Weekly Preaching: May 16, 2021

May 12th, 2021

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 narrates the choice – by the casting of lots – of Matthias to fill out the twelve, Judas having turned out to be… Judas. Jesus clearly didn’t have precisely 12 – count ‘em! – disciples at every moment in time. It’s a symbolic number. And yet the simple existence of 12, even if we fudge and 3 others have tagged along, embodies Jesus’ mission to redeem the people of Israel. I like things like this: the church, simply by being the church, fulfills God’s vision for redemption. What if we chose our leaders for our congregations this way? How boring is it to put bankers and accountants on Finance? What if you put the person no good with numbers but with a passion for the poor on Finance? The kingdom might just dawn.

Our two Johannine texts leave me a little cold. It’s as if Jesus, and then John, tried to be philosophically reflective, offering high-minded but rambling explications of intimate relationships within God and with us. Confounding, possessive pronouns abounding.

There are little tidbits pregnant with preaching possibility. 1 John 5:9-13 is fixated on “testimony.” The Greek is the same as “martyr.” And, the testimony in question is that “God gave us eternal life, in his Son.” That’s worth unpacking. Most Christians think of eternal life as quite distinguished from the Son, or at most that it was the Son’s death and resurrection that opened up the path to heaven. But this eternal life is in God’s Son, not me living on forever playing golf or enjoying my family. It’s finding myself in him, in his Body, so it’s all about the Son, nothing else – and it will be way more than enough.

John 17:6-19 intrigues. Jesus says of the followers God gave him, “I have been glorified in them.” Really? You’d think he’d be embarrassed all the time. This text explores the “in but not of the world” notion. Most of my people, me included, are very much in the world and most assuredly of the world too! Or they are of the world and so therefore not much in the world as Jesus’ witnesses. I love to picture John writing all this. “I protected them; not one was lost!” – at which point the secretary interjected, “Uh, what about Judas?” “Oh, right, he lost one. But that was God’s plan.” Problems abound.

So I will preach, as I’m fond of doing, on the Psalter. My book, co-authored with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms, is still in print, and not bad! Psalm 1 is the exception among the Psalms, being a blessing more than a prayer. It mirrors what we read in Proverbs and the life of wisdom, the choice between two ways. Wisdom is so worthwhile to explore in preaching. If I ask rhetorically, Can you name smart people? Or good looking people? Or successful people? my listeners nod. Then I’ll say But can you name someone who is wise? They look befuddled. Most, if pressed, resort to somebody who’s dead: my grandmother was wise!

What is wisdom, anyhow? In my introduction to Proverbs in the Wesley One Volume Commentary, I wrote “Ralph Waldo Emerson mocked Harvard as having ‘all the branches of knowledge, but none of the roots.’ Wisdom is deep underground, not just lying around on the surface. Wisdom thinks about the purpose of life. Wisdom is serenity and patience. Wisdom must be cultivated over the length of life. Wisdom treasures what is old, believing what is ancient survived for good reason. Wisdom is born out of the cauldron of experience: hard times, grief and sacrifice. You can’t just pick up an idea and suddenly become wise the way you crack open a fortune cookie. You live it, wait on it, test it, let it seep in from the good earth through the soles of your feet. You begin to notice you are becoming one with God who is Wisdom.”

Our Psalm speaks of the one who is “happy” or “blessed.” The Hebrew, ashre, is echoed in Jesus’ Beatitudes, which aren’t directives on how to be happy or blessed. Jesus looks at those who are poor in spirit or merciful, and he blesses them. The Psalm looks at the wise life, and pronounces God’s blessing. It’s not a still life entirely. It’s a way (the Hebrew is derek) – a road, a moving forward. I love Pasolini’s great Italian film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, where Jesus is always walking briskly, teaching over his shoulders to breathless disciples trying to keep up. And yet this moving way is also a sigh. It involves meditating, the Hebrew hagah meaning to breathe, to sigh.

I’ll illustrate with someone like a man in my first parish. I asked him once how he came to be so wise. As wise people do, he demurred, professing I’m not wise. When I pressed him, he said Well, I go to work early in the morning. When I get home, I do some chores around the house. After dinner I help my wife clean up, then I go down into my basement, where I pull up an empty peach crate. I sit on it for a couple of hours, and just think.

The psalm’s vivid image is of a tree planted by the water – a reminder that wisdom happens underground, unseen, not flashy on the surface. Ellen Charry’s comment (in her consistently splendid Brazos commentary on Psalms 1-50) is spot on: “Even if God is silent in the short term, the faithful triumph spiritually because they are the strong trees that bear fruit and vibrant leaves; they know themselves to be so, and that is rewarding.”

I won’t be able to resist alluding to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, those tree-like beings who help save the day in The Lord of the Rings. Treebeard explains their peculiar language, Entish: “It’s a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” Of course, I’ll drag those quotes out, so very slowly, to drive home the point.

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

About the Author

James C. Howell

Dr. James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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