Saturday, January 1, 2022

What can we say October 2? 17th after Pentecost / World Communion

    Every year at this time, I recall Albert Outler’s great World Communion Sunday sermon, preached at Highland Park UMC in 1969: “This particular Sunday began twenty hours ago at the International Dateline in the western Pacific — and the earliest celebrations were in palm-thatched chapels in Fiji, Samoa, and Micronesia. Then, as the day fled westward round the globe, other Christians in other countries gathered in their churches to invoke the living presence of Christ in his sacrament and to receive his healing power in their hearts and lives — in Japan, the Philippines, Asia and Australia; in Turkey and Greece and Russia; in Africa, Europe and the Americas — Christians of every race and color, of all languages, dress and custom, in every conceivable circumstance of life and fortune. Christians, we now know, are a minority in the world, but on such a day as this we loom larger than usual because of our self-conscious community, generated and sustained by this universal sacrament of God’s love in Christ.”

   I’ve been a bit obsessed with E. Stanley Jones lately, after reading Jack Harnish’s book and chatting with him about it in my podcast, "Maybe I'm Amazed." Exploring the lives of great Christians who lived in other cultures, not mashing them down, but living, being, learning there can revitalize us. Jones’s friendship with Gandhi helped him and us recover much that’s lost about our own faith. Gandhi’s suggestions, that we take Christ seriously, getting the real thing instead of a mere inoculation of the thing, the mild version protecting us? And living in real love and compassion, attentive to others who think differently and learning from them to deepen our own life with God?

  And, this year, for me, it's World Communion Sunday, as in the world, creation, not merely the people on planet Earth. Why care for God's good earth? Is it to save the world, or our futures? Is all this bunk, and we should just consume as we wish? "Science is real" signs stand in yards in my neighborhood... I think of St. Francis, whose Feast Day we are upon. His care for nature wasn't protective or political. He simply saw what God had made and wanted not only to protect it, but to adore it, to praise it, to join in praise with all God had made. As good a theological read on such things as I can envision...

   How strangely fitting that our first lectionary reading on this Sunday when we ponder God’s worldwide church is Lamentations 1:1-6! This sorrowful dirge over Jerusalem, devastated by the Babylonians, portrays God’s church in haunting ways. “How lonely the city once full, how like a widow, the princess has become a vassal, she weeps bitterly…” Explanations aren’t required; just let the language and images dangle, and even indict. “Her friends have become her enemies.” “No one comes to her festivals.”

   The lost majesty, the bitter lot: has the world simply crept long enough to finally squash us? Or does verse 5 explain things: “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”? I can’t be sure, and I don’t think the preacher needs to pick. Lift it up, as a tease or open question: the church is in considerable demise? Is it the world, the culture, the media, materialism triumphant? Or is it on us for our timidity, our bungling, our self-serving vapidity? This isn’t negativity, but the simple, frank truth about God’s church on this day.

   It is still God’s, so it is to God we speak. Claus Westermann’s summary assessment of the whole book is spot on: “Lamentations did not arise in order to answer certain questions or to resolve problems. These songs arose as an immediate reactions of the part of those affected by the collapse. The ‘meaning’ of these laments is to be found in their very expression. Questions of a reflective sort arose only secondarily; they are of subordinate important to the lamentation itself. The real significance resides in the way they allow the suffering of the afflicted to find expression.” Then he adds, “That sufferers have been given the opportunity to pour out their hearts before God is seen in the Old Testament as itself an expression of divine mercy.”

   While the crushing defeat and destruction of Jerusalem makes our small, “first world problems” look meager, we do experience a similar collapse of the known world. Can we help our people rediscover lament, not to explain things or fix things, but to give people the opportunity to pour out their hearts before God? Here’s what conservative and progressives surprisingly share in common: the crumbling of their world; I heard Walter Brueggemann voice a similar thought on Krista Tippett's On Being a couple of years ago. Conservatives fear when they see their familiar, tried and true world they’ve known and loved crumbling around them – and progressives fear that the world they dream of will never become reality. Conservatives fear the loss of the church they've treasured; progressives fear that the church they yearn for will never come to be. Can a sermon unite them in their shared loss? Is our fractured state the real locus of who we are on World Communion Sunday as we fracture the bread? Can the preacher, in this very simple way (by naming both losses and fears), build a bridge?

   In such agonizing circumstances, relationships matter. Writing from prison, Paul expresses immense tenderness and an overflow of love for his colleague, his friend, closer than even a son, in 1 Timothy 2:1-14. In a situation every bit as forlorn as that of ours or the ancient Judaeans, Paul dwells on tears, his and Timothy’s. He is gravely concerned that what he and the early Christians are enduring will feel like shame – which is so often the case. Tears, for Paul, are the way to joy.

