Thursday, February 27, 2020

What can we say April 11? Easter 2

   1 John 1:1-2:2 is (to me) underrated, as it’s one of the truly remarkable passages in all of Scripture. A high-minded yet utterly realistic sequel to the opening of the Gospel of John, which also hearkens back to the “beginning.” The Word that was “made flesh and dwelt among us” is testified to here: “what we heard, saw, touched.” Is this eyewitness testimony? From people who were in literally physical contact with him? Richard Bauckham’s hugely important book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, his painstaking, detailed explanation of how our stories of Jesus most clearly derive not from novelists or fantasy-mongers, but real people who saw, heard and touched.

   It’s not OK, he was real, but his mission and theirs is “the word of life,” and the ultimate goal, “so you may be in communion with us.” The Greek koinonia is narrated in Acts, where the first Christians held their possessions in common, and cared for the needy all around. Way more than “fellowship,” the kind church people rightly enjoy where they delight in seeing one another – the big loss during the pandemic! It’s welcoming the stranger, friendship among the unlikely, sacrificial sharing – in short, our relationships being mirror images of God’s with us, and the only meaningful result of God having koinonia with us. Isn’t Psalm 133 the perfect lectionary fit for today?

   Quotable, this Epistle text! “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Switch on a light or a candle and see how the darkness flees. Less cherished are other quotables, like “If we boast to be in communion with God while walking in darkness, we are liars.” Verse 1:9 explicates forgiveness, and we needn’t bother with the fineries of what is expiation vs forgiveness vs cleansing, as we’d best first and lovingly persuade our people that it isn't so much that they have a problem, like Apollo 13 hurtling without fuel or air in space – but rather, they are a problem, savable not by human ingenuity though but only by divine intervention. The rescue is the death of the person we saw, heard and touched – and the Calvinists’ TULIP will struggle to explain away the seemingly unLimited atonement in 2:2: “not only for our sins but also for the whole world.” That’s worth quoting, and pondering. We yearn for – and can expect! – forgiveness, not for me, or those I love, but the whole world?

   John 20:19-31 has a liturgical feel. They gather, a blessing is uttered. To fearful people behind locked doors (pandemic-like?) Jesus speaks Peace into their fear – and hopeful and hard-to-believe word for us obsessed with locks, security systems, urban anxiety, even the proliferation of guns). There’s even a civilizational kind of fear well described by Walter Brueggemann: all people fall into 2 categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if for a moment, find some common ground.

   There is no fear near Jesus – but this doesn’t mean you can relax. Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out:  a big assignment is on the way.”  Jesus comforts with one hand and then shoves them out into hard labor and danger with the other. These disciples, and ours today, have work to do, requiring courage, and some peace.

   How lovely and fitting that Jesus doesn’t criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves. He reassures, turning their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. His wounds are his love. Every time I work at this text, I go to Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, who posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini… because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Earned scars, earned through the enfleshing of love.

  I’m fond too of the insight Graham Greene shared in The End of the Affair.  A woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall.  The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”

   The scars in Jesus’ hands and side, earned when he gave life to all of us, were not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Caravaggio painted it graphically. I love that Jesus shows up, not as powerful but as the wounded one. The wounds are his glory. What do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns”? Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. 

   Jesus breathes on them. Fascinating – especially after the pandemic. Of course we are to think of God’s breath giving life to the first humans (Genesis 2), and the reviving of the dead nation during the exile (Ezekiel 37), not deadly with the Coronavirus, although deadly perhaps to sin, self and a vapid life. I like to ponder that, for Jesus to breathe on them or anybody, they’ve got to be standing close, right next to him. Is discipleship just sticking as close to Jesus as possible, to feel his breath?

   I’m wary of sermons that get fixated on “doubting” Thomas. It’s a thing; I’m unsure if it helps parishoners if the clergy say “I have doubts too!” At most I’d want to celebrate doubt, which isn’t a failure of faith but asking darn good questions. Mark Helprin, in Winter’s Tale, writes “All great discoveries are products as much of doubt as of certainty, and the two in opposition clear the air for marvelous accidents.” Robert Penn Warren wonderfully said “Here, as in life, meaning is, I should say, often more fruitfully found in the question asked than in any answer given. 

