Thursday, November 30, 2017

What can we say September 23? 18th after Pentecost

   This superwoman, the uber-mom described in Proverbs 31 could evoke some sort of sermon – although I wonder if it’s a reading that inflicts some pain on the wife who never gets praised, the one abandoned, the one abused, or the mother whose children never rise up in gratitude. It’s in the Bible, so God wants us to read it. I for one will forego the challenge and preach either on a combination of the Psalter and the Epistle, or just the Gospel.

  Psalm 1. The editors of the Psalter positioned this non-prayer at the head of all the prayers as a signal to show us the sort of life that prayer and worship cultivate in us, and then the sort of life required for the prayer and worship to be fruitful. Translations lunge for “happy” instead of “blessed,” but “happy” is just too tinged with American pursuits and the trivialities of feelings to work well. 
It’s “blessed,” not like the absurd blessings imagined in Bruce Wilkinson’s atrocious Prayer of Jabez (God’s got a warehouse of blessings in boxes for you, you just have to back up your station wagon and pick them up…). It’s a life of peace, contentment, goodness, and hope.

   The company you keep matters. Church ought to be the village for raising our children, and for becoming wise, good people – but too often we become a self-righteous, gossipy enclave eluding the realities of the world and growing knottier and more inward instead of holier and more outward-looking. My repeated phrase lately is “If you only hang around with people like you, you become ignorant and arrogant.” At the same time, keeping the company of those striving for wisdom, goodness, holiness and a boundless passion to save the world? This will save your own soul.

  The Psalmist speaks of meditating on God’s law “day and night.” The very zealous Jews at Qumran kept someone up 24 hours a day meditating on Torah to fulfill this. For us? We can have Scripture on our minds at least a lot of the day – perhaps echoing what Dorothy Day said late in her life: “I tried to remember this life that the Lord gave me – and I just sat there and thought of our Lord, and his visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had him on my mind for so long in my life.”

    The image of the tree planted by water is unforgettable, simple, profound. The tree thrives not because of what we see above ground, but what is transpiring unseen, underground. Such a person “prospers” - which we mis-hear in our capitalist, upwardly mobile society. Again, in a subsistence level economy, it’s about living, at peace, having enough, being part of a community and contributing to it, and receiving from it.

     James 3:13-4:8a (skipping 4:4-6!), our Epistle reading, links beautifully to Psalm 1. How fascinating to contemplate the likelihood that this James is Jesus’ brother – and that he probably heard Jesus’ teachings, such as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), which are clearly echoed here! Did he, as he became familiar with Paul in the early years of the church, ponder Paul’s thoughts on the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), which also are echoed here! Fruit is being yielded. The Beatitudes, and the Fruit of the Spirit aren’t commandments (like Go be merciful! Go be patient!) – but beautiful portrayals of what a life well-rooted in Christ and the Spirit is like.

     Mercy, peaceableness, gentleness, wisdom, all so very counter-cultural, needing reiteration from the preacher, and tangible portrayals, as we get overstuffed with what James bemoans: ambition, disorder, wickedness, selfishness. Think of anyone you know, and maybe that they know, who fulfills in some measure James’s list of virtues. Tell a story. Or use this lovely quote from Mark Helprin (in Winter’s Tale): “Little men spend their days in pursuit of wealth, fame and possessions. I know from experience that at the moment of their death they see their lives shattered before them like glass. Not so the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. The world goes this way and that. Ideals are in fashion or not, but it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted, and uncorruptible. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty.”

    Jesus’ brother speaks of resisting the devil. But how? How do we know it’s the devil anyhow? There is a BS element to the devil’s assailings, and outright deception – probably saying what we want to hear. When is tough going from the devil and when is it from God? In Nikos Kazantzakis’s 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.

   Preachers must tell what people will hear no place else: there are evil forces (not our political foes or foreign powers) that are sneaky, and pervert the good and beautiful into the evil and tawdry. It’s silly but I think of Lewis Grizzard’s distinction: naked is when you don’t have clothes on; necked is when you don’t have clothes on and  you’re up to no good. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters will always be unmatched in wit and wisdom regarding the way we get undone by what is not of God.

