Weekly Preaching: November 22, 2020

November 18th, 2020

What an intriguing day, this 57th anniversary of the deaths of John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis! Peter Kreeft imagined a fascinating conversation between them — and Aldous Huxley, who also died on November 22, 1963! — in his quirky book, Between Heaven and Hell

The liturgical day, "Christ the King," begs for a little poetic cadence contrasting him with earthly powers. Instead of being born in a palace, he was born in a cow stall. He rides a little donkey, not a war stallion. His throne is a cross, his crown is made of thorns. His riches are the poor, his army a ragtag bunch of unarmed nobodies, etc. And since it's the anniversary of Lewis's death, how better to honor him and mark the day than by reverting to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Susan Pevensie, having just learned from the Beavers the identity of Aslan, says "Ooh, a lion? I thought he was a man. I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion. Is he quite safe?” Mr Beaver: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. We don’t linger much over the line in Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down,” and this lying down is repeated and pivotal in Ezekiel 34. For sheep to lie down, for anybody to chill, you have to be safe. You don’t have to run. You’ve been fully bed. How many in our world flat out can never just “lie down”? But God’s goal for all people, not just the enfranchised, is that they be able to “lie down.”

Israel, along with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, often depicted their leaders as shepherds. We overdo the Oh, poor, humble shepherds notion. In that culture, flocks could number in the thousands, requiring immense administrative skill. 

It is lovely to ponder the image that God, Israel’s ultimate shepherd, “will search for my lost sheep” – the basis of one of Jesus’ greatest parables. The tenderness of this shepherd is evident: seeking good pasture, arranging for the sheep to lie down and rest, binding up the crippled sheep (instead of just leaving them) – all summarized by the homiletically pregnant “I will feed them in justice.” Ah, justice, mishpat in Hebrew, the kind of biblical justice that says everybody will be cared for; that’s the just society. This is the kind of realm where Christ is king; he is this kind of king.

Sometimes I like, in preaching, to imagine things we don’t know about. I try to picture the shepherds in Bethlehem, the ones who heard the angelic choir — but a month before Jesus was born. One more dull night, then another, with no idea what was coming, or if anything was coming at all. I wonder how much we live like them, bored, stuck, and yet there is something marvelous on the horizon we can’t predict or detect.

Then Ezekiel takes a harsher turn, with sheep and goats (or fat and lean – even worse!) being differentiated, judged, treated shabbily even if fairly. Of course, our Gospel reading portrays the very same scenario. There is judgment.

Ezekiel’s other unanticipated turn is questioned by Robert Jenson: “Does not Ezekiel contradict himself? He has made much of how great it will be when the Lord himself takes over from the earthly shepherds. But suddenly David is to be the shepherd.” Theologically, “the Good Shepherd must be at once God and a descendent of David. And that is exactly what classical Christology says of Jesus the Christ.” Lest you think he is imposing a later Christian reading on an Israelite text, he semi-snarky rejoinder: “Our reading is alien to the text only if the Christian doctrines adduced are not true.” Vintage Jenson. Preacher beware, though… Don’t rob the Old Testament of its specificity – or from our friends the Jews, for whom this is their Scripture. The text can stand on its own.

Turning to Ephesians 1:15-23 (which I preached on in September during our Ephesians series). What a dense, stunning, rich marvel this is; you could preach a long series on this text. Turns out in Greek it is one very, very long single sentence of 169 words! The NRSV sticks three periods in, but it’s just one sentence. I dare you to diagram that sentence! Gratitude is a dominant theme, fitting for this week of Thanksgiving. Again, what is the Christian to be grateful for? A boatload of food and a comfy den?

Paul is reporting on his praying. Do we have a gimme-list, a health update as our praying? Paul prays for “wisdom and revelation” – and that “the eyes of your heart will be enlightened.” You might turn to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

I am more drawn to this: St. Francis of Assisi came to be St. Francis because he prayed a single prayer, over and over, day after day, while kneeling before a crucifix in the small, crumbling church San Damiano: “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.”

We need enlightenment, and wisdom; and Francis’s dream in this prayer was that he might not just know but actually do God’s most holy will. In Eph. 1, Paul’s purpose is “that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” Three things about hope. (1) It is not a shriveled up thing, but something too grand for the mind to comprehend. Allen Verhey and Joseph Harvard (in that Belief theological commentary series), noting the primal theme of hope in this overwhelming spillage of verbiage, suggest “This hope is immeasurable – and almost unspeakable. But Paul speaks it anyway.”