  And then Simone Weil: “One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth… Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

   My doubts are less about the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ, but rather about the possibility of forgiveness or the reality of miraculous transformation! – which seems to be what this text is ultimately about, and what Easter in the Bible is entirely attentive to. Jesus is risen, so therefore – you are forgiven, and you go forgive. Startling. If I tell stories of forgiveness, the Amish at Nickel Mines, Pa., or Corrie ten Boom and her sister's executioner, will anyone believe?

**
  A good Easter season and summer study for pastors and people? My Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, probing the meaning of acts of worship and how they linger and matter for our people out there.

What can we say April 18? Easter 3


  How do we get Easter to feel like a season, not just a day? We can invite our people to live into the earliest days of the church, the confusion, then inspiration and buzz of missional activity in the wake of this shock of all shocks. But it’s not a smooth road, is it? Acts 3:12-19, one of those bizarre “Old Testament” readings the lectionary strays into, has dreadful anti-Semitic overtones: “You Israelites killed Jesus.” Daniel Silva’s most recent novel, The Order, is terrific with how the New Testament has fed and still feeds negative sentiment toward Jews. Yom HaShoah, the annual Holocaust remembrance day, was just one week ago...

   Early, post-Easter Christianity thrived because of the exchange and circulation of letters. 1 John 3:1-7 is so lovely. A preacher could ruminate on various aspects of it for weeks. “See what love.” We forget that God’s love isn’t a heavenly mood beaming down on us. It’s historical, real, something visible. “See”: not just glance at, but look, peruse, survey, study. “What love”: the Greek potapos expresses both quantity and quality, so how much love, but also what amazing love, agape love.

  “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” It has been revealed, but not really, not fully. Clearly resurrected life for us won’t be a pleasant continuation of all we’ve dug on earth, golf with regular holes-in-one or, as Tammy Faye Bakker fantasized, heaven as a shopping mall where you have a credit card with no limit. There, “we will be like him.” What was Jesus like? That’s ultimate humanity, your truest self, what you’ll be like… but then John adds, “For we will see him as he is.” I can’t explicate that sentence well enough. I think in my sermon, I’ll just repeat it, slowly, two or three times, and let it linger. For. Seeing him will… make us like him?

   Maybe the beauty of Jesus, the reality of his compelling self, will capture our attention and other interests will just melt away, as we’ve come upon this pearl of great price. This must have been what happened to those fishermen whose family business, Zebedee & Sons, fell apart when they saw Jesus, whom they’d never seen before, and dropped everything to traipse off after him, to go… well, where? They had no idea.


   Luke 24:36b-48 feels like some scribe, fond of John’s Gospel and a tad disappointed by Luke’s version, spliced in a periscope so much like John 20! Suddenly Jesus appears in a room (not that much unlike his behavior at Emmaus!). They aren’t comforted, but startled, terrified. He invites them to look at and touch his hands and feet. I love Sarah Ruden's new translation: "Look at my hands and feet, and you'll know it's me, in person. Feel me over and see, because a spirit doesn't have flesh and bones, as you can observe that I have." 

   It's the scars. Robert Barron, commenting in the lovely new The Word on Fire Bible: "A woundless Christ is embraced much more readily by his executioners, since he doesn't remind them of their crime." So the scars remind of the forgiveness they need (and that he gives). Barron goes on to point out the plot of history and the world: "Order, destroyed thru violence, is restored through greater violence." (Think Rambo, Dirty Harry). Jesus undermines all of this. The scars remind he's not returning a greater violence for ours.

   Last week’s blog explored the scars in John 20: Every time I work at this text, I go to Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, who posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini… because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Earned scars, earned through the enfleshing of love.

   I’m fond too of the insight Graham Greene shared in The End of the Affair.  A woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall.  The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”

  The scars in Jesus’ hands and side, earned when he gave life to all of us, were not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Caravaggio painted it graphically. I love that Jesus shows up, not as powerful but as the wounded one. The wounds are his glory. What do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns”? Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. 

   His wounds - glorified. Beauty.

