Monday, June 28, 2021

What can we say September 25? 16th after Pentecost

  BTW, check out my Good Questions/No Easy Answers series - biweekly emails, weekly podcasts and videos!

    Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. My online study of the prophets of Israel featured the brilliant church fundraiser Allen Walworth – who focused on just this text! Investing in God’s future! Solid stuff. And I am preaching on this text as well this Sunday in Krakow, Poland, when we visit our work there with Ukrainian refugees.

   What a great preaching text – but don’t skim past the precise dating: the 10th year of Zedekiah, and the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar. God’s Word dawns into and is intimately responsive to the real politics of the world. It’s when the world’s most powerful guy, Nebuchadnezzar, reigns that God uses his embarrassingly unpowerful emissary, Jeremiah.

   Jerusalem is under siege. The preacher can paint the picture of the armies arrayed along the hillsides and valleys around the city walls, the sense of gloom and sheer terror among those peering over the towers. In this bleakest of all moments, Jeremiah (under something like house arrest?) manages to slip out to purchase a field in Anathoth, 6 or 7 miles away. The adage Buy low, sell high doesn’t quite apply: no fool purchases a piece of land when the Babylonian army is swooping in for the kill. Modern analogies abound: purchasing a nice office building in Mariupol just as the Russians have crossed the border.

   The 17 shekels of silver is a foolish, dramatic, excessively hopeful investment in the future – one no one else could see. Jeremiah made a big show of signing the deed, displaying the papers in public, and then storing them in an earthenware jar. It’s God’s future, and the future of the nation. Jeremiah would reap zero benefit, or even be around to witness the turn in things. “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore, we are saved by hope” (Reinhold Niebuhr).

   Clarence Jordan’s founding of Koinonia farm is precisely the same sort of contrarian investment in land: a farm where blacks and whites share all things in common - in rural Georgia in the 1940's! Jordan's life is full of fabulous preaching material: check out my blog summarizing his life and such stories.

   1 Timothy 6:6-19. I rarely feel all that proud of a sermon angle – but a few years back, I devised one on this text and titled it “Love Your Money.” I’d read Scott Bader-Saye’s distinction between good and bad fear, surmising then that there must be good and bad loves of money. Good love of money is like good love for your children: it’s not about or for you, but it’s about their thriving and finding their God-given purpose. Preachers can bore, if they do what people predict (which in this case is a harangue about greed) – so you can surprise them by encouraging them to love their money even more, and more truly.

   A great theological question to pose, which people get no matter how secularized they might be, is “How much is enough?” Society is sneaky on this. And in the mirror we also ask Am I enough? How do we help our folks think about the unending reach of creeping necessity, and what “godliness with contentment” (as in this Sunday’s text) might be (and in Scripture, it’s pretty minimal, food and clothing).

   Paul diagnoses the inner entrapments of the soul the desire for money enmeshes us in. Desire for money and what money can purchase is addictive and deceptive. It really does lure you away from true faith, and your very self is “pierced” by many “pains.” Allowing that some simply are rich (so not castigating them), Paul urges them not to be “haughty” but to be “rich in good works.” I wonder if you have a story of someone with very little who was generous and at great peace – or the flipside, someone with much who’s rattled and prickly about it.

   This richness in good works? We could sing “God of grace and God of glory,” with its confessional line, “rich in things and poor in soul.” Or we might fiddle with Jesus’ admonition not to lay up treasure on earth, but treasure in heaven. John Wesley quite rightly suggested we not only don’t attempt to follow Jesus’ command here; we have zero intention of even trying. But that’s what Jeremiah was doing with his investment in Anathoth – and then, as if to illustrate the point, the lectionary pairs this Epistle reading with the Gospel:

   Luke 16:19-31. Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, got hauled off to jail in 1949 for advertising his sermon title “Segregation After Death” on the church marquee. His text? The parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Under interrogation, Johns was required to preach the sermon to the police. Dives, gazing across the great gulf of prejudice, is blind to the humanity he shares with Lazarus; he thinks of him still as a servant, demanding that Abraham “send” Lazarus with water. Dives has been condemned by his insistence on segregation, which he perversely maintains even after death. Johns not only draws our attention to the disdain in Dives’s assumption that Lazarus is at his beck and call, but he also embodies in his own arrest and harassment that very kind of disdain in a modern context.