   How to resist the devil? Thomas Merton, who suggested the devil wants, above all else, attention – is simply to pay no attention, to turn toward the good and beautiful. Someone else, can’t recall who it was now, wrote that we might think of jiu jitsu, where you use your opponent’s energy to undo himself – so we are still, we know God is God, and evil’s violent lunges whip by us and defeat themselves. 
Or we could do as Martin Luther did and hurl an inkwell (or was it what he was producing on the toilet?) at the devil.

   But then I love today’s Gospel reading, Mark 9:30-37. Jesus, once again, is explaining to them the way of the cross – and just like us, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” Afraid – that he would think they were slow? Afraid – that his talk might just implicate them in the way of the cross? Afraid – just why, really? Worth exploring in a sermon – and better to tease them with three good possibilities and leave them hanging instead of nailing down your one right answer.

   Notice Jesus didn’t reveal he knew their confusion on the road – and while they were on the road he didn’t let them know he overheard their chatter. It was only when they were back in the house (and this is that fabulous stone house archaeologists found in Capernaum with the graffiti proving it was the house! – marked now by the not to lovely church I’ve dubbed The Millennium Falcon) that Jesus asked “What were you arguing about on the way?” Again they were silent. Silence is golden! – and a great virtue in the spiritual life, and yet silence can also be an embarrassment, a cover up, a subterfuge to hide what God knows is in us.

    Typically, like so many clergy, and like the people to whom we minister, their impulse is to be “the greatest.” There’s nothing wrong with striving for excellence – and hearing about “the greatest” I get tickled by those famous Muhammad Ali quotes about being the greatest (the funniest two being “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am,” and “My only fault is that I don’t realize how really great I am”). The biblical assessment of greatness intrigues: you’re so great you’re a temple of the Holy Spirit, you mirror the image of God to others, you have an eternal, glorious destiny – so the problem comes down to being puffed up about the wrong things, and as the disciples put on exhibit in our text, competing, stepping on others, which is a thinly veiled insecurity and pathetic delight in crushing the other.
 God’s children don’t get crushed, and they don’t crush – reminding me of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quote of Sarah Grimke during her Supreme Court hearing: “I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks.”

    Jesus shows the way with yet another of his child sayings. This time it isn’t “become like a child” but rather “whoever welcomes a child.” I wonder about asking a random child to walk up and join me at the front – picking him or her up, and talking some about love, greatness, friendship, humility. Risky, but the potential is rich. Must be exactly what Jesus did that day in the house in Capernaum.


 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What can we say September 16? 17th after Pentecost

    I probably won't preach on Proverbs 1:20-33, but there's so much there, especially now that school has begun. People are striving to get good grades, to pile up knowledge, to be smart or even savvy. But where is wisdom?

 Our text personifies wisdom - who wounds like the town crier, or a street preacher.  Find the way to wisdom - which is very different from smarts and skills.  We might be haunted by personified wisdom's message - if we hear it (as God would have us hear it) as directed to our tawdry, superficial, rancorous society:  “Because you have ignored my counsel, I will laugh at your calamity." "Eat the fruit of your way, be sated with your own devices" - which we ravenously do, but to our disadvantage and ruin. The wise aren't richer or higher on the food chain - but they do live "without dread of disaster." 

     Were I preaching on this, I would examine the foolishness of our society, the strange and wonderful way to wisdom - and then find a few samples of people I've known who are wise. One man in my first parish had an exemplary spirit about him. A brick-mason by day, stellar church member on Sunday, and a paragon of wisdom always. I asked him his secret. He, not surprisingly, did not think of himself as wise. He did report that, when he got home from work, he had some chores, and then he ate dinner with his family, they talked about things from the day and in the world that mattered, and then, every evening: "I go down in the basement, and pull up a peach crate, and sit on it and just think for quite a while." I recalled the evening before how I had, after dinner, switched on the TV and surfed for a bit.

