Tuesday, June 1, 2021

What can we say October 10? 20th after Pentecost

   Job 23:1-9, 16-17. It’s hard to lop off a small section of the mega-drama that is Job. {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!}

But chapter 23 could serve well if we establish the context of unjust, unexplained suffering. Job’s plea: does he not express the human condition people bring to church? Not sunny cross-stitchable platitudes, but that God just can’t be found. He hides on the left, can’t locate him to the right. “If only I could vanish into darkness.”

   A few thoughts, beyond the underrated virtue of simply opening up the agony of the human situation in God’s presence. Remember Job here is responding to Eliphaz, one of his fake friends, who blame, explain away, and justify his suffering. William Blake captured their finger-pointing! Preachers must warn and cajole our people not to do this!

   Also: in Job’s reply to Eliphaz, we overhear his relentless pursuit of God, seeking God any and everywhere. Seeking but not finding God can be a good thing. The Cappadocian Fathers understood that the marvel of the Christian life is in the seeking, not the finding. Like young lovers missing their beloved, we aren’t intended to find and possess God, but always to be yearning, grasping – and even when we apprehend God in some small measure, we only realize then how much of God we have not understood at all, and so the seeking is all the more intense.

   But Job gets nothing except affliction from God. St. John of the Cross contextualized this by suggesting this “dark night of the soul” is precisely the way God “strips the soul, leaving understanding in darkness, the will in aridity, sometimes in bitterness and anguish.” So stripped, we might gravitate toward a less na├»ve, simpler faith.

   Job reiterates his most passionate desire: not that God would fix everything, but that “He would surely listen to me” (23:6). This is humanity’s deepest need: to be heard, to be understood. But entirely in vain, Job looks for God in all directions, east, west, north and south – wishing for but not finding the tender, comprehensive kind of love spoken of in W.H. Auden’s poem (popularized in Four Weddings & a Funeral): 

“He was my North, my South, my East and West.” Job is sure that God knows where he is. And why? Apart from God’s omniscience, it’s also that “My feet have stayed right in his tracks. I have kept his way and not left it” (23:11). He knows he’s close to God! It’s required much courage though: Job feels spooked, even terrorized by God (23:15); the proper “fear of the Lord” has, for Job, been perverted into something sinister.

   Hebrews 4:12-16. If I chime in with Hebrews and say “The Word is alive,” etc., the pious will nod, skeptics will whisper to themselves, Yeah, prove it. Fascinating: this Word is “piercing,” not “comforting.” How to redirect people’s expectations of what they’ll find, and so what they might look for in Scripture? I’d like to be pierced, please. No hiding. All is laid bare: this is Scripture’s surgical work.

   I think I’ll tell people it sounds like being flayed alive – but the priest with the piercer is the pierced one, the one able to sympathize with our weaknesses. Weakness, as I probe in Weak Enough to Lead, is simply reality, not something to be cured, overcome or repaired. I want to be weak. I am already. My toughness is all faked, superficial. Faith is weakness before mercy, not strength in front of God. And so we approach the throne “with boldness.” Worth reiterating: it’s a bold thing, praying, living for God, not casual, chatty, presumptuous or entitled.

   Some day I’ll devote a whole sermon to this “time” quote, as lots of those corny half-truths people are fond of involve time: God has his own timing! God’s an “on time God.” And so forth. God’s not watching God’s watch, waiting to intervene, then dipping that divine finger into the world to dazzle us with a quick miracle or a wink. The time of need? Like now. Or now. Isaac Bashevis Singer said “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time.” It’s not time for God. Time is God’s. All of it. And beyond.

   Mark 10:17-31. As texts speak to clergy (hopefully) long before they morph into sermons, let’s recall Karl Barth’s humorous and spot-on remark: “Can even the clergy be saved? With the clergy, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

   On heels of welcoming children, being childlike (context, context!), Jesus is approached by a grownup, mature, religious, successful, and way more clueless than the little children about being with Jesus. He asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Inherit? When we inherit money or property, it’s a gift, sure, but really it’s an entitlement. Watch someone not inherit what he thought he had coming! Children don’t understand stuff like inheriting. They just relish gifts.

   He thinks it’s a matter of doing. Jesus sets him up by asking about the commandments, prompting a funny (to us, not him!) reply: “I have kept all these since I was a boy.” Who among us has avoiding coveting, who’s observed Sabbath, no other gods, and if Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is any clue, avoiding adultery and murder (since for Jesus these are lust and anger)? Jesus doesn’t chuckle or admonish. Instead, “Jesus looked at him.” How tender, how personal. “And he loved him.” A total stranger, confused. “Jesus loved him.” Sarah Ruden renders this “Looking intently at him, Jesus felt affection for him.”