   Paul offers a profound, shocking alternative to shame – inviting Timothy to be rekindling of the gift within you from the laying on of hands. The Greek (maybe better rendered “re-igniting”) is anazopureo, which echoes anamimnesko, to recall. Reigniting is rooted in recollection. Do clergy preach this? Or simply reignite their own hopefulness? 

   Recalling my calling, and all that ramped up to ordination, when hands were laid on me, is a healing salve for me. When we graduated seminary, I do not recall thinking I want to go to meetings, or I want to make budgets, or even I want to preach sermons. Way back then, I really just felt an intense love for Jesus, and wondered if he had any errands I might run for him. Period. Recalling that somehow re-energizes me, at least for a little while. I wonder if the world church... if we can envision such a real entity... might do well to do some recollecting and reigniting, not by digging in institutionally, but by getting younger, freer, nimbler?

   We do what we do, not so much by choice, right? Paul is an apostle “because God wills it” (v. 1). God’s spirit isn’t my spirit but God’s – and it isn’t cowardice but power and love. We preachers have a holy calling – “not according to our works” (and dang, have I been working hard!) “but according to his purpose and grace.” Verse 12 clinches it: “God is able” – not “I am able.” How often are we clergy like those vapid disciples, when Jesus asked if they were able? The hymn, “Are ye able?” gets it so very wrong. “Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered… Lord, we are able!” But we are so not able, and there’s no reigniting and lifting of our exhaustion until we own and relish that we are not able. I'll never forget my theology professor, Dean Robert Cushman, declaring this his least favorite hymn.

   A word of caution, if you preach on 2 Timothy: I’ve heard some sermons playing on Lois and Eunice – sort of Ahh, we received such great faith from our mothers and grandmothers. But some in the room most certainly did not. And some of the great faith of our forbears was deeply flawed – just as the faith we hope to pass on to our families, or to our church people, is similarly flawed.

   And if you’re like me, you’ll have to work not to giggle over the name Lois – as I can never get that famous Family Guy scene where Stewie is trying to get his mom’s attention…

   I am unsure how to warm into the Gospel reading, Luke 17:5-10. Increase our faith – implying it’s quantifiable. Who has more, and what is the measure/evidence? Casting trees around? Is Jesus’ point Do your duty?

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   Check out my book, valuable for preachers and laity during Advent, Why This Jubilee? - reflections on carols, sacred and secular.

What can we say October 9? 18th after Pentecost

    Jeremiah 29:1-7. I had one of those lightbulb moments when I read what Richard Hays wrote about the Epistles: we are “reading somebody else’s mail.” Jeremiah 29 is a letter to the exiles in the 6th century in Babylon, basically urging them to do what they’d prefer not to do, and what theologically they believe they will not need to do: build houses, plant gardens, take wives and look for grandchildren. Houses, gardens, wives and grandchildren: sounds like the good life in America!

   But it’s in Babylon, far, far from home. No quick fix for those Israelites – or for our people, whose horizons are embarrassingly short. How do we invite people (and ourselves!) into taking the long, long view, not minutes or hours or days but decades, even centuries. Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.” God’s good work, or the resolution to the nagging challenges of life in this world, are going to take a lot of time – so settle in. How does the preacher invite people into a time sequence beyond their own fantasies or even lifetimes?

   We don’t get absorbed into the alien world in which we find ourselves, and we don’t smugly pass judgment upon it either. Rather, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Where I live we have a coalition of churches called “Jeremiah 29:7.” I like that. It’s sensible – so seeking affordable housing, educational equity, food distribution is our unavoidable mission.

   Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote a rightly popular book, Resident Aliens – speaking of big, Gospel-stuff, inviting people into work that roams beyond their personal existence, that is our labor for God in the place that has forgotten about God. How can the preacher not nag but invite into such life-giving ministry? What does this look like where you are?

   2 Timothy 2:8-15. Paul reports that he is chained. I’d whine and feel sorry for myself. But Paul is fixated on the larger truth that the Word is not chained, can’t be chained. How many prison experiences (Bonhoeffer with the Nazis, Paul and Silas in Philippi, Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail?) illuminate this truth? Paul’s poetic riffs in this text are startling, eloquent, and best repeated, recited, not explained: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will reign.. if we are faithless, he remains faithful – this last one being huge, our only real hope. We indeed are faithless, even the church’s best faithful, even the holiest among us, and surely the rest of us as well! – and yet it is God’s faithfulness, not ours, on which the future hinges. 