    Psalm 116 is a favorite - and was one of the songs Jesus and his friends sang at the Last Supper. But the lectionary lops it off after verse 9, foregoing some of the Psalm's very best lines. In the included section, though, we do have a preachable moment: "I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications." Not "because he answered my prayers" or "I love the Lord because he made my life smooth," but just "He inclined his ear to me." We hear a lot about people wanting to be heard - the downtrodden in society, coworkers who aren't in the power positions, children at home, a spouse who's lonely. Being heard: it's gold, it's at the heart of what Gospel living is about. I suspect being heard is the ironic key to what our Epistle reading commends regarding talking.

    Two items interest me in James 3:1-12, one for the clergy's personal reflection, the other with preaching potential. Jesus' brother interestingly declares that “Not many should become teachers.” I thought, in our Sunday School, with joint teachers in a room and rotations, we probably have 200! - and you can be one if you just sign up. This deeply troubles me - but what to do? James's reason "not many should teach"? Because: "We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” That thought would diminish our already semi-desperate sign-up schedule... but then I think of myself, and you clergy readers. We dare to teach - and so there is a more stringent judgment on us? Or does it work in a different way?
     In my autobiographical collection of "memories of God," Struck from Behind, I confessed that being in ministry has its pressures - and for the most part, I am grateful, as that pressure to behave, and that pressure to study God thoroughly, have helped me to be a little holier than I might otherwise have been. So instead of fretting constantly over the "fishbowl" (which I do at times), I try to be grateful for the additional, if ridiculous and hypocritical, accountability.

   James 3 will preach though - and it would be a word about our words.  What picturesque images: the bit in the horse's mouth, the tongue, a fire!  How we talk as Christians receives insufficient attention - and so the world is likely to think we talk either sweetly or meanly. Speaking well, speaking faithfully, speaking in a holy manner, speaking truthfully: these are incumbent on us all. It's light years from avoiding cussing or inappropriate remarks. We have Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lovely rule (from Life Together): never speak of someone who is not present. I have the Howell improvement on the Bonhoeffer rule, which is: never speak of someone who is not present, unless you are praising her, or him. 

   In premarital counseling, couples always tell me they communicate well - or want to. Communication, I suspect, while enormously important to any healthy relationship, won't in itself win the day. Some couples communicate quite openly - and wound one another. James's clever image captures the peril and opportunity: the tongue blesses, and curses. Sometimes, what we think is a blessing is actually a curse. A critical remark, masked as constructive helpfulness, can degrade. Saying I'll do it for you! might imply Because you probably would mess it up. Vapid talk about God, parading as piety, quite often takes the Lord's name in vain; consider all the chatter from various religious groups supporting guns or wicked politicians or policies that are loathsome to Scripture. 
   And then we come to the Gospel, the high water mark, the turning point in the narrative of Jesus' saving mission: Mark 8:27-38. Here's a sermon I preached on this recently.

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.  A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, a friend who was gradually losing his battle against colon cancer 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.

     Everything in us, especially as can-do Americans who cherish our independence above all else, rebels against and shrinks back from this.  But this is God.  We struggle when the 'normal' plot of life takes us from being active, control people to what feels like being reduced to passivity, say in a nursing home or confined to bed, depending on others. Jesus glorifies this way. Yet Peter, 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.

     In Philippians 2, 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.
     You see, Jesus uttered these 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.