   Peering into the depths of his soul, Jesus says “One thing you lack.” Or Ruden: “You’re missing one thing.” Just one? Easy! Thought it might be a dozen or a hundred. To Martha, busy with entertaining, rushing about doing many things, Jesus said “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:42). Here, the “one thing” is really the same: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, then come, follow me.” We focus too much on the giving everything away, which seems foolish or impractical, although St. Francis of Assisi, Millard Fuller (founder of Habitat) and many have done just this.  

   I’m reminded of David Wilcox’s funny routine on when someone gives you directions and adds “Go down the road till you reach the really big blue Poodle and turn right. You can’t miss it,” “which is the kiss of death. Because then I’ll be driving and driving and I’ll think I must have missed it. Like love. I asked my parents, How will I know when it’s true love? They say Oh, you’ll know. Imagine, 85 years old, and I’m still looking for the big blue Poodle.”

   The point is “Come and follow me,” which this man can’t do because he’s enmeshed in his pre-exiting life, he can’t extricate himself, he has other priorities. Remember those first disciples dropped their nets, their business, and followed. Mary, unlike Martha, dropped her busy-ness to sit at Jesus’ feet. “The man’s face fell, and he went away sad.” Jesus makes you happy? He made this man sad.

   How hard is it for the rich to be saved? “Harder than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.” You may have heard there was a low gate in Jerusalem camels had to crawl through on their knees. False. Never was such a gate. It’s not really hard to be saved. It’s impossible – except with God! I love Frederick Buechner’s paraphrase: “It’s harder than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank.” Camels were the largest living creatures Jesus’ listeners ever saw, and the needle’s eye was the smallest aperture they could imagine. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Forget the doing. It’s all gift, not entitlement or earning. But to receive it, notice how full your arms are already…

  St. Augustine’s words can’t be improved upon: “Riches are gained with toil and kept with fear; they are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them, impossible if we love them, and scarcely can we have them but we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess.”

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   Unrevealed Until its Season, my new book of theological reflections on familiar lines from familiar hymns, has just come out! This would make a great group study for Lent, and might feed your preaching, and the connections between preaching and the rest of worship. Check it out!

What can we say October 3? World Communion Sunday

    World Communion Sunday. Adjacent to our texts, there must be lots of themes the day awakens in us for preaching. Early in the pandemic, we learned that contaminants in the air around the world were greatly diminished. What a lovely lesson, revealing how human industry and progress have imperiled the world. We have become painfully cognizant, if we weren’t before, of severe and regrettable disparities between rich and poor – in the world that is America, but even more around God’s world. Covid’s slaughter in India and Africa, and then the rapid availability of vaccines in America, where the world’s supplies were greedily snapped up: Lord, have mercy.

   This Sunday is always close to the Feast Day of St. Francis, and this year we’re right on it. Francis died just outside Assisi on the night of October 3. His tender care for all God’s creatures, his joyful life of preaching and prayer, his daring to travel with the Crusaders to meet the dreaded Muslims – and making peace with them! All resound on a day like this day. Check out my brief biographical blog on him, with lots of illustrative items, and also my favorite book I’ve ever written, Conversations with St. Francis, based on my pilgrimages to his places in Italy. On to our texts.

   Job 1:1, 2:1-10 might surprise us with preaching possibilities. Job isn’t a local guy but a foreigner. His devotion to God exceeds that of the home folks. The evangelist E. Stanley Jones, while a missionary in India, kept observing how Gandhi seemed far more Christlike than the Christians he’d known. Jones asked Gandhi’s advice to the Church. His reply? “Begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Don’t adulterate or tone down your religion. Emphasize love and make it your working force” – pointing out how we have “inoculated the world with a mild form of Christianity so it is now proof against the real thing.”

   Unjust, un-understood suffering is Job’s plight, and that of the people of the world. Job’s friends aren’t very good friends, as they judge him, they have vapid theological explanations for why he’s suffering, they urge simplistic prayers as quick fixes, they blame. How do we learn from these bogus friends how to befriend others near us and in farflung locations? Even Job’s wife is sketchy as a friend! Job is also evidence that bad things do happen to good people and that’s no cause to quit talking with God – and that goodness, even in the face of horrors, is humanly possible.

   Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12. I still bump into people who believe all that DaVinci Code blather about Jesus being just a guy until Constantine and 4th century theologians pasted divinity of him. Hebrews, written maybe 3 or 4 decades after the crucifixion (Luke Timothy Johnson would say only 2 decades!), when people were still walking around who knew him, spoke extravagantly and shamelessly about  Jesus in grander ways than we modern Christians might. He’ll inherit all things. He had agency in creation itself. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

   Hebrews was written to be read aloud – the whole thing! – to an audience. That audience was full of Christians who’d lost property, business, status and even families due to their peculiar allegiance to Jesus. They were weary, burnt-out we might say, that existential weariness we may have felt during the pandemic of living in a strange world, isolated, uncertain.