   This is the fulcrum of Karl Barth’s remarkable Epistle to the Romans. Faith, faithfulness in Romans is God’s not ours! – thankfully!

   And Paul’s counsel, “Avoid wrangling over words” (v. 14) is what we stumble into all the time, whether fretting over a sermon, struggling over offensive vs. inclusive language, bickering over all those buzz/code words like diversity, inclusion, racism, etc. Paul cares for his words, but his eloquence comes in saying and explaining with clarity what he means, and why it matters. Just lovely – and exemplary.

   Luke 17:11-19. The text opens up a vapid, disastrous option for the preacher. I once heard a sermon on the virtues of gratitude (which are many!) – with the illustration of one who, in the hospital, groused and complained versus the other patient who was grateful. This isn’t Miss Manners on how gratitude, writing thank-you notes and saying Thanks! incessantly forges a better path. Are we about gratitude here? or immense need? Joe Fitzmyer (in his Anchor Bible Luke commentary) reminds us here that Jesus “lavishes his bounty on those who need him most.”

   The co-star of this story was doubly, trebly, complicatingly alien, as he’s also a Samaritan. I love the observations of Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington: “Illness does not stop at political borders; neither need healing stop at the borders.” The whole translated image of “ten lepers” misses the nuance: leproi andres means leprous men: “Their humanity is not swallowed up by their diseases” (at least to Luke, and to us Christians).

   I love this: these ten are ostracized, as so many are (who are they where you minister and preach??) – and yet they have one another! Ten are together – and maybe we think of the function of gay bars, or deaf bars, where those who don’t collude easily with others find good company. In such a group, Samaritans and Jews were totally fine being together! How often do the broken figure out how to be together when the allegedly “together” religious people can’t? AA meetings?

   The text intrigues. Jesus heals these guys – but they don’t or can’t notice until they are on their way to the priest (as they have until then been excluded from worship in the temple!). They are grateful: the Greek is eucharisteo – implying to early Christian readers not thank-you notes, but the Lord’s Supper!!! Only one turned back – but we dare not divert into “exceptionalism,” the way people who speak of race talk of the one African-American who did well, implying the others didn’t but could have! No moralism here – as if, could we only be grateful, Jesus would heal and be pleased with us! Jesus heals the unhealable, and the Gospel is about realization of that healing and then joining in the Eucharistic table of love and the extension of this healing power to others.

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   Check out my book, valuable for preachers and laity (a good group resource!) during Advent, Why This Jubilee? - reflections on carols, sacred and secular.

What can we say October 16? 19th after Pentecost

    Jeremiah 31:27-34 provides a resounding echo of Jeremiah’s call, where God invited him into the labor of plucking up and breaking down, then to build and to plant. Now God is ready to sow. The image of God as sower: did Jesus ponder this when fashioning his parable?

   Late in Jeremiah’s ministry, after the agony of Jerusalem’s destruction, God promises to “watch over them.” Such a tender image! Do preachers ponder this for preaching or to reflect on their own call and ministry. What has unfolded? What has God done? Or not done yet? Can we without being trite promise our people that God still has a good work to do? Or are we still at an early-Jeremiah stage, where more plucking up and breaking down is in store? I think it’s entirely valid for the preacher simply to raise questions, and let the people ponder.

   Gazing off toward the horizon of God’s future, Jeremiah upends a proverb Ezekiel also used about the sour grapes and descendants’ teeth being set on edge. Americans fantasize they are independent and free, but quite clearly parental stuff creeps into the children. Genes determine so much. Adverse Childhood Experiences determine so much of our mental and even physical health. The old saying “Jesus might live in his heart, but grandpa lives in his bones” is hauntingly true. Not to mention historical and cultural impacts. One generation makes a pact with the culture (Let’s have smart phones!) and the next can’t extricate itself (I’m addicted to this thing). One generation indulges in foolish foreign policy, and the next can’t figure out a simple exit strategy.

   Sam, a character in Christopher Beha's novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, always felt he "was in permanent danger of turning into his father... Sam hadn't entirely purged this atavistic terror that the father's sins might be visited upon his son." A common theme in literature, film, music... and so we'd best be attentive to the fear, and the reality - despite Jeremiah, who bothered to say this for stellar reasons.

   Jeremiah overhears in God’s vigilance a day when this chain will be broken. That’s the goal of the church’s work, right? Not a little charitable patch or salve here and there, but a generational breaking of the cycle of poverty, or spousal abuse, or injustice in the streets. We don’t seem entirely capable of pulling this off. But God is, and our privilege and responsibility will be to share in God’s labor for such a day.

