Weekly Preaching: August 26, 2018

August 20th, 2018

This week’s Gospel concludes our intriguing five-week run on the 4th Gospel’s extended narrative of the feeding of the 5,000, which I’ve covered in general (and included details for this week’s thoughtful conclusion) in my blog on John 6.

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The Old Testament, 1 Kings 8:22-30, 40-43, helps us envision the dramatic production that was the completion of, entry into and dedication of Solomon’s temple. The construction of this fabulous edifice must have dumbfounded the small band of citizens in this fledgling nation. The ark was brought from the city of David (where exactly was it stored?) not far up to the crest of Mt. Zion to the new temple. In what feels like theological propaganda, the moment was so stupendous a cloud of glory descended, so thick the clergy couldn’t carry on their ministerings.

We see even more self-evident propaganda when we read Solomon’s prayer. After getting off to a solid start by praising God at length, Solomon’s real subject comes into view: himself, and his lineage.

I’d suggest two preaching angles:

  1. As you may have done just last week, explore the tension between the high-mindedness of what may have been theological BS and the more tawdry political reality hiding in plain sight. Verse 27, for instance, is exciting and promising theologically: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” But G.H. Jones was prompted to observe, “This does not fit well into its present context.” Indeed. We find here a tension between lofty dream and hard reality, which is what we have in every nation, every denomination, every church, and even every individual. Jerome Walsh says “Solomon’s speeches contain a rich and sophisticated theology” — and yet, “On the other hand, the words the narrator puts in Solomon’s mouth suggest two less attractive characteristics. The first is his self-absorption… The second is Solomon’s apparent obliviousness to his own responsibility for obedience,” which is pathetic to non-existent. We might find fault in a politician, or even in denominational leadership, but the fault line runs through all of us, requiring mercy, healing, better behavior, and then way more mercy.

  2. It might also be a helpful approach to reintroduce the concept — forgotten, neglected or downright bizarre in our culture — of a holy place. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence” (Habakkuk 2:20). Annie Dillard asked if we should wear crash helmets to church. Amos Wilder picturesquely spoke of the sanctuary as a chamber next to an atomic oven. Reverence, awe, a real belief that a holy, awe-some God, not sung about in chipper tones, but the kind of God that makes your knees tremble: this is worship in a sacred space, which is a time-honored and faithful way to love, believe in and serve God.
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Our Psalter reading undergirds this notion of a holy place that makes your jaw drop. “How lovely is your dwelling place,” not surprisingly set to music in grand ways by Brahms and many others. Pilgrims would sing this Psalm while they travelled in their caravans toward the holy city for the great festivals. The emotional, deep-souled yearning and rush of emotion are stunning, as is the radical hospitality of the place, embracing all of creation: “Even the sparrow finds a home.” We might want to swoosh the sparrows away, but all are welcome in the Lord’s house. Jesus pointed to plain birds and wildflowers, promised God’s tender care, pointing out that “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like these” (Matthew 6:29).

I may explore this idea that “Blessed are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion.” I was born in Savannah, Georgia, where we lived until I was seven. I didn't return there until a few years ago, and I found myself quite sure that Oh, my elementary school is to the left a couple of blocks, and This is the way to the beach, and My friend David lived over there. The roads, the ways, were deeply imprinted on my heart. What would it mean for the ways to God — maybe the roads to the church, or to an old church your grandparents took you to — or the more metaphorical ways — the prayers or devotional books or Bible verses or hymns that once took you toward God — to be embedded in the map of your soul?

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And then our Epistle reading, Ephesians 6:10-20. Thielman explores the idea that our passage borrows elements from the pre-battle speeches that generals gave to their soldiers to encourage them to fight bravely. So many were familiar to the public in the ancient world, and we have even more: Shakespeare’s version of the king’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech rallying the troops before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 in Henry V, Churchill’s unforgettable World War II speeches (“Victory at all costs,” “We shall fight on the beaches,” etc.) and President Whitmore’s July 4 speech in Independence Day. I always suspect preachers would preach more fruitfully if they mimicked and practiced such rousing techniques.

Paul’s rousing words feel militaristic — but are they? Do they really support the talk we hear among some Christians about “spiritual warfare?" Or does Paul envision a non-militaristic sort of struggle that isn’t triumphalistic? We put on the armor (the Greek word really is panoply!); this is not the first time Paul has used getting dressed as his controlling image. Colossians 3 advises we put on meekness, kindness and forgiveness. Paul saw Roman soldiers everywhere, so we can understand his use of the image... or did he have old Goliath in mind?

Is Paul telling us how to fight? Or what we do instead of fighting? Isn’t his panoply non-metallic, non-harmful, and even non-protective? Paul, after all, writes as “ambassador in chains” (v. 20). When I read about the girding about the waist, I think of the cincture I wear with my alb on Sundays — a symbol of my being bound and tied and committed to Christ, but also a recollection of St. Francis of Assisi donning the garb of the poor. How was he armed when he marched off to the Crusades? At the battle of Damietta, he walked across no-man’s land, barefooted, unarmed, laughably vulnerable. This was so odd that the Arab soldiers re-sheathed their sabres and took him to the sultan, with whom Francis became a friend. The whole image of being “armed” with “peace” is paradoxical, which had to be Paul’s very point.

A sermon could explore this being “an ambassador in chains.” Charles Colson, Special Counsel to President Nixon and one of the Watergate Seven, found out that “I can work for Him in prison as well as out.” Paul and Silas sang at midnight and impacted their jailer profoundly (Acts 16). Sojourner Truth spoke boldly and prophetically as a slave, famously asking “Ain’t I a Woman?”

In the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King asked, “What else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”

Consider Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, which envisions St. Thomas More in Henry VIII’s prison, explaining to his daughter why he wouldn’t back down: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his finger then — he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Or think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s stunning ambassadorship in prison — not only his remarkable writings but also his compelling behavior, which moved the guards and fellow prisoners.

Paul reminds us that what we are dealing with are the “wiles” (the Greek is methodeias) of the devil. Christians are wise to contemplate the sneakiness, the trickiness, and seductive deception that is the work of evil in the world. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters captures this in humorous and telling ways. Someone (it gets attributed to lots of people) said “The devil’s greatest wile is to persuade us he does not exist” — though Thomas Merton countered by suggesting that the devil wants to get credit for everything since what the devil wants above all else is attention.

"What can we say come August 26? 14th after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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