    Trying to reclaim enthusiasm about Jesus, and to instill courage in those tempted to shrink back from him, Hebrews digs into the Scriptures, primarily the Psalms! Psalms 8 and 110 figure prominently here. That feeling small before the magnitude of the cosmos, and the powers, the small person is invited into the glory of that other Small Person, Jesus. Hard not to adore that Hebrews touches on Jesus’ weariness – or maybe just what you do when your tasks are done: after the intense, exhausting labor of “making purification for our sin,” Jesus “sat down.” A little Shabbat, a Sabbath rest. You sit. You take a load off – since Jesus has taken our load off!

   Mark 10:2-16. What a depressing – and pitch-perfect text for World Communion Sunday. Divorce. Various parties in my denomination are filing for divorce. Nothing news. Churches have been breaking up forever. Neil Sedaka sang “Breaking up is hard to do.” Seems easier than staying together. I think in preaching we name this. We grieve. We don’t strut that we’re right and those other guys are wrong so now we’re clean on them.

   It’s no accident that, just after Jesus converses about divorce, he does his child welcome thing. The impact of divorce is always most agonizing on the kids. In church divorces too! The impact there is most likely that younger people see the church expending all its energy on a single issue, a decades-long spat and inability to wage any peace – and they simply shrug and say Why bother being part of such a Body? I get enough acrimony in politics or in my life. Church is not an alternative but a vapid echo of divisiveness everywhere else.

   The children being brought to Jesus: they aren’t sick. They’re just children, whose parents sense his touch will bless. The disciples are in the old-timey “Children are to be seen, not heard” camp – a bit different from today, when children are seen, heard and virtually idolized. They shush them, and try to escort them away. But “when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said ‘Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’”

   What to Jesus was special about children? He’d been one: God showed God’s self to us – as a child! Is it that they are vulnerable, dependent, easily amazed, the future not foreclosed? or that they don’t bother hiding their emotions? In our culture, children get politicized. The “right to life” folks have valid points theologically. They, and all of us, are invited to attend vigilantly also to life after birth, what happens to vulnerable children, immigrant children, all children. Jesus always has this preferential option for the youngest.

   Perhaps we should as well. Ask the young what to do with the church, what to do with the world. Is it any accident that Greta Thunberg rallied the whole world to care about the world – and simultaneously polarized others swift to demonize her?

What can we say September 26? 18th after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we say September 19? 17th after Pentecost

 

   Proverbs 31:10-31. This text makes me shiver a little, as I’ve heard it trotted out so often, especially at funerals, to praise a wife or mom – not wrongly, but this long and eloquent poem about the best wife ever packs its surprises. She’s “competent” (CEB)? An understatement: the Hebrew hayil means “powerful, valiant, heroic.” As Ellen Davis (in her commentary) points out, in v. 11, her husband “will have all he needs” really should be “no lack of booty” (as in spoils from raiding), and “providing food” in v. 15 should be “providing prey.” This woman is a tough, outdoor adventurer, not a sweet, domestic fixture. “Her arms are powerful” (v. 17). Then Davis, in Preaching the Luminous Word, counters the way we might scoff over gender roles here, noting not only the power of this woman, but also that she stands as a challenge to us with her prosperous household-based economy - given our vision that value is only had outside the home.

   This poem is an acrostic: the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second line with the second letter, etc. She is praised “from A to Z.” But is she too good to be true? Don’t we exaggerate to flatter the one we admire? Does this poem, written in an ancient, agricultural milieu, even make sense in our world? Or can we, as the theologians of old did, read this woman as the ideal Church, the bride of Christ? Can we see this idealized woman as the ideal for Israel as a people?

     In speaking of wives, Proverbs has its dismissive moments (19:13, 21:19, 27:16). Here we see that wisdom is also (and more so) taking time to praise, thank and honor verbally the one you love. No one gets too much encouragement. Love is noticing and then articulating the beauty and light in the beloved.

   James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a. I’ve not typically preached much on these seemingly moralizing texts, fearing I’d let grace, and the resurrection slip out of view and reduce Christianity to being nice or good. But in our day, people are clueless about how to be nice or good, much less holy. This text is about wisdom, something no one bothers to pursue much. We know smart people. We strut around with our political ideology – which makes no pretension to wisdom.