   The name Dives isn’t in Scripture, of course. The rich, purply feaster remains nameless – illustrating God’s great reversal of the way things are in this world. As Jesus tells the parable, the rich guy does know the poor man’s name. Had he simply stepped over him often enough to have heard his name? The entire parable is a little dicey if we try to get literal about it. Jesus is not giving a photographic portrayal of what things will be like: hollering across a massive chasm, Abraham leading the conversation, etc. It’s a story, brilliantly making its point. And you can’t miss the irony in “If someone from the dead goes to my brothers, surely they will repent” – but the risen Christ has failed to persuade millions, who might give mental assent that Okay, he arose! but live unaltered, unrepentant lives, jammed full of sins of commission and omission.

   The preacher will be wise to anticipate objections to the obvious suggestion that he should have helped the guy. Should we really just give to anyone who asks? People should be responsible! Dependence on charity actually ruins people’s chances of rising up to self-reliance. In the churches, we’ve been warned “toxic charity,” the way our holy efforts to help those in need are either wasteful or counterproductive.

   Fascinating how our awareness of toxic charity can underwrite cold hearts – and so avoiding toxic charity leads inevitably to toxic lack of charity. We are Christians after all. Check out Paul’s great fundraising campaign for the poor he didn’t know (2 Corinthians 8-9, Romans 15:14-32, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). How might we conceive of our offerings for those in need? “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov 19:17). Recall the complaint about the Christians from the emperor Julian the Apostate: “Those impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”

   Whatever our political ideology might be, Jesus and Paul established giving as a holy obligation. Never forget that for Paul, the poor also are required to help the poor! Some of the most courageous, impactful ministries for the poor I’ve seen in my lifetime are fully carried out by people we’d think of as poor. I have a friend in Lithuania who engages in startlingly effective ministry with the poorest of the poor – while she herself is poor. And when I’ve preached in Haiti, we take up a collection for, yes, the poor.

   As Christians we pursue a peculiar kind of charity that doesn’t stop when we put a check in an envelope. Charity without relationship really is toxic. How much church charity drills home the demeaning message that You are a problem, We are the answer, You have no worth, We will provide worth and you can thank us. Wesley was right: it is always better to deliver aid than to send it. Dives could have sat on the step with Lazarus and shared a meal, or invited him in to sit at his own table. Jesus did say “When you have a dinner, don’t invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor…” (Luke 14:7-14). The daunting but achievable and joyful goal is described by Stanley Hauerwas: “To know how to be with the poor in such a manner that the gifts the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient. For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us.”

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   Check out my book, valuable for preachers and laity during Advent (if you're looking for a group study), Why This Jubilee? - reflections on carols, sacred and secular.

Guest preaching - in Poland

 I had the rare and delightful privilege of preaching in Krakow on Sunday. Check out video and text. It was short - but with the translator it took twice as long!!


Sunday, June 27, 2021

What can we say September 18? 15th after Pentecost

  BTW, check out my Good Questions/No Easy Answers series - biweekly emails, weekly podcasts and videos!

   Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. I preached on this last go round; felt pretty good about it. Jeremiah, who’s never struck me as a joyful kind of guy, sadly announced “My joy is gone.” What was joy back in the Iron Age anyhow? His joy has deserted him, his heart is sick – but (for clergy feeling like this) notice his call has not been withdrawn!

   We sing “There is a balm in Gilead.” Jeremiah’s thought is different. Yes, Gilead has its balms, that region known for producing healing ointments – but they are of no use, as Israel’s illness is far too deep, eluding earth’s best medicines. Notice Jeremiah doesn’t ask God to alleviate his sorrow or dry his tears. He yearns for more tears. Do we clergy and do our people ever wish we wept more over those things that break God’s heart?

   If you do not know Maggie Ross’s The Fountain and the Furnace, I commend it to you as one of the wisest, most provocative and profound books on life with God and ministry ever. Here is just a small sample of what she says about weeping: “God baptizes us with tears. God loves creation enough to weep over it. As the divine breath still moves over the salted water of creation, so with tears Mercy bathes and mothers us into new life with her life. It is strange that we have repudiated our tears… We have lost the understanding that the salt of tears is the savor of life. We need to recover our understanding of the life-flood of tears, God’s and ours, that mothers the fire of our life.”

