Friday, December 7, 2018

What can we say September 15? 14th after Pentecost

   The selection of texts. I love (vainly?) to say the lectionary imposes discipline on me – but then do I select the easy one among the weekly offerings? Luke 15 is far more palatable to preach on than Jeremiah 4. Does God want us to preach the tough one – tough for our people but even tougher for the clergy? And then I wonder, when weighing texts, if God doesn’t want one of them to be one we linger over and ponder, but don’t actually preach upon? 1 Timothy 1 might be a great gift to the preacher personally, not to be skipped over but relished. We're doing Luke 15 at my place - and we've come up with a cool idea of how to make it vivid for our people (see below).

    Jeremiah 4:11-28. I continue to wonder how to preach these texts (and both testaments have them, including right from the lips of Jesus!) which are straight up, severe judgment. I could just blast my people – and some days they tempt me sorely! I wonder about teasing out what happened back then (so, Judeans were going through the motions, didn’t parse their own waywardness or their external threats, so here’s how Jeremiah reported on what was in God’s aggrieved heart) – and then (1) get a tad sarcastic, like Thank God none of this applies to us! or (2) find the way to tremble and with utter humility and solidarity with the people say Friends, I’ve been lying awake this week, wondering if we aren’t grieving God’s heart in just this way.

   What a vivid image Jeremiah employs when he speaks of the hot, burning east wind. The theological nuance of the Hebrew is inescapable: it’s a ruach, same word as God’s creative wind, same word we render as God’s Spirit. In this case, God’s Spirit is dry, harsh, unbearable. Jeremiah is thinking of the sirocco, the violent wind that scorches from the Arabian desert to the east. George Adam Smith described it in his diary: “Atmosphere thickening. Wind rises, gale blowing air filled with fine sand, horizon less than a mile, sun not visible, grey sky with almost no shadow.” Thinking of this ungentle breeze, David Grossman entitled his harrowing book about the destructive violence of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis Yellow Wind.

    Is God like this sirocco? Does God unleash horrors on us out of the swirl of God’s wounded, grieved heart? Or is it that God created the world with an order that isn’t flouted without consequences – and so when we get sideways with God, there are terrors? Martin Luther distinguished between God’s proper work and God’s “alien work.” Wrath is simply the goodness, the grace of God, but how it comes at us when we are at a bizarre angle or entirely out of sync with God. If we pray for God’s Spirit, will it be a cool, life-giving breeze, or a harsh, burning wind of judgment? Are our social anxieties, our political issues, fretting over security, family division, international strife and injustices abounding all instances of the harsh east wind of God’s sorrowing over us? Can I tell this in a way that moves my people to repentance (which Jeremiah himself didn’t get done!)?
   1 Timothy 1:12-17. I have a curious attachment to this text ever since I was on a retreat years ago and somebody handed me a little card saying “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me trustworthy in making me his minister” – 1 Timothy 1:12. My gut reaction was “This translation must be out of kilter, or tendentious in some way.” But the sense is Paul’s, expressing surprise and gratitude that, yes, God chose me to be God’s minister. I have had hundreds of these printed over the years. I stick them in notes written to clergy, I hand them out when I speak at clergy events, and I keep one in my car, one on my desk, and one in my sock drawer just to encourage and remind me.
   I did hear a clergyman attempt what Paul attempts here. I didn’t know him at all – but heard him declaring at some length “I am a worse sinner than any of you.” Hard not to scratch your head and wonder what he was harboring inside… Sermon didn’t go anywhere good. I think Luke Timothy Johnson’s summary of the glory hidden in Paul’s manipulative language is helpful: “The mercy shown Paul was not simply forgiveness of past behavior, but the gift of power that enables him to live in a new way.”

   Luke 15:1-10 (which I preached on last time around): is this really the easy one? Jesus’ signature is all over this short text. On this text, check out InLighten, a series of short, outstanding, thoughtful films geared to lectionary texts. The video on this text is moving indeed: the story of a courageous woman seeking out God's children lost in trafficking.

I’ll never forget the evening we had my former coworker and constant friend Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor of Capitol Hill UMC in Washington, back for a program. I opened by asking her a question she didn’t know I would ask: Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story –that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us. 

    The sheep story echoes this. It’s not sufficient in God’s Kingdom to say, Hey, we have 99, that’s not bad. No, we even risk losing the mass in hand to search out the one that’s lost. 
I chuckle over the Mitch Hedberg comedy routine: you’re in a restaurant, and they call for the Dufresne family – but no reply. They move on to the next name – but Mitch wants to hunt for the Dufresnes: “They’re not only lost. They’re hungry.” The one sheep is lost, and hungry…

    Of course, this little parable tells us how to be the church. And it tells us about God – and we dare not miss the note of Joy in God’s heart featured so prominently. Years ago I heard someone I can’t recall preaching (isn’t this the way? – and a humbling realization for us who preach!) who used this evidently true story as an illustration. Several families were camping out west someplace, and as it was getting dark, when getting ready for dinner, they noticed a little girl named Cathy wasn’t there. Their search gradually became increasingly frantic as night began to fall. “Cathy! Cathy! Cathy!” everyone was shouting as they fanned out. Hours passed as their terror mounted. Finally, almost at dawn, someone stopped shouting “Cathy!” and got really quiet – and heard the soft sound of a whimpering child. There was Cathy, suffering from some bruises, scrapes and exposure. They took her to the closest hospital where she was treated, and then her family was home that night. Her dad tucked her into bed, kissed her goodnight, turned out the light and was about to close the door when he heard her voice. “Daddy?” “Yes, sweetheart?” Perched on her elbow, she smiled and said to him, “I bet you’re glad you found me.” He replied, “Oh, if you only knew.”

   Our idea for Sunday morning: we're going to hide (or semi-hide...) pennies all over the yard, parking lot and building for people to find (or not) - as in my sermon I'm going to tell what Annie Dillard reported from her childhood in Pittsburgh. As a 7 year old, "I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find.  I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk.  Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions.  After I learned to write I labeled the arrows:  surprise ahead or money this way.  I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe…  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?…  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days." 

 You might appreciate my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching. It's not an intro, here's how to preach book, but more on the preaching life, the ongoing task of keep the Word and yourself fresh and on point.

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