   A new covenant will be forged. Teaching, and laws won’t be required. People will simply know the Lord. It will be engraved on their hearts – which can be our goal even now. We preach and minister so our people might develop muscle memory, instincts, a kinship with the mind and heart of God so they needn’t check the rules but will spontaneously embody God’s way. I like Sam Wells’s suggestion – that God isn’t a 911 resort in a crisis, but such a constant that we actually then manage to steer clear of many crises.

   2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. I’m the rare clergy person on this – but work with me: avoid doing what Paul does! “From childhood we’ve known the sacred writings,” and “Those from whom you learned the faith” are phrases that make sense for lifelong churchgoers. The newbie will shrug. Or someone like me, whose parents were quite like that, will feel alienated. And how many people learned so much Bible and churchiness growing up and as big people feel utterly smug – and are transparently mean and judgmental?

   Paul is coping with a cultural crisis he sees dawning. “A time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine but have itching ears, accumulating teachers to suit their own desires.” That time is right now – and probably has held at countless points throughout history. Surely for us. What’s the counter? Paul relies on the astounding claim that Scripture is inspired.

   What is Scripture? Never have we experienced such a huge preaching/pastoral question!!! Maybe need a class (or classes) instead of a sermon. And yet to stake out the beauty, wonder, and life of Scripture in preaching is essential. It’s “inspired.” Not radioactive, or dictated by God. In-spired means “breathed into.” God breathed life into this book, and breathes life into us through this book. So much of it is puzzling, crazy, rambling, confusing, a big problem. God wants us to read such a book.

   Chris E.W. Green writes wonderfully about Scripture. Hospitality is required, and induced by reading. “Our readings of Scripture can be sanctifying if they actually change our lives so we become more and more strangely roomy and inviting.” This happens best through what puzzles and troubles us. “What seems to us wrong or strange in Scripture is in point of fact simply a reflection of what is wrong and strange in us.” Indeed, “receiving the Scriptures in all their humanity, we find ourselves humanized.” “God uses Scripture to overthrow our false conceptions of God.” We pray for that in-breathing Spirit to inspire our reading, expecting that “the Spirit at times obscures the Scriptures sanctifyingly for us. The Spirit keeps us, for a time, from seeing clearly the meanings of Scripture so we can begin to learn Christ.”

   You might also conclude that if God wishes to be known through tales of dysfunctional families, court cases, love poetry, wars and outlandish dreams, then it must be the case that the God in question is right there in the thick of our dysfunctional families, legal doings, romance, battles and fantasies. God isn’t confined in a pretty chapel, or to the times our eyes are closed. With eyes wide open, we see God everywhere, with everybody. If we believe this, then we can begin to think differently about other books we might read. God loves books, and reading – and not just pious stories and books, if the Bible itself is any indication! More on this later.

   Inspired Scripture isn’t a bank vault of golden truth, and it’s not a weapon to wield to judge others. It’s “useful” – for? “Teaching, reproof, correction, training,” to make us “proficient, equipped for good work.” It’s functional, not ontological (fancy words, but you know what I mean). The test isn’t what we think about this book, but what work we let it do on us and in us – and on us and in us as the Body of Christ.

   Chapter 4 offers wise counsel for clergy, to proclaim in all weather, to convince and rebuke (do we even try?), to be patient in teaching, to endure suffering. I can complain or feel sorry for myself when I suffer in ministry – or I can sense some deep solidarity with Paul himself. At least I can try.

   Luke 18:1-8. What an unusual context Luke provides: this parable is “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” – assuming you won’t – and will! A lousy judge responds to a pestering woman. Is the widow like God, pestering us to do justice?? Ben Witherington warns against utilizing or playing on the stereotype of nagging woman.

   On our “need” to pray, I think of Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I only pray when I am in trouble. The problem is, I am in trouble all the time.” Allegory isn’t the way, or else God is the judge who says “I have no respect for anybody” and gets sick and tired of her bugging him. Of course, there is a bit of a theological wink in pondering God as the unjust judge. God isn’t fair. The courtroom is rigged, for the judge is also the defense attorney, not to mention the victim who will bear the penalty.

   Anyhow, it’s not that God “grants” justice, so much as God “does” justice: the Greek is poies. Our minds flit, rightly, to Micah 6:8, where we learn that God desires that we to do justice (the Hebrew Jesus would have had in mind was mishpat). In my book on Micah 6:8 (What Does the Lord Require?): “It seems that God does not merely want us to want justice, or to wish justice would happen. God doesn’t say ‘Think about justice’ or ‘Campaign for justice’ or even ‘Pray for justice.’ Justice reveals what is in the heart of God. Mishpat is God’s dream for a special kind of community… A thumbnail summary of what mishpat justice is about in Israel would be this: justice is when the poorest are cared for. A just society is not necessarily the one where fairness reigns and the diligent are rewarded. A just society is the one where everyone belongs, where the neediest are taken good care of, where no one is hungry or disenfranchised. Walter Brueggemann suggests that justice requires us ‘to sort out what belongs to whom and return it to them.’” It’s all God’s – and so the Haitian proverb applies: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.”