   Jesus showed his scars. St. Francis of Assisi, who prayed to be like Christ so seriously that God actually answered his prayer by wounding his hands, feet and side, hid his wounds out of humility! The humility of the risen Christ? He’s hungry – and they give him a piece of broiled fish. Eat some broiled fish in preparation to preach. Report on what it tasted like, and what that might have been like for Jesus, and the astounded disciples. Who could have anticipated that over time the Greek word for fish, ichthus, would become a widespread acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior? I might just play with this in my sermon. Jonah and the fish. God creating the fish. Jesus retrieving a coin from a fish’s mouth. St. Anthony of Padua, following St. Francis’s example of preaching to birds, preaching to fish, encouraging them to be grateful to God for water, gills, food, that they survived the flood in huge numbers, and found their way onto the boat of the disciples just after they saw Jesus – in John again!

**
  A good Easter season and summer study for pastors and people? My Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, probing the meaning of acts of worship and how they linger and matter for our people out there.

What can we say Easter Sunday?

   For me, preaching Easter Sunday is tough, frustrating. Pre-Covid, we had mobs of people, most of whom I don’t know, or vaguely know, for whom it’s important or fun or cute or whatever to come on Easter. I’ve dinged them some years – but that doesn’t help them. Glad they came – but can I call them into semi-deep discipleship? I can’t say I’ve preached the sermon that has gotten this done – although a few each year return for a while.

  Before looking closely at Mark, there’s this: I’m wrestling this year with a terrific little book by Kavin Rowe called Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope – which I’d commend to you, although it raises enthusiastic hope while it deflates me a bit. Rowe points out the alarming, shocking, startling news that original Christianity was – but how to recover this mood? “If Christianity is anything at all like what the early sources claim it is, then woe to us if we forget its power, making it boring, and lose its surprise. Human life is just too hard to have a boring Christianity.”

   Indeed, we’ve (clergy included!) reduced Christian faith to sentiment, personal preference, a voluntary society, a personal boost, a ticket to heaven, whatever…. It’s worth re-claiming, maybe at Easter, that before Christianity, no one thought of all people as of equal value, no one took care of the destitute, no metanarrative about everything, much less one supremely focused on just one person, with power over life and death and the hope of people and all of creation. Rowe engages with Charles Taylor and his thick, wise, important, and yet dense and almost inaccessible book, A Secular Age, which expounds over 900 pages his primal thesis that secularism is marked by the need, desire and necessity to find meaning within me, in my own life – versus finding meaning outside me, beyond human interactions and achievement. That pretty much nails it – and I bet anybody showing up at Easter is craving something, anything beyond the secular, beyond what we can muster for ourselves.

   Rowe notes the shock of Easter: “The power of the resurrection to provide hope has nothing whatsoever to do with being positive in the face of death, or fooling ourselves about our fragility and the fragility of what we love…. Our obedience on this side of death is ultimately good only because we will live, as does Jesus, with God on the other side of our deaths… God’s power at work in the resurrection of Jesus makes more out of crucifixion than was there to begin with. It is re-creation, it brings surplus-life.”

   He’s right: to recover any sense of the surprise, the mind-boggling reversal of the known world, our “re-learning will require un-learning.” Eternal life as automatic, as natural, holiness as determined effort to be pretty good, any sense that we are okay, that our political ideology just might deliver the goods, that diversion works: we have to walk our people, lovingly, calmly and yet confidently, into a shedding of cultural spiritualities and ideologies that can’t finally deliver into the stunning (even to us!) realities of resurrection.

  {On this business of "surprise," I'd commend to you Jason Byassee's Surprised by Jesus Again, in which he interprets the Bible "as a mystery of seeking to be surprised by Jesus again. Historical criticism tries to read without surprise. All the evidence is in... Robert Jenson said the difference between a dead god and a living God is a dead god can't surprise you."}

   The lectionary gives you the option of John vs. Mark. As we’re in the year of Mark, let’s go with chapter 16, peculiar as it might be. How weird: if we allow that verses 9-20 are a later addition (and we should hope so, or we need to practice handling snakes), then Mark’s book ends with a preposition, gar, for. No way to end a sentence, much less a book! Dangling. Everything feels incomplete, left hanging. Yeah. That's Christianity, not done, tied up in a ribbon, but incomplete, ongoing. The rest of the story is... today, tomorrow, my life, our church's mission. I'll play on this, noting how desperately people want to "get back" - to church, to normal. It's moving forward into, well, we don't know what just yet....