(2) Hope, for Paul, isn’t a spiritual attitude. Markus Barth, in his massive and rich Anchor Bible commentary, explains: “When Ephesians speaks of hope, the emphasis lies not so much on the mood of the person hoping as on the substance or subject matter of expectation. Hope is equated with the thing hoped for.” 

I love Christopher Lasch’s impeccable distinction between hope and optimism. “Hope doesn’t demand progress; it demands justice, a conviction that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope appears absurd to those who lack it. We can see why hope serves us better than optimism. Not that it prevents us from expecting the worst; the worst is what the hopeful are prepared for. A blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”

(3) And notice how Paul deftly hinges hope to calling – almost as if calling comes first. The called are those who have hope. Because you’re called, you have hope. Getting it backwards leaves people trying to figure God and their personal future out before listening to anything vocational. That’s inverted, from Paul’s point of view.

All preachers would be wise to spend time with Walter Wink (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers and Engaging the Powers), or others who have probed this notion of “principalities and powers.” We read the world too thinly if we just see politicians and armies and social trends. There are cosmic powers behind it all, in it all, and tugging on you, me and the church at every moment. I admire, for instance, the genius and soul of Chanequa Walker-Barnes, in her wonderful I Bring the Voices of My People: "The primary goal of truth-telling in racial reconciliation is not to build bridges; it is to reveal the powers and principalities so that we can tear them down."

Speaking of the church: clearly Paul has little interest in personal salvation. We have hope and are called as members of Christ’s church. What a beautiful, fitting and compelling image of our life together! Paul explicates this more fully in 1 Corinthians, of course. But the Body is right here in Ephesians – and we may humbly recall Martin Luther King’s eloquent assessment in his letter from the Birmingham jail: “I see the church as the body of Christ. But oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformist.”

Matthew 25:31-46. I used to love this text – a weird thing to say, I know. Before I get to why I did, let me share my hesitancy nowadays. The whole idea of separating sheep from goats appeals to way too many people. I love the wheat and tares story: we are better together! I don’t want my people for a nanosecond to drool over feeling sheep-like in distinction from those goats over there.

But it’s Jesus, right – and his very last sermon before facing crucifixion. Salvation, for Jesus, evidently is way more or even far different from responding emotionally at a revival, or saying Yes at Confirmation, or declaring I was born again on June 18. There is doing, action, a whole lifestyle – not of “goodness,” but the harder yet more joyful work of God’s kingdom.

Mother Teresa made a life out of taking this passage seriously, and actually doing it. The whole vision of What we do for those in need we do for Jesus is huge, and could transform everything we do as a church in outreach. Food? Do you drop it off or share it with a real person, befriending them? Clothing: do you drop off old, worn-out jackets or pants you don’t care for anymore? Or buy something new, or shop with someone? Visiting the sick. During coronavirus, I could not visit my dad. What is it to visit those who are hurting? Those in prison? We typically blame prisoners for being at fault, or a huge problem to society. But Jesus says Meet them, know them, love them.

I recall a minister I met when I was young: Gordon Weekley, once a prominent Baptist pastor in Charlotte who succumbed to prescription medication abuse, then amphetamines, wound up on the streets – but then was miraculously cured and engaged in stunningly transformative ministry to the addicted and homeless. He handed me a copy of an anonymous piece I’ve seen many times since – but somehow, coming from him, I was transfixed, and determined to lead churches that are different:

“I was hungry, and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger; I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release; I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance; I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health; I was homeless, and you preached to me of spiritual shelter and the love of God; I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God – but I am still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.” Jesus says Bring me, in the person of the poor, food.

I wonder, in preaching, if I could find somebody near me who is doing each thing Jesus suggests. Whom do I know who visits the prison, and does he have a story? Whom do I know who welcomes strangers? People need to see these things in reality. I wonder if we have a set of signups, real live opportunities: this week, come with us to the local prison Tuesday at 4; this week, we are delivering food to the women at the shelter; this week, we are carpooling to the mosque for a hummus-making class with new Muslim friends. Something…..

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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