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

What can we say October 23? 20th after Pentecost

   Joel 2:23-32. I’ve never warmed up to Joel much – certainly not in the way Peter did in the first ever big important Christian sermon in Acts 2, which lifts our text as key to understanding Jesus! It’s easy to play on “sons and daughters, old men and young men, even servants” – launching us forward toward “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female…” But it’s that all these will “dream dreams.” I hear preachers now veering toward “dream,” Martin Luther King-style. In Scripture, a dream is something God uses to reveal what God is about to do. It’s not an eloquent vision, or sorting our your anxieties while asleep. Joel envisions something we don’t quite expect to unfold.

   He alludes to a “Teacher of righteousness,” which was picked up in a big way at Qumran. It’s dicey to take today’s reading out of context: it’s sunny and optimistic, but only because the sense is that Joel’s dire threats and summons to radical repentance have, shockingly, worked. The people are imagined as having turned, finally taking the Day of the Lord seriously, gifted thereby with healing and restoration. Hans Walter Wolff provides two stellar comments: “Not only will earlier conditions be restored; they will be exceeded.” And, “The pouring out of God’s spirit upon flesh means the establishment of new, vigorous life through God’s unreserved giving of himself to those who, in themselves, are rootless and feeble.”

   It’s a scary text, moon-to-blood stuff. Of course, change is scary. Joan Chittister, in The Time is Now, shows how the prophets “chose courage. They chose to stake their lives on what must be rather than stake their comfort, their security on what was.” Joel prevents us from shrinking the Gospel to mere personal salvation. It’s a whole new world.

   2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. Paul poignantly looks back as he nears the end of his life. So moving. What’s to come? Not a pot of gold or a luxury cottage on another continent. It’s “the crown of righteousness,” maybe like those orphans in Cider House Rules, bidden goodnight by Dr. Larch with the words “Good night, you princes of Maine, youkings of New England.” Paul’s Greek tense here indicates his being sacrificed is already in process.

   Luke 18:9-14. Spirituality gone bad! The pious man refers to himself 5 times in just 2 verses! Indeed, he is praying “with himself,” talking to his true favorite person. And utterly secular, if Charles Taylor’s massive tome’s theme is adopted – that the “secular” is whenever we see meaning with the self rather than beyond the self.

   Luther launched the Reformation in reply to theologian Gabriel Biel’s dictum, “Do what is in you.” What is in me is brokenness, a self shackled to sin and self, and inability to do God’s holy bidding. How lonely is the effort! Notice this Pharisees is “standing by himself.”

   This guy’s attitude was also criticized by Jewish writers, like Josephus and in the Babylonian Talmud. No one likes it when Holiness slides into self-righteousness which slides into despising others.

   Then there’s the tax collector, the “moral equivalent of a leper” (N.T. Wright). Luther’s despair, in striving to be holy enough, is a later echo of the shameless plea of the tax collector, who cannot even raise his eyes. Humility is faith, humility is the need for and reception of grace, mercy requiring nothing but humility. These 2 are of utterly divergent social situations, one admired, the other despised, one of fair means, the other probably wealthy. 

“The prayers of the 2 men are even more a contrast than their social station” (David Lyle Jeffrey).

   The contrast is such a laughable caricature that we might lose the point. I’d fix on how thankful the pious one is that he is “not like others.” Thank you Lord I’m not sick like those guys, that I don’t think wrong politically like those guys, that I have children and grandchildren unlike my friend Bob. Pity is the core of such prayer – or judgment, neither in sync with the heart of Jesus. Prayer is never comparative in nature, tone or content.

What can we say October 30? Reformation Sunday?

    Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4. Habakkuk is just fun to say out loud. When the apostle Paul, and then the Talmud replied to the question posed to Jesus, “What’s the great verse in the Bible?” both zoomed to Habakkuk 2:4. The image and setting are compelling in every age. The decline of one empire, Assyria, only yields another brutal, oppressive power, Babylon, signaled by the battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE. Nothing new under the sun – and yet heightened anxiety and terror.

   God calls Habakkuk and lays on him a massa, translated innocuously as “oracle,” when it literally means “burden, weight.” God’s message is heavy, something to be pondered (pondus is something heavy you carry). He’s not in a comfortable chair bearing this burden, but on a watchtower, like a sentinel, scanning the horizon for – more disaster? Or the coming of the Lord? I think of “On the Watchtower,” maybe preferring Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan.