   Then the negatives, literally “Say nothing to no one.” No way to spread the Good News, being quiet. Easter elicits a lot of noise in our worship. The first Easter elicited silence. Jesus is risen. So, shhhhh. Be still and know. Ponder. Listen. Be still some more. Breathe.

   The silence is curious, yet lovely and fitting. At the Transfiguration, the disciples are struck dumb. Just too great for words. Eternity has manifest itself – what words could rise to something so astonishing? I dream of the sermon where I talk, then stammer into a silent reverie, so amazed I just can’t talk for a few seconds, or minutes.

   Notice Mark’s only witnesses are women – in a day when people scoffed and disallowed the testimony of women in court. Piece Mark together with the other 3 Gospels (and Paul in Acts 9 and 1 Corinthians 15!), and you have a tangled mess of inconsistencies and contradictions. William Placher (in his wonderful Narratives of a Vulnerable God) suggests (with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein!) it is as if one wanted to warn some one of terrible danger – with a riddle! Perhaps a riddle is the clearest, and only way to convey this particular truth, the invasion of eternity into reality, the breaking of the bonds of death, the opening salvo in the redemption of all creation. Of course the accounts are confused. I dream of the sermon that’s a bit of an awestruck ramble.

   Placher is also wise (in his Mark commentary): “Theologically, the empty tomb secures the reality of the resurrection of Jesus’ body… affirming that bodies are not something we should hope to cast aside.” Bodies matter. God made them – and became one. Of course they aren’t just disposed of – and we’d best not disregard bodies (mine, yours, black bodies, women’s bodies) now.

**

  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say on Good Friday?

    My daughter’s birthday falls on Good Friday. When I pointed this out to her, she said Oh, cool! We Howells love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service. 

  I’ll preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word. “Homily” is even too grandiose. I meditate, and briefly – or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty. I think I’ll linger over the words of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” from a new book I have coming out; check out this reflection at the end of this blog. But maybe I’ll just sigh, or shudder. That would be a good enough sermon. Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” or something else pensive. As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar, and I’ll look carefully to an image or two of the crucifixion. Grünewald? Rouault?

   At our church, we always read the Isaiah 52:13-53:12 early. Haunting. Good Friday isn't the time to explicate this complex text and its background. We trust the words to do their thing. And Psalm 22: Jesus' heart-wrenching cry, himself forsaken, and joining his God-forsakenness forever to ours. I try to ponder the horror, the sorrow Mary felt as she watched her son cry out these words she had taught him as a little boy.

   Then we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything – just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours. On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it.  We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.  

   Here’s the pondering on “O Sacred Head”: Protestants are attached to notions of the “empty cross.” But the Bible and the long tradition of Christian prayerfulness invite us to stop, ponder and be mortified and moved by the crucified Jesus.

   If there were no lyrics at all, the tune of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” itself conjures up something profound, sorrowful, riveting. 

Johann Sebastian Bach was so attached to the tune that, instead of cooking up something new, he kept inserting it here and there, in his St. Matthew Passion, his Christmas oratorio, and “Komm, du süβe Todesstunde.” The melody and harmonies lure us in, evoking passionate grief – but then the beauty and elegance lift the head and imply hope and wonder.

   We might fixate on the grisly piercing of nails through Jesus’ hands (or wrists, actually) and feet, or the spear gutting his side. But his face, his head: there’s the man, the eyes shedding love even as his blood is shed, his mouth thirsty and muttering unforgettable words, the perspiration, eyebrows creased in agony. “O Sacred Head, now wounded.” He is our head, the head of the Church, the head of the Body; yet it is this head, wounded, “with grief and shame weighed down.” He had no cause for shame. The shame is ours, humanity’s, history’s, that such a holy, perfect, loving and beautiful one would be treated so cruelly.


   Jesus’ head was “scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown.” There is a thorny vine that grows to this day in fields and by roadsides in Palestine, called zizyphus spina christi, which has long sharp thorns. I’ve cut a few fronds to bring home, and every time, no matter how careful I am, I get stuck by a spine. It hurts – and the hurts lingers, as the thorn has a toxicity that leaves you itching, inflamed and with pain for two or three days. I try to imagine a few dozen of those prickly, mean thorns pressed into Jesus’ brow. I shudder.