   The brother of our Lord distinguished between the wisdom from above (this is the beautiful gift in James 1:17?) with “earthbound, unspiritual, demonic” pseudo-wisdom. Maybe we’d call it “conventional wisdom,” those truisms trotted out by society that might appear on posters or bumper stickers and muttered mindlessly at a self-help convention. Just not of God. A sermon could recount many of them, the kinds of things that make people nod, but mask an underlying pattern of thought that is contrary to James’s brother’s way.

  As Jesus’ brother, James had to have felt intense jealousy when the crowds packed in around him – but then maybe not so jealous when they flogged and crucified him. Ambition? Jesus semi-failed in his, or at least in others’ ambitions for him. James’s letter says “If you have jealousy and ambition, don’t lie against the truth.” Thomas Merton, in a lovely journal entry back in 1951, wrote, “As long as I do not pretend, as long as I do not trade in false coin nor camp too much upon flowers, prayers can always mend me. The windows are open. Let the Psalms fly in.”

   James learned to speak of “wisdom’s meekness” (verse 13), with clear echoes of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matt. 5:5) – which James just might have heard! Did he know of Paul’s thoughts on the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23)? Verse 17 suggests that wisdom is “open to persuasion, filled with mercy and good fruits.” There are those fruits, and the mercy. And “open to persuasion.” We think it’s godly or patriotic or whatever to have everything figured out, the trap door of the soul slammed shut and the key thrown away. But the wise are always listening, learning, open – like Merton’s windows!

    Mark 9:30-37. I grin, even chuckle a little over our beloved disciples in this text. Jesus talks. They’re baffled – but “they were afraid to ask.” So many things we need to ask about, but do not – for fear of looking dumb? For fear the answer might not be our preferred answer? That the truth might cost us something?

   Then Jesus overhears them chatting along the road. He asks what they were talking about, but “they were silent,” afraid he’d learn and not be tickled they were bickering over “who is the greatest among them.” Peter: “I’m his favorite.” John: “Well I never did dumb stuff like you.” James: “I’m the best candidate to lead after he’s gone.” Philip: “I’m smarter than you all.” Matthew: “I’m way richer than you poor dudes.” Jockeying for position, yet with the hunch that the one they hope to sit near in glory is all about the antithesis of jockeying for position.

   Not many of us serve up the braggadocio of a Muhammad Ali: “I am the greatest!” But in our insecurity and anxiety, we puff ourselves up, feeling we’re right, we’re ok, we’re going the proper way while others probably aren’t. Jesus so typically responds not by giving them a thrashing or sighing in derision. He simply takes a child playing nearby. Tradition has suggested maybe it was Peter’s son or daughter! Or some claim it was little Ignatius before he grew up to be the famous St. Ignatius of Antioch!

   The preacher needs to be careful before waxing too eloquently on this child business. Children are innocent? – but they swipe things, whine, pout, do the opposite of what you ask. Children are pure? – but the early Church’s theologians believed in original sin for a reason. Maybe it’s this sort of thing: children have some naivete, some openness to how things might turn out, a readiness to forgive and welcome and love and hug. Children are too little to boss big people, or anybody much. They are never, ever afraid to ask anything! They’re no good at being secretive. They are dependent, and they know it.

   We look to the children. We try to be like them. We realize we are children, immature, yes, small and vulnerable, thinking we want a gaggle of gadgets but really we’re satisfied with just a cozy snuggle, a good book, something sweet, a game with others or a dandelion no grownup would ever even notice. Sarah Ruden’s new translation provides an interesting wrinkle: “Whoever takes in one child like this in my name takes me in.” Maybe Jesus was thinking of the vulnerable, those who weren’t fully people in the world’s eyes, and how we give ourselves over to caring for them.

   When we looked at Mark 8, we pondered Jesus being “handed over.” This verb paradidomi means handed over, betrayed – and we see Jesus remarkable shift from being a powerful actor on the stage of history to being a passive, vulnerable one acted upon by others. He put himself into the hands of betrayers and foes – and he puts himself into our hands to do with as we will. Daring? Preachable! – and true.

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   If you're looking ahead to Advent, check out my book for laity, which also works for clergy in sermon preparation, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections on Songs of the Season.


What can we say September 12? 16th after Pentecost

    Proverbs 1:20-33. Last week I spoke of my dream of preaching a series on Proverbs. As people navigate what they perceive as boundaries between sacred and secular, it’s intriguing that Proverbs appears to teach about secular things, while the sacred was covered by priests, temple, sacrifice. Wisdom understands that nothing is merely secular; everything is sacred. God made and cares about everything. What we do with our pots and pans, whether you step on a worm, the next check you write, or a tree in your backyard: all are part of God’s world, all require some patient attention from the spiritually attuned. John Wesley’s great gift to Christendom is what he called “practical divinity.”

