Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say October 17? 21st after Pentecost

   Again, it’s unwise to land on Job 38:1-7 without retracing the steps of how Job got to this point, an extended period (years?) of flailing and wailing against God, who never said a mumblin’ word until now. 

   I wrote a short commentary (just 23 pages!) on the whole book of Job - and it is a whole, not just parts! - for the Wesley One Volume Commentary. Check it out!

   When God finally speaks, it’s hardly a word of comfort or answers or pledge that all will be well. A whirlwind, then a megapoem?

    God asks – rhetorically? – “Who is this?” God knows, of course. Then God urges Job to “prepare yourself” (or better, the King James Version’s “gird up your loins”). Brace yourself – not for answers, but a barrage of rhetorical questions. “Who is this speaking darkness?  Where were you when…? Do you know…” What is God’s tone of voice? A thundering, intimidating Wizard of Oz type bass? Something more plaintive, and gentle? Could we imagine a feminine voice? Is God squashing Job, hushing him? Or ennobling him, expanding his mind and soul? Francis Anderson: “That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God…. It does not matter much what they talk about. Any topic will do for a satisfying conversation between friends.”

   But Job had to have been befuddled at first, just as we are, because of the topic God chose to cover. God takes Job on a jaw-dropping tour of all of creation, far up in the sky and under the sea, millennia back in time, to the hidden haunts of fabled creatures. Job does not know how the world came to be, or how weather happens, or how eggs are hatched up in rocky crags; the smartest among us would have only the vaguest notions of such things. God knows. God makes it all happen.

   In God’s tour, human beings are omitted. Humanity isn’t the center of creation! God has vastly larger enterprises than people and their issues. To understand life, we listen to the world. The intrepid John Muir, who chronicled his journeys through previously unknown places like Yosemite, wrote, “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near to the heart of the world as I can.” We need guides like Annie Dillard, who in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek went out and noticed the world teeming with variety and life, or Carl Sagan and then Neil deGrasse Tyson in their Cosmos productions, exposing us to the breadth, depth, immensity and minutiae of the universe.

   Lots of birth going on out there, and not just when God is referring to mountain goats, deer or ostriches giving birth. The oceans “burst out from the womb.” Ice and snow come forth from the womb of the world. Light emerges from darkness, portrayed with language reminiscent of an infant emerging from the dark womb into the light. Job had cursed the day of his birth, and wished himself dead. God replies with life, which is all over, and always has been, everywhere.

   There’s also death, and darkness. The lights of the heavens, are set against a backdrop of extreme blackness in space. Lions have their prey; young eaglets gobble up bloody flesh. Karl Barth pondered the profound truth about God’s reality:

   “Light exists as well as shadow.  Creation has not only a positive but also a negative side.  It belongs to the essence of creaturely nature, and is indeed a mark of its perfection, that it has in fact this negative side.  In creation there is not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity; not only growth but also decay; not only opulence but also indigence; not only beauty but also ashes; not only beginning but also end.  In the existence of man there are hours, days and years both bright and dark, success and failure, laughter and tears, youth and age, gain and loss, birth and sooner or later its inevitably corollary, death.  In all this, creation praises its Creator and Lord even on its shadowy side.  For all we can tell, may not His creatures praise Him more mightily in humility than in exaltation, in need than in plenty, in fear than in joy?  May not we ourselves praise Him more purely on bad days than on good, more surely in sorrow than in rejoicing, more truly in adversity than in progress?  If there may be praise of God from the abyss, night and misfortune… how surprised we shall be, and how ashamed of so much unnecessary disquiet and discontent, once we are brought to realize that all creation both as light and shadow, including our own share in it, was laid on Jesus Christ, and that even though we did not see it, while we were shaking our heads that things were not very different, it sang the praise of God just as it was, and was therefore right and perfect.”

   The animals God selects for Job to see not only live in remote, mysterious places. There’s a “wildness” about the lion, the raven, mountain goats, deer, the wild ass and wild ox, ostriches and eagles. None are tamed or tamable; none are domestic. God doesn’t ask Job to consider the house pet or the mule who pulls your plow. There is an unpredictability, an utter lack of control about creation. And your life. In creation, God brought order out of chaos. And God left a lot of chaos out there. God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, not a placid pond. Our fantasy that things are ordered, controlled, fixable or fair? The very idea of such a thing is laughable – as comical as the ostrich, an awkward, gangly bird with spindly legs and goofy wings. God chuckles, and so might we – at the astonishing variety of creatures God dared to make, but also at our pet ideas of justice, and even at ourselves.