   If we gaze at that sacred head, are we shamed or delighted, stricken or honored? Yes. This ancient hymn envelops all these moods. “What thou my Lord hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain: mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.” The “mine” gets repeated, maybe to make the meter work out, but then also to remind me that I am confessing and owning doubly that my sin, all our sin, put Jesus there.


   “Look on me with thy favor.” Does Jesus look on me with favor? His eyes in his head looked out and saw with favor his blessed mother, and his beloved disciple whom he charged to care for her. He saw the clueless soldiers, and forgave. He looked at the victim next to him and promised him paradise. He does look on us with a harrowing, surprising, tender favor. No greater favor could be envisioned than this one looking from that head on us with mercy and love.


   “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” At the birth of your child, at the death of your spouse, at any moment that is beautiful or horrific, there just are no words. We might blurt out something, inadequate, or we just sigh. What we need in this hour is a friend, who doesn’t have to say a word but just clutches us in quiet, firm tenderness. Jesus is that friend. Our dearest friend. I love the way in Michelangelo’s Pieta Mary cradles her precious son’s head, just as she had when he was born. We too are invited to hold him, gingerly, hesitantly but then with all the love we can muster to cradle that sacred head, the very mind and heart of God – praying, or just speaking to him: “O make me thine forever… Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.”

**

  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say Maundy Thursday?

   How quirky, Maundy Thursday falling on April Fools’ Day! The disciples must have had moments of feeling foolish. Their teacher insists on washing their feet. Students were eager to serve their masters in this way, but Jesus is always reversing things, going lower than we can imagine.

  In Jesus Christ Superstar, after they’ve had a bit too much to drink, they tipsily sing “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I would make it if I tried, then when we retire we can write the Gospels so they’ll all still talk about us when we’ve died.” Clever. Tim Rice shared with me, in my podcast "Maybe I'm Amazed," why he did it this way. Fascinating, and clever.

   More cleverly, Mark reports on the chagrined response of the twelve to learning one would betray. Taking turns, each one asks, “Is it I?” My church put on a terribly corny drama on Maundy Thursday years ago in which each disciple had a monologue concluding with “Is it I?” Each guy mustered his best inflection to ask in a unique way. The constancy of the reply is profound. 


   The Greek particular implies a negative answer is anticipated, like “It isn’t me, is it?” William Placher reminds us that “the asking of the question implies at least a shadow of doubt.” We’re invited into the round of queries, probing our own hearts for shadows of betrayal. Placher points out that in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Is it I?” is repeated 11 times, not 12. Judas didn’t need to ask.

   I regret that the lectionary veers away from Mark, through which we’re progressing, and goes with the footwashing in John 13. This feeds into our very American notion that Christianity is about doing, serving, not receiving or being with – and Jesus is hardly showing them merely how to serve humbly. He’s washing them of more than the dirt on their feet.

   On April Fools’ Day, I’ll ponder the Lord’s Supper as a meal, asking How close does God want to get to us? Not just in the vicinity, or even at the same table rubbing elbows or even embracing. God wants to get inside us.

   Candidates for ordination are asked to explicate the theology of the Eucharist. The disciples would have flunked badly. I love Austin Farrer’s thought: “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”

   No morals, no takeaways, no lessons this night. Just invite people to marvel with you, and to find ourselves together at that table, virtually if you will. When we partake, we become marvels, walking shrines, living temples. 

On Ash Wednesday, and at most any Communion service, I recall Martin Sheen’s lovely ramble to Krista Tippett in her “On Being” interview with him: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

   Or maybe, to switch it up, focus on Act 2 of Maundy Thursday: what unfolded after dinner. Jesus went out into the dark (literally and figuratively) to pray in Gethsemane. Sleepy-headed disciples again flunk Discipleship 101, but Jesus doesn’t thrash them or holler. And he doesn’t defend himself or run. He lets himself be acted upon. He’s “handed over.” He embraces God’s painful will for him, not fatalistically, but with immense courage – and unfathomable love.

   His agony has troubled theologians who prefer a divine Jesus untroubled much by any genuine humanity. The Greek is pretty vivid: he "threw himself" to the ground and writhed loudly, collapsed, not entirely in control. This was light years from the ancient ideal (and ours!) of how a hero (or anybody) faces death, with stoic acceptance. No, Jesus is human, never putting on a face, leaving us room for our emotion, terror, anxiety, inviting us to take all that to our Lord. Karl Barth captured what was at stake beautifully: "He did not let his life go as if it were worthless; he sacrificed it as something precious, from which it was not easy for him to part.”