Figuring out Jesus' true identity then reshapes ours. We, like him, find ourselves in losing ourselves, in sacrificial love, in donating our most precious selves to God and others.
     Everything in our nature and in society drives us into the self, to ask Who am I?  The riddle is only answered by learning the answer to Who is God?  Shortly before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “Who am I? This or the other?” – taking note of his cheerful disposition he presented to his jailers, while knowing inside he was impotent and weak.  The only way he could resolve the dissonance, and the struggle to be in horrific circumstances, came like this: “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

Images by Melanie Rogers, and Georges Rouault


 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What can we say come September 9? 16th after Pentecost

  Last week, I explained why I am fond of the likelihood that the author of James was the brother of our Lord. In this week’s text, he echoes the beatitudes (Matt. 5), and cites Leviticus 19, just as his brother did. In chapter 2, James gives us more on what “authentic religion” is – which might appeal to our culture, especially younger generations, for whom authenticity is the rage. How we treat, think about, and act around the rich, and the poor, is a test of authenticity. Most churches, and Christians flunk this test miserably.

   Churches, of course, are deeply segregated – not just by race, but by class. We might gripe about preferential treatment for wealthy, well-placed people – but if we find ourselves in the company of someone famous or wealthy, we get all chipper, so very polite and interested, preening, proud of ourselves for just being there. Tell a local story - or some experience of your own?

   All this is normal in our culture. But Christianity is a peculiar movement. Luke Timothy Johnson puts it well: “The assembly gathered by faith, says James, must act on the basis of another set of values. Those whom the world most despises are to be regarded, in faith, as heirs of the kingdom and therefore honored by the specific hospitality of the community: its greetings, its body language, its space. It is by this measure that the community is to be judged. Woe to the church that does not meet this measure of mercy, for it will face merciless judgment.” The preacher can hold up this text to ask, gently but clearly, some questions about our space, our body language… Yes, there’s pressure on wealthier churches (like mine), but no church can dodge the inquiry.

   How we fawn over the wealthy poses a spiritual crisis – and our doting on them might only be via gawking at the TV or gazing far down at the people with the choice seats at an event. Johnson reads James (rightly!) as suggesting that we wind up divided not only among ourselves but also within ourselves; the one who sees and lives into, even enviously, division is divided in soul.

   James’s text fascinates, in that it seems to allude to those who have been oppressed themselves suddenly becoming oppressors of others! Pheme Perkins explains this phenomenon pointedly: “They have learned from their oppressors, not from God! The tendency of the oppressed to adopt the behavior of their oppressors frequently emerges in revolutionary movements. The lowly may prefer the limited power they can exercise against others to the exaltation that comes from God.”

   The contrast of fake, thin, inauthentic religion with the real thing is nowhere better exposed than in this poetic piece I’ve heard over the years, with no idea of its origin: “I was hungry, and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger. I was imprisoned, and you crept off to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked, and in your mind you debate the morality of my appearance. I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless, and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God – but I am still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.”

   The litmus test of authentic Christianity is how we live with the poor – not, as Sam Well has pointed out so eloquently in A Nazareth Manifesto, what we do for them. We foolishly think Jesus is tickled when we, the haves, offer to solve their problems for them, because they are (in our usually unarticulated view) incapable.  Every encounter then reinforces their humiliation. Christians don’t send stuff to the poor. They are with them; they befriend them. Some quotables from Sam: “Altruism is not the goal.”  “Our purpose, our calling is to be with God and with one another.”  “There is no goal beyond restored relationship; being with is not a means to an end.”  “We do not sit and have coffee with a homeless person because we are trying to solve their problem.”  “Continue to see the face of Jesus in the despised and rejected of the world.  You are not their benefactor.  You are not the answer to their prayer.  They are the answer to yours.  You are searching for a salvation that only they can bring.”

   Again, a local story of being with the poor, of how all benefit when such friendships arise, is illustrative in the greatest sense of the word.

   A curious enactment of James’s principle is found in our Gospel, Mark 7:24-37, when his brother encounters the Syro-Phoenician woman – and frankly treats her quite rudely, shockingly to us. There must be some rationalization – right? Floyd Filson, in his 1960 commentary on Matthew, suggested that he winked at her when he spoke these words, implying insider status for this one. Or was it a clever ploy on Jesus’ part to evoke deeper faith in her, or those watching?