   If we observe Reformation Sunday, it's wise not to get nostalgic about Luther, who after all was creating the biggest division in church history! It's the way he and all reformers know how to look forward, as on a watchtower, for the new thing God is about to do, which is in continuity with the old thing, as old as Habakkuk and from creation's first sunrise, God has been doing. We have a weight upon us. And in the texts to come, it's about being / becoming "worthy" of the call - which will never happen if we don't grasp, as Zaccheus did, that there are economic and lifestyle implications to welcoming this Lord into our homes.

   Near the end of Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s best (maybe? my opinion?) novel, we find this reflection on memory and death: “But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.” On God we wait, using the time to learn, be exposed, grow, change our minds.

   Habakkuk names the distortion of “justice,” mishpat, that marvelous Hebrew word that doesn’t mean fairness but rather a justice where the marginalized, those left out are included and cared for: this is the just society and people! That much-quoted verse, 2:4 (the primary text for Romans, cited in 1:17, then also showing up in Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38) fascinates: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Habakkuk and the Israelites heard “the righteous” as those who doggedly adhere to God’s Torah. They “live,” that is, carrying on day by day. Their “faith” is their faithfulness to community and Torah-living.

   Paul morphs all of this in an eschatological and salvific direction. The “righteous” are those right-wised, put into a right relationship with and by God. They live – now, but will live eternally. Their faith is the gift of belief, trust – and Karl Barth is wise to remind us that it is Christ’s faith, his faithfulness that saves, not our faith or faithfulness.

   Indeed, in commenting on Paul’s reference to Habakkuk in The Epistle to the Romans, Barth’s words catch fire as we read them a century later: “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths.” The Church’s activity “is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself. The people of Christ know that no sacred word or work exists in its own right: they know only those words and works and things which by their negation are sign-posts to the Holy One.”

   Habakkuk would shout down an Amen from his watchtower. Our Habakkuk text is deeply suggestive of what the righteous person is not: he is not puffed up, she does not rely on herself. Habakkuk can help us not mis-read Paul. Faith for him clearly is not a one-time decision, but a constant walking, renewal regularly, a lifestyle, an attitude, practical.

   2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, 11-12. Not sure I’ll preach on this among the lections – but so intriguing to notice how, as is often the case, Paul’s prayers aren’t for some ailment, or for his friends to get a better job or find a spouse. No, he prays “that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every resolve to do good and work of faith in power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you.”

   Luke 19:1-10. “A wee little man was he.” The song tempts us to trivialize this remarkable encounter Jesus has with a rich tax collector in Jericho. The ruins of Herodian Jericho are eloquent if tragic witnesses to the grandeur that once was that city. Zaccheus, the small one, illustrating how Jesus welcomes the little ones, how “They are weak, but he is strong,” even the marvelous hobbits Tolkien created from the shire as the hope and future of Middle Earth.

   This man’s name: Zaccheus. The Hebrew, zakkai, “the righteous one,” suggests his parents had this dream of goodness for him. If he wound up (as Christian tradition suggested) as the first bishop of Caesarea, he did prove to be that zakkai. Did his parents live long enough to know? Was his life as a rapacious tax collector a lunge toward compensation for his being short? “Little ones to him belong.”

   Zaccheus’s climb up that tree: he was, we can be sure, a climber. I think of Danny DeVito when casting calls are made for him! As a climber, was he in the tree merely so he could see? So he could be seen? Was he late to the party? Short people could see if they arrived early enough to be in the front. After his transformative meal with Jesus, did he then follow up the steep highway to Jerusalem with the throng to join in Palm Sunday? Was he one in that crowd? I love sermons, and try to preach them, that simply dangle such possibilities.

   Luke’s punch line zooms in on what matters: “The Son of man came to seek and save the lost,” not the clever or well-placed or even the church members, Bible readers and believers. Jesus and Zaccheus broke bread together, in the home of what to Jesus was a stranger – and nothing was ever the same. There most clearly are economic implications to meeting up with this Jesus! Did Jesus order him to make outlandish reparations? Had Zaccheus, on meeting Jesus, hung his eyes in shame? Or was he motivated by the giddy joy of connecting with this Lord who was eager to “eat with tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1)?

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  In my book on saints and heroes of the church (Servants, Misfits & Martyrs: Saints and their Stories), I have a good bit on Martin Luther and other reformers. My gratitude soared when my church history professor, David Steinmetz, told me he gave this book to his mother so she'd understand what he'd spent his life doing. Lots and lots of illustrative stuff in here for preachers, I am sure.