   Derek Kidner described Proverbs well: “Its function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes; to name business and society as spheres in which we are to acquit ourselves with credit to our Lord, and in which we are to look for his training . . . There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the Law and the broadsides of the Prophets.” Wisdom is comprehensive discipleship.

   Our text is the key in the 9 chapter overture to the book, which sets the pithy sayings in rich context, originating with God, intimately interwoven into the life of faith. Alternating voices, parent with child, then the Wise Woman in the street, back home, then to a more wily, dangerous Woman in the street, back to the family, before the Wise Woman has her final say. Wisdom is all over family life, ants crawling in the yard, and also the street, the workplace, shopping, friendship, strangers, politics, and real dangers to body and soul.

   Street dangers? Ask a parent of an adolescent, any anybody with a pulse. Out there we encounter real danger, delusion, the very real, possibility that poor choices will be made, that wisdom will be frittered away or flat-out rejected. This is the drama of the inner life. Real, daily life with God is a thousand little choices in hundreds of reenacted scenes. Are you going on to perfection? Or just sliding by, hoping God isn’t interested in business, romance, or friendship, or that all will be forgiven—so why risk becoming fastidious?

   “Wisdom shouts.” Wisdom isn’t inaudible. She’s like a street preacher or a peddler, but with holy wares. If Proverbs fretted over the competing racket in the world, how much harder is it for us today to hear Wisdom’s voice above the din? Some inner quiet, and an attentive ear are required.

   Wisdom asks “How long?” Usually this question, frequently occurring in the Psalms, is voiced toward God by those puzzled by God’s seeming absence. How often is our sense of God’s absence a predictable outcome of a life that has “paid no attention” to Wisdom? Tone of voice is hard to determine in Scripture. “They didn’t want my advice”: is Wisdom annoyed, or disgusted? Or is there a plaintive pain in her voice?

   Her shouts in the public square remind us of the origins of Methodism, where the Wesleys took the Gospel out of the churches and into the streets and factories. We also recall that Jesus—“the foolishness of God . . . wiser than human wisdom”—was executed on a wide street for all to see; his voice still calls to us, “How long will . . . mockers hold their mocking dear? . . . I invited you, but you rejected me.”

   Psalm 19 is pretty inviting for a sermon. I preached on it during our Psalm series in the Spring (watch here). We begin with Creation, big creation, like from 15 billion years ago, inviting us to be in awe, not because it’s photogenic, but because it reveals God’s mind and heart. There’s music in the air… Ancient people believed the stars left music in their wake as they streamed across the sky. Science says No, but then we miss the awe, the joy. Paired quite naturally with this is the Psalm’s pleasure, sheer delight in the Law. Not a burden, not to make us chafe, but the marvelous gift of the God who created so we then can be created, re-created as beautiful people in sync with God’s lovely, sweet ways in the world.

   In my sermon, I explored this healthy, joyful approach to the law, leading off with Zora Neale Hurston's great capture of the moment Moses came down from Sinai with the tablets: "Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. Joshua, I have laws!" 

  And then on the being "perfect," this lovely reflection from Kathleen Norris. She was asked by a priest if she'd pray for him. She fretted about whether she could do this well or not: "I realized that was my pride speaking, the old perfectionism that’s dogged me since I was a child. Well, or badly was beside the point. Of course I could pray, and I did. Perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know. It is a marked characteristic of American culture, a serious psychological affliction that makes people too timid to take risks and causes them to suffer when, although they’ve done the best they can, their efforts fall short of some imaginary standard. ‘Perfect’ isn’t about striving for impossible goals. It is taken from a Latin word meaning ‘complete, entire, full-grown.’ To those who originally heard it, the word conveyed ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’" 

   James 3:1-12 is a scary text for the clergy. We’re judged against some higher standard? We might push back against laity who think so. They have a biblical point – although they might veer into irrelevancies. We are called to lead, not just by droning on up front in worship, but in living a life that is interesting, and at least veering toward the holy. James’s word “perfect” in verse 2 is teleios in Greek, meaning mature, complete, not squeaky clean, mistake-free, unbroken. We Methodist clergy promise at our ordination that we will be going on to perfection. Not a flawless but a purposeful life and ministry direction. A wise old preaching once said “If you’re not going on to perfection, then where exactly are you headed?”

   The image of the bit in the horse’s mouth illustrates – as Plato envisioned the controlling of the passions in the opening sentences of The Phaedrus. It’s not tamping down our passions, but directing them. If you’ve ridden horses, or driven a motorboat (the rudder image here also!), talk about that, how it’s not afflicting the horse or the boat, but the only way peacefully to move forward in a beautiful way to some attractive destination.

