Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say October 31? 23rd after Pentecost

   Halloween! All Hallows’ Eve! If you’re observing All Saints day now, here’s a link to my general reflections and illustrations on the great Fall feast of resurrection and hope. More specifically, Psalm 24 has appeared a couple of times recently; here’s a sermon I preached a few weeks back. The nuance for All Saints’ has the wrinkle of Who ascends the hill of the Lord as going up to God eternally. John 11 shows up in year B; here’s my blog post for the multi-week run through the chapter back in the summer. Revelation 21 recapitulates Genesis 1. I’m struck by the command, idou! Not act, or believe, but see! For me, Isaiah 25:6-9 is the most delicious, titillating of the bunch. So much hope! And for life now, as death in Isaiah isn’t just when you stop breathing. It’s a force, as Hans Wildberger explains: “Death is all that circumscribes a life, that limits the life-space of humanity, that diminishes well-being and that prevents community with people or God.”

   And, of course, Reformation themes may find their way in (here's last year's blog post empasizing that theme) - although after presenting what Luther did on Oct. 31, 1517, to two Catholic parishes, I've sobered up a bit. Luther was vicious, and onto crucial things; he divided the church, and in some ways helped save it.

   On to the proper lections for Oct. 31: Ruth 1:1-18 sets the stage for a lovely, hopeful story of redemption – in the fullest meaning of the Old Testament word, which is about the securing of property and people left dangling by circumstance. Next Sunday narrates the startling turn in the story – with elements of divine orchestration but also some derring-do, with Naomi instructing her daughter-in-law to get dolled up and sneak into her rich kinsman’s bed! I love watching my people’s jaws drop: this is in the Bible? Rich conversations are opened up among those who are tickled, those who are appalled, and those who hear gender stereotypes and classic submission of women to men...

   The irony of the setting shouldn’t be missed: desolate Moab is more fertile than God’s promised land, including Bethlehem, the “house of bread” which has none. Rolling out of the period of the Judges, divine displeasure and abandonment feel very real - as the opening words about the milieu remind us it was a time of chaos, violence and injustice! Ellen Davis (in Preaching the Luminous Word) intrigues - as she sees this story as kin to Elijah on Mt. Horeb: in a season of chaos, he hears the "still small voice." For her, Ruth is just this voice in our biblical canon, quietly refuting the "great man theory" of history! It's ordinary people, home and hearth, not the armies or powerful who shift history. We love the ordinariness of this story, and this grace gives us hope.

  Sufferers identify with Naomi. Davis sees the whole book as a hopeful narrative for those discouraged by our inability to see our way out of tragic situations - and how ordinary people help each other through personal tragedy. More from Ellen below on the Gospel lection!

   Naomi battles the famine and then the untimely death of not one but both of her sons. She’d named them – but why? Mahlon and Chilion rhyme, and mean something like “sterile, weak, finished.” Were they sickly at birth?

   They marry foreign girls. Israelites can’t seem to decipher the divine mind on whether this is acceptable or not. Ezra would have frowned! – bringing foreign gods into the home… If you read slowly, you’ll feel the ache of three women, facing tragic death, famine, and perilous insecurity. Ellen Davis (in her lovely Who Are You, My Daughter?) explains the story using woodcuts by Margaret Adams Parker. Notice that Naomi and Orpah do the expected, appropriate thing for women left destitute: they go home. Ruth is the oddity! “Where you go, I will go” gets cross-stitched as a wedding gift. It’s not wrong but maybe lovelier that this is a daughter-in-law’s oath, a foreigner entering the fold of Israel, shedding her family, national deities and embracing Yahweh and a less-than-promising land.

   How to preach this? Naming the piling up of loss matters, as does the surprising hope of redemption – which is a divine surprise and yet requires action, courage, pluck and ingenuity. {2 fascinating items regarding Orpah: Oprah Winfrey says she was named for her, 2 letters mistakenly reversed – and according to tradition, Orpah became the ancestress of Goliath, not weak at all, but “finished” off by Ruth’s descendant, David, perhaps as death itself was crushed by David’s descendant Jesus!}

   Hebrews 9:11-14. By now, Hebrews has gotten repetitive, but certainly is preachable. I wonder how much people can resonate to Jesus’ “once for all”-ness, how unlike earthly priests who enter the temple day by day, year after year, Jesus labored once, and it was sufficient forever. Maybe there’s a sermon in how we think we need Jesus plus… well, plus various things, which he’s really plenty? I like Luke Timothy Johnson’s phrasing: “Christ has arrived as a high priest of the good things that have come into being.”