**

  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say March 28? Palm Sunday

   We’ve made Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday cute, admirable, joyous – missing how laughable and even ridiculous it had to have been. A king on a little donkey, not a war stallion like Bucephalus (Alexander the Great’s mount) – a borrowed donkey at that. Those following weren’t armed or rich or influential. Dreamers. William Placher mused that recently healed Bartimaeus was probably in the crowd. Martin Luther noticed Jesus road on “an animal of peace fit only for burden and labor. He indicates by this that he comes not to frighten anyone, nor to drive or crush anyone, but to help him and carry his burdens.”

  Pretty courageous, especially since Pilate had just marched his legions from Caesarea on the coast to Jerusalem to intimidate, to secure the city overcrowded at Passover. His stomping regiments, with arms clattering and banners waving high, heading east into the city could not have found a greater contrast that Jesus, donkey hooves clomping on the stone, children holding leafy branches in the air, heading west into the city. The perpetual clash of good and evil coming to its climax.

   Hard to beat the wisdom inside Jesus Christ Superstar's "Hosanna Heysanna..." with the crowd's escalating appeals to Jesus: Won't you smile for me? Won't you fight for me? Won't you die for me? I lucked into a podcast (my "Maybe I'm Amazed") conversation with Tim Rice, who wrote these and all the words for that splendid musical! Lots of insight in there for Holy Week! For Palm Sunday, we feel the jubilation, and yet the painful ironies, the dawning realization on them, and us, of impending doom and what's at stake.

   The shout “Hosanna!” isn’t cheering in church, but a prayer, a cry for help meaning “Save us now!” Mark alludes to the obscure Zechariah – who had given up on human rulers and prophesied that “On that day the Lord God will save them… Lo your king comes humble and riding on a donkey.” What foolish person would draw attention in such a meek, easily-mocked way? There is some mystery afoot here. And we begin to understand that Jesus never protects his own dignity, but is ready to fling it aside to love anybody.

  Imitating Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi strode directly into the jaws of danger. Joining the Crusaders in the battle of Damietta in 1219, he walked across No Man’s Land between the heavily armed Christians and the saber-rattling Muslims – unarmed, barefooted. He was so pitiful that, instead of butchering him, the soldiers hauled him to the sultan, Malik al-Kamil. Francis spent three days with him, befriending him, and bought peace in that region. Well, for a brief time.

   What is the homiletical takeaway? Go thou and so likewise? Hardly. We simply find ourselves in the crowd, excited yet with the hunch that a week of agony for this holy one is beginning. Just before Lent we observed the Transfiguration. No takeaway there. The disciples fell on their faces in awe. I dream of the sermon that has no moral, no lesson, but simply causes all of us to say Wow, Jesus is amazing, so courageous, so humble, so loving, so bold, so holy, so divine. That’s really enough, isn’t it?


   I also like to think each year about Howard Thurman's lovely thought (whether it winds up in my sermon or not) - all the more interesting in light of Peter Eisenstadt's new, great biography, Against the Hounds of Hell.
“I wonder what was at work in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey. Perhaps his mind was far away to the scenes of his childhood, feeling the sawdust between his toes in his father’s shop. He may have been remembering the high holy days in the synagogue with his whole body quickened by the echo of the ram’s horn. Or perhaps he was thinking of his mother, how deeply he loved her and how he wished that there had not been laid upon him this Great Necessity that sent him out on to the open road to proclaim the Truth, leaving her side forever. It may be that he lived all over again that high moment on the Sabbath when he was handed the scroll and he unrolled it to the great passage from Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor.’ I wonder what was moving through the mind of the Master as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey.”

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What can we say March 21? 5th of Lent

   Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jeremiah, the man, moves and inspires me, but then I shudder, as his burden to speak God’s truth left him isolated, ridiculed, suffering much. I try not to get confused and think any time I’m abused in ministry that it’s because I was such a holy truth-teller. The question is always how to speak truth but in love, engaging, conversing not thundering, inviting not judging.