   St. Augustine humbles us: “The Lord wants gentle, compliant animals for his use. So, be the Lord’s beast. Be gentle. He sits on you. He controls you. Weakness is characteristic of you, but think who your rider is. A donkey’s colt you may be, but you are carrying Christ.”

   The genuinely scary small thing is, of course, the tongue. We’ll face an uphill battle persuading our people that how we talk, what we post to Facebook, our chatter at a diner or by the watercooler, matters to God, and is our witness. It’s not mouthing sugary sweet things, but asking if our words build up, are constructive, and in some way mirror the Fruit of the Spirit. In my book, Worshipful, I look closely at how we talk in worship, so the creed, the prayers, etc., and how then we are learning how to talk out there. Not a testimony of how I came to Christ, but some wisdom perhaps?

   Richard Bauckham, commenting on this passage way back in 1998, was remarkably prescient about the sad, rancorous place we’ve found ourselves when it comes to that perilously fiery small thing, the tongue: “The best instance in which a contemporary concern approaches James’s moral interest in the tongue is that of the mass media, whose power to distort the truth and to do considerable harm to private persons, as well as exerting considerable influence on political events, for good or ill, has become more and more evident.”

   Mark 8:27-38 is the axis on which the entire story of Jesus turns. If you’ve not preached well on this, you should… although I may go with Proverbs and James as I’ve covered this text quite a few times. I’ll point you to my previous blog – although I would add these spot-on insightful renderings from Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Gospels: instead of “He spoke openly,” she has “He was giving this discourse with confident freedom.” Peter spoke “sternly” to him. Jesus then “castigated” Peter. And then her championship line: “If someone wants to follow behind me, let him renounce all claim to himself, pick up the stake he’ll be hung on, and follow me.” Boom. All spiritual sentimentality swept aside in a moment.

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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.

Merton and the Shy Preacher

    Thomas Merton keeps helping me reimagine my preaching. I’m a shy introvert, although years ago I tested E instead of I on the Myers-Briggs. I was surprised, but pleased. I think I gave my wannabe, oughta-be answers. A pastor? You’ve got to be a people person, loving crowds, loving being up front – right? But I’d really rather stay home, or sit on the back row. What does it mean to bare open your heart, not only to God but to the people, when you’re fairly private about your inner, personal life?

   Do I preach to be effective? or even for them out there? I went into this, less for them, and more because back then I simply loved Jesus and hoped to run a few errands for him. Could I have been his errand-runner in a less public way?

   I am rethinking this in light of a journal entry from 1949, which reveals Merton reflecting on being a famous writer, dissonant in a way, as his real preference was to be alone, or at least alone with God:

   “It seems to be that writing has become one of the conditions on which my perfection will depend. If I am to be a saint – and there is nothing else that I can think of desiring to be – it seems that I must get there by writing books in a Trappist monastery. I must put down on paper what I have become… to put it down on paper, with complete simplicity and integrity, without exaggeration, repetition, useless emphasis. To be frank without being boring: it is a kind of crucifixion. A complete and holy transparency: losing myself entirely by becoming public property, just as Jesus is public property in the Mass. Perhaps this is my way to solitude. One of the strangest ways so far devised, but it is the way of the Word of God.”

   If I substitute “preaching” for “writing” in this passage, I have a path toward rethinking my calling. As a Methodist, we “go on to perfection,” and my way involves preaching. I do wish to be frank, not boring – and being frank, utterly transparent, can feel like a mini-crucifixion. I don’t like feeling like public property, but Jesus was and is just that. So if I am close to him, if I yearn to be a saint, the road is standing up front, and talking, as well as I can but never sufficiently, standing there as a target for criticism, repeatedly misunderstood – dare I say it? like Jesus was? It’s exhausting, but I get some peace, and energy, seeing my preaching as my holiest offering of me to be as close as possible to my Lord.

   What a strange way God has devised for me, and for others like me, who preach.

What can we say September 5? 15th after Pentecost

   Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23. While I was writing the commentary on Proverbs for the Wesley One Volume Commentary, I kept circling back to my lifetime dream of preaching a series on Proverbs! The cultivation of wisdom, not just faith or mercy or even holiness in the church, gets scant attention. And the peril of veering into corny moralism would pose many risks. Maybe a class or two, if not a sermon series? Great timing for Proverbs to make this cameo appearance – with school beginning! A time to ponder learning, youthful maturity and why it matters.

