Weekly Preaching: January 14, 2018

January 9th, 2018

The lovely vignette in 1 Samuel 3:1-10 probably seems easily comprehensible to naturally spiritual people, but cynics and the less intuitive are likely to be baffled by it. God speaks, audibly and at some length, to a young boy. My privately held view is that nowadays, if someone says "I heard God speak to me," that person is more likely to be hearing his own hunches or her own preferred stirrings — although maybe not. How does anyone hear God in 2018? Not many will hear a valid speech from the Lord at night. We should recall that Samuel was in the temple all the time. Prayers, sacrifices, the retelling of Israel’s old stories... these were constants for him. And so for us, the more deeply we are absorbed in liturgy, daily prayers, weighing Scripture, and conversation with wise people (Samuel did have Eli to test what he heard), the more we hear God, however indirectly.

Context really matters. Thumb back two chapters to the story of Hannah, taunted by Peninnah, grieving her infertility, thought drunk by Eli. She pleaded for a son, yet with the promise that if she got one, she would give him back to the Lord. Samuel is that extraordinary miracle baby, whom she didn’t clutch as the fulfillment of all her dreams, but the one she relinquished out of extraordinary commitment to God. What does such a gifted life look like?

Our writer is determined to expose how much of a mess Israel was in. Eli was getting too old to lead (his loss of vision is what happens to the elderly but also symbolic of the people’s inability to see the things of God), and his sons were wicked. “The word was rare in those days." Because the Lord was quiet? Or because no one was really listening? The lectionary lops off v. 11, which picks up on what it’s like when people finally listen: “I am about to do a thing at which the two ears of everyone that hears it will tingle.” The preacher has to play on this business; I’m reminded of that old baptismal custom in which the priest touches some water to the eyes and ears of the infant and utters Ephphatha, “Be opened” (echoing Jesus’ Aramaic from Mark 7:34).

As Barbara Brown Taylor explains so eloquently in When God is Silent, prayer should be less “Lord, hear our prayers,” and more “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Through all those disciplines the church offers, we may begin to hear — but the ears will tingle. God won’t speak conventional wisdom, and God won’t pander to our preferences. Thomas Merton was right about why we don’t hear or have a vibrant spiritual life: “Much of our coldness and dryness in prayer may well be a kind of unconscious defense against grace.” You can ponder that for days and not unpack it all.

That grace may feel like undergoing surgery, abandoning control, or that cool thought from Marianne Williamson:

“When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see you just need a new floor or better furniture, that everything needs just a little cleaning — and so you go along thinking how nice life is that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out your foundation is shot, and that you’re going to have to start building it over from scratch.”  

For Israel, the building of the whole nation is collapsing and needs radical reconstruction (which may sound like our nation and world).

* * *

Paul provides a way of exploring this more fully in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. What word could speak more directly into the sickness of the modern soul than his idea that “lawful things” are not necessarily “helpful.” Without castigating hapless people, the preacher needs to expose the common ethic in which we don’t break laws, or if we stretch them we try not to get caught. I’m a pretty good person because I don’t steal or cheat on my spouse, I pay my bills, I’m nice sometimes to my neighbors. Paul is obsessed with what is “helpful” — and the Greek συμφέρει means literally “to bring together,” and then if coming together well, the pieces fitting properly, “beneficial” or “profitable."

Although Paul is thinking Torah and rabbinic commentary on the Torah when he says "lawful," it's fair for the preacher to explore the ways legality in the U.S. is not only an exceedingly low bar for the Christian to aspire to, but might even be alien to God's will. As it's the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we have ready at hand examples of Christians acting quite legally and yet immorally and in unholy ways, which led to a holy, vigorously church-based civil disobedience. I'll poke around and find a King story or two. The newer prophetic words we're hearing about race are very much focused, as Paul is in our text, on "bodies": how they're treated, what we do with them, etc. (none more provocatively and wisely than Ta Nehisi-Coates in Between the World and Me).

The preacher has to sense how directly or indirectly to share such thinking about how black bodies have been abused... but clearly for God's people, "not all lawful things are helpful." Perhaps the preacher can think of a way various things "fit together," or of a time things “came together” and it was thus “beneficial.” High-control Christians tend to speak of fate-oriented, God-is-in-control notions; for the rest of us, we can conceive of times I met someone who introduced me to someone who invited me somewhere where I was introduced to a young woman who became… my wife, mother of my children? Americans think “I can do what I want” — but the most important moments in all of our lives has this unchosen, or rather, very much chosen feel. Preacher: find your own story of this.

Since Paul is about to say more about the human body, and since he thinks of the Church as "the Body," maybe the coming together, the "what is helpful," is what builds up the body of Christ. Lots of things are legal for me, but what can I do that builds up the church?

How counter-cultural is all this? “You are not your own, but the Lord’s.” All political rhetoric makes you master of your body, your self, your life, telling you what you deserve, what’s in it for you. But Paul is all about that you belong to God — which isn’t a burden or threat, but the most liberating news imaginable!

