Weekly Preaching: October 21, 2018

October 16th, 2018

If you’re continuing a series on Job (we’re to the whirlwind now!), go to the bottom of this blog, or watch my sermon on Job, "Everything Happens for a Reason." We’ll start this blog with the Gospel, then explore Hebrews (not just for preaching it, but what it reveals about ministry).

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Mark 10:35-45. Jesus has clearly altered the plot of his story from one of striding about amazing people to this beleaguered journey toward Jerusalem to suffer and die. Along the road, he’s explaining this way of sorrows, and how following him similarly puts you in harm’s way. It's a road of downward mobility, a route toward suffering and death.

How dense are the disciples? The sons of Zebedee, acting this time without their pal Peter, sound like those Christians you’ve known who “claim promises” and feel sure God will do their bidding: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Did Jesus chuckle? Grimace? Instead of chiding or correcting, Jesus quite typically followed up by asking them to continue. They seek the glory of sitting next to him in his glory. Posturing, jockeying — don’t think clergy are immune from the allure of dreams of glory, sitting on the right hand of the bishop, sitting just to the left at one of the grand pulpits. Clergy: Are you moving on up? Are you resentful of those who are?

Did Zebedee raise his boys with quite proper American-style ambition to succeed? Matthew 20:20 interestingly casts Mrs. Zebedee as the one seeking position for her boys.

Jesus, continuing themes they’ve missed, points out that his glory will involve “drinking the cup I drink” — that is, being arrested, beaten, and crucified. Even hearing this, and perhaps they even understood a little, they cockily declare “Lord, we are able!” My theology professor at Duke, Bob Cushman, once told me his least favorite hymn was “Are Ye Able,” which similarly boasts “Yeah, the sturdy dreamers answered, to the death we follow thee. Lord, we are able!” But they are not able, and neither are we. God wants availability, not ability. And God’s realm is an upside down kind of glory. There is no hierarchy in God’s kingdom: “Gentiles lord it over others; but it shall not be so among you.” Or rather, there is a hierarchy, and it’s a flattened pancake on the ground of humility. Whoever can go lowest is closest to Jesus.

James, as fate would have it, was martyred a decade later (Acts 12:2). John apparently lived to old age. Their naïve confusion on the road in Mark 10 was surely replaced by a mature, humble realization that Jesus’ way was the way, and that the world’s path to glory isn’t merely dangerous but a deceptive lie. Frodo understood that the ring had to be destroyed at Mordor, or the power of the ring would destroy him and the Shire. When I preach on such themes, I am not optimistic people will be able to hear. Sometimes I settle for incremental gains; maybe somebody is a tad humbler, maybe somebody engages in some hard service for God. But for the revolution Jesus envisaged, we have to look to the St. Francises of the world, the Dorothy Days, the Teresas and Thérèses of the world (Avila, Lisieux, Calcutta), maybe an Albert Schweitzer or maybe somebody you know who bought into the Jesus revolution with abandon.

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Our Epistle, Hebrews 5:1-10, is typical Hebrews: dense, profound, mystifying, moving. And obsessed with Melchizedek. I want to grow up to savor Melchizedek, but for now, the yawning gap between me and the early Christians is the way they got totally jazzed about the mention of the obscure king, and I just skate on by.

The author compares and contrasts earthly priests with Christ as our priest, affording us a hopeful glimpse into both. I think it’s wise, on occasion, to talk about what it is to be a priest, to be like you, the preacher, though not to elicit sympathy or to assert your authority. Every few months, as the context provides an opening, I tell my people that I love them, I think of them when they aren’t around, I worry about them, I pray for them. It’s my job; it’s my calling.

"Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us about Powerful Leadership" (Abingdon Press, 2017). Order here: http://bit.ly/2rYxHac

Hebrews speaks of the weakness of the priest. Apply for an open pulpit, or ask for a move from your bishop, and tell him/her you’re weak? No, we profess our strengths, our savvy, our work ethic, our robust theology. But I wound up writing a book entitled Weak Enough to Lead after teaching a doctoral class on biblical leadership. I noticed how the Bible simply doesn’t supply snappy formulas for how to be a strong leader. They're a weak bunch, as they should be, these Bible leaders. Hebrews doesn’t speak of weak priests and then demand they get strong. Their weakness is their strength.