   The lectionary, for obscure reasons, picks 6 distinct proverbs. Pick any 6, really! Of most interest here is the saying in verse 2, easily preachable. What do the rich and poor have in common? “The Lord made them both.” Notice the text does not say the Lord made the rich rich, and the poor poor. Foolish theology suggests that God has arranged things as they are; the God who is “in control” “makes no mistakes.” But wealth and poverty happen for myriad reasons, and if Acts 2-4 is any indication, God would prefer a redistribution of wealth instead of pridefulness in the wealthy and shame in the poor.

   The Hebrew translated “have in common,” nipgashu, literally means to “meet” or “come together.” Usually they do not come together. Is there a hint in the proverb that they could, or should? The Lord made them both. Early Christianity seemed bent on shattering social boundaries. Acts 16 narrates a church with wealthy Lydia, a slave girl and a jailer. Paul fumed against those who tried to preserve pre-conversion social distinctions at the Lord’s table (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The proverb before this one claims that “high esteem” is better than silver and gold. Esteem in whose eyes? The Lord’s? The poor’s? Is a Christian goal perhaps to be like Dorcas, on whose death all the poor of the city grieved, and showed off all she had done for and with them (Acts 9:39)?

   James 2:1-17. Some wisdom, proverbs actually, from Jesus’ brother! “Show no partiality.” We do all the time. Jesus did too – but his partiality was toward the poor, those shunned, the untouchables. Yet I think of Kathleen Norris being impressed by monks she met in the monastery: "When celibacy works, when me have given up possessing women, healing can occur. I've seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and response as to her conventionally pretty roommate."

   If a well-dressed man comes in…? In my formal church people would say Welcome! In an informal, dress-down church people would raise eyebrows! James is after our fawning and deference – even in the privacy of our minds – toward the rich. I pastor a church with many wealthy people. I have to encourage my new staff, none of whom come from wealth, to work on how you feel about wealth, so we don’t despise, or envy, or mock, or fawn. St. Francis enacted what unfolds when he gave away his finery, took on the garb of the meekest, and got sued by his own dad. {On Francis, check out my favorite of my books, Conversations with St. Francis}

   The good works James lifts up amount to generosity, especially to the poor. Another virtue we don’t attend to as we should, except as we’re meeting the budget (or not). Generosity is a fruit of the Spirit (if you translate Galatians 5 with the great F.F. Bruce). In Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead, a man boasts that his grandfather “never kept anything that was worth giving away, or let us keep it either… He would take laundry right off the line. I believe he was a saint of some kind. When he left us, we all felt his absence bitterly. There was an innocence in him. He lacked patience for anything but the plainest interpretations of the starkest commandments, ‘To him who asks, give,’ in particular.”

   Generosity does not ask tough questions about the recipients of the generosity. Jesus simply said, “To him who asks, give” (Matt 5:42). Mother Teresa cared for the poorest, and insisted repeatedly that we do not need to know all about why they are poor; we simply love them, and we thus love Jesus by loving them – and there is the joy, not in demanding explanations or assigning blame. God loves the cheerful giver, not the giver who insists on measured results. Generosity is “an unmeasured willingness to give. It is a warm, delightful, instinctive self-spending for God and others. It is the uncalculated response to all that is asked” (Evelyn Underhill).

   How might we conceive of our offerings for those in need? “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov 19:17). They not only lend to the Lord. They provide credible witness to the Church’s worth and blessing to the world around us. I wish, before we took up the offering each week, I could remind my people about the complaint the Roman emperor Julian, the one who reversed the Christianizing of the empire and tried to make it pagan, lodged against the Christians he was trying to discredit: “Those impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.” Were we more generous with the offering, skeptics who scoff at the church would be exasperated by all the good we’d be doing right in their faces.   {these past 3 paragraphs are excerpted from the chapter on The Offering in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.}

   Mark 7:24-37. Sarah Ruden’s new translation (The  Gospels) quite rightly renders kunarion as “little doggies,” instead of “dog.” Try it. Better. More pitiful, more dismissive. Dogs, we might recall, did not enjoy warm relationships with humans back in Bible times. I can’t really improve upon my blog from last time around on this great story (highlighted by thoughts from Morna Hooker, Garth Brooks, Martin Luther, and Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s stunning sermon “Crumbs”) – except to note that the “leftovers” are the same word used for the basketsful (basketfuls?) they collected after Jesus fed the 5,000. And how intriguing that this woman wins her argument with Jesus, just as Moses won his argument with God in Exodus 32 – implying God must invite arguments and be willing to lose a few. The crucifixion was, oddly, a lost argument, right?

 

What can we say August 29? 14th after Pentecost

   Song of Songs 2:8-13. I keep planning to preach a whole sermon series on the Song of Songs, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and a great many others greater than I have done. How marvelous, that the Bible contains erotic (but not pornographic) love poetry! What a glorious gift of God – and what a vivid image of what life with God might be, what it has been for saints through history. 