   1 Timothy 2:1-7. Preaching could devote itself properly to the idea that we pray “for kings.” Most people either grouse about the President (or other ruler/leader types) – or mindlessly fawn over him. What if we expended these energies in prayer for the one in power? The prayer itself is dicey, as it’s not a blessing of or divine endorsement of the powerful. Luke Timothy Johnson is helpful: “The prayer for rulers is the Jewish and Christian way of combining a refusal to acknowledge earthly princes as divine and the duties of good citizens of the world.” He claims there is “an implicit critique of any claims they might put forward concerning their absolute authority” when we place them in God’s hands.

   Verse 4 requires some pondering: Paul prays, yearns for, and believes in the possibility of all being saved. Christians have their gnostic tendencies, wanting to feel they are among the elect, while others (even fellow-Christians!) will be consigned to perdition. David Bentley Hart has a relatively new book out: That All Shall Be Saved, in which he explores the long-held belief by many of our greatest theologians through history that none will be lost. The preacher would need to process and communicate such an idea with delicate care.

   Perhaps we can always remind our people of the wideness to God’s mercy – and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s incontrovertible wisdom: we can and must at least hope that everyone will be saved. I’m not the judge, but if I love, and rank God’s love and power highly enough, I will never settle for believing that Yes, these guys are doomed and that’s fine with me. We yearn for, we hope for the salvation of each and every person.

   Luke 16:1-13. Commentators thrash against the curious constraints of this text, showing off their creativity on a text where Jesus praises a crooked dude – and I’m never impressed or settled enough with anything said to craft a sermon around it. Hard to beat Justo Gonz├ílez’s humorous remark: “It is not uncommon to see on our church windows portrayals of a father receiving a son who has strayed or of a sower spreading seed, or of a Samaritan helping the man by the roadside. But I have never seen a window depicting a man with a sly look, saying to another ‘Falsify the bill.’” Jesus always surprises us… and if you have an angle into this quirky text, let me know.

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


What can we say September 11? 14th after Pentecost

    Does the date, 9/11, still resonate deeply with people? Are there constructive ways to connect the grief with the dream, even tying it to what's going on in other places today - without the "Never forget!" and fear-mongering moods that have reshaped politics ever since? Can we even notice how "security" has trumped in over all other concerns since then - making us timid to do bold things, perhaps especially for God? 

   How does 9/11 raise in a peculiar way basic questions about God? You might be interested in the series we just commenced: Good Questions / No Easy Answers - including plenty sparked by 9/11! Is there a God at all? What about other religions? Does God protect us? Or is God in control? What is God's relationship to nation?

   Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28. How to preach these texts of unmitigated judgment? Tempting to blast the people I’m frustrated with… but Walter Brueggemann reminds me that there is an intense “sadness” in this indictment. The people are indeed “foolish,” and they have skills – in doing evil. Like a heartbroken parent, Jeremiah is united with God’s heart in weeping over this state of affairs – and I sense Jeremiah has a vulnerable sense of solidarity with them, not distant in his judgment, but finding himself inside their larger circle.

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

   Is our God a sirocco? Does God unleash horrors on us out of the swirl of God’s wounded, grieved heart? Or is it that God created the world with an order that isn’t flouted without consequences – and so when we get sideways with God, there are terrors? Martin Luther distinguished between God’s proper work and God’s “alien work.” Wrath is simply the goodness, the grace of God, but how it comes at us when we are at a bizarre angle or entirely out of sync with God. If we pray for God’s Spirit, will it be a cool, life-giving breeze, or a harsh, burning wind of judgment? Are our social anxieties, our political issues, fretting over security, family division, international strife and injustices abounding all instances of the harsh east wind of God’s sorrowing over us? Can I tell this in a way that moves my people to repentance (which Jeremiah himself didn’t get done!)?

   Psalm 14 lyrically exposes similar foolishness. It’s not intellectual atheism, but the more practical and insidious living as if there were no God. Brueggemann speaks of this one “whose conduct is disordered and without focus, because it is not referred to God.” Atheists seem really smart, actually - but the Psalm, in pondering those "fools who say in their hearts, There is no god," are characterized as "none who do good." Israelite theology is all about how you live, not any speculations you might have.

   Ellen Charry helpfully cites the Midrash on Psalms: “An architect who built a city making secret chambers and hiding-places in it, and then was made governor of the city. When he set out to catch the thieves in the city, they ran off and sought to hide themselves in the hiding places. He said: ‘Fools, would you hide yourselves from me? I am he who built the city! I know the way in and out better than you.’”