   Mark 12:28-34. This moment, as Jesus is nearing the end, is so important, and rendered so vapid, that we engaged in a full 3 month series on it a few years back. We printed little cards for people to carry in their pockets and stick on their desks and refrigerators – so that gradually, day by day, the feel of love for God would sink in. People might fear God, or use God; they get puzzled about God or run to God in moments of need. But love? Jesus doesn’t say obey God, or fear or question or drop in once in a while on God.

   And then love itself has been hollowed out and perverted into a feeling you feel or you don’t. It’s feeling but far more, as evidenced by the multiple words added: heart, soul, mind, strength. In our series, I tried to explicate each of these, which was fun, although I agree with Joel Marcus who reminds us these 4 are “roughly equivalent; they do not designate 4 different kinds of human capacity but the human mind and will, viewed from slightly different angles.” It’s all in, loving God with all that I am, brain, desires, body, time, habits… The list is endless.

   When I’ve preached on John 21, with Jesus’ thrice repeated question to Peter, “Do you love me?” I’ve rehearsed the funny, moving scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye surprises Golde one day by asking (singing!) Do you love me? She counters that for years she’s cooked, cleaned, given birth, etc etc etc, but he persists in asking But do you love me? Interestingly, he reminds her of the day he met her - which was the day of their arranged marriage! He admits he was nervous, shy, scared - but that his mother and father had assured him they would learn to love one another. Love for God is something we can learn - as is love for others.

   We’re blessed with St. Augustine’s helpful distinction between 2 Latin words for love, uti and frui. Uti is love of use. I love money – not to fondle it or to gaze upon it, but because I use it to get something else I want. Frui is love of enjoyment. I love chocolate, not because of what I get out of it, which is unwanted weight and acid reflux. I just adore it, and must have it. We tend to go at God with uti love, when God is yearning for frui. There’s a sermon!

   Mary Magdalene sings “I don’t know how to love him” in Jesus Christ Superstar. Worth lifting up in a sermon – but then asking How do we love anybody? How do we wish to be loved in life? God’s like us – the point of the incarnation! We want to love and to be loved fully, bodily, emotionally, with mind and action, constancy, attentiveness, yielding, sharing. The fact that we know love gets trivialized reveals there’s a real thing we know and crave desperately.

   Ellen Davis, whom we spoke of above, preached a lovely opening convocation sermon for div students that would be fair counsel for those of us long out of school, phrasing the intense learning of seminary (and beyond for us!) as "the sanctification of your intellect," "giving your intellect over to the things of God, learning as deeply and widely as you can, simply for the sake of giving God joy." The study you are doing in this moment isn't just getting a sermon together. You're loving God with your mind - and giving God great joy. Right now.

   A couple of little footnotes. In Mark’s version, once his conversation partner agrees that love of God and neighbor are truly the greatest, Jesus says “You are not far from the kingdom.” Not you’re arrived, but you’re pretty close, haven’t arrived just yet, plenty of work in the journey ahead. Also, don’t slip into drivel about how we must love ourselves before we can love others. There may be truth in this psychological tactic. Our people aren’t great at self-love. But the solution is the lucid vision and conviction of how we are loved by God.

   And love of neighbor – which for Jesus is in your house, in the mirror, but also the stranger, the difficult person, the Samaritan, the leper – is the way to fitting self-love. Maybe it is self-love. John Calvin: “We shall never love our neighbors well till we have corrected the love of ourselves.” Self-love is assumed. But it’s fallen, shackled to sin and the world, in need of correction, healing, redemption.

   Hard to beat Thomas Merton’s lovely prayer in Thoughts in Solitude: “Let this be my one consolation, that wherever I am, you, O Lord, are loved.”

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 I put together a little book summarizing the greatest moments in the lives of various saints - official and unofficial ones! Check it out: Servants, Misfits & Martyrs: Saints & their Stories.

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