Saturday, December 1, 2018

What can we say August 4? 8th after Pentecost

     I’m unsure which text I’ll choose, or if I’ll try a pair. All three are suggestive. Hosea 11:1-11 was a text I weirdly fell in love with in college. Taking a great course from Prof. Carl Evans on the prophets, I was coming to understand the severity of the judgment articulated by Amos and Hosea in the 8th century. This text’s turn from judgment to tender hope was so moving – and then some friends at church were digging this Christian band called Lamb, whose song “Comfort Ye My People” picked up on themes from Hosea 11, and then “Ephraim” replayed Hosea’s words explicitly. I was mesmerized by the Hebraic-feeling music, and the content. I wonder how often in preaching your own personal history with a text can be the stuff of a meaningful sermon – as we really are inviting our people to enter into a personal history with a text.

   How revolutionary, this image of God as the tenderly loving parent, history recast not as the movements of powers, but as a parent fondly caressing a child. The child isn’t useful, but helpless. Can we visualize God teaching a wee one to walk, scooping her up in the divine arms, lifting an infant to his cheek. Hans Walter Wolff’s great commentary notes how Hosea was the first to use “love” for how God chose and sustained the people: “The first event in the life of young Israel worthy of report is that Yahweh loves him.”

    Mind you, Freud popularized a common critique of religion – that our desire for God as parent is nothing but wish projection. 
Rabbi David Wolpe’s rejoinder? “That we wish God to be a parent does not prove that God must be a purely human projection. We also wish that flowers bloom, that children laugh, that sunsets streak red on the horizon. Perhaps we do wish God to be a parent. Perhaps God obliges. We cannot be asked to discard a belief because it comforts us.”

    I love that. The child in Hosea 11 is recalcitrant – and know as you preach, someone out there has loved a child who has bolted. God’s swirling rage of emotion is riveting. The Ancient Near Eastern deities bickered among themselves over whether to toss down thunderbolts or show mercy. Yahweh carries on that debate within Yahweh’s own heart. The emotion embedded in “How can I give you up? My heart recoils within me…” can be repeated and left to linger in the room while you’re preaching. Let the words do their own work in your rebellious children! Wolff’s remarks are wise: “God is completely sovereign over his own actions. He, unlike men, is independent of his partner’s actions – not compelled to react. The future will be determined by Yahweh’s decision to let his love rule.”

   Hosea likens the Lord’s coming to a lion. I likely will turn to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe’s moment when Mr. Beaver tells Susan Pevensie about Aslan. She trembles, saying “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion. He’s safe, isn’t he?” Mr. Beaver: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.”

    Colossians 3:1-11. Our post-Easter logic might be “If Christ is raised, you live assured you’ll go to heaven.” But for Paul, if Christ is raised, “then seek the things above.” The resurrection is like a mind/heart transplant. You think differently; you fixate on heavenly/divine things. Your life is “hidden” with Christ in God (kekruptai rightly reminding us of the adjective “cryptic,” as there is something mysterious – to others and even to yourself – about this life in Christ). It’s hidden: your Baptism, your conversion is in the past, yet that hidden past persists in you now; and the future is similarly hidden, your fruitful life in the fullness of God’s kingdom – the fruitfulness which commences now.

   Paul’s imagery intrigues. Not “try to do better” but “Put to death” anger, wrath, malice (notice how what we are to avoid can we characterized as the “seven deadly sins,” which weirdly have come to embody the “good life” in America!). The execution in question would be to visualize nailing these problematical moods to the cross – sort of the inverse of what we cited last week from Austin Farrer: “What, then, was done to this body? It was stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross: stripped of all dignity and all possession, scourged with the stroke of penal justice, and nailed up like a dead thing while it was still alive. The body you receive in this sacrament accomplished its purpose by nailing to a tree. You are to become this body, you are to be nailed: nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.”

   Paul shifts rapidly from the nailing image to clothing. The stripping off and the putting on: used often in Colossians. We might think of later baptismal rituals and the symbolism of new clothing. I love that moment when Francis of Assisi, removed his chic, stylish clothing, returned it all to his father Pietro, and donned the shabby attire of the poorest of the poor. I suspect we could persuade the most diligent of our people to try every day for the next week to stop when dressing in the morning, praying in their closet (as Jesus suggested in Matthew 6!), and envisioning a putting on of Christ for the day.

   For us, we are in a summer series on the meaning of various acts of worship. The offering will occupy us this day – as the offering isn’t raising money for the budget, but a demystifying of wealth, the weekly, worshipful counter to greed and the outsized place money plays in society and in our hearts. Colossians 3, and the Gospel text both stand as deadly serious warnings against laying up treasure on earth – and thus paradoxical invitations to generosity.

    Luke 12:13-21 is one of those texts that is so easy to ruin in the explanation. Like a good joke, talking about it shreds its impact. I wonder about the sermon that has a bit of an intro, and then just lets the parable linger in the air for people to ponder. Where I live, very fine homes are purchased, and torn down, to build bigger houses. But Jesus isn’t blasting people for their tear-downs… or is he? There’s a larger issue, of course, with these bigger barns.

    The context is pivotal. Someone in the crowd says “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” My mother died in February – and in handling her various accounts, I felt weird, unanticipated emotions rising up regarding who got what, how much, and why. I’d bet plenty of people I’ll preach to have felt some weirdness around inheritances. Jesus’ warning is to be on guard against “all kinds of greed.” That’s worth exploring: maybe greed isn’t just a thing, but a complex thing. There are “all kinds of greed.” Differing greeds about money. Greed for me can be about time. What is it for you? What do you suspect are the “all kinds of greed” your people harbor in their souls? Maybe you ask in the sermon, and leave some time for them to reflect without over-naming it for them.

    Jesus humorously portrays the guy in his parable as talking to himself. Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington point out that “Interior monologue in the Gospels is not a sign of wise circumspection but of self-centered plotting.” A better translation might be “calculated.” This parable is, of course, a variation on Jesus’ theme that rarely elicits much attention from “The Bible is clear!” people. “Do not lay up treasure on earth,” which we are masters of doing, and explaining away. Interestingly, and in fine Wesleyan fashion, Saints Ambrose, Augustine and Basil all construed the building up of ever greater barns for my own possessions as theft from the poor. The preaching challenge is how to convey any of this without browbeating? How do we not let them wriggle out from the stark claim of Jesus’ wisdom without castigating them? We begin with finding the words to speak with oneself as the preacher, who owns a few barns of his own?

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