   Hebrews 5:1-10. All the priests Jesus’ listeners and Hebrews’s readers had ever seen wore showy regalia, signs of their priestly authority, almost like decorated soldiers. Hebrews envisions a priest “clothed in weakness.” Jesus wasn’t merely dressing up as weak, pretending for a time. He truly was weak – just as we are. I keep alluding to my book, Weak Enough to Lead, which I think captures the weird biblical dynamic that weakness isn’t a condition God helps you overcome. It’s just who you are. It’s not a bad thing, either. And it’s certainly the realization that enables not just Jesus our high priest to “deal gently,” but for us to be gentle with others.

   Notice Jesus, this humbly attired, weak priest, was known for his “loud cries and tears,” and probably not merely in Gethsemane. I want to ponder that Jesus was “heard because of his fear.” Was Jesus fearful? Isn’t this more of a trembling awe before the powers of life in the universe – perhaps the way a new parent has a bit of a trembling fear when first holding a newborn. You aren’t afraid of the baby – but you do realize what’s at stake, how much tenderness, patience, longsuffering and time will be required.

   Mark 10:35-45. Feels a little brash, Hey, powerful one, do whatever we ask! But hadn’t Jesus invited them to do just this? “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7), and “I will do whatever you ask” (John 14:13). Maybe they’re missing the underlying clue of “in Jesus’ name,” which isn’t a formula to make sure a prayer works. It obviously indicates being in alignment with Jesus and his ways. Here, they mistakenly imagine there’s a hierarchy within the kingdom.   There isn’t – unless it’s that the least, the lost, the lepers, the unwanted rank #1. We’re different: in the world, one lords it over another. But not among us – and then the first, last, servant, lowliest, humble lines. Sarah Ruden renders v. 44, the son “didn’t come to have attendants but to be an attendant.”

  Matthew blames it on their mom, Mrs. Zebedee! There are pressures we feel (as pastors, as do our people) from others to succeed, to rise up. Even the zeal to be a righteous sufferer with Christ can scramble the soul. He asks if they can drink his cup – an allusion to Psalm 116:13 to make you shudder. Naively they exclaim, “We are able.” My intro theology professor at Duke, Robert Cushman, called “Are Ye Able?” the worst in the hymnal, as the point is you most assuredly are not able – which they proved in a few days by hiding out and denying Jesus at his trial and cup-drinking on the cross. Who wound up on his right and left that day? Common, despised criminals.


What can we say October 24? 22nd after Pentecost

   Job 42:1-6, 10-17. To preach chapter 42 you’d have to establish the context of the previous 41 chapters… Not impossible! Especially after Job’s extensive misery, met only by extended silence, and then the whirlwind tour of the wildness of creation, Job’s final words to the Lord, “I know you can do anything,” are a sober, hard-won affirmation of divine omnipotence, which was never doubted by Job or anybody else. The shape of that omnipotence, what God does with God’s unlimited power is always the question. Omnipotence is hard to love. God’s power is expended in creating life in the thick of death, relationship in the midst of loneliness, a dazzling dance of light and darkness. God “can do anything,” and so God is not imprisoned by human notions of right and wrong; God isn’t stuck rewarding the righteous or punishing the wicked. God quite freely reigns. Only when God is thus free can God be a God of mercy.

   Job quotes the Lord’s own opening volley: “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?” He realizes it’s not that he lacked knowledge or was wrong in his knowledge. He’s now been granted now a fuller, deeper knowledge. He’s learned plenty about frost and goats and lions, stars and alligators. But the great lesson for Job is there in 42:5: “My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.” How often do churchgoers and Bible students know things about God, without knowing God? Job and his friends had been clinging to a god who was nothing but their notions of right and wrong, the great retributor. The true God is greater, better, more mystifying, and wonderful.

