Weekly preaching April 3, 2022

March 27th, 2022

Isaiah 43:16-21. Coming out of the pandemic, these hopeful words are spot on. It’s not about going back! God calls us forward. The preacher could fiddle with this text in so many ways. God will make “a way in the sea” – so do we name the tragedies of panicked immigrants washing up on various shorelines? How lovely that Pope Francis’s first trip outside Rome was to the posh resort island of Lampedusa – where (rather incongruously) hundreds of drowned immigrants were found on the beaches reserved for the rich. His presence there asked us if we care.

“The wild animals will honor me.” They already do, simply by being. How delightful that the prophet doesn’t name the loveliest creatures, like the eagle or lion or dolphin. It’s the jackal (yes, think Lion King!), and the ostrich (gangly, comical, and named also by God in the whirlwind with Job!). The preacher needn’t explain or make a point. Just let it lie, linger over the ostrich. God did. 

Sermons are wise to dwell on, Why do we exist? Our text phrases it like this: “The people whom I formed for myself.” We aren’t here for ourselves, but for God. It’s not a crushing possessiveness either. God’s dream for us is “so that they might declare my praise.” Our true vocation, a life of praise? If heaven is a thing, this is what will occupy us not for a few decades but for… ever.

Psalm 126 paints a marvelous, hopeful vision. The tenses confound the translator – and so it is with God’s time, or our meshing with God’s time. It’s now, it’s coming, it’s already happened. Two things: “those who dream,” in Scripture, aren’t sleepers working out anxieties, or prophetic visionaries like Martin Luther King. Both Josephs had dreams in which God disclosed the future. Ahh… and then a great individual exercise, and even a solid church activity, might be to reflect on “The Lord has done great things for us.” Make a list. Review. Rejoice. Notice stuff you’d left out. Rejoice some more.

Philippians 3:4b-14. This passage tickles me. Paul indulges in serious braggadocio, then scolds anyone who would brag. It is remarkable that this vicious foe of Christianity became its greatest ambassador. We needn’t read any of this as anti-semitic. Paul is not tortured by the throes of guilt or a sense of inadequacy – the kind of agony that plagued Martin Luther. The bright shining of God’s grace puts all our achievements, all our good-deed-doing in the shade. To those who have been moved in their hearts by the immense love of Christ, we boast not in any good we have done, but ironically enough in our weakness.

Paul does not encourage us to build on our strengths – because it is God’s strength that matters! Amazing grace saves – not the nice or above average person but “a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” So it is my lostness, my blindness, that is my hope. My wounds, my mindless foibles, my past littered with mistakes and confusion, are the arenas of God’s glory. Only the sinner deeply grieved by his waywardness understands the grace of God.

Paul talks like an accountant with a ledger here – until you read between the lines and feel the harrowing heartbreak. Paul lost “his Jewish friends, his high status, and perhaps his wife” (Ben Witherington). Most of the early Christians suffered financially, because they refused to strike deals at pagan temples, and no longer curtsied to the emperor’s claim to total devotion. Families were ripped apart: husbands dispensed with wives who converted, Christian children were disinherited by parents. Nero burned Christians as torches in his garden.

So is Christianity a good investment? Hardly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote eloquently of The Cost of Discipleship. A choice must be made – and we’re blessed with a great hymn that echoes Paul’s words here: “When I survey the wondrous cross… my richest gain I count but loss… Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast.” What do people think when they sing or hear these words? Best I can do is, in the sermon, to slow them down and invite them to ponder.

To our high control people (and selves) we blush to notice the passive verbs: I am “found” in him. I do not “find” God. What I do is I flee from God, I mosey about as if there were no God. But God is what the poet Francis Thompson called “the Hound of Heaven”: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days… I hid from Him.” But “with deliberate speed, majestic instancy, came on the following Feet” of God who never stops finding us.

Paul wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” – but the way is to “share his sufferings,” not be spared suffering because of Christ, but actually to suffer not for but with Christ! St. Francis prayed before a cross, “My Lord Jesus Christ, Two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus, underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.”

Paul had witnessed athletic games, and points to the “goal” (skopos), the marker at the finish line: the best runners focused on that mark. As any good coach will tell you, leave the past behind and keep your vision rapt on the climax, the victory. This isn’t bland optimism, but hope, rooted in God’s past habits, trusting in God’s future.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” not “Blessed are those who are righteous” (Matthew 5:6). The beauty is in the hungering, in the yearning. The nagging hankering we feel inside is God’s voice, calling us home, keeping us a bit “restless until we find rest in God” (St. Augustine).

Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) wrote eloquently of the way God gives us just a tantalizing taste of God’s presence, a hazy glimpse of God’s utter beauty, only to draw us forward as if we were still straining to see for the first time. For Gregory, true satisfaction “consists in constantly going on in the quest, seeing that every fulfillment continually generates a further desire… Far from making the soul despair, this is actually an experience of God’s fuller presence. Yearning fills the soul more fully than actual possession.”

John 12:1-8. How blasé are we in taking for granted the shocking, miraculous surprise that was the Christian story? Jesus arrives in Bethany – hard to do nowadays with the massive wall separating Israelis and Palestinians! – at “the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Hardly just an address. Pause. Wonder of all wonders – and he’s at home, welcoming Jesus to dinner. 

“Martha served.” Of course she did, right in character. Surely John knew and expects us to recall Luke 10:38-42! Mary – but which Mary is it now?? – pours exotic, pure nard all over his feet. And we can envision it running all over the floor, down in the cracks, soaked up into the ground. No wonder onlookers gasped. Too late to scoop it up. 

Judas smugly complains. Aren’t there always church people, and certainly skeptics outside the church, cockily pronouncing upon what others should be doing for the poor?! Which poor is Judas intending? Or which poor do critics of Christianity, or even the devout, imagine here? Doug Meeks’s brilliant God the Economist surprises us by explaining who’s the “preeminent American theologian” when it comes to stewardship: Andrew Carnegie! The production of wealth “is determined by inexorable natural laws, such as the survival of the fittest.” So discrepancies in wealth between rich and poor are fully justified, and deserved. Christianity enters the capitalist picture “only after the production process has run its course and money has been made and reinvested.” Faith helps producers to disperse their “surplus charitably.” The rules for how to do this? Leftover money should be given only to the “deserving poor,” not those who deserve to be poor, but who are deserving because they are pulling themselves up and stand a good chance of joining the producers.

Sounds crass to hear it this way. But let’s be clear: this is the theology of stewardship in America. How does the preacher counter that it’s all God’s, how we earn matters, the calculation of what’s leftover is horrifically awry. John reports Judas was a “thief.” John Wesley wasn’t the only great church leader to point out that when we keep what we should be giving to the poor, it’s theft!

The text quotes another text: “The poor you always have with you.” I recall my dad muttering this to me, a little cynically, as if it’s not worth bothering, since the poor will just always be poor. The cited text, Deuteronomy 15, of course is making the opposite point: our work in lifting up the poor is never done.

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