   Most of Jeremiah is a long diatribe, like a street preacher voicing judgment. Here he is tenderly hopeful. John Goldingay suggests that the true prophet “knows what time it is.” Is it time for judgment, a call to repentance? Or for hope? I get it wrong sometimes because I’m annoyed with my people or frustrated in ministry. How to be attentive to God’s timing?

   Jeremiah’s “new covenant” seems crucial right now. So many want to “go back,” whether it’s to “Make America great again,” (this bit of nostalgia forgetting what was ugly back then), or we want church to “go back.” We are being called by God right now to go forward into something new! And Jeremiah’s promise feels way beyond any visible horizon; maybe it’s even in eternity – but can’t we begin now to become people for whom the law, God’s way, isn’t something external we try to learn and embody, but it’s actually written on our hearts. It’s natural. It’s just who we are.

   President Eisenhower heard Martin Luther King preach in the late 1950’s. Exiting the church, Eisenhower said to King, “You can’t legislate morality.” King replied, “The law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep a man from lynching me.” Laws, rules, conventions, guidelines and policies get us started – but the goal is in the heart, like muscle memory. We love, we forgive, we reconcile, we have mercy, we exhibit the Spirit’s Fruit – not recalling and implementing a rule but because our hearts have been shaped, over a long time, after much practice, booboos, restarts and fumblings. This is the purpose of preaching, over time, isn’t it?

   I might preach Psalm 51. The imposed context, in the wake of the sordid David – Bathsheba liaison, intrigues. I’m also dumbfounded by the way “original sin,” so despised by modern people, has manifest itself in new, unanticipated ways in the wake of the 2016 election. Baffled by Trump’s popularity, explainers stepped forward – noting how most of our political ideology emerges from some subterranean cavern within, which grew before the days we can even recall. Witness Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and many others: our supposed reasoning is actually the wagging tail of the dog that’s all intuition. People firmly believe they have made such a wise decision, becoming Republican or Democrat. But it’s deep gut stuff that attaches itself to the ideology – just as the Christian doctrine of original sin exposes us not so much as wicked choosers but as people simply stuck in sin - whichever side of the aisle you might lean toward.

  {Thinking Old Testament... you will enjoy my "Maybe I'm Amazed" podcast conversation with Walter Brueggemann on Psalms, idolatry, the pandemic and more}

   I won’t preach Hebrews 5:5-10 – but how fascinating. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he was appointed (anointed!) high priest! No one noticed at the time, of course. “Priest” in Latin is pontifex, bridge-builder. The bridge Jesus built for us was his own self – and how he was his own self: “In the days of his flesh” (reminding us of the Word become Flesh!), “he offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” We think Gethsemane. But I’m positive Jesus cried aloud in his prayers quite often, and the disciples overheard, and were moved, or puzzled. “What wondrous love is this?”

   John 12:20-33. I heard a whole sermon once that simply played on what these guys said to Philip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Your whole life is wishing to see Jesus. Even when you think you’re searching for something else. We help our listeners to clarify that wish, as we get glimpses of the Jesus of our wishful thinking, the fake Jesus recreated in our own image.

   Philip doesn’t just point the way, or say He’s over that hill somewhere. He tells Andrew, and the two of them together find Jesus. Something about community – and making the journey with the seeker in this. The detail of Bethsaida matters. Jesus and the disciples start to look like pastel characters in some wispy distance – but they lived in a real place, it’s been excavated, they found fishing hooks on the floors of houses. {Although now it's contested, 2 sites arguing which is the right Bethsaida - which is lovely: not 2 spiritualized locales or 0 real places, but 2 real places!}

   John echoes Paul – or did Paul echo John? – on the grain of wheat falling into the ground, “dying,” then rising up. God works in the dark, in what seems unlikely, while you’re sleeping, slowly but surely. He wasn’t about self-protection or security, and if we follow him closely we aren’t about our self-protection or security either. The voice from heaven echoes the Synoptics at Jesus’ Baptism. Funny these linkages across Scripture! The crowd, unaccustomed as we are to hearing God’s voice from heaven, thought it had thundered. Is it just too much to suggest to people, as we think of Noah’s ark when we see a rainbow, that if you hear thunder, you might detect God’s voice loving on Jesus and calling us to the glory that is suffering?