   1 Timothy 1:12-17. I first paid attention to this text when, on a retreat years ago, somebody handed me a little card saying “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me trustworthy in making me his minister” – 1 Timothy 1:12. My gut reaction was “This translation must be out of kilter, or tendentious in some way.” But the sense is Paul’s, expressing surprise and gratitude that, yes, God chose me to be God’s minister. I have had hundreds of these printed over the years. I stick them in notes written to clergy, I hand them out when I speak at clergy events, and I keep one in my car, one on my desk, and one in my sock drawer just to encourage and remind me.

   I once heard a preacher lunge into the vicinity of what Paul does here. I didn’t know him at all – but heard him declaring at some length “I am a worse sinner than any of you.” Hard not to scratch your head and wonder what he was harboring inside… Sermon didn’t go anywhere good. Luke Timothy Johnson spots the glory tucked inside Paul’s manipulative message: “The mercy shown Paul was not simply forgiveness of past behavior, but the gift of power that enables him to live in a new way.” Read slowly: Paul says “I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief” – the latter 2 we usually think of as what disqualifies you from receiving mercy!

    Luke 15:1-10, so familiar, so easy to trivialize. I preached on this in March (out of lectionary sequence!). Luke (humorously to me) mentions “tax collectors and sinners” – as if “sinner” was an occupation! I’ll never forget the evening we had my former coworker and constant friend Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor up in Germantown, Pa. now, back for a program. I opened by asking her a question she didn’t know I would ask: Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story –that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us. 

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

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

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

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

What can we say September 4? 13th after Pentecost

   Jeremiah 18:1-11. Grand opportunity for the preacher to learn some things, let someone discover her or his new calling, and engage the arts. Find a potter. A total stranger really will talk with you! – and interview him or her about pottery. This pandemic sermon includes this video of me talking with a potter (starting at the 9:30 mark)… It’s all super interesting theologically. Pottery is dirty work, but the dirt really becomes beauty. Centering is required, as is "opening up," not to mention trimming, firing, etc. Clay gets “spoiled,” so the potter “reworks” it. If it’s “wonky,” the potter has to “redeem” it. The potter is never sure how it will turn out; the clay “talks back” to the potter.

   The whole “dirt” business: this is quite literally what we are. Elizabeth Achtemeier put it cleverly: “We are dirt,, but God values us more than mud.” I think also of the great moment in James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. Sister Gee is flirting with Kevin Potts Mullen: “That’s my job, Officer. I’m a house cleaner, see. I work in dirt. I chase dirt all day. Dirt don’t like me. It don’t set there and say, ‘I’m hiding. Come get me.’ I got to go out and find it to clean it out. Same with you. The fellers you seek, crooks and all, ain’t saying ‘Here I am. Come get me.’ But I don’t hate dirt for being dirt. You can’t hate a thing for being what it is. I reckon it’s not fair to call someone living a wrong life a problem, or a mess… or dirt.”

   Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. What a preachable Psalm – if you promise not to over-explain things (the subject of a special blog I wrote recently)! Omniscience is a thing with God, but that’s no bracket on human freedom, or even on chance occurrences – which clearly happen! In my book, Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life series), I suggest we all do what this Psalmist did: ponder that we all once were microscopic, fragile, dependent, vulnerable little next to nothing wonders – and find ourselves in awe over God and the sheer fact that we made it when we may well not have.

   Jason Byassee links this text, the “shadow of the barely formed self in the womb,” to Gollum (close to the Hebrew golem in the Psalm!) in Lord of the Rings. This shadowy creature “is an image of us when we clasp anything other than the living God, thinking it will make us live. The psalm’s word is that even our golem self our not-formed-in-holiness self, is not unknown to God God treasures us at our worst.”

   Does the Psalmist keep feeling this urge to flee – which he declares is impossible? Jonah fled. We all flee in one way or another – but as Francis Thompson expressed it in his “Hound of Heaven,” “I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him, down the arches of the years; I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from him, and under running laughter… from those strong feet that followed with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy…”

   There’s so much here. “When I awake, I am still with you”? When we awake, we… check social media? The vitriol over enemies (which the lectionary foolishly lops off!)? Eugene Peterson suggested that these harsh Psalms pleading for vengeance are how you “cuss without cussing.” Offering it all up to God instead of harboring rage or judgment, or enacting it: this is God’s way. Anne Lamott’s notion is huge: “We can be sure we have remade God in our image when God has all the same enemies we do.”

