Weekly Preaching: July 21, 2019

July 15th, 2019

I’m not preaching on Amos 8:1-12, but I’m drawn to the timeliness of his vision of a “basket of summer fruit” here in July! Amos is in full-bore judgment mode here. Preachers always have to assess when to speak judgment and when to voice hope; the catastrophe is when we get them reversed. Israel’s prophets do both, but at the right moment (perhaps in line with “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”?). John Goldingay rightly says “the true prophet knows what time it is.” How does the preacher know? And when is the preacher merely venting his or her own exasperations with the people?

Lingering another moment here, I’m fond of Gerhard Lohfink’s thoughts: “According to biblical faith, the deceased are judged not according to a system, but by the living God.” So it's not Rules, and did you meet them? but a Relationship, and were you in it? I’d add God isn’t simply the judge, but also the defense attorney, and even the scapegoat bearing your judgment. Our hope is in the judgment that is God’s mercy which clarifies, then purifies, then heals.

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Colossians 1:15-28 is a wonder of a text a preacher might marvel over, not just one used to piece a sermon together. The style of it is elevated, eloquent, rhythmic. It’s poetry, maybe a hymn. Can the preacher’s style in the sermon be elevated, not chatty? Maybe we could quote hymns or poems. Or we could just trust the text, re-read it to people in short segments, building to a crescendo, and then let it do its own work of which it is more than capable. The writer wants readers to slow down, ponder, parse, reflect, re-read. Can the sermon help listeners do so?

In 1953, J.B. Phillips (the Eugene Peterson of his day!) published Your God Is Too Small. The title tells it all. We eviscerate Jesus, narrow him down, putting him in some small box (personal savior, prophetic revolutionary, conservative stalwart, liberal pundit, compassionate guru)  yet our text blows our mind with how great Jesus is. The words are big (fullnessall, etc.). Hifalutin philosophical terms (eikonarche, etc.) are trotted out by Paul (or "the author of Colossians," if you prefer) to try to capture how fabulous Jesus was, is and will be, always has been and always