The constant questions shouldn’t be What do I want to do? or What would be fun? or How can I get ahead? but rather What is helpful? What might make me holy, or wise? I said “shouldn’t,” but that’s a tad patronizing and judgmental — and unhelpful! We can ask different questions, and perhaps the preacher invites people into end-of-life scenarios, which are our privilege to share with people. At the hour of death, we dream of having asked the best possible questions; this reminds me of Merton’s shrewd notion that you spend your life climbing the ladder, only to get to the top and then realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.

What breaks things apart, what is unhelpful, is clarified by Paul: “I will not be enslaved by anything.” We are enslaved by a great many things. The historic debate over freedom of the will would puzzle most American churchgoers, though they might be liberated if we help them. We prize freedom (whatever visceral meaning that has for Americans, with all its vapid slogans and hawkish associations) above all else — so what an affront to us that our greatest theologians (Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, Paul himself) insist we are not free at all. We feel free, but our freedom is terribly constrained by sin, by habit, by the culture. I choose to wear unique socks! — but so do the other guys I know...

Nancy Reagan simplistically told potential drug users “Just say no," but anything to which you can easily “just say no” isn’t something you crave or would undo you. Our freedom is like the freedom of a prisoner in a cell. I’ll go to this side of my cell for a minute and then I’ll freely sit down over there for a bit. You’re still in jail. It is not the case that God endows us with freedom so we might choose God — or not. Our freedom is an illusion. We are in bondage to sin, self, and habit until God liberates us, sets us free by the miracle only the Holy Spirit can work. And then, we aren’t “free” as in I’ll do what I wish now! but rather we are free for servanthood, for dogged obedience to God. God liberated Israel from Egypt so they could get to Mt. Sinai and get their marching orders.

The preacher might explore what enslaves us. Media culture? Visions of the good life in America? Anxiety? Money? Self-criticism? Alcohol? Look up a list of possible addictions, and you’ll be stunned at how many ways we get enslaved. Calvin was right: the human heart is a productive factory of idols.

The pointed, merciful word God would speak is right there in verse 19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in you, which you have from God?” I think the first few times I used this in preaching; my tone had some scolding in it, like, “Bad boy, you’ve polluted the place.” But it can and should be a compassionate, liberating word. We struggle mightily with the body. It’s too fat, not muscular enough, unwieldly, breaking down, sagging — whatever. What we put in there tells us a lot about our fear, even if we are super healthy eaters, right? What we do with the body tells us even more about our fears.

Just try googling the word “body” and “temple” together, and you’ll get some lewd stuff. We glorify unreal bodies; Hugh Hefner got praised in my local newspaper when he died. Our bodies can feel like enemies, problems. Plato said the body is a prison. Leonardo da Vinci was obsessed with the human body (think Vitruvian Man), so he drew every face, muscle, etc., carefully, anatomically, after intense observation and also after dissecting hundreds of human corpses. His curiosity is higher version of ours: what is the body?

Paul said it’s a temple. Scripture here can calm us down, and set us on an alternative path: “Glorify God in your body.” What if I thought all day, every day, as much as possible, about my body being this temple? My goal then would be to worship, to glorify God with the thing — including being merciful. St. Francis’s regret late in life was that he had been too hard on his body trying to be holy. It's not a scold to say "Your body is the temple of God's Spirit." It's liberating.

* * *

How God views our bodies might be illuminated by the Gospel reading, John 1:43-51. Jesus sees these guys, and invites (commands?) them to follow him. I’m forever intrigued by what he says to Nathaniel. Jesus recognizes him, prompting Nathaniel to ask “How do you know me?” Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree.” I don’t really know what to do with that. There’s no moral to it, just something worth pondering and playing with. Jesus saw him under the fig tree. He noticed him. Have you ever had that happen?

Paul McCartney crooned “I saw her standing there.”  Or, sticking with the Beatles, “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget… Falling, yes I am falling…”  Or even their “I’m looking through you, where did you go? I thought I knew you, what did I know? You don’t look different, but you have changed…” Play around with these and other ideas of seeing, being seen, being noticed. Why was Nathaniel under the tree? Was he seeking shelter from a sweltering sun? Looking for figs? Who knows? I love preaching that just opens up a biblical moment, leaving room for people to find themselves and see something you maybe missed.

What do we see when we see a face? Martin Luther King, Jr. (again, his weekend!) dreamed of a day when we could see facial color but also more deeply — into the "content of character." God sees this clearly; we — and all the others — are seen fully by God.

* * *

This being seen is what we might even consider as the heart of the Gospel, and it lies at the core of this Sunday’s Psalter (139). Bent on saving time, I suppose, the lectionary oddly lops off “Even the darkness is not dark to you,” and also, more understandably yet problematically, the curse on enemies in 19-22.

Psalm 139 has sometimes been used as fodder in the right to life movement (“You knit me together in my mother’s womb”), but the thrust of the Psalm is being seen, inside and out, everywhere, always. It’s not a threat, but a comfort, a great joy. The Psalmist marvels that God knows when he sits, what he’s thinking — reminding us perhaps of the hairs on the head being numbered (Luke 12:7), of Jesus’ affectionate regard for the sparrow.  

God’s presence can’t be escaped. The preacher might benefit from quoting at least a section of Francis Thompson’s old poem, “The Hound of Heaven”:

“I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him, down the arches of the years; I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from him, and under running laughter…” — but all to no avail, as Love pursued, “with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy”

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. James Howell's latest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available now.

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