   This text is about adoration and awe, with no “must” stuck in (the way Pro-Life people have politicized it!), reminding me of Thomas Merton’s thought on writing that fits preaching: “To write is to love; it is to inquire and to praise, to confess and to appeal. To speak out with an open heart and say what seems to me to have meaning. The bad writing I have done has all been authoritarian, the declaration of musts… The best stuff has been more straight confession and witness.”

   Philemon. A whole book as the lectionary epistle! For Labor Day, how could we reflect on unjust labor of any kind, given Paul’s appeal for this slave to be freed? It’s a confidential letter to a friend – but then it was certainly read aloud in the church. What pressure was Philemon under to liberate Onesimus once his fellow believers heard Paul’s words! How manipulative is Paul here? Instead of claiming apostolic authority, which he possessed, he dubs himself “a slave,” that is, one with Onesimus!

   Was Paul’s request granted? F.F. Bruce answers “Yes, or the letter would not have survived.” We even have the tradition that Onesimus became the bishop of Ephesus!

   Luke 14:25-33. No sweet Jesus here, inviting hatred of father and mother. We can handle the text, but dare not ignore it. Francis of Assisi is one of a horde of Christians who shattered their own families in order to follow Jesus. The moment Francis, being sued by his father Pietro, gave all he had back to him and swore his sole allegiance to God as his Father. I know I have a very personal story that fits this mold - and the question is always whether to tell something so personal and agonizing or not. It embodies the text quite vividly, but can distract from the main point?

    This taking up the cross isn’t grimacing and praying hard or doing without a few things for Jesus. Joel Marcus, in his great Anchor commentary on Mark, directs us to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had to say about going to death row in the Gulag – which is what taking up your cross would have meant: From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the threshold, you must say to yourself: My former life is over, I shall never return. I no longer have property. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious to me. I can’t re-use those words often enough in preaching.

   Jesus eases back a little from death row to counting the cost of building a tall tower. If I have time, I’ll refer to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, in which Tom, the mason, ruminates on what it means and requires to build a tall cathedral: “He had worked on a cathedral once. At first he had treated it like any other job. He had been angry and resentful when the master builder had warned him that his work was not quite up to standard: he knew himself to be rather more careful than the average mason. But then he realized that the walls of a cathedral had to be not just good but perfect. This was because the cathedral was for God, and also because the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure fatally. Tom’s resentment turned to fascination. The combination of a hugely ambitious building with merciless attention to the smallest detail opened Tom’s eyes to the wonder of his craft. He learned about the importance of proportion, the symbolism of various numbers, and the almost magical formulas for working out the correct width of a wall or the angle of a step in a spiral staircase. Such things captivated him.  He was surprised to learn that many masons found them incomprehensible.”  What if we thought of our life with God, our pursuit of holiness, our determination to be the church, in such thoughtful terms?

   One wrinkle though. If we ponder the cost of building, we might assemble lots of wood, bricks, shingles, nails, carpenters, painters, etc. – whereas the cost of discipleship, the cost of a holy life, is more divestment than assembling. You unload the stuff you have. Well, maybe you do keep the carpenter!

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

Two New Books Helping Me Rethink How I Preach

   Two very different books I’ve read lately have struck me as potentially helpful to me and maybe to you in the vocation of preaching. One is a semi-fictional narrative of a few months in Johann Sebastian Bach’s life, the other by a political speechwriter on great speeches that were, as the title suggests, Undelivered.

   First, on what didn’t get delivered: Jeff Nussbaum has written speeches for dozens of leading politicians in pivotal situations. Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches that Would have Rewritten History takes us on a tour of huge speeches that, for various reasons, didn’t get delivered. Eisenhower, if D-Day had failed. JFK, if they had bombed Cuba instead of blockading at sea. Helen Keller’s stinging diatribe on women’s rights. Nixon refusing to resign. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 victory speech. King Edward’s refusal to abdicate the throne. John Lewis’s pre-edited speech from the march on Washington in 1963.

   There is enough illustrative material here to keep a preacher busy for many weeks. But more importantly, Nussbaum explains how speeches are put together, why they work (or don’t) – and thoughtful inquiry into who’s listening, what time it is, when boldness or restraint are called for. How things are structured: his sequence of Attention, Need, Satisfaction, Visualization, Action is more helpful than any I've ever read in preaching manuals. He has an insightful discussion of whether and when we use We or I or You. And attention to little prepositions matters: would John Lewis speak of a march in America, or on America? I kept taking notes to help me rethink how I preach. I wished Nussbaum had taught preaching when I was in school – or today.

