Weekly Preaching: May 24, 2020

May 20th, 2020

Of course, my people aren’t thinking 7th Sunday after Easter. It’s Memorial Day weekend, which has often bugged me as I privately muse that what people say, that soldiers died so we could worship freely, is celebrated by people missing church in droves. We’ll see under COVID-19 restrictions. I do try to give people for whom Memorial Day means so much something. This year, during my sermon, I’ll play a three-minute Zoom interview I did with a World War II veteran, who is so wise and lovely. I’m also fond of, for Memorial Day, this marvelous passage from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow

Jayber ponders the death of his friend Forrest in World War II: “I imagine that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed. Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember. Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at homein Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses like Miss Gladdie’s where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever” (Jayber Crow, 141). Memorial Day? Check. Segue into Gospel hope? Check!

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Acts 1:6-14 overlaps with the reading for The Ascension, Acts 1:1-11, which is marked on the calendar as Thursday, May 21. Whether you’re preaching Acts 1 as Easter 7 or as Ascension, I’ll refer you to my blog from a couple of years ago, which has a pretty thorough look at these texts, with illustrative material.

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1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11. I’m not fond of what I tend to view as a vapid Christian habit: the lifting up of a single Bible verse as an amulet of protection or a medicinal dose of comfort. But 1 Peter 5:7 is quite good, something I text out now and then to my mass text distribution*. People love it, as they should. “Cast your cares upon the Lord, for he cares for you.” (I'm not as fond of "Cast your anxieties on him," as it begins to feel more about me and my inner self than "cares," which are usually real things out there... but it's not awful.)

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead
I wonder about a sermon that just settles around that invitation, reflecting on how much we need this, how it’s not a quick fix or a blithe assumption that God will do what I demand, that it’s the sharing of our anxieties, our darkness, whatever we care about, with the assurance that God cares. That’s as much as we really want from the people we love: My wife can’t fix my trouble, but she cares; my best friend might be clueless about my work situation, but he cares.
It’s not a forsaking of responsibility or even asking God to make up the little deficit of what you can’t manage for yourself. I think about Henri Nouwen’s book he wrote during his own darkest days: “You so much want to heal yourself, fight your temptations, and stay in control. But you cannot do it yourself. Every time you try, you are more discouraged. So you must acknowledge your powerlessness.... You have to say yes fully to your powerlessness in order to let God heal you" (The Inner Voice of Love, 30). He notes how addiction recovery begins, continues and ends on just this assumption: You are powerless. And all our troubles are addictive, aren’t they? There’s also Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s marvelous little book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, which offers as good a primer in how to pray as I’ve ever known: “[The Psalms] cast every difficulty and agony on God: ‘We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering’” (Psalms, 48).
Verse 7, the little golden nugget, hinges on what Peter just said in verse 6: “Humble yourselves.” The humble know they aren’t masters of the universe, and that the grit of free will might just spiral you into ever worsening maladies. At the same time, verses 6 and 7 keep some rigorous company, don’t they? Verse 7 is followed by counsel to be disciplined and to keep alert. If you’re in a pickle, and you cast your cares upon the Lord, and there is some lightening of the burden, you’ll be right back where you were in a few hours without the discipline of new habits, avoiding perilous places and people. Sam Wells wittily wrote that “Ethics is not about being clever in a crisis but about forming a character that does not realize it has been in a crisis until the ‘crisis’ is over" (Improvisation, 12).
Hence not merely how to cope with but how to grow from or even avert the “fiery ordeal.” It sounds like flaming torment but the Greek, peirasmos, is the same word used for Jesus being “tested” in the wilderness, with the connotation of test, trial, discipline. The worst of combating difficulty is feeling alone; 1 Peter offers good company: We “share” (the Greek is koinonia!) in Jesus’ sufferings!
This might be a word for clergy more than it’s a word for clergy to preach to the people. The sneaky peril is this: I suffer in my ministry, so can I safely conclude it’s because I’m so in fellowship with Jesus? Or is it because I’ve been a doofus and have miscalculated my emotional capital or what my people can bear in love?
 *I’ll add here that I like to seed a sermon by texting all my people with a question. A question I ask them, apart from sermon preparation, is simply “How can I pray with you?” I get like a zillion replies, and reading them breaks your heart. For this Sunday, if I’m preaching 1 Peter’s “cares” or the Gospel we’re about to consider, asking our people “What are your cares, what are you suffering?” This prepares them for worship (and life with God), creates solidarity within the Body, and also provides me with something to ponder for sermon preparation.

