Weekly Preaching: February 3, 2019

January 28th, 2019

Super Bowl Sunday! Wait, that’s not a liturgical day. But it does remind and humble us about the degree to which not just the calendar, but people’s passions, are driven by things not of our making. Maybe we can do a bit of reshaping. Epiphany 4 texts aren’t about competition, winning, or money-making, but calling, love, risk and even being a loser.

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The call story in Jeremiah 1:4-10 is a wonder you never tire of contemplating. Hopefully, the preacher will reflect on her own call (perhaps not in the sermon, but in devotion and preparation). You were called… when? How? What were the circumstances? Was it earlier than even you realized? Jeremiah’s call wasn’t in the womb but actually before he was in his mother’s womb! I’m writing a book that involves a big section on life in utero. You once were ridiculously small, mini-microscopic, entirely vulnerable, hardly a chooser. Doesn’t God’s call predate your independent choices, or even hearing? A fetus can detect sound at about 26 weeks! Can it hear God? At 26 weeks, still eggplant-sized, you may well have attended worship, overheard the hymns (if muffled) — and you were nourished on the Eucharist. When I hand a pregnant woman the body of our Lord and say "The body of Christ, the bread of life," it flashes through my mind that the child in there can hear me, albeit in a muffled way. Already worshipping God, part of the Body.

Jeremiah nixes the fantasies of those who cry that religion and politics don’t mix. Jeremiah’s life and ministry didn’t just happen during the reigns of Josiah and Jehoiakim. He was directed their way, to their policies and the foolish public behavior of God’s people. And what a moment in time! Josiah ushered in soaring dreams and immense success — political, economic, and even religious. But then, he was tragically killed at age 39 (like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frederic Chopin, Amelia Earhart). What a plunge into darkness was the reign of his successor, Jehoiakim. Faked religion, cruelty to the needy, idolatry and suppression of prophecy. In both settings, Jeremiah proclaimed a message of repentance and hope.

I think I learned the word “chiasm” while studying this text. The words

     pluck up       break down

       build             plant

form an X topically. Christ was crucified on a big X, and God’s way is always pluck up and then plant, break down and then build. We would prefer God just build and plant. Marianne Williamson memorably suggested that when you invite Christ into your life, you think he’ll spruce up the place a bit. But you look out the window one day, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear the thing down; you need to start over at the very foundations.
The preacher will be wise to make note of the call pattern in Scripture. God speaks to someone, usually unexpectedly and uninvited. The individual responds with flat out good reasons God can’t use such a person (Isaiah isn’t holy, Moses can’t speak, Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, Mary hasn’t been with a man). But God counters, needing not ability but availability. Jeremiah is too young.
How old was he? Who knows how old a na’ar was. Fourteen? When John Paul II was inaugurated into the papacy on October 22, 1978, he spoke to the young people, telling them “You are the future of the world. You are the hope of the church. You are my hope.” We might get sentimental about youth and their naivete. But honestly: Talk to some teenagers and children about your sermon, and what God is asking the church to do. Talk to one in your sermon. See what unfolds.
The call, like the life of the church, is about love, love for God, love for one another. I went into the ministry, not because I wanted to influence committees, meet budgets, complete denominational forms or even preach sermons. I loved Jesus, and hoped I could run a few errands for him.
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Love: 1 Corinthians 13. What a crucial, yet grossly misunderstood and winnowed-down text. We hear it at weddings, but Paul wasn’t composing a poem to be read by enamored couples. The context: Paul is talking about the Body, how the parts of the Body differ, how those parts relate to one another, and how they together connect with God’s world. It’s love, pathetically vapidized in our culture. But the very fact that we know we abuse and skinny down its meaning reveals we believe in our gut there’s a real thing that’s amazing.
My friend, colleague and copastor Uiyeon Kim preached on this at the Uniting Methodists conference in Dallas back in July. Moving, profound. Before we preach, we’d best size up how we love within the Church (or fail to), and only then ponder how we love as a Church.
I like to ponder how church life, even administration, budgets, boards and meetings, are or could be about love; we shot this video a couple of years ago on love in church structure and administration. Jesus said the whole law is summed up in the command to love. So why not take it up any and everywhere?
Paul is counseling the warring, arrogant Corinthians on how God’s gifts are to be used for the good of the Body. Tongues and prophecy can be divisive. Great knowledge and faith can destroy love. St. Francis of Assisi fretted when his friend St. Anthony asked to embrace a life of scholarship; he allowed it, but only with safeguards so charity would not be overshadowed. We all know people who know so much about God and the Scriptures that they lose their ability to love. St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) wrote that “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth cannot fly without Love, nor can Love soar without Truth; their yoke is one of unity.”
The structure of 1 Corinthians 13 is instructive. Verses 1-3 speak of the necessity of love; 4-6 of its character (mirroring Christ, of course); and 8-13 speak of the endurance, the permanence of love. Paul calls Love the first of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). Love is God’s work in, through and in spite of us. Love loves enemies. Love loves those God loves.
Love can be daunting. In A River Runs Through It, the pastor, who lost one of his sons, preached that “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them — we can love completely without complete understanding.”
Indeed. Mystery, failure to know and understand, are just fine within the Body, and in the Body’s love to the world. We see “in a mirror dimly.” Corinth was the world’s greatest producer of… yes, mirrors. The Greek, en ainigmati, as “in an enigma,” means “in a riddle.” We can love in the dark, we work to resolve what is a puzzle when we love. We listen. Or as Martin Luther King put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
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And then we come to the Gospel, Luke 4:21-31, which we covered last week when we looked at 4:14-21; check out my previous blog for that dramatic moment.
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