   Morna Hooker, noting how Jesus confined his attention to the Jews, suggested that “the Gentile woman requests a cure outside the context of Jesus’ call to Israel; she seems to be asking for a cure which is detached from the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, merely taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the presence of a miracle worker. This is perhaps the reason for Jesus’ stern answer; his healings are part of something greater and cannot be torn out of that context.”

   Joel Marcus is mindful of the history of bad blood between Tyrians and Galileans – and how the farm produce of Galilee so often wound up in Tyre, while the peasants in Galilee went hungry. So Jesus’ words make a bit of compassionate sense. Or should we suggest, as many have, that Jesus had a growing moment, a learning experience, a maturation in himself? Mistakenly, he turned her away – and her persistence cracked open a bit of hardness in Jesus’ Jewishness to leave space for a desperate Gentile? Depending on the height of your view of Jesus’ humanity, this may or may not work.

   Martin Luther examined this text and thought of the ways Christians are to persist in trusting God, even when God seems to turn his back on them. They must learn to see the ‘yes’ hidden in his ‘no.’  Much wisdom here – although the preacher dare not resort to trifling ideas such as those articulated in Garth Brooks’s crooning “Unanswered Prayers.”

   The Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence has recently been likened to the persistence of women right insisting on their place in the church. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became a popular slogan, t-shirt and hashtag this year. Persistence of all kinds is a biblical thing, falsifying the absurd notion of God’s will being associated with “the door was open.” Many open doors we most surely should not walk through. And many closed and bolted doors should be knocked down.

   I am fond of Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s probing sermon, “Crumbs” – cited in Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s great book, Prophetic Preaching. “Crumbs. That’s all they are looking for. Crumbs. Not the whole life. Not even a slice. Just crumbs. You and I want the whole loaf…” – and then she speaks of our wealth, access, all the poor lack. But then she presses further: “Crumbs. They want more than crumbs because deep in their souls, they know they deserve more. And yet they often do not know who to ask or how to ask…”

   The second half of the Mark reading has its own possibilities – with its echo of Isaiah, and the inspired music of Handel. The Aramaic word, miraculously preserved, ephatha, has been used in many baptismal liturgies. The priest touches the ear of the infant and asks that it be opened. We should redo such a prayer for ourselves daily – so we might hear God. The “prayer for illumination” before the sermon: open our ears, O Lord (and do we pray before the sermon? or before the Scripture reading? or at the very opening of the service?).
 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

What can we say September 2? 15th after Pentecost

     Let me share some thoughts on the Old Testament, more on the Epistle, and then a sentence or two on why I’m bailing on the Gospel text.

     Church people aren’t familiar with the Song of Solomon, which might help them understand romance, tenderness, and intimacy – and in a canonical context, if there is such a thing. I love it that the romance involved is about yearning more than possession – and just as we’ve lost the yearning for God, we’ve lost what it is to yearn for another. Romeo & Juliet still got it: “Parting is such sweet sorrow” – but he goes home. In a remake of such a moment today, he’d climb up the trellis and they would get it on. With God: it’s not the possession, but the chase, the absence, the longing. We need a revival of the Cappadocians.

    I had the privilege of sitting in a small doctoral seminar with Roland Murphy, who was then writing his Hermeneia commentary on the Song. We dissected the original love poems, and he invited us then to explore profound theological reflections from Origen, Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux. They preached on the Song, as we might. It’s about relationships among lovers – which the church is prudish or silent about; and by allegorical extension, it’s about believers (really the church) and God.

     Today we are extraordinarily blessed by not one but two fabulous commentaries on the Song that hear the human romance but simultaneously the dance of God with God’s people: Paul Griffiths (Brazos) and Robert Jenson (Interpretation) – both simply delicious, provocative reads. Jenson (with a Barthian flair) counters the idea that we know human love and therefore can infer things about divine love: “Just the other way around… Human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.”