What can we say Nov. 6? All Saints / 22nd after Pentecost

   We will observe All Saints’ Day on November 6. If you are, let me refer you to my blog from the last time All Saints fell on a Sunday – with lots of reflections, illustrations and suggestions. The 2022 All Saints lections we’ll get to below. Right now, I want to touch on the Nov. 6, not-specifically-for-All-Saints texts.

    Haggai 1:15-29 would have been terrific for Reformation Sunday. The prophet tries to jostle the people out of their sleepy-headedness, out of their weary discouragement, and to rebuild the temple. The date he spoke? October 17, 520. I love the scholarly precision we find in the commentaries! Most standing there could not recall the former temple and its splendor. Could Haggai? Joshua and Zerubbabel (a name that is just so fun to say out loud!) could not as they’d been born in exile. Silver and gold will be required; the Lord claims it’s all his anyhow.

     The image we carry is that the temple they did build in response was modest, even shabby. But it can’t have been too shabby. It appears to have been a smidgeon larger than Solomon’s, and it stood for exactly 500 years until Herod took it down to replace it.

   2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 12-17 would be tough to preach, with the ominous Godless One stalking the people. Mind you, the notion of such a godless one being puffed up above all other objects of worship might give us the shivers, given all going on in our culture and wider world today. Luke 20:27-28 is (for me) another hard text to warm up to. Another good reason to stick with the All Saints’ lections!

   Ephesians 1:11-23 is one of those lovely texts that don’t require much explaining; it’s more eloquent just to linger over them. I certainly wouldn’t try to make such powerful words “relevant” or any such nonsense. They speak beautifully for themselves. I hope my people will notice I cherish these words, that I am personally awed by them. I hope to sound like a docent in a museum, pointing with gawking delight. Maybe my people will get caught up in the mood! The luxurious, lavish verbiage had to be mind-boggling to the early Christians, meager as their resources and prospects were. Frank Thielman is right: “Words that emphasize God’s meticulous planning pile up one upon another – purpose, work, counsel, will – how privileged are we!” Heirs, inheritances, riches, glory, destiny... 

   That last word, “destiny,” begs for a parenthesis. The old “God is in control” notion is ridiculous, of course. I love how Markus Barth (Karl’s son!) clarifies how personal this destining is: “It pertains exclusively to the relationship of the Father to his children. If no wise human father would treat his children according to a schedule fixed before their birth, how much less would the Father who is blessed in Ephesians 1:3-14!”

   The responsibilities of even the most fabulous heirs were driven home to me at the World Methodist Council in 1986 when Donald English reported on attending the wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew – and how the couple, immensely wealthy, able to do whatever they might wish, had bowed and pledged fealty to the crown, to the “rights and responsibilities” that went with being a royal couple.

    I love Paul’s “prayer report” here. It’s not so much that What we asked God for was ‘answered.’ What intrigues is the content of his prayer – that the recipients, the objects of his praying, might have a “spirit of wisdom and revelation,” that their “eyes of their hearts might be enlightened” (reminding me of St. Francis’s constant prayer during his season of conversion, “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.”

   Paul also prays for 3 things (Do you wish people prayed this for you? for one another?): (1) the hope to which he has called you, (2) the God’s glorious inheritance, and (3) the magnitude of God! Do we get such prayer requests? What if we did? The hope business: Emily Dickinson suggested that “Hope is the thing in the soul with feathers…” – but is it in the soul? Or is it more about God? Markus Barth, again: “The emphasis lies not so much on the mood of the person hoping as on the substance or subject matter of expectation.” It’s the thing hoped for. Christopher Lasch (in his marvelous The True and Only Heaven) clarified that optimism is the fantasy that all will be better tomorrow, and it depends on us; but hope is the ability to deal with tomorrow if things aren’t better – and it depends not on us but on God.

   Luke 6:20-31. Unsure nowadays whether to sing David Haas’s wonderful “Blest Are They,” after the trouble he got into. His text is also the far more beloved Matthean slant on the Beatitudes. Luke’s is tougher, adding the “Woe” moments absent in Matthew. We’d probably prefer Jesus bless the “poor in spirit” instead of more simply Luke’s “poor.”

   Clarence Jordan shrewdly pointed out that the poor prefer Luke, while the rest of us delight in Matthew! Jesus spoke to the poor, the nobodies – and blessed them. They were accustomed to being cursed, ignored or blamed – as we see in our world today. How amazing was Jesus? For All Saints’ Day, it’s hard not to hear the line “Blessed are those who mourn.” We come mourning, indeed – but we grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Again, I trust the reading of the names in God’s holy place more than I trust my frail words to express the hope of the Gospel!