And why? They are able to sympathize, and be gentle. When I get hard on my people (in the privacy of my mind, of course), I am forgetting my own foibles and flaws. We are all broken. Rainer Maria Rilke (in his letter to a young poet friend) was right: “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled. His life has much difficulty and sadness. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find these words.” Knowing this, and even daring to speak of it, might remind the critics and fault-finders that they are a bit off track. It might refocus church life on compassion, not fixing people or even the world but being with one another, not judging but overflowing with mercy.

Jesus himself wasn’t superman come to earth; he wasn’t a man of steel. He himself was meek, lowly, woundable, wounded. Verse 7 poignantly reminds us of Jesus’ “loud cries and tears.” Gethsemane, yes. Weeping over Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives, yes. But the text implies more, something regular. Jesus loved deeply. Jesus was one with the heart of God. Whatever broke God’s heart broke Jesus’ heart (in the words of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision). Those who travelled with Jesus, and asked him to teach them to pray, witnessed his sorrows, his crying out to God in prayer.

This column labors toward good preaching. Maybe we should, instead, strive to be clergy who pray, who have tears and cries for our people, for the troubles of the world, for ourselves. I too often am annoyed, angry, and frustrated with my people, the world, and myself. I am also positive that even if I smile and talk sweetness and love, my inner mood bleeds out through my pores, and they feel it.

You may be a stalwart in prayer for your people. I for one am humbled when I consider someone like my wife’s grandfather, Charles Stevens, who was known for his all-night prayer vigils, for the intensity and length of supplications for people, challenges, big decisions. It’s not that such prayers “work.” We just pray. Jesus, after all, prayed for the cup to pass from him — and the result only superficially contradicts the words of Hebrews 5: “He was heard for his godly fear.” Ah, but he was. God never adored his son more than in Gethsemane, and throughout Good Friday.

The diciest moment in Hebrews 5 is this notion that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” He suffered because he was obedient… and people have heard lots of pablum about God teaching people lessons through smiting them or inflicting harm on them (the whole premise being overturned in Job!). God is in the suffering. God suffers what we suffer. We know God is growing into that awareness, not sticking with the calculus of I am suffering, so what is it God is trying to teach me by sending this my way?

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And finally, Job. After Job rails against God and his pseudo-friends for so long while God is entirely silent, the shocker is that God speaks in chapter 38. The lectionary only offers us a few verses; the preacher will need to account for God’s entire speech without explicating every detail. The details are stunning, the poetry and imagery eloquent and vivid; Robert Alter's brief comments in The Wisdom Books, and Francis Anderson's Job are both brilliant on these passages.

God doesn’t supply simple “answers” or any smooth theological explanations of why bad things happen to good people. God doesn't explain how the moral calculus works or doesn't. God instead takes Job on a tour of creation — not the pretty places in creation, but the wild, inaccessible, puzzling, explicable places. God doesn’t point to the house cat or the hunting dog who do our bidding, or a caged parrot. God indirectly suggests to Job that what God fashioned is not a neat world where everything fits together snugly and all is fair and placid. It’s dangerous out there, it’s amazing out there. The speech clearly undercuts a too-small-God theology — or an anthropocentric one.

Partly, God invites us to hear God’s voice in nature. John Muir, after exploring Yosemite, wrote “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near to the heart of the world as I can."

It's worth noting that it's not just the wildness God points to. There's a lot of birthing going on, startling new life. Job cursed the day of his birth, and feels everything is over. But God shows him new life bursting forth in the wild haunts of animals. Even the ocean is spoken of as being birthed.

Martin Buber, weighing the speech of God in light of the progress of the entire story, suggested wisely that the Book of Job guides us from the view that God is cruel (chapters 1-2) to a retributive God (the friends’ speeches in 4-11), to a hidden God (the one who simply refuses to respond to Job through chapters 3-37), and finally then to a God of revelation, a God who is present and relational. Job doesn’t get answers. But Job does get God. Preachers need to help our people see that God doesn’t float down rewards or blessings or things. God’s gift is God. Jesus gave them his body and blood and invited them to continue receiving him. His nickname, after all, is Emmanuel.

Or, as Anderson puts it, “That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God... It does not matter much what they talk about. Any topic will do for a satisfying conversation between friends.”

"What can we say come October 21? 22nd after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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