    In our lectionary sliver of the book, 2:8-13, the woman hears her beloved’s voice – but cannot see him. Yet she senses he is coming, and gracefully. This hide and seek, peeking carefully, is compared to gazing through small lattice windows in the wall, trying to get a glimpse of his coming – and then in the verse after the lection ends, we read about doves in the clefts of the rock. We can visualize this: at Masada, we can see dovecotes, columbaria, little niches where the doves nestled in. The Romans had used these for burials, but the Jews, under siege, reused them for life, for the doves – beautifully portrayed in Alice Hoffman’s novel, The Dovekeepers.

     All of this could prompt a lovely, thoughtful, artistic sermon, nothing prosaic, a bit of a tease but on solid foundations in our tradition: we can hear God but can’t see God; we yearn for God’s coming; we look for small hints and glimpses, the openings of Scripture or worship, which let the light in our self-walled-in lives – and the instruments of death are transformed into homes for life. And it’s deeply emotional, thrilling, cutting to the core of your being.  I’m going to have to do that long series on the Song of Solomon that I’ve dreamed of since graduate school.

     But for this Labor Day Sunday, I’m going with James. I understand questions around authorship, but am fully persuaded (as I deeply wish to be!) by Richard Bauckham (maybe the smartest guy I’ve known) who makes the case that this James is the brother of our Lord. When skeptics tell me Christianity is hogwash, my best counter is that his brother, who could easily say He’s just a guy, believe me, he stole my toys and got to drive the donkey cart before I did… became an apostle, a leader of the church, losing his life because of his firm belief that Jesus was the Messiah, his brother but really God’s Son, raised from the dead.

     James 1:17-27 is a bountiful text, beginning with lavish praise of God’s goodness. The NRSV confounds me: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above”? The NIV (which a friend jokingly calls the “nearly infallible version”), “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” is good, and the RSV is better in terms of the Greek: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The CEB, of which I’m no fan, performs well here: “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.”

   The preaching points in this one verse are many. God’s lordship of the stars, sun and moon counter pagan religions which saw astral objects as deities. St. Francis’s Canticle understood how his intimate relationship with God forged an intimate bond with him and all creation: “Brother Sun… Sister Moon.” The primary debunking of pagan religion though comes in James 1:17’s insistence that only good comes from God. Researching my Will ofGod book, I was stunned at how many lay people hear so many preachers trying to explain why God does evil things – giving us cancer, causing car wrecks, shoving you into a broken marriage, all for trumped up, theologically stupid and perilous reasons. The truth on this must be reiterated, over and over and over. God is good, all the time. And God is not moody or capricious, like the pagan deities. Kate Bowler has eloquently reiterated all this in Everything Happens for a Reason, and other Lies I've Loved.

    After regaling God’s immense, reliable goodness, Jesus’ brother shifts in verse 19 from words about God to human words. How do we talk? Doesn’t the church, now, in this hostile political climate, need a primer on how Christians talk? And even on what feelings they nurse in their souls? Anger is not of God, and becomes a barbed wire barrier between us and God. Being slow to speak might mean we listen, not reckoning with what to say next, but really listening – and maybe switching off our gadgets so we can be “quick to hear” others and God.

    Verse 21 speaks of “putting away” or “ridding ourselves” of all this junk. The Greek very, apotithemi, means literally to take off your clothing. I’m reminded of the early church’s baptismal practice of the converted shedding their old, dirty work clothes, descending into the pool for baptism, then emerging to be clothed in a pure white robe. I’m also wondering if the change might actually be clothing!  St. Francis changed his clothes when he got serious about following Jesus. What do we wear, or not wear, out of our devotion to Jesus?

    And there’s that great moment when a wealthy Hindu woman came to Mother Teresa offering aid. During the conversation, she admitted how much she loved beautiful saris; in fact, she spent 800 rupees each month on a new sari. Mother Teresa, whose distinctive white cotton sari with a blue stripe cost 8 rupees, thought this the place to begin. “Next time, when you go to buy a sari, instead of buying a sari for 800 rupees, you buy a sari worth 500 rupees and with the remaining 300 you buy saris for the poor people.” More than the shifting of money was at stake; the elegance of a sari was a symbol of a woman’s status, her notch in the caste system. But the woman did it, and over time came down to paying just 100 rupees for her sari, giving the rest away. Teresa urged her, “Please do not go below 100!”

