Weekly Preaching: February 17, 2019

February 11th, 2019

While I adore Psalm 1 and its clear echo/reiteration in Jeremiah 17:5-10, I do not believe I have ever preached on either text. The image is vivid and one the preacher would be wise to ponder for her/his own personal life. The shrub in the dryness is contrasted with the tree planted by the river. I recall a brilliant sermon I heard (on cassette tape, if that dates it…) about trees, and how the most important things happen in the dark, unseen (the roots holding the tree upright, feeding it with water and nutrients, etc.). What’s interesting is that such a tree “will not fear” and “will not be anxious.” Somehow coping with, embracing and redeeming fear and anxiety are about deep roots, locating oneself near flowing water. Baptism image? Jesus as living water image? 

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The linkage of our Epistle and Gospel remind me of All Saints’ Day, when we ponder the resurrection hope and also the Beatitudes! The lectionary offers the preacher a four-week run through the long, profound and hugely important 1 Corinthians 15. This is week two, following week one’s creedal and personal testimonial business about the eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. This week, 15:12-20 reveals a deep, emotional appeal, almost a pleading yelp from Paul, his rhetorical masterpieces that underline why Easter matters and all that is at stake: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain as is your faith,” and “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” and “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” The preacher will be wise simply to lift these up, with pauses and emphasis. It's hard to improve upon Paul’s plaintive directness.

It is once again essential to notice how Paul ties the resurrection to forgiveness. It’s not “If Christ isn’t raised, your faith is futile and you stay dead when you die,” but “you are still in your sins.” The New Testament everywhere gets jazzed up that Jesus was raised; for now there is forgiveness! What did Anne Lamott say? That "not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die"? How is forgiveness a liberation from the cold, dark bondage of the tomb? How is forgiveness as miraculous as a dead person up and walking about?

The absence of forgiveness is very much a tomb. There must be no shortage of stories, images, and memories you might draw upon to show how resurrection, the unbolting of the chained door of death, the miraculous eruption of new life from the dead is entirely tied up with forgiveness — not that if you’re forgiven you get eternal life, but that forgiveness requires resurrection, that Jesus’ resurrection in particular is the one that unleashes a healing power so that impossible forgiveness actually happens. The Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, forgave the killer Charles Roberts, and assisted his family. For them, Jesus was raised from the dead, so they required and sought no vengeance; their sins forgiven, they could forgive.

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And then Paul’s “we are most to be pitied if our hope is in this life only.” You could easily say the life to come is fantastic and you’d be pitied to miss it. But I wonder if it’s especially pitiable to live the life of faith only for this life” — in two senses. If this life is all there is, but you’ve bet everything on eternal life, that is pathetic; you’d have been wiser to party hard and choose decadence. But then there is also the rejoinder to preachers (like me) who get so fixated on justice and holiness and reconciliation and relationships here that we really do forget about eternity, when all we nag people about will effortlessly and simply be.

U.C. San Diego psychologist Dr. Nicholas Christenfeld has studied whether knowing the end of the movie spoils or heightens your enjoyment of the movie. He’s proven that it’s better to know how it’s going to end. Fascinating… and theologically intriguing. We know the end to the story; so the rest of the story makes more sense, we get the struggle, the sorrows, the exasperation, and then we can calm down a little, and maybe be more courageous, and joyful.

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Luke 6:17-26 is, understandably, less popular than Matthew’s version of Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” Jesus clearly would have uttered these blessings many times in many places, with variations based on his crowd, what was unfolding in the news, his own temperament. Luke’s peculiarities? It’s a “level place,” not a mountain. The immediate context is a rash of healings, and people stretching out just to touch him.

But the major shifts are in his content. Jesus blesses not the “poor in spirit” (as in Matthew) but simply the “poor.” Clarence Jordan was once asked which was the better, original reading: “If you have a lot of money, you’ll probably say spiritual poverty. If you have little or no money, you’ll probably say physical poverty. The rich will thank God for Matthew; the poor will thank God for Luke. Who’s right? Chances are, neither one. For it is exactly this attitude of self-praise and self-justification and self-satisfaction that robs men of a sense of great need for the kingdom and its blessings. When one says ‘I don’t need to be poor in things; I’m poor in spirit,’ and another says ‘I don’t need to be poor in spirit; I’m poor in things,’ both are justifying themselves as they are saying in unison, ‘I don’t need.’ With that cry on his lips, no man can repent.”

Recently sanctified Oscar Romero preached on this: “The world says: blessed are the rich. You are worth as much as you have. But Christ says: wrong. Blessed are the poor… because they do not put their trust in what is so transitory. Blessed are the poor, for they know their riches are in the One who being rich made himself poor in order to enrich us with his poverty, teaching us the Christian’s true wisdom.”

The Greek word for “poor,” ptochoi, implies that they are not merely low on funds, but miserable, oppressed, humiliated. So the miserable, oppressed and humiliated are blessed? By Jesus, yes. Remember, the beatitudes aren’t commandments. Jesus looks on the poor, the humiliated, those ground into the pavement with no hope, and he blesses them, he sees them, he loves them, he makes outlandish promises to them.

Something Matthew omitted: Jesus says “Blessed are you when they exclude you.” Being excluded, left out, passed over — it's an easy connecting point with your people, and maybe in your own soul, as clergy know about being excluded and passed over.

Most intriguingly, Luke’s Jesus adds Woes. We might wish he’d stopped with the Blesseds. And his Woes are for those the world regards as blessed: the full, those laughing, the rich, those spoken well of. Again, this text, whether you preach it well or not, can cure the preacher’s soul. I want, I desperately crave to be spoken well of. Henri Nouwen pinpointed “popularity,” being liked, as one of the grave temptations of ministry. When they say Great sermon! or when they say Pastor is so wonderful! we should shiver a bit and dig deep to see if we are in sync with Jesus or not.


"What can we say February 17? 6th after Epiphany" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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