachers trivialize and misread so much of Scripture by making it all about us.  So sermons are about my faith, my doubt, my serving, my prayers, my goodness, my future. But the Bible is primarily about God, and then about God's Church. Shouldn't preaching speak of God, then the church, and only inferentially then about us?
     With this pericope, the normal, predictable, and really wrong-headed sermon says Let’s learn from Jesus how to resist temptation. Mind you, Matthew and Luke provide more fodder for this. But the point of the story is that Jesus is amazing. Jesus achieves what you and I would fail at every time. Jesus resisted, and defeated the devil himself. This gives us hope – not to be great resisters of the devil, but that Jesus is able to save us. He is not our example (although to follow his example is always wise); he is our savior (precisely because we are incapable of following his example).

     It’s hard to “illustrate” Jesus’ temptations. It’s not “like” anything else, really. I love the way this is depicted in Nikos Kazantzakis’s wonderful and bizarre novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Every time young Jesus reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples.  He shrieked and fell down on his face.”  His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help. The rabbi shook his head.  “Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?” “Is there no cure?” the wretched mother asked. “It’s God, I tell you.  No, there is no cure.” “Why does he torment him?”  The old exorcist sighed but did not answer. “Why does he torment him?” the mother asked again. “Because he loves him,” the old rabbi finally replied.

     If you still want to attend to our resistance to temptation, then C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is always a handy, humorous, insightful guide. The irony, and keen psychological probing of the allure of what will undo us:  Lewis is at his best and most readable and homiletically useful.
     Lent shouldn’t be construed as a season of temptation – unless we’re thinking of what we’ve given up and its enticements. 
As a season of testing, we might be wise to encourage our folks (and you have to do this prior to Lent 1, which is already 5 days into Lent!) to pinpoint something that holds divine sway over the soul. Is it technology? Could we dare ask our folks to fast from iPhones and iPads for a season? – and thereby to discover the enslavement in which they hold us, the ways that when we are always available, we are then never available – to others or to God?

     We are inviting our people to ponder alcohol (and broader substance abuse). 

With supportive programming and small groups looking at mental health and faith, we are encouraging our people to give up alcohol for Lent – and then to take the money they would have spent on alcohol and collect it for our “Spirit fund” (get it?), which will be directed toward recovery ministries. The beauty of this (which we did several years ago) is it sparks countless valuable conversations. Why do we drink? To celebrate a good day? To deal with a bad day? To insure we have fun when we’re together? Doesn’t alcohol take the place for most of us that the Holy Spirit ought to play? And then we have people who simply drink too much, acknowledged or, more likely, unacknowledged. Without shaming, we dream of looking closely through Gospel eyes at the role alcohol plays in our lives and society. 
    The Old Testament, Genesis 9:8-17, is more hopeful – God placing a bow in the sky as a pledge of the covenant with Noah after he, his family, and the creatures have survived the flood. I’m a huge fan of the Russell Crowe Noah film, with its gritty, primitive, legendary feel. Lent, instead of being a horrific time of struggle, could be a season of repentance in the sense of turning away from struggle and into the gracious, covenantal arms of the divine mercy.

     Our Epistle, 1 Peter 3:18-22, is surely daunting. Christ died for our sins – reiterating what I said above about Jesus resisting the devil when we are unable, which is always, and thus being our savior more than our example. This business of Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison” is hard to exegete. Theories abound, but historically this has become the basis of Christ’s “descent into hell” between his burial on Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning – a doctrine that Karl Barth argued “need not be explicitly grounded upon specific biblical texts; rather, it must rely upon a reading of Scripture as a whole.”
 J.R.R. Tolkien certainly had Christ’s descent into Hell and combat against evil in the back of his mind when he devised the scene of Gandalf plummeting into the abyss battling against the evil Balrog.

    This descent provides rich preaching fodder – as seen in this excerpt from my book on preaching the Apostles’ Creed, The Life We Claim


Hell, we know, is not a fiery cavern down in the earth patrolled by red men with pitchforks.  Jesus’ journey there is symbolic, intimating that all people, in this life and even beyond this life, are offered the love of God.  Even the grave does not silence God’s call.  “What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message?  What is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who – perhaps through the fault of those very Christians who have been charged with its proclamation – have never come face to face with its truth?  Are all these delivered to damnation?  Do they remain forever shut out?  The Christian faith can say ‘no’ to this urgent question.  What took place for mankind in Jesus also applies to the people who either never came into contact with Jesus and his message, or who have never really caught sight of the truth of his person and story” (Wolfhart Pannenberg).  God is relentless, unfazed by time, space, or death itself.  Even the pit of Hell is owned by the unquenchable love of Christ; the abyss is not bottomless, but has an opening to heaven.  Or so many thinkers have argued, unable to make sense of the idea that God could love everyone with infinite power and wind up losing even one.  Perhaps Christ’s descent into hell opens a window for those who have never heard of Christ, or have heard it from terrible people.
   “In view of what Jesus had seen the last few days of his life, maybe the transition to Hell wasn’t as hard as you might think" (Frederick Buechner). Many theologians have claimed that Christ descended into hell the moment he cried “My God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross; “No more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God, and when you call upon him, not to be heard" (John Calvin). Jürgen Moltmann thought it really began in Gethsemane when Jesus’ request that the cup be removed was denied.

     Whichever side of the grave your Hell may be on, “there is no depth, no darkness, no unraveling of reality, which God’s Son has not shared” (Nicholas Lash).  No matter what Hell I go through, God is in the teeth of it with me, descending into whatever abyss I have fallen. And, if Jesus descended into Hell, then I as a follower of Christ, and we as the Church of Christ, must follow, and seek out those whose Hell is palpable and devastating, and we become the embodied love of Christ for those who think they are totally sealed off from God.
 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!