   I love Robert Jenson’s theologically robust commentary: “The canonical plain sense rightly takes human sexual love as an analogue of the love between the Lord and Israel…” This does not mean that “our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation by projecting it… It’s just the other way around. Human lovers’ relation to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.”

  Our text, in chapter 2: Paul Griffiths makes much, as did our medieval predecessors, of verse 9. “There he stands behind our wall, gazing in through the windows and lattice.” We cannot see God, but he can see us. God is concealed behind a wall. Our way! Yet there are little windows, openings, to let the light in, so we might hear what’s transpiring on the other side of the wall.

   Dare the preacher speak of human intimacy, as Scripture does? And to suggest that our relationship with God might be similar, or even better?

   James 1:17-27. I love preaching on James. So practical. So un-Lutheran! To contemplate that these words were written by the brother of Jesus? What greater testimony might there be to the wonder of Christianity than that Jesus’ siblings, who’d shared meals and play space and chores with him might believe, and preach?

   James 1 is such an elegant, preaching-rich text. “Do not be deceived.” Deception is everywhere, spin, ideology, versions of truth, or the virtual absence of truth. “Do not be deceived” implies we might be, but we need not be! Truth is a real thing.

   Notice the repetition. It’s not merely Good from God, or gifts from God. Words pile up to be sure we get God’s extravagance. God’s gifts aren’t merely good but “perfect.” The Greek teleios doesn’t mean squeaky clean, but mature, complete, the fulness of what is needed. Such perfect gifting is “from above.” The Greek, anothen, is identical to what Jesus said to his nocturnal guest, Nicodemus. Being born “again,” or “from on high” (anothen).

   Seems unnecessary to declare God as “unchanging,” but given the moody temperaments of ancient deities, capricious at best, to declare we have a God who is trustworthy, consistent, reliable, steady.

   Notice James on the subject of speed. Quick to hear, slow to anger. We are, generally, just the opposite. James feels a tad contrary to Paul here. Luther and others… but it’s superficial (I’m calling Luther “superficial”?). I love Richard Bauckham’s thoughts: “When James says justification is by works, he does not have in mind the works of self-reliance which compromise faith. Beneath the surface of disagreement, there is a deeper agreement… That there are considerable differences between James and Paul is not in doubt. But they should not be exaggerated at the expense of notable similarities. In a conversation between James and Paul, there would be much nodding of heads and smiling agreement, as well as some knitting of brows and some exclamations of surprise.”

   Knitting of brows! James uses the “putting aside” language, which was the same word used for taking off / changing clothes. In Baptism, converts took off their old clothing, exchanging for a new white robe. And who could forget Francis of Assisi, sued by his father Pietro Bernardone, simply removing his clothing, owed to his father the cloth merchant, declaring his father isn’t Pietro but “Our Father in heaven.” Check out my explication of all this in his life and thought in Conversations with St. Francis.

   James climactically urges us to become “doers” of the Word, not just hearers. The Greek ginomai implies we are to “become” doers. It takes some time, it’s a life process; it’s something you do, but it’s something you become a doer of. Doing God’s will – something we speculate about! I love Francis of Assisi’s daily prayer. “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do what is truly your most holy will.” Do. Very James-ish.

   Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. Not Jesus’ most preachable moment… Concerns for purity seem noble, but confuse us, and isolate us from God and others. It becomes avoidance, keeping our distance from people and things, keeping our hands clean – when, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, God asks us to get our hands dirty for God.

   Sarah Ruden’s fresh translation of the Gospels is always worth consulting. Her verse 8: “Throwing away God’s command, you hold to what human beings have handed down.” There’s an assumption here that there are wrong people. But there are no wrong people. G.K. Chesterton shrewdly wrote that “St. Francis liked everybody, but especially those whom others disliked him for liking.” So it is with Jesus, and his people. {Check out the great podcast interview Sarah Ruden gave me on the art of Bible translation!}

   William Placher wisely points here to Flannery O’Connor’s great story, “Revelation.” Ruby Turpin, an overly good and judgmental woman, tries to make sense of a young woman railing at her, “Go back where you came from, you old wart hog.” She’s respectable, “not racist.” But she has a vision that evening of “a vast swinging bridge… Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven> There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics… Bringing up the end were those who, like herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right… Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” I’m never sure a preacher should attempt to reiterate such a story – but gosh, on this text, the effort might just be worth it.

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   If you're planning toward Advent, for preaching or church groups, consider my short, stocking-sized reflections on various phrases and lines in Christmas carols and secular Christmas music: Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections on Songs of the Season.