   Job humbly declares “Therefore I relent.” Not repent! but relent. Job doesn’t confess his sin; and God never asks him to. Job gives up his mistaken understandings of God. He is disillusioned – as in his illusions have been shattered, as now he sees the true God who isn’t the righteous judge but the profligate creator of life and mystery, the one who speaks, and is with us.

   Then God turns on Job’s fake friends. Had they overheard the whirlwind business? God is angry because in speaking glib half-truths about God, they spoke falsely. Stunning. This, coupled with Job’s intimate realization in 42:5, is very close to the point of the book. Job, railing relentlessly against God, accusing, blaming and demeaning God, has spoken correctly about God! – while the friends, with their holy, righteous, even biblical defense of God’s honor, have spoken falsely. In such a messy, complex world, God prefers outcries and blatant honesty to smug piety.

   God affectionately calls Job his “servant” twice in 42:8 – and then, with some amusing irony, says that he will ask Job to pray for them. They had, after all, urged Job to lift up his hands in prayer. It never dawned on them (until now) that those prayers needed to be for them, not Job himself.

   The prose ending to the tale, in 42:9-17, is dissonant, almost corny, virtually anticlimactic. Remove the poetry in chapters 3-41, and you get this dumb plot the larger book is designed to subvert: God brags on Job, the satan challenges God, then inflicts Job with horrors; but Job is resolutely pious – so God wins the bet, and restores Job’s vast possessions, even doubling them.

   Our listeners know their own fantasies are a lie. You’ve never met anyone who lost everything and suffered horrifically who then wound up richer and with ten more children. Speaking of whom: Elie Wiesel, chronicler of the Holocaust, was mortified by this hokey ending to the story; remembering Job’s ten murdered children, he imagines Job chillingly telling God, “I forgive you, but do my dead children forgive you?”

   Christian theologians would not be lying if they read into this conclusion things the author never intended. After all is restored, Job’s family gathers to break bread in his house – just as followers of Christ gather around a table, not to hear about God, but to see and taste God. And then 42:12: “Then the Lord blessed Job’s latter days more than his former ones.” The creator God who will try anything, the one who springs life on the earth in every place, is the good God who insures we will have our “latter days” of blessing, not as any sort of reward for good behavior or right belief, but because God just can’t stop making life happen. And then the very last word of the book is “satisfied,” which Job was. The satisfaction isn’t the doubling of his stuff or even the restoration of his health. Philip said to Jesus, “Show us God, and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8 RSV). Job has seen God, no longer “in a mirror dimly,” but “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

   I wrote a short commentary (just 23 pages!) on the whole book of Job - and it is a whole, not just parts! - for the Wesley One Volume Commentary. Check it out!

   Hebrews 7:23-28. For me, Hebrews, by now, is getting repetitive. So I’ll focus on…

   Mark 10:46-52. Last stop before Holy Week – for Jesus, even if we’re in October. He has made his way from the far north, where he spoke ominously at Caesarea Philippi about being handed over and suffering, all the way down the Jordan River valley to Jericho, where even today you hang a right and wind your way up a steep incline to Jerusalem.

   Jericho: a rich oasis in the middle of barren desert. No wonder prehistoric people settled there – making it the oldest known occupied city in the world, some 10,000 years old! It was the first stop for the Israelites on entering the Promised Land, and King Herod had spied the springs and lush vegetation and fruits to build a personal resort there. Zaccheus legally ripped people off while accumulating a small fortune, climbed up that sycamore tree, had Jesus over for dinner, and then gave his fortune away.

   A blind man named Bartimaeus (which simply means “the son of Timaeus” – so he had a dad but we aren’t sure of his given name!) is begging by the road leading out of town. Beggars get pitied, or blamed, or shunned, or mostly ignored. Jesus doesn’t toss him a few shekels. The disciples try to shush him – the way they did children! But Jesus listens. Jesus sees. Jesus cares. Notice (reading slowly!) little details. To the shushers, Jesus says “Call him.” Not “Help him.” Call. Jesus is all about calling people. He’d called the shushers, and they had followed. Jesus’ dreams for Timaeus’s son are way beyond having enough funding, or even the recovery of sight.

