Weekly Preaching: February 9, 2020

February 4th, 2020

We have another week of terrific texts. At my church, we are in a series on "Beauty," and I admire the way a series works in terrific ways while sticking to lectionary. Last week, I used the texts at hand to preach on "the Beauty of the Cross," and this week's will work well with "the Beauty of Weakness." I’m pondering how Isaiah and 1 Corinthians might be lassoed together around notions of weakness  ours, others’, and even God’s.  

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Isaiah 58:1-12. Walter Brueggemann somewhat sarcastically points out that the Israelites “enjoy worship.” But it’s nothing but self-indulgence; they think of the Lord as useful for their advantage. It would be hard to think up anything more true of churchgoers today than this thought: worship as entertainment, God as a mechanism to wrest from the world what we desire.

St. Augustine’s distinction between kinds of love (he wrote about this in De Doctrina Christiana) might help frame things. There is love of use (uti in Latin), i.e., I love something not in itself but because I can use it for something I really want. Money is a classic example: I don’t want to fondle it or frame it as art; I use it for other cravings. This happens, of course, with people… Then there is love of enjoyment (frui), i.e., I love something just because, whether I get something else out of it or not. I love chocolate, not because of what it does (which may not be so good!), but because I just love it. My wife wants to be loved with frui love, and so does God  but we generally go at God with uti.

Isaiah’s memorable lead-in (which would make a good sermon title), “The Fast I Choose,” is haunting in a way. The people are at least fasting  an alien practice for us modern consumerist Christians. We assume if we fasted (and really fasted, not just doing with donuts for a day), we’d join the ranks of the super-spiritual. To regular fasters, God says I want something else  or really, something in addition to fasting, something which is the ultimate purpose of fasting. God wants justice, shalom for everybody. Brueggemann again is right (but how hard is this to work into a sermon with modern Americans?): “Worship not congruent with humane economic practice is bad worship.”

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To fast, to think and act differently with respect to economics, requires a self-imposed (or God-imposed) weakness. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16. What was Paul’s weakness? Raspy voice, frail appearance, poor sermon delivery, bad breath? Church and clergy just don’t get weakness, yet it’s at the heart of who Jesus was/is, and it's at the core of Paul’s ministry. We trust in strength-finders, or even spiritual gifts (religious strength-finders, right?). We want skills, resumes, productivity. But Paul comes in weakness and brags about it. In 2 Corinthians 12, we see the bookending of today’s text: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

Brené Brown has drawn a massive following with this theme. Why does it seem unusual to church people? It is in vulnerability, in our weakness, that love, hope, relationship, and actually everything good happens. Weakness isn’t something to be overcome; it simply is. My leadership book is appropriately titled Weak Enough to Lead. Are you?

The preacher might want to clarify that when Paul says “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus,” he is light years from the way preachers or believers today who might say “Just give me Jesus.” Which Jesus? We remake him in our own image so swiftly and unwittingly. Paul adds “and him crucified,” which helps. Paul doesn’t exactly keep Jesus simple. Isn’t the plea to keep theology simple really an evasion of the complex claim of the Gospel on all of life?

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Matthew 5:13-20. Jesus’ wonder-sermon on the mount continues. The preacher might try to set the scene on the lovely Galilean hillside, not much changed today from 2000 years ago! One might also try to empathize with the shock, the mental revolution Jesus was hoisting on his listeners.

And how personal all this is! The Greek “you” (humeis) is emphatic, like “You yourselves” or “You  yes, you!” Jesus speaks of salt without explaining the connotation. Salt preserves, seasons, purifies, fertilizes; it’s a metaphor for wisdom, and salt was used in sacrifices at the temple. Jesus again left it open-ended for them and for us to poke around and find peculiar meaning. The lamp mentioned would have been utterly familiar, the small terra cotta kind that didn’t cast a lot of light but cast what light there was. Laughably, Jesus says you wouldn’t put it under a bushel!

Regarding salt: I plan to reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s 240-mile march to the coast of India protesting the British tax on salt. Hundreds of thousands trailed behind him; 60,000 were arrested. When Gandhi got to the shore, he made a little salt  his point being it occurs quite naturally in God’s good world, is so essential to life, and thus should not be a high control government monopoly. This sounds like grace, or compassion, or even justice.

When speaking of the “city set on a hill," Jesus may have pointed north above the Galilee to the town perched up there: Safed, the highest city in all of Israel. To this day it is a fabled center for Jewish learning and mysticism. The image of “the city set on a hill” fed the dreams (and fantasies) of America as God’s chosen people (so the Puritans, and on into modern political Evangelicalism). These visions haven’t been all wicked, and there is a holy dream at the core of it, yet the perils, the implicit arrogance, pose problems. Jesus is inviting his people, the nobodies, to be the bright hope of the world.

We who dig notions of being saved by grace not works, and we whose religious life is really I do what I want, then I ask God to help with what I want or when I’m in trouble, then I go to heaven one day, should shudder at the clarity and height of Jesus’ soaring demand (or is invitation the better word?). Jesus doesn’t want mere adherence to rules, although rules mattered to him. He wasn’t a lax, do-whatever-you-feel-like kind of guy. The commandments must be exceeded in the heart of God’s holy people as he explains in subsequent verses (next week's text!). Don’t murder? If you’ve harbored anger… Don’t commit adultery? If you’ve harbored lust in your heart…

It’s a profound inner and outer holiness Jesus is after. It’s not a straitjacket; it’s the way of freedom. It is so important for preachers to underline how God’s commands aren’t commands so much as compelling invitations, open paths to live freely and joyfully. Can the preacher devise a few thoughtful examples of how this unfolds? 

What can we say February 9? 5th after Epiphany originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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