   “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” Of course, when Jesus was lifted up, on the cross, people fled; even his closest friends abandoned him. And yet, embracing and living into (dying into!) that abandonment, Jesus began to draw the world. Do you know the medieval poem, The Dream of the Rood? "I was a sapling by the edge of the woods. One day men cut me down, staked me up, and brought the young hero, nailing him to my branches. I trembled under his weight; his sweat and blood soaked into me. Later, they threw me into a pit. But then others found me, and adorned me with gold and jewels. Now people look up to me seeking healing and hope."

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  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What can we say March 14? Lent 4

   For us, Sunday marks 1 year of being shut down for Covid. We'll mark this in various liturgical ways, offering thanks and celebrations, but also tendering to God and one another our grief - and, of course, hope, not "going back to church," but asking what new thing God is inviting us toward.

   Great texts! How to choose? Or do you dare touch on two or more of them? That never goes well for me. I’ll start this blog with Ephesians (having completed a churchwide series on Ephesians back in the Fall), then turn to Numbers and John.

   Ephesians 2:1-10. Check out my sermon on this back in September (when we broke from the lectionary for a series on Ephesians). The preacher would be wise to re-read and re-ponder chapter 1, which elevates chapter 2 beyond mere individualism. Paul rambles eloquently through a 202 word sentence, then another lasting 99 words – clearly getting carried away talking about the unfathomable yet precious and knowable mystery of the lavish grandeur that is the mind and heart of God. Paul wants our minds to be blown, for us to be “lost in wonder, love and praise” before turning to his thoughts in death and being saved by grace.

   Walker Percy wrote often in his novels of “living death." His parents died when he was very young, and he barely survived tuberculosis. In The Moviegoer, the unforgettable character Dr Tom More lives in “Paradise Estates,” but it’s a living Hell. People “have it all” but they are hollow. Even the meek priest confesses “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.” In The Second Coming: “It astonished him that as farcical as people’s lives were, they generally gave no sign of it. How did they manage to work as usual, play golf, tell jokes? Was he crazy? Or was it rather that other people went to any length to disguise from themselves the fact that their lives were farcical?” – pulse, but no meaningful life.

   Paul speaks of radical transformation: “You he made alive, when you were dead.” The preacher’s challenge is to portray how startling and transformative grace really is. We don’t get how lost we are, and so we miss the transformation, thinking grace is God letting bygones be bygones, or making me feel 23% better. It’s “immeasurable.” The Greek is literally “hyperbolic.” A hyperbola (google it if you don’t recall from high school!) is a curve on a cone that gradually grows larger, encircling the fixed center.

   Walker Percy-style death, and sin (which Paul only refers to in the singular, so not discrete booboos but a nettling condition!) are the fix we’re in. Mid-stream describing it, Paul blurts out verse 5 (and should have prefaced it with “Spoiler Alert!”): “By grace you have been saved through faith.” Returning to this in verse 8, he adds “this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” What though is the antecedent of “this” and “it”? In the Greek it’s clearly not just “grace” but also “faith,” and “saved.” The whole process is God’s gift. Faith isn’t my clever choice of God! Charles Wesley taught us to sing “End of faith as its beginning.” God’s love and grace create faith itself.

   Most Protestants stop reading at verse 8, but then we live as if we read on and ignore verse 8! As soon as Paul has said “not by works” he continues: “created for good works.” The works don’t save us. It’s not a meritocracy. But once you’re saved you don’t go do as you wish. You were made to work zealously for God – and notice Paul’s mystical wisdom that God thought up our works before even Creation itself! Holy smoke. I’d urge you to check out this video of a conversation I had with Billy Graham’s daughter, and then a layman I know talking about grace and how it issues in works. A fabulous testimony – from lay people!

   I love the way N.T. Wright puts it: “What you do in the present – painting, singing, sewing, praying, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor – will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making present life a little less beastly. They are part of building for God’s kingdom. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music; every minute spent teaching a child; every act of care and nurture, for one’s fellow human beings or for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; every prayer, every deed that builds up the church, or embraces holiness – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.” Wow. Grace is better than we’d imagined.

   For Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-22, I’d refer you to my blog from last time around, which I can’t really improve upon today, except to add this from N.T. Wright’s astonishingly good book, The Day the Revolution Began, including this (where we see him capturing God “sending” his Son for more than just getting you into heaven): “When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion… Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.”

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  Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.