   They call him by saying “Cheer up” (in the NIV, inferior to the RSV’s “Take heart”). And it’s not You’re about to see! But rather, Cheer up, take heart, he is calling you. Want good cause to be happy? Jesus calls you. That apparently is sufficient.

   Bartimaeus “threw off his cloak.” What do we have weighing us down that we probably need to cast off to rise up and get closer to Jesus? Then Jesus’ question to him! “What do you want me to do for you?” Duh, isn’t it obvious? But maybe Jesus is asking him, and us, to go deep, not merely to think What hankering, what desire do I wish Jesus would satisfy now? Is there some thing deeper I really want, I really need, that would genuinely bring profound, lasting satisfaction and even joy?

   Jesus gives him sight. A staggering moment. If you lost your sight you’d be tickled to get it back. If you’d never ever seen though? Back in Mark 8:24, Jesus healed such a blind man whose first words were “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” The first thing Bartimaeus saw? Certainly it was the face of Jesus, who hadn’t shushed him or dropped a few coins in his cloak.

   What does this last healed person in Mark’s story do once he’s healed? He didn’t go home, or throw a party, or even get a job. No. “He followed Jesus along the road.” He was called before and after he was healed. And he followed – and don’t forget what was next on that road! He traipsed off with Jesus and the crowd to Jerusalem and into Palm Sunday and Holy Week. In his first week of seeing, Bartimaeus saw Jesus crucified – the one who’d loved, healed, and called him. Let’s go with him. 

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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.

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.

What can we say November 7? 24th after Pentecost/All Saints

   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. We have some terrific texts for November 7 proper though, which I’ll preach even though we’re doing All Saints now!

   Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 has an Autumn feel to it, doesn’t it? Verse 3 provides (for me) a laugh-out-loud moment: Naomi instructs her daughter-in-law to put on your “best clothes,” wait until rich older relative Boaz has been drinking; when he lies down, “uncover his feet and lie down – and he will tell you what to do.” Oh my. How to assess such a vignette?

   Jack Sasson suggests that Naomi gave Ruth “reasons aimed at defeating any scruple and at quieting any anxiety which might, expectedly, have disturbed her daughter-in-law.” Disturbing scruples. Wilda Gafney, in her Womanist Midrash, explores the ways women are traditionally and even now thought to be sexually available to men, how therein lies their value; she even suggests that Ruth had earlier in the story been “taken” or even “abducted” (her rendering of Ruth 1:4) into marriage. Problematical gender undertones crying out for attention here.

   How vulnerable is Ruth in such a moment? Raymond Brown surveyed the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1) and the women who appear there. What do Ruth, Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba have in common? They aren’t native/in-house Israelites, they are put into morally hazy situations, but with some pluck they seize what power is available and courageously find a way forward. Does this alter then how we think of Mary, the 5th woman in Matthew’s male-dominated genealogy?

  The lectionary, pressed for time we can assume, skips from 3:5 to 4:13, skimming past all the property wrangling, and the getting acquainted of Ruth and Boaz! These scenes reveal how, in Bible times and perhaps today, “redemption” involves provision of land for the destitute!

   Psalm 127. Preaching Psalms always intrigues me, and the 127th has rich possibilities, as it addressed 3 universal, mundane activities: building, security, and growing up / raising kids. Jesus, in the final minutes of his “Sermon on the Mount,” offered a picturesque image: “Whoever hears my words and does them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock; rain, floods and wind came, but it did not fall. Those who don’t do them are like the fool who built his house upon the sand. When rain, floods and wind came, the house was swept away” (Matthew 7:24-27).

   Jesus was a carpenter / stonemason, of all things! Can’t we conceive of him building a home? Did he think of our Psalm? “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” How could we conceive of him building our homes? I’ve performed a “blessing of a new home” many times as folks move in, and I know people who’ve scribbled Bible verses on the exposed beams of a house before the sheetrock is hung. It’s not about clever architecture, or massive size. The most modest abode can be the Lord’s house, while a mansion might fall into that “in vain” category.

   Maybe it’s in the foundations. What’s underneath, hidden, propping up our lives? Probably some mix of wisdom and love, fantasy and memory. Isabel Wilkerson (in Caste) points out that lingering moods on race are deep in the foundations of our lives as Americans. How do we poke around, repair, and make the home more of a place the Lord builds? Thomas Merton suggested we try to have “quiet homes,” places of peace with the possibility of prayer.

