Weekly Preaching: May 6, 2018

May 2nd, 2018

Pondering three texts this week, it occurs to me that they intersect in interesting ways — so reflections on one text might feed a deeper understanding of another, whether we read all three or two or one.

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Psalm 98’s rousing delight inspires and provides plenty of verbiage for the kind of sermon I don’t hear (or preach myself) nearly enough. In The Beauty of the Word, I express a longing for sermons that are primarily about God, not us. The whole genre of praise is a strange one in our culture. In praise, we adore, extol and marvel at God’s greatness, quite apart from what God may have done for me lately. Great saints have lived into this, but we functional Americans struggle as we long for the useful God.

I’ve always been so grateful that my Church history professor, David Steinmetz, explained with unwavering clarity how St. Augustine (in On Christian Doctrine) distinguished between uti and frui love. Uti is love of use: I love money not because I want to fondle it or paper my walls with it, but because I use it to get other things I want. Frui love is love of enjoyment: I love chocolate because… well, I just love it, and not because of what I get out of it. Augustine’s question is How do we love God? Typically, with uti — which must break God’s heart, our going at God because we want to use God to get stuff we crave. What if we grow toward frui love, simply loving God because God is lovable, because God loves and is love?

"Preaching the Psalms" (Abingdon Press, 2001). Order here: https://bit.ly/2JMpZGm

Chapter 8 in Preaching the Psalms, which I coauthored with my friend Clint McCann, weighs in on preaching Psalms of Praise. It’s Easter, so we can resonate quickly and happily with Psalm 98’s images: we sing a new song, for God “has done marvelous things… His right hand and holy arm have gotten him victory.” What was Easter about? Not Oh good, we get to go to heaven now! but rather the vindication of Jesus in the face of intense rejection and criticism. As the Psalm says, “He has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.” And so we make a joyful noise, deploying various instruments, even hearing the noises of creation as additional instruments of praise.

Two warnings.  I worry that preaching Psalm 98 in light of Easter will over-baptize the thing and we’ll miss out on original context. The Israelites, knowing nothing of Easter, sang this lustily and praised God for various victories, largely national in character. Which dovetails into the second worry: it’s not just Easter that we praise God for. The whole divine dispensation, from creation onward, elicits our praise.  

I think of Christian Wiman, narrating his deepening struggles and understandings of God in the face of cancer and depression (in My Bright Abyss), telling us, “I am a Christian not because of the resurrection. I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in our suffering.”

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All this fits well with the Epistle, 1 John 5:1-6. I’m unlikely to focus on this in my sermon, as the writer is reiterating repetitive themes from earlier in the letter once more (and the Gospel lesson does the same!). A church member recently contested my claim in a sermon that all people are children of God, citing this text and its seemingly exclusive reading: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God.” I suspect that this has to do with people valuing their beloved status as children of God way more than how all people are viewed in God’s own heart.

The preacher could do well probing “His commandments are not burdensome,” linking this appropriately to Matthew 11:25-30 (sometimes dubbed “the Johannine thunderbolt”!) and Jesus’ notion that his burden is light. There are commandments, but the lightness of the load comes from being in sync with Jesus, whereas the unbearable weight of carrying all our other burdens and priorities is heavy indeed, perhaps akin to Sisyphus pushing that enormous rock uphill only to have it roll down, leaving him (and us) exhausted.

1 John 5’s images of “overcoming the world” worry me a little, making me think of “prayer warriors” and other Christians who always imagine a skirmish (or larger conflagration) and claim victories in God’s name. Yet the image is there, and real; it's well-explicated at the end of Romans 8 and also in Ephesians 6 as the armor of God. Perhaps the preacher could explore how all this has been played out in music, from “We shall overcome” (the anthem of the Civil Rights movement!) or “Victory in Jesus!”

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The love/obedience theme, paired with good cause to praising God in Christ, carries over powerfully into the Gospel reading, John 15:9-17. The heart of the Gospel maybe isn’t that God loves us, but more primally that the Father loves Jesus and then, moving slightly toward the periphery which clings closely to the center, Jesus loves us. Then we, encircling that center, love one another. This involves keeping commandments just as Jesus did. We aren’t fond of the whole notion of commandment keeping (except when we are judging others!), we fake-Pauline-people who are saved by grace.

We forget that Jesus kept his Father’s commandments, and our attachment to him involves us in the same. The commandments in question aren’t high in number, but the quality and the intensity are immense. We are to love, but not just having warm, loving feelings or even actions we regard as loving. We are to love as Christ loved us; we measure and shape our love after the kind of love Christ had for us, for lepers, for outcasts, for Mary, for the disciples, even for Judas and Pilate. Jean Vanier can help: “To love people as Jesus loves them is to wash their feet, to serve them in humility; it is to help them rise up in truth and love.  To love is to lay down one’s life for others, to place their interests before our own. It is to reveal to them that they are loved by Jesus."

Jesus clarifies that this is his whole point: “that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.” It’s not that God makes me joyful. Rather, Jesus’ joy inhabits us; we feed off his joy as he is with us and in us. I’d commend Christian Wiman’s new collection of 100 poems about Joy.  His intro is fabulous and wise: he begins by noting how “joy” is a “wounded word” in need of “healing.”  He asks if joy is an intensification of happiness or something very different. He then observes that poetry “does not think through such a problem so much as undergo it.” Joy, when it happens, is very much present, “banishing all the retrospective and anticipatory mental noise we move through most of the time… Joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.”

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While I’ve always been a little wary of people who think of Jesus as their best bud, their pal, he does invite us in this text to be not servants but friends. “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Mind you, friendship in the Greco-Roman world wasn’t people of similar interests having fun together. Friends, at least as the philosophical ideal would have it, were committed to the care of each other’s souls. As Aristotle famously put it, “The opposite of a friend is a flatterer.” A friend is someone who speaks the truth, who builds up your character; you have a shared commitment to helping each other to become good, wise, and holy.

I’m intrigued by Jesus clarifying that we don’t choose him; he chooses us. We think of faith as our free choice — but we are indeed chosen, and if we feel like we’re choosing him, it is the playing out of his choosing us. This resonates with me, as I am writing a book that involves a section on balancing our sense of being choosers with God’s choosing with the utterly embarrassing, humbling truth that the most important things about us are entirely unchosen. You don’t choose your nationality, gender, skin color, parents, proclivity to disease, height, birth order, and a zillion other things that finally determine who you are and how your life will unfold.

I get just plain tickled when I hear Jesus say that “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, I will do.” Sounds like Prayer works! But prayer in reality doesn’t work well at all. That is, it doesn't work if we think of it as a machine to get God to do favors for us. My son, when he was little and learning to pray, scoffed at the requirement that we conclude prayer “In Jesus’ name.” He said, “Doesn’t make sense. Jesus’ name is… Jesus. So instead of saying ‘In Jesus’ name,’ why don’t we just wind it up by saying ‘Jesus.’” I had no reply whatsoever.

Clearly the hook added to “Whatever you ask,” that hook being “in Jesus’ name,” fundamentally alters what we ask. “Jesus’ name” isn’t a magic formula. It’s a commitment, a discernment, an expression of my full awareness of Jesus and his agenda. It’s kin to “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” We dare not pray for things out of kilter with Jesus and his kingdom by attaching his name to something he’d be appalled or bored by. We dare to utter the sacred name only when we’ve immersed ourselves in Jesus’ teaching, in the story of his compassion, healing, crucifixion and resurrection, and then have cause to believe we are pretty much in sync with what he would pray for us, and in us.

"What can we say come May 6? Easter 6" originally appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission. 

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