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. 

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