    One of the highest compliments I ever received was from a church member who said “Your tombstone should say ‘Be doers of the word, not hearers only.’”  We do live in a culture where we get both halves wrong. Some do and do but never get close to Jesus’ heart; others are swooningly spiritual but don’t engage with people in need at all.  Jesus’ brother says to be (or really “become” – the Greek is ginesthe, implying continuous doing or becoming) doers.

     This rankled Martin Luther, who dubbed James the “epistle of straw.”  I’d counter by saying straw has its important uses – including perhaps in the manger where the baby Jesus was laid. Richard Bauckham explored the seeming but insubstantial conflict between James and Paul by saying “When James says that justification is by works he does not have in mind at all the works of self-reliance which compromise faith. Beneath the surface of disagreement, there is a deeper agreement…” He imagines a conversation between James and Paul: “There would be much nodding of heads and smiling agreement, as well as some knitting of brows and some exclamations of surprise.”

     The Gospel, Mark 7:1-23, with all this about handwashing (which really is pretty important) and dishwashing (also important) – and his thought that “Nothing outside can defile,” which is patently false: all this leaves me baffled over how to generate a reasonable sermon. I’ll stick with his brother, or that love poetry.

My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

What can we say come August 26? 14th after Pentecost

    This week’s Gospel concludes our intriguing five week run on the 4th Gospel’s extended narrative of the feeding of the 5,000, which I’ve covered in general, and including details for this week’s thoughtful conclusion, in my blog on John 6.
  The Old Testament, 1 Kings 8:22-30, 40-43, helps us envision to dramatic production that was the completion of, entry into and dedication of Solomon’s temple. The construction of this fabulous edifice must have dumbfounded the small band of citizens in this fledgling nation. The ark was brought from the city of David (where exactly was it stored?) not far up to the crest of Mt. Zion to the new temple. In what feels like theological propaganda, the moment was so stupendous a cloud of glory descended that was so thick the clergy couldn’t carry on their ministerings.

     What is even more self-evident propaganda, we read Solomon’s prayer – which feels a bit bombastic. After getting off to a solid start by praising God at length, Solomon’s real subject comes into view: himself, and his lineage.

     I’d suggest two preaching angles. (1) As you may have done just last week, fix on the tension between the high-mindedness of what may have been theological BS and the more tawdry political reality hiding in plain sight. Verse 27, for instance, is exciting and promising theologically: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” But G.H. Jones was prompted to observe, “This does not fit well into its present context.” Indeed. We find here a tension between lofty dream and hard reality, which is what we have in every nation, every denomination, every church, and even every individual. Jerome Walsh says “Solomon’s speeches contain a rich and sophisticated theology” – and yet, “On the other hand, the words the narrator puts in Solomon’s mouth suggest two less attractive characteristics. The first is his self-absorption… The second is Solomon’s apparent obliviousness to his own responsibility for obedience,” which is pathetic to non-existent.  We might find fault in a politician, or even in denominational leadership – but the fault line runs through all of us, requiring mercy, healing, better behavior, and then way more mercy.

    (2) It might also be a helpful approach to re-introduce the concept, forgotten, neglected or downright bizarre in our culture, of a holy place. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence” (Habakkuk 2:20). Annie Dillard asked if we should wear crash helmets to church… and Amos Wilder picturesquely spoke of the sanctuary as a chamber next to an atomic oven. Reverence, awe, a real belief that a holy, awe-some God, not sung about in chipper tones, but the kind of God that makes your knees tremble: this is worship, this is sacred space, which is a time-honored and faithful way to love, believe in and serve God.
   Our Psalter reading undergirds this notion of a holy place that makes your jaw drop. “How lovely is your dwelling place,” not surprisingly set to music in grand ways by Brahms and many others. Pilgrims would sing this Psalm while they travelled in their caravans toward the holy city for the great festivals. The emotional, deep-souled yearning and rush of emotion are stunning – as is the radical hospitality of the place, embracing all of creation: “Even the sparrow finds a home.” We might want to swoosh the sparrows away – but all are welcome in the Lord’s house. Jesus pointed to plain birds and wildflowers, promised God’s tender care, pointing out that “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like these” (Matthew 6:29).

