Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say September 26? 18th after Pentecost

    Esther 7 marks the denouement of one of the Bible’s great stories. You pretty much have to preach on the whole story… In this cartoon-like narrative that touches on early anti-Semitism and attempted genocide, God is unmentioned. Kind of thing a Bible book ought to do! Speaking about God. What to do with such a thing? I love it, as people actually experience the drama of their lives without God being visible or audible, seemingly not there.

   A little duel of commentators on this might be worth reporting on in the sermon. David Clines, noting all the coincidences in the story (the queen pouting, the king’s insomnia, happening to stumble on just the right spot in the royal annals, etc.), suggests that “the chance occurrences have a cumulative effect. Any one alone might appear to be chance. But taken together, chance disappears. The lack of explicitly religious language does not conceal the divine causality, not if the holes that are left are God-shaped. To the religious believer, ‘chance’ is a name for God.” Church people love this kind of thing…

   But then we have Sam Wells, noticing how the story happens shortly before Passover, the day of deliverance. “Had they waited, it would have been too late. If they were to survive, the Jews had to make their own story. … Faith does not lie in resignation to the divine will. Instead, faith consists in bold steps that evince confidence in the Jews’ place in history.” Church people might love this more than they realize. Which is it? 

   Maybe it’s both – to echo Forrest Gump, standing at his bride’s grave: “Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right, or if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze – but I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happenin’ at the same time.”

   James 5:13-20. One day when I was 30 years old, a church member asked me to lunch. He brought a Bible with him to McDonald’s. As we ate, he opened it to this text, read it, and asked me, Why don’t we visit the sick and anoint them with oil? I had no answer, and agreed with him it was a good idea. And so Al and some others began joining me for visits, oil and prayer. First guy we saw was in brutal agony with cancer in his spine, the pain unspeakable. I applied a dab of oil to his forehead. He looked up and asked, could you pour some on my back. I did. His pain eased – a little. And died, of course, a few days later.

   Jesus’ brother’s question, Is anyone among you suffering? Seriously? Anyone not suffering? Isaac Bashevis Singer shrewdly said “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time.” We all suffer, always, and if it’s not in me at this charmed moment, it’s out there in God’s world – as we live into Bob Pierce’s ask, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.”

   My church people probably want me and Stephen Ministers to materialize and do some anointing. Way more elusive is “Confess your sins to one another.” Early Methodist groups thrived because that was the thing. Have you sinned since we were last together? You could take a stab at saying No, not me! But the group could call you out. Vulnerability and accountability: scary for people joining groups, but the way to life, healing and joy. Why does AA work, when it works? It’s the communal love, belonging, accountability.

   Mark 9:38-50. Whoever isn’t against us is for us? That’s appealing to me, although I’m not so sure. Political ideologues would claim they aren’t against us, but their idolatry of politics is the ruin of church life and any dream of living into God’s grace and the Church’s unity.  

   The “cup of water,” such a simple act of compassion, reminds me of the bookend scenes in Ben Hur. Early on, Ben Hur is a captive, desperately thirsty, when a shadowy, unseen person (it’s Jesus, hint hint!) reaches down and gives him a drink of water (watch here!). At the end, it’s Jesus struggling with his cross along the road to Golgotha. Ben Hur is moved, thinks he recognizes him, breaks through the crowd and the soldiers and offers him water (watch here!). A little corny, but powerful.

   A real “veil of Veronica” moment; the 6th Station of the Cross marks her (as one of the women wailing, mentioned in the Gospels) as one who took her veil, and wiped the face of the fallen Jesus along that Via Dolorosa. Her veil was permanently imprinted with his face – as Jesus’ face is imprinted on every simple act of kindness. The peril, of course, is churchgoers pretty quick feel they’ve done what God asks of them if they engage in some “random act of kindness,” like paying for the person behind you in the Chic-Fil-A drive up.

    The stumbling block business intrigues. Don’t make somebody stumble – and gosh, we Christians do this all the time, by acting like jerks or by being vapid and dull… but then Jesus himself, as Paul reminds us constantly, is a stumbling block! I wonder about putting a big rock or something around the altar, pacing as I preach and literally falling over the thing. Who put this here?!?! Jesus says you’d be better off with a millstone around your neck. Archaeologists have found loads of millstones from Jesus’ day. Not pleasant neckwear.

   On the “cutting off” of an offending limb, I recall a fabulous episode of Little House on the Prairie (called “A Matter of Faith”) in which Caroline might die from an infection in her leg. Pious, Bible-believing, she picks up a knife and you believe she may just lop her own leg off.

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

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