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John 17:1-11. We are at the very end of the very long Last Supper. Much has happened, much has been said, they’ve lingered over the meal. And then a long pause. The action, stately as it has been, halts. It's time for contemplation. Jesus lifts his eyes toward heaven. He's already caught up in what he's been talking about with them: being one with the Father.

And so they overhear him praying. How puzzled, moved, confused and awed they must have been. Jesus prays to be glorified, which is what they desperately wanted for him (and for themselves!). But the glory, in John’s Gospel, isn’t a titanic win, some shining, towering victory... 

It’s the Cross. It’s the nails and thorny crown, the blood, the lance in the side. This is how the Father glorifies the Son. If there is any single point clergy will struggle to communicate, or even to “get” themselves, it is this. It’s not the rush to the empty tomb, it’s not the soaring or the shedding of agony. It’s in the agony, it’s at the heart of the God-forsakenness where the glory is glory.

There is no “illustration” of this for preachers. The cross is the cross. “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” as we rightly sing. The cross bears pondering, surveying, lingering in its shadow. Jesus embraces this glory in advance, in anticipation. What courage. What immense faith. What unbounded love for the very guys standing around who are clueless even as they overhear him praying. What unstinting mercy on us who live vapid, unintentional lives thoroughly enmeshed in a culture that does not know or love the Lord Jesus.
Take special note in preaching verse 3. Jesus prays for them and us: “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus whom you have sent.” Better rewind. Could this be? Eternal life isn’t it all the fun, acing every hole playing golf, festive parties, reunions with lost loved ones, eating bonbons and not gaining an ounce, basking in the brightness of heaven and the endless music of angelic choirs? Eternal life isn’t God saying You get to keep on keeping on. It’s not the infinite extension of the best life you’ve enjoyed thus far. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his genius of a commentary on Genesis, midrashes on Genesis 3 and points out that for the Bible's "great empires," Babylon and Egypt, we witness the remains of "the idea that one defeats mortality by building monuments that outlast the winds and sands of time. Judaism has a quite different idea, that we defeat mortality by engraving our ideals on the hearts of our children, and they on theirs, unto the end of time." (Covenant & Conversation, 35). Lovely.

In John 17, we see something different. Eternal life isn't a thing, or things, or a place in the way we think of places. And it's not other people, although other people will be involved. It’s relationship with God; knowing God, being known by God.
You came into being, just like the whole universe, out of the creative and loving mind of God. God knew you into being. God knew you in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139), and God knows you, and your people right at this moment better than you’ll ever know yourselves. And knowing so thoroughly, God loves and finds you to be beautiful. This knowing isn’t facts and figures. It’s knowing, the way I know my infant daughter who can’t tell me about herself, the way I know it’s time to rest, or I know I need a hug, or I know I can’t live without my beloved, or I know I dream and yearn and love and love some more. Eternal life is knowing Jesus, clearly, intimately.
Isn’t this related to 1 Corinthians 13, which isn’t a poem Paul wrote so we’d have some pious words at weddings. It’s about the love in the Body of Christ, and for the head of the Body. Realizing we never know the other as clearly or deeply as we might wish, Paul says “Now we see through a glass darkly. Then we will see face to face.” I’ll see God, and not be blinded, although I will never see all of God. I’ll see myself, for the first time, the full, unvarnished, marvelous truth about myself. And I’ll see, I’ll know others, like I’ve never known even those I’ve known best. Wouldn’t this be enough? and better than daily golf or bonbons?
If this is eternal life, and if we realize this eternity in some measure now, then Jesus’ prayer that we may be one isn’t far-fetched at all, is it?

What can we say May 24? 7th Sunday of Easter originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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