    I started with the audiobook, and wished I had the hard copy. But then the audio has real audio of Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, the fiery Emma Goldman. I now own both, and am glad.

   And then a very different read: James Runcie’s fascinating The Great Passion. It’s a novel, but tracking closely with reality. The story of a 13 year old, grieved over his mother’s death, not really wanted by his father, coming to Leipzig to study music. The school’s cantor, J.S. Bach, notices his voice, and takes him in not only as a student but into the Bach family home. It’s sort of a look at how the St. Matthew Passion came together from composition to performance from the perspective of inside the household and among singers and players. That’s how and where preaching comes to be: from somebody who lives in a home with people and situations and weariness and issues.

    A few passages struck me as revelatory for us: “Every time I walked through the streets of the town, I found it strange to contemplate the lives of others going about their daily business, with food to buy, medicines to fetch, debts to collect, money to earn. They were quite unaware of the time, anxiety and dedication we gave to the Passion, or how important we all thought it was.” You’re wrestling a Word from the Lord to the ground as you drive or walk, and no one has a clue. Reminded me a little of Tuesdays with Morrie: on learning of his mortal cancer diagnosis, he looks out the doctor’s window. “Outside, the sun was shining and people were going about their business. A woman ran to put money in the parking meter. Another carried groceries. Morrie was stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. ‘Shouldn’t the world stop? Don’t they know what has happened to me?’”

    The narrative of the Passion’s debut performance feels like my goal in preaching: “The story was the one we all knew. But what the Passion did was to make us feel that it belonged to all of us, here in Leipzig, for the first time. It was not a theological lecture, or a piece of rhetoric, or even an account of an event in the history of Palestine. It had become our story. It was happening now, during this performance, in the present tense, and I could see, on the faces of the congregation below, that they recognized they could do nothing more important than listen because they had become part of it all.” Can my sermon make them feel this story belongs to us, here, now?

    And then, although many citizens weren’t there, “It felt as if all Leipzig was in attendance: saints and sinners, old and young, contents and malcontents, the newly in love and the recently rejected; the disappointed, the forlorn and the forgiving: all God’s creatures, alone and together, hoping that, by listening to this music and being present at this service, they would allay the fear of death and be forgiven their sins and failings.”

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


What can we say August 28? 12th after Pentecost

   Summer's over. Back to school - or whatever the transitions may be for our people. How to tap that mood? Jeremiah offers plaintive warnings about losing your way. Hebrews gives us good cause not to be afraid - and Luke ponders with whom we hang out. All key in peculiar ways.

    Jeremiah 2:4-13. God sounds like a wounded lover or heartbroken parent here: “What wrong did they find in me?” Do we do this – finding fault with God? Or is it exasperation that the God of Scripture isn’t quite the God we’re looking for, or that God is inadequate somehow to what we'd assign to God?

   From God’s perspective, they “went after worthless things, and thus became worthless.” The Hebrew is hebel, featured so provocatively in Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”): hebel is a wisp, a breeze, nothing really, just dust settling. Can I show hebel somehow in my sermon? Dropping a little shred of paper or some dried up leaves?

   “You take on the character of the god you follow” (Walter Brueggemann). We become what our pursuits are, what we pay attention to. If we pursue God and substantive holiness, we become just that. Fascinating: our searching, our quest defines who we become! The preacher is wise to ask, Who are the vain recipients of our devotion? – and it’s such a long list. Political ideology, for sure. Things. Others. Self. Institutions – which Brueggemann hears as collapsing in this text. The church itself can be a vain recipient of devotion.

   On idolatry, and gods who are nothing reducing you to nothing, Thomas Merton, writing in 1965 but fitting today: "The great sin is idolatry. It is almost completely unrecognied precisely because it is so overwhelming, total. It takes in everything. Festishism of power, machines, possessions, sports, clothes, all kept going by greed for money and power. The Bomb is only 1 accidental aspect of the cult. We should be thankful for it as a sign, a revelation of what the rest of our civilization points to: the self-immolation of man to his own greed, and his own despair. Unless man turns from his idols to God, he will destroy himself, or rather his idolatry will prove itself to be his destruction."

   It’s about asking the right questions, and digging past the obvious. “Where is the Lord?” (a good question) needs modifying, since it’s not just any Lord, but “the one who brought us up out of Egypt.” The Lord isn’t a genie in a bottle or a personal assistant or an energy drink.