   I may explore this idea that “Blessed are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion.” I was born in Savannah, Georgia, where we lived until I was 7. Never was back there until a few years ago I had a wedding – and found myself quite sure that Oh, my elementary school is to the left a couple of blocks, and This is the way to the beach, and My friend David lived over there. The roads, the ways, were deeply imprinted on my heart. What would it mean for the ways to God – maybe the roads to the church, or to an old church your grandparents took you to, or the more metaphorical ways, the prayers or devotional books or Bible verses or hymns that once took you toward God are embedded in the map of your soul, and you can always find the way there, even if you’re not there?

    And then our Epistle reading, Ephesians 6:10-20. Thielman explores the idea that our passage borrows elements from the pre-battle speeches that generals gave to their soldiers to encourage them to fight bravely. So many were familiar to the public in the ancient world, and we have even more: Shakespeare’s version of the king’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech rallying the troops before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 in Henry V, Churchill’s unforgettable World War II speeches (“Victory at all costs,” “We shall fight on the beaches,” etc.) and President Whitmore’s July 4 speech in Independence Day. I always suspect preachers would preach more fruitfully if they mimicked and practiced such rousing techniques.

    Paul’s rousing words feel militaristic – but are they? Do they really support the talk we hear among some Christians about “spiritual warfare”? or does Paul envision a non-militaristic sort of struggle that isn’t triumphalistic? We put on the armor (the Greek word really is panoply!) – not the first time Paul has used getting dressed as his controlling image: Colossians 3 advises we put on meekness, kindness and forgiveness.  Paul saw Roman soldiers everywhere, so we can understand his use of the image – or did he have old Goliath in mind? 

    Is Paul telling us how to fight? Or what we do instead of fighting? Isn’t his panoply non-metallic, non-harmful, and even non-protective? Paul, after all, writes as “ambassador in chains” (v. 20). When I read about the girding about the waist, I think of the cincture I wear with my alb on Sundays – a symbol of my being bound and tied and committed to Christ, but also a recollection of St. Francis of Assisi donning the garb of the poor. How was he armed when he marched off to the Crusades? At the battle of Damietta, he walked across no-man’s land, barefooted, unarmed, laughably vulnerable – so very oddly that the Arab soldiers re-sheathed their sabres and took him to the sultan, with whom Francis became a friend. The whole image of being “armed” with “peace” is paradoxical – which had to be Paul’s very point.

   A sermon could explore this being “an ambassador in chains.” Charles Colson, Watergate burglar, found out that “I can work for Him in prison as well as out.” Paul and Silas sang at midnight and impacted their jailer profoundly (Acts 16). Sojourner Truth spoke boldly and prophetically as a slave, famously asking “Ain’t I a Woman?” (the dramatic moment captured in a striking song now by Sarah Howell).

   In the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King asked, “What else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?” – and write a famous letter?

    Consider Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, which envisions St. Thomas More in Henry VIII’s prison, explaining to his daughter why he wouldn’t back down: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands.  Like water.  And if he opens his finger then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Or think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s stunning ambassadorship in prison – his remarkable writings, but also his compelling behavior, which moved the guards and fellow prisoners.

   Paul reminds us that what we are dealing with are the “wiles” (the Greek is methodeias!) of the devil. Christians are wise to contemplate the sneakiness, the trickiness, and seductive deception that is the work of evil in the world. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters captures this in humorous and telling ways. Someone (it gets attributed to lots of people) said “The devil’s greatest wile is to persuade us he does not exist” – but then Thomas Merton countered by suggesting that the devil wants to get credit for everything since, what the devil wants above all else, is attention.


My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.