   Robert Schuller tried to modernize the text with the rubric “The Be-Happy Attitudes.” But Jesus isn’t issuing commandments, much less doling out advice for a chipper life. He blesses, he embraces, loves, knows, recognizes, and gives hope to the hopeless, to the people nobody else wants – and then he brings down a Woe! on the big dogs, those who think they’re somebody, and especially the self-righteous. Jesus’ words are light years from the conventional wisdom of our day. He doesn’t say Blessed are the good-looking, the successful, the well-connected, the white Americans, and he doesn’t say Woe to the immigrant, the unemployed, the lonely or the homeless. The preacher has one more chance just now to chip away at the fa├žade of thin, culturally-mashed-down thinking, and open the window into Jesus’ revolutionary worldview.

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   Check out my book, valuable for preachers and laity during Advent, Why This Jubilee? - reflections on carols, sacred and secular.

What can we say November 13? 23rd after Pentecost

    Isaiah 65:17-25. God’s dream, our dream, such wonder – and yet when I read this text I sag a little and ask “How long?” Verse 17 says “I am about to…” That was in the 6th century BCE. I guess “a thousand years are like a day” (Psalm 90:4) to God! – so we’re deep into God’s third day of God’s “about to.” Not cynical, but realistic – and well-worth naming in an honest sermon. This post-exilic prophet wasn’t merely expecting heaven / eternal life, but a real dawning here and now. Ours is to name it’s not here fully or all that obviously – and yet ours is to look for signs, glimpses, manifestations.

   Time works mystically for this prophet – and for God. Verse 22: “The work of their hands shall my Chosen outlive” (Robert Alter’s rendering). I think of Nouwen’s lovely thoughts in Our Greatest Gift on finding ways to be fruitful beyond our seasons of productivity. “The question is not how much more can I achieve or do, but how can I live so I can continue to be fruitful when I am no longer here?” Paul’s great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, concludes with a plea that God “establish the work of our hands.” And Niebuhr’s wise thought: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.”

   If “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” is a thing, Isaiah 65’s vision that “no longer shall an infant live only a few days” might remind us that infant mortality or thriving is a reliable index of the quality of community life – making us attentive to the ways medical care and nutrition can be inaccessible or lousy, and what tasks we have now as we consider this. Housing – affordable, clean, even glorious – also figures in this text, and is another valid index of whether we are a just society or not, and what moves toward the top of our to-do list.

   I’m inspired, as you probably are, by Father Greg Boyle’s astonishing work with gang members. He never boasts of figuring out some clever technique for such work, but instead talks about seeing what God is doing in them, of seeing beauty in them, and celebrating God’s wonder with them. And I recall an amazing podcast about John Garland’s ministry at the Mexican border (“Maybe God: Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save our Souls, part 2”) where he says it’s not so much doing something for someone, but just being there to bear witness to the beautiful thing God is doing. Indeed, Isaiah 65 was right, and continues to be right: God is and is about to do a new thing.

   Walter Brueggemann calls this text “a glorious artistic achievement. It is also an act of daring, doxological faith that refuses to be curbed by present circumstance. This poet knows that Yahweh’s coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible.”

   2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 would be daunting (for me at least) to preach. If I lay the text out, people would holler not “Amen” but “Get a real job!” What’s the trouble Paul’s dealing with? Had some in Thessalonika reverted to Greco-Roman patron-client relationships – within the Body of Christ? Or were some so enlightened, so sure the eschaton had dawned, that they forsook their jobs? Paul’s interest is pretty clearly mutual responsibility within the church.

   Luke 21:5-19 isn’t all that promising either. Jesus offers up a doom and gloom message. He certainly doesn’t promise peace or ease – a word for us clergy and for our laity. On the day I am writing this, I received 2 prayer requests from church members, noting how the world is such a mess, and so that wanted me to pray for them to have joy and peace despite all that. I replied by suggesting that if we are close to the heart of God during such times, we will not feel so much peace or joy, but we will share in God’s agony. Ministry, in sync with God, simply will not feel sunny or successful – if Jesus is any guide.

   I continue to be struck by the words of Maria Skobtsova, known as Mother Maria of Paris, and now St. Mary of Paris, born 1891 in Latvia, executed in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for being part of the French resistance: “It would be a great lie to tell those who are searching: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. The Church tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real anguish for your sin and the world’s sin. There you will feel an insatiable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of becoming lukewarm, you’ll be set on fire; instead of being pacified, you’ll become alarmed; instead of learning the wisdom of this world, you will become fools for Christ.”

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   Check out my book, valuable for preachers and laity during Advent, Why This Jubilee? - reflections on carols, sacred and secular.