   Verse 8 should haunt all clergy: “The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me.” Can we answer well Jeremiah’s question “Do people change their gods?” Well of course they do, we do, we have, and will! “Can a nation change its god?” Nation can become the god, or it’s idolatry when we think we can compel the nation to follow a god of our own imagining. A sermon could explore the bogus gods we fixate on, and dream upon. We’re in a double fix: not only has God been forsaken, but the new fake deities gut us. Is Jeremiah pointed to a “cracked cistern holding no water”? We think our religiosity or busy-ness will hold water. What are the modern parallels for such cisterns?

   Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 is rich with homiletical potential! “Let mutual love (philadelphia!) continue” – but should we instead say “Let mutual love begin”? This Greek, philadelphia, reminds me of the Tom Hanks film by that name – about a man suffering from HIV and AIDS, simply asking, in those early days, for fairness, acceptance, justice and love. The goal of philadelphia isn’t merely enjoying people like us, but philoxenia, love for strangers.

   Why love them? We strangers have been loved. And, Hebrews, like Genesis 18 (Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers by the Oaks of Mamre), reveals that God has this quirky way of using the stranger to test us, to let God’s self be made known to us, for new life to come through them, the them who should be we/us. Tricky thing is, even if you think the stranger might be that angel, a divine visitor, you more likely think, Ehhh, probably not. Maybe to grow toward this philoxenia, the stranger we may need to learn to welcome is that stranger within, the me that is restless, feeling inadequate, exhausted, dislocated.

   “Be content”? The sermon must expose Madison Avenue and all advertising for what it is – a constant clamor of Do not be content! You need more, newer, different gadgets, stuff, clothes, experiences. Contentment isn’t even Okay, now I possess enough of those things. The Greek arkoumenoi means enough, sufficient – and then clarifies resides in God’s promise never to forsake us. Flannery O’Connor once spoke of the Eucharist, noting how it’s not much yet it’s more than enough: “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” 

   Kate Bowler’s terrific No Cure for Being Human, and then her devotional Good Enough probe this spiritual challenge and invitation with humor and wisdom.

   “Remember those in prison – as if you were in there with them.” Part 2 of that is bold. Not Pity them, or Pray for them. Envision yourself as in prison – in an act of solidarity, and the realization that we are all in bondage!

   What is an “undefiled marriage bed”? Two lie down: is the defilement lust (even then)? Dominance? Judgment? Iciness? Welcoming a stranger in this place is defilement! Listeners will suspect homosexuality might be in play here – and it must be the case that even those who totally embrace same gender relationships and marriage have to recognize that those beds too can be defiled in the same way straight beds are. “Let marriage be held in honor by all”? Thankfully it doesn’t say “traditional marriage”!

   Notice the proximity of hospitality to strangers and marriage. Isn’t Hebrews inviting couples to have missional marriages? Not asking God to make us happy or keep the peace, but What is God calling us, as a couple, to be and do? Is philoxenia our relationship’s mission statement? How to begin such a quest? Our Gospel lesson keeps it simple – but it’s oh so counter-cultural.

   Luke 14:1, 7-14 is my favorite text that stands so well on its own I’m tempted merely to read it, let folks ponder it in silence, then read it again and sit down: “When you host a dinner, do not invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor, maimed, lame, blind” requires zero finesse.

   Spiritual people love that old Moravian blessing, “Come, Lord, Jesus, our Guest to beAnd bless these gifts bestowed by Thee.” But if Jesus pulls up to your table, he asks who’s there, who isn’t there, and why.

   Our beloved The Bible is clear! Or We stand with Scripture! people avert their gazes, or scramble to rationalize. Notice Jesus doesn’t say Don’t only invite those who can invite you in return – but flat out, Don’t invite them! Sheesh. Jesus isn’t devising a program to feed the hungry – although he urges us to be sure they are fed. He’s on a mission to save our souls. I often say If you only hang around with people like you, you become arrogant and ignorant.

   I also love to tell this: I think of people who have with some grandiosity walked into my office with a ham, or a food gift card, asking me to get it to some poor person. On bad days I’d say Thanks! On better days I’d say Find someone and deliver it to them yourself. On my best days I’d say Take it home, and invite the people you have in mind into your home and share it with them. That’s a Jesus-y meal, right? Can you tell a story, even from your own having dinners, that might paint the picture?

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