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. 


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