   “In vain you rise up and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives his beloved sleep.” I’ve slept more than 20 years! It’s a lot of life. It’s God’s good gift, and the Psalm invites us not to be so restless that we wind up rest-less. Financial advisors say you can make money while you sleep. God’s hand is on the farm while the fielder sleeps. God is God, even when we’re unaware, dreaming or snoring.

   Child-rearing sounds simple for this Psalmist. Raise them well, all will be well. The reality is way more complex. The truth is, we are all always raising children, if we’re single, old, done raising our kids, whatever. Our culture, which we’re responsible for, raises children. Our church, whether you’ve got a child in youth group or not, raises children.  

   Derek Kidner understands that, for this Psalmist, there are 2 and only 2 possibilities when it comes to these basic endeavors of life: “Either it will be the Lord’s doing, or it will be pointless; there is no third option.” Maybe Stephen Covey echoed this when he spoke of spending your life climbing the ladder, only to get to the top and realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall. “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (St. Augustine).

   Hebrews 9:24-28 is simply too difficult (for me) to read without anti-Semitic undertones that would take too long to explicate properly in a sermon.

   Mark 12:38-44 presents the unavoidable laugh-out-loud moment: “Beware the guys in long robes!” – which would, self-evidently, be us clergy standing up front. Be wary of us, indeed! How do we who preach ponder how we might hide beneath the robe, the office, ordination and position, even the pulpit, and the increasing cynicism people out there have for us? – not entirely undeserved…

   A haunting image: Jesus lingering around the treasury, watching people drop in their offerings. Cheap shot in preaching: Jesus is watching you guys and your offerings! True, and manipulative. Maybe I’ll say this, and acknowledge how it feels manipulative. We know the temple featured trumpet-shaped offering boxes that indeed made a musical ringing sound as the coins clattered in. Remember Reformation Church history? Luther was appalled by Tetzel and the other church charlatans who rolled their fundraising circus into town with the chant “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.”

   Jesus observes the big, showy givers, then the widow who shyly puts in 2 lepta – almost nothing. Is he impressed by this “destitute woman whose poverty is matched by her generosity” (Joel Marcus)? Or, as Ched Myers insists, is Jesus angered by a temple system that induces the poor to give what they can’t really manage while the religioso get rich and make the sanctuary resplendent with the glory that should be care for the poor? Does this story underline the old adage that it’s not how much you give, but from how much you give? How do we help our people understand the spirituality inherent in giving, or not giving? It’s not making the budget or reaping rewards.

   I like to tell a story: Mike King (Martin Luther King Jr.’s dad) arrived at Ebenezer Baptist to find the finances in total disarray. Claiming that “anonymous giving only produces anonymous non-giving,” he established an open book at the entry to the sanctuary, where anyone could view what others had given. Financing shot rapidly upward. Even the Jesus who shuddered at the rich givers and the poor widow would nod.

   And there’s the gold standard articulated by Mother Teresa: “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not just what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which will have value before God. This giving until it hurts, this sacrifice is what I call love in action.”

   I’d commend to you my chapter on “The Offering and the Rest of our Money” in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, which assesses this text and other 'giving' passages in some depth. Taking space in worship for the offering: is it effective? Does it further idolize money? Is it our best counter-cultural critique of our moneyed culture? Is “love of money” really the root of all evil? Or is the secret to discover a proper love for our money? What’s a “cheerful giver,” and how does one become such a giver?

What can we say November 14? 25th after Pentecost

    I love the story and song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10. After commenting on the Epistle (briefly) and the Gospel (a bit more) I’ll return to this text, with an extended excerpt from my book, Weak Enough to Lead, which I hope captures the wonder, agony and hope of this moment (with a great quote from another Hannah, Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter).

   Hebrews 10:11-25, for me, continues the circling of Hebrews – so not sure I’ll preach the Epistle. I am intrigued by the idea of, because of all Christ has done, “Let us approach with a true heart… Let us hold fast to the confession without wavering.” In her way cool book, The Beatitudes Through the Ages, Rebekah Eklund explores what guardrails there might be on the multifarious interpretations of Scripture – and points to Perpetua and Felicity, two canonized martyrs who stood their ground, refusing to knuckle under and abandon their belief. How are they different from today’s church people who want to split up over doctrine? They didn’t harm others, whereas today’s peace-breakers do! “Let us hold fast,” indeed, but who’s harmed when I hold fast?

