Weekly Preaching: April 29, 2018

April 25th, 2018

The Old Testament reading this week — Acts 8:26-40?? — is actually about the impact of reading the Old Testament on one of Christianity’s first converts. So in a way, the Old Testament reading is Isaiah 52-53, the elusive, profound poem about the suffering servant. I preached on this three years ago (video here).

The preacher can portray the dual identity of this Ethiopian. There is something exotic about him and his native land, home of the Queen of Sheba, the mysterious source of the Nile, perhaps the place where the ark of the covenant has rested all these centuries… But then he’s black, he’s African, and he has an alternative sexual identity.

He’s been to Jerusalem. We know that because of his identity, he wasn’t admitted. It's stunning — he still went, still was obsessed with the Scriptures even though he was excluded! I’ve noted this in United Methodism: people we exclude, whom we don’t “condone,” who can’t receive the church’s blessings, keep showing up, keep coming back, keep seeking to be a part of the community that ostracizes them. Some miracle in that… I'm reminded that this text appeared in the lectionary the Sunday after our 2012 General Conference, and I could not help but comment on the parallels (video here).

The text’s question, Do you understand? intrigues, as this Suffering Servant text (Isa 52-53) still is a puzzle. But for all of Scripture, we need guidance — we the clergy, and we the people to whom clergy preach. There is a study/intellectual level at which we need guidance, but more importantly, we need real life practical guidance. St. Francis was a master interpreter of Scripture, not because of any clever insights he had, but because he read the Bible, and it became his to-do list for the day.

The text’s next question, Does he speak of himself, or another? is still batted around. The answer, certainly, is Yes. The prophet has been afflicted in his ministry to the exiles, yet his servant role is theirs — unfulfilled, or perhaps one they are being summoned to fulfill. We can read Jesus in (as Phillip and the Ethiopian did), but the original text stands well enough on its own. I’d commend John Goldingay’s lovely exposition (in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah) of how a prophet suffered for his message, and that suffering came to be understood as redemptive. This gives us some clues about how God chooses to be God, and hence what God was doing in Jesus.

The text’s third question, What is to prevent me being baptized? quite tragically gets answered. There’s a class, you have to be a member, you have to believe and repent, you can’t be this identity unless you repent, you have to be touched by a duly ordained person, etc. What a rich text, teeming with homiletical possibility.

* * *

Psalm 22:25-31 is certainly fascinating if we reckon with the notion that Jesus, in utter agony on the cross, called to mind a Psalm he had learned as a boy from his mother, beginning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Did he, as many did, hold in mind not just that phrase, but the entire Psalm, which, as we see here, winds up with dramatic words of steadfast hope in the face of severe adversity?

* * *

1 John 4:7-21 goes on a bit of a ramble, but his points are well-taken and entirely preachable. I shiver a little when people say something like "God’s love is the love people share," but 1 John surely underlines that when we love, we do partake of God’s love. But for him, it’s not only that God’s love equals human love (which is a dicey proposition). Rather, it all begins, continues and ends in God’s love for us — and not a mood in the heart of God, but a specific, concrete action in the crucifixion of Jesus.

“Perfect love casts out fear” is the text’s best line, although discerning what “perfect” love is can be elusive. I admire Scott Bader-Saye’s great book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, for his wise reflections on good and necessary fear versus irrational, overstated fear. He describes how the desire for security, especially in our post-9/11 world, crowds out faith, courage, boldness, discipleship.

“We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good. When we fear excessively we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good and right. Excessive fear causes our vision to narrow, when what is needed is for it to be enlarged… Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life...”  (p. 58, 60)

Or we may well say, by the love of God in Christ Jesus.

* * *

John 15:1-8 exhibits yet one more of Jesus’ riveting “I am” statements. His identity, and thus the revealed identity of the very God Moses inquired into, is declared in images, like living water, the good shepherd, and here, a vine. If you can, interview somebody who knows about growing things, how vines work or don’t, how they bear fruit or don’t.

Gisela Kreglinger has written a fascinating book called The Spirituality of Wine. She grew up in a wine-producing family, and she teaches us much about how alienated urban people are from the land and what unfolds there. As archaeologists have found thousands of winepresses all over Israel of Jesus’ day, we realize he spoke to people who knew vines, vineyards, and winepresses. His very vivid image of life with him would have been utterly memorable as listeners found themselves back at work, pruning, pressing, keeping the bugs away and such. They would have seen, felt, and smelled quite tangible images of their relationship to Jesus.

Acknowledging the woes of alcohol mis-use, Kreglinger shows how flowing wine is a constant image of the dawn of God’s kingdom. Her details drawn from viticulture are intriguing and preachable. 

This business of fruitfulness is always ripe for preaching (pun intended). Bearing fruit, from the vine’s perspective, is different from the way we think about being good. Ripening fruit doesn’t grit its teeth and strive really hard to get bigger and change color. It’s a passive thing; nutrients are pumped into the fruit, entirely dependent on uncontrollable rainfall and sunshine. These processes are hidden underground where no one can see. Holiness is like this; do you remember how the doctrine of Sanctification actually works?

When I was in the thick of writing on The Will of God,  I asked a bunch of theologians about the subject. One replied quite simply by saying, “If you want to do God’s will, start with the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. That can keep you plenty busy for the rest of your life.”

"What Can We Say Come April 29? Easter 5" originally appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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