Saturday, December 29, 2018

What can we say May 3? 4th Sunday of Easter

   Wendell Berry’s famous “Mad Farmer” poem (too long to cite in full in a sermon, as I discovered when I tried it 20 years ago!) sums up all its memorable lines (“Do something that won’t compute, love the world, work for nothing, praise ignorance, ask questions that have no answers, plant sequoias”) with “Practice Resurrection.” Here is the Bible’s startling take on how to do so: Acts 2:42-47, hugely important to lay out for modern day capitalists, yet never in a chiding way. We aren’t likely to overturn the economy or convert our people into St. Francises. And yet the vision is God’s vision. And some form of this does actually happen, as with Shane Claiborne, Urban Monasticism, The Simple Way. Hard to think of sharing during Covid-19 distancing - and yet perhaps more important than ever?

  I suspect it’s important for the preacher to tease out the way that the “they sold their possessions and distributed to any in need” is intimately and inextricably related to v. 47, “and the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Any chance for the church to “save” people today must grow from the soil of what we do for those in need – and what are they being saved from? Hell? Their poverty? From their loneliness/isolation? The economics of earliest Christianity is worth attending to in preaching. Jesus and the disciples shared a common purse, and whatever property they had was left behind when they followed Jesus.

   Joe Fitzmyer points out that the early Christians called themselves koinonia before they called themselves ekklesia – a fellowship, a sharing before being an institution. He admits there is an idyllic element in this – “but it highlights the elements that should be part of genuine Christian life.”

   The first Christians, socially and personally, were filled with “reverent awe” (v. 43, which is Greek is “there was fear [phobos] in every soul”). I love the “one accord” (apart from the old dumb joke about the Christians riding around in Hondas…) – In “The First Noel,” the last stanza sings “Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord” (and Dan Forrest’s arrangement of this is particularly moving! – go to the 43 minute mark!).

   “Breaking bread form home to home” is worth noting. The early Christians had no church buildings, but met in various homes. “Those being saved” is a passive participle, so important: they weren’t saving themselves, or being clever enough to believe or good enough; it happens to them! F.F. Bruce points out “Jesus thus acquired more followers in one day than in the whole of his public ministry” – fulfilling John 14:12, that after he returned to the Father, they would perform greater works than he did!

   Psalm 23 is a great opportunity for preaching, albeit with the risk of yawns of familiarity. I blogged on it last year – and to that blog (featuring Evelyn Underhill, Shari Lewis, Sam Wells and - yes, pre-traumatic revelations! - Jean Vanier) I’d add Ellen Charry’s wisdom (in Psalms 1-50), linking the Psalm to Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you”: “Psalm 23 transforms that longing into a lush landscape of secure peace, safety and strength.” She also calls it “the answering word of deliverance to the mournful cry of distress in Psalm 22.” {Since we are pre-recording some elements of our online services, we are having differing voices of people in various outdoor locations read lines of the Psalm. We'll patch them all together - without being overly literal. No need for one person with a sheep, another in a valley, another by a stream!}

   1 Peter 2:19-25 can be jettisoned as byzantine to downright shameful theologically (as we know slaveowners quotes v. 18 to their slaves!). “Subordinate yourselves” is intriguing counsel, but it depends on where you’re starting from. In a marriage, you should – or you shouldn’t, depending on whether you’re abused or loved tenderly. This text’s view of Christ’s suffering is theologically interesting, as it’s not redemptive so much as simply an example of how to bear injustice. Do clergy dare ponder their mistreatment by parishoners as allied with Christ’s crucifixion?

   Here we see regular New Testament language of discipleship as “following in his steps.” St. Francis’s first biographers spoke of this constantly, how his life script was to walk around in the vestigiae of Christ. Easy to drape a WWJD bracelet on. Tougher to touch the untouchables, grate on political and religious sensitivities, and get yourself crucified. I’m not a vocal preacher on Jesus paying the price for our sins, as I can’t get it all sort out in my mind, and it sure is tough for cynics and doubters listening to me. 

   I did have an Aha! moment recently: George Adam Smith, in his eloquent 1897 commentary on Isaiah, avers that the Suffering Servant “made atonement” for us under the law. It’s all grace and mercy – so why the legal verdict? The law is good and true, and even in shedding mercy abroad, “homage must be paid to the divine law… By his death the Servant did homage to the law of God.” There’s a deep insight there. The law matters – and Christ paid homage to it by dying under the law, albeit unjustly.

   John 10:1-10 was my father-in-law’s favorite preaching text. The “abundant life” image pulsated through his preaching; his car’s license tag was personalized: “Live alive!” I love him, and this – although it’s risky, as this “abundant life” can be confused in Christians’ minds as happiness, or success, or the moral goods the world has to offer. The Greek “abundantly” is perisson, meaning overflowing – perhaps an echo of Psalm 23? I saw a marquis the other day that said “If someone asks if my cup if half full or half empty, I just feel lucky to have a cup.” If there is an overflowing, an abundance, it’s not things or other measurables, but a sense of God’s mercy, an at-homeness with God, a realizing of reconciliation.

   Jesus is the “good” Shepherd. The Greek, kalos, can imply “beautiful.” I love that – although I’ve tended to recoil at pretty paintings of Jesus as this mild shepherd. Real shepherds are rough and tumble guys, hollering at sheep with a switch in hand. The text asks us to imagine a small stone wall enclosure, with a gate, just an opening. If we think of God and gates, the booboo is to think we’re shutting somebody out or protecting ourselves. The gate is an opening to let people in! Are our church gates open? How do we think of the church anyhow? I like what C.S. Lewis did with that wardrobe in his Narnia novels: you step through into another world!

   Raymond Brown reports on the habits of some shepherds who sleep across the entrance to the fold, serving thus as both shepherd and gate! Brown also notes how Palestinian shepherds frequently have pet names for their favorite sheep, like “Long-ears” or “White-nose.” Lamb chop? Jean Vanier ponders this: “To know someone by name implies a growing understanding of a person, of his or her unique gifts and weaknesses, needs and mission in life. That means taking time with the person, listening, creating a mutual relationship of communion, revealing that the person is loved, has value and is precious.” Didn’t Isaiah 49 tell us that God has your name tattooed on the palm of God’s hand?

   Preachers always remember they are also shepherds. Vanier: “It is not easy to be a good shepherd, to really listen, to accept another’s reality and conflicts. It is not easy to touch our own fears and blocks in relation to people or to love people to love.” But then isn’t it the peril of ministry that we are always holding the door open for people to go in but maybe don’t get in ourselves? Do you know that “I Stand By the Door” by Sam Shoemaker? Every clergyperson should reflect on this at least once a year.
   My new book just came out! Birth: the Mystery of Being Born in the new Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series. I'm excited! Loved researching and writing it more than any book ever.

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