    “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Dangerous, as it can slip into nagging judgmentalism: Hey, you should love and do good deeds! And yet, so very hopeful. What if we took as our mission statement that we might not only love and do good deeds, but actually provoke others to do the same – not as in needle or cajole, but inspire, doing good with them? The verb paroxmuson implies inspiring more than provoking.

   “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Indeed, perhaps especially post-pandemic, people are happy to neglect meeting together. There’s this story from John MacArthur that preachers love to tell. A man who had once been active in a church stopped coming, and after a few weeks the pastor decided to visit him in his home. When the pastor arrived, he found the man sitting in a chair in front of his fireplace where a fire was roaring. Without saying anything, the pastor took a seat beside the man and sat in the silence, watching the flames.

   After a few minutes, the pastor reached for a pair of tongs and pulled a single, burning ember out of the fire, setting it off to the side on the hearth. Before long, the ember’s flame had reduced to a glow, and then it went out completely, eventually growing cold. The pastor and the man sat in silence a bit longer, and then the pastor again took the tongs, picked up the dead ember, and put it back in the middle of the fire, where it sparked back to life. As the pastor got up to leave, the man spoke for the first time, saying, “Thank you for your visit, and especially for the fiery sermon. I’ll see you on Sunday.”

   Mark 13:1-8. I just adore the way the disciples’ jaws gape open at the sight of Herod’s temple – which still has that impact on pilgrims today. “What large stones!” indeed. We can inspect many astonishingly large stones from that temple – one of which is 40 feet long, 11 feet tall, weighing in at 300 tons! Herod’s recently completed platform, 900 by 1500 feet, of gleaming, flawlessly cut ashlars. A wonder of the world – Herod’s clear intent, both from ego and his desperate need to impress his former foe, the emperor Augustus.

   Jesus throws cold water on these country boys, slack-jawed in amazement, with his prophecy that not one stone will be left upon another. A few actually did remain after the catastrophe of the Roman crushing of the Jewish revolt in 70: the Western Wall, today’s “wailing wall,” still there. Did Jesus have a crystal ball type prediction? Or was it more rational, wise, insightful? Pompey had invaded the holy precincts, Herod erected a Roman eagle on the entrance, Caligula crafted a statue of his divine self to be placed in the Holy of Holies. Trouble was indeed coming.

   Jesus goes apocalyptic – which is a feature in preaching and theology we might avoid, given all the abuses of Gnostic end-of-time predictions. Yet at some point, the only shred of hope we have left is for God’s ultimate intervention beyond history itself. Jesus, unlike other apocalyptic writers, so productive in those days, reports no visions, but speaks only of his own authority.

   I recall as a boy watching Billy Graham preaching on “Nation will rise against nation,” and he explained this was precisely what was unfolding in the 1960s. Fact is, if you study history, it’s always this way. Peace is our dream that in our gut we know is a fantasy. So much pain. Jesus opens a window of hope, explaining that our intense sorrow over the world now can be compared to labor pains. Wow. Although it tiptoes into being silly, there’s a way to reflect on those birthpangs:

   With a playful imagination, Henri Nouwen (in Our Greatest Gift) pondered these pains that ferry us into life. In Our Greatest Gift, his thoughtful book about dying, he tells a story about fraternal twins talking with one another in the womb: The sister said to the brother, ‘I believe there is life after birth.’ Her brother protested vehemently, ‘No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing to do but cling to cord that feeds us.’ The little girl insisted, ‘There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light, where there is freedom to move.’ Still she could not convince her twin brother. After some silence, the sister said hesitantly, ‘I have something else to say, and I’m afraid you won’t like that either, but I think there is a Mother.’ Her brother became furious. ‘A Mother!?’ he shouted. ‘What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let’s be content.’ The sister was quite overwhelmed by her brother’s response, and for a while didn’t dare say anything more. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and since she had only her twin brother to speak to, she finally said, ‘Don’t you feel those squeezes once in a while? They’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘What’s so special about that?’ ‘Well,’ the sister said, ‘I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our Mother face to face. Don’t you think that’s exciting?’ The brother didn’t answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk of his sister and felt that the best thing would be simply to ignore her and hope that she would leave him alone.

   And now, to return to 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10, and how Saul was Israel’s first big, tall, impressive leader – and how we not only preach on 1 Samuel 1-2 but actually lead based on it:

   If we turn back a few pages, we discover the real dawn of a new day for Israel was not when Saul was crowned, but when a woman, a nobody, unable to conceive, surprisingly gave birth to a son – as if the script for what would unfold for Mary and Jesus fluttered down to earth centuries earlier. Hannah was barren, which was the ultimate weakness for women in the Bronze Age. She had nothing going for her except the tender love of her husband, Elkanah. She was taunted by her rival, Peninnah, whose cruel words twisted like a knife in her gut.

     Hannah did what the helpless do: “Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord… She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” (1 Sam 1:9-10). Anguished prayer is weakness splayed all over the floor. Eli the priest observed her, and assumed she was drunk. Then he took pity on her. Or perhaps he realized he was witnessing what every priest longs to see: a soul entirely abandoned to God. He blessed her. And then this woman, with no natural strength in her womb, conceived and bore a son, Samuel.

The Promise Kept

     The mind-boggling wrinkle in Hannah’s story, though, isn’t the seemingly miraculous birth. What staggers us is that she kept an outlandish promise she had made in her desperation. Trying to coax God into giving her a child, she pledged to give that child right back to God. She could easily have reneged on the deal once she cradled her precious son in her arms, nursing him, giggling with glee over his arrival. He was all she’d ever wanted. And in those days, a son was your social security, the one a woman needed to care for her in old age.

     But she took the boy to Shiloh, and left him there to serve in the temple as an apprentice to Eli. What more poignant words are there in all of Scripture than these? “She left him there for the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:28). The world says Grab the gifts you can, hang on to them, accumulate strength and resources. But Hannah, instead of clinging tightly, opened her hands, and let go of the best gift ever. She chose to return to her weak, vulnerable state. “She left him there for the Lord.”

     There is a kind of holy leading the world will never understand. After his election, Pope Francis handed back the powers of the papacy he’d just won, riding in a Ford Focus instead of the papal limousine, moving into a guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, wearing a simple cassock instead of regal finery. Henri Nouwen left a faculty position at Harvard to live in a L’Arche community in Canada, where his job was to care for a single, severely handicapped young man named Adam. Maybe the most effective pastor I’ve ever known declined multiple promotions, quietly mentored dozens of young clergy, and in her parishes she happily beamed offstage as her laity excelled as they never had before.

   Imagine all those obscure people who have led so marvelously that we have never heard of them. Leadership is letting go, a refusal of possession, control or manipulation, an offering to God. Letting go must be the secret to leadership, since it is the secret of all of life; the results are those immeasurables, like contentment, gratitude, and the flourishing of others.

    I love Wendell Berry’s novel about a Kentucky farm mother, Hannah Coulter, who muses, “The chance you had in life is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be someone else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” Leaders let go of fantasies and selfish wishes, resentments and any sense of entitlement or deserving. How counter-cultural! Leaders can be content; we already have enough, and so we are freed for joy. Who wouldn’t follow a leader to a place of joy?

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 My little book of theological reflections on lines and characters in Christmas carols might bless your people and your preaching! Why This Jubilee?: Advent Reflections on Songs of the Season.

What can we say November 21? Christ the King

    Christ the King Sunday. What a curious, yet lovely way to end the year. The shape of his kingship begins next week, in silence, waiting, hope hidden in a womb, then a cry, the vulnerable being held tenderly. Jesus got bigger, but never in a muscular, threatening way, always humble, vulnerable, downright laughable and puzzling, so un-powerful did this powerful one seem. His crown was of thorns, his entourage common criminals and poor fishermen, his throne a cross, his palace a tomb. When explicating this week’s texts, it’s this King, not any other, who is the lens through which we read and preach.

   2 Samuel 23:1-7. Robert Alter speaks of this poem’s “mystifying features” which suggest “great antiquity,” suspecting (unlike most historical critics!) the poet might really have been David himself. If so, it puts a quirky twist on the “sweet singer” image, which pious books and preachers seem fond of applying to David. Did David actually, late in life, say this about himself? Those who knew him, who’d witnessed his tawdry behavior, who’d borne his violence, would shudder, or snicker.

    Walter Brueggemann is right: this poem masks the ambiguity of what a real king behaves like earlier in the story. Yet the ideal persists, the dream lingers. Kings should be life, fruitfulness, light and joy. And it’s God’s faithfulness, not the uprightness of kings, that sustains history. Such a king, unlike David and his progeny, is coming – the one who indeed proved to be “like light of morning, like the sun rising,” the one revealed as king Easter morning.

   Revelation 1:4b-8 is a perfect text for such a Sunday. The feel of this turn of the year is apocalyptic. The year ends, a new one opens before us, and the curtain is pulled back for us to delight in a peek into eternity, which isn’t endless time so much as the constant presence of “the one who is, was and is to come.” Eugene Boring points out that it was said “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be.” But John – not just being but action, presence: “he comes.” Our God loved so much God could not remain aloof in heaven, but had to come down, to be with us.

   Eugene Peterson, in his brilliantly titled book on Revelation, Reversed Thunder, explicates this text by noting how we think of the Bible as something to use, instead of a means to hear God. And if we dared to hear God through it, we realize Scripture isn’t courting our favor or trying to please, but seeks to subject us. But how?

   Barbara Brown Taylor’s great sermon, “God’s Daring Plan” (in Bread of Angels), should be reviewed now! She envisions God in heaven informing the angels of his plan to come down. They plead with him not to do it. “The baby idea was a stroke of genius, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features.” I wish I could preach like this: “Once the angels saw God was dead set on this daring plan, they broke into applause… While they were still clapping, God turned around the left the chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars collapsed in a heap. Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep and a bunch of shepherds. It was hard to say who was more startled, the shepherds or the angels…”

   Indeed. Jesus is God’s “witness,” translating the Greek martus, yes, like martyr. God’s coming provokes hostility and ends in suffering – but doesn’t really end at all.

   The empire’s army detail couldn’t keep this one in the grave. Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Really? How much more politically subversive can you get? We’ll see Pilate in our Gospel reading tremble a bit before this vulnerable, weak one. The preacher must play on the irony: it is the bloodied, beaten weak one who is “omnipotent.” The Greek is pantokrator – 
which is the way Christ is dubbed in so much classic art, as in the painting at St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai. Jϋrgen Moltmann, in his best pages of The Crucified God, explores how omnipotence is way inferior to love. Omnipotence can only be feared and obeyed; love can be… loved. Even better is the comment on our passage from G.B. Caird: “John has learned from Christ that the omnipotence of God is not the power of unlimited coercion but the power of invincible love.”

   John 18:33-37. My friend, the archaeologist Shimon Gibson, has definitively revealed to us where this trial before Pontius Pilate took place: not in the traditional praetorium along the Via Dolorosa, but along the western exterior wall of the city, where Herod’s impressive palace was located. Pilate would have stepped out onto the platform before the huge crowds pressing in from the countryside, not down narrow urban lanes.

   The conversation about kingship, in so few words, opens up deep wells of emotion, underlying meanings, nuances and shifting tides of power! Raymond Brown notices that “the accused criminal asks questions as if he were the judge, and from the first words of Jesus, it is Pilate who is on trial! Pilate is a man who is facing the light and who must decide whether he will prefer light or darkness.” For my tastes, the feel is captured marvelously in Jesus Christ Superstar, especially the fantastic 2000 Gale Edwards production. Watch this! Fred Johanson is pitch perfect as Pilate, strong, muscular, impressive, yet with an undercurrent of uncertainty, then defensiveness, a grief that can still retaliate.

   I don’t know how to “illustrate” all this in a sermon. I’m not sure the preacher needs to. The story is the story, and it’s plenty sufficient, it works as is, doesn’t need dressing up. It is worth pondering that “king,” on this Christ the King Sunday, was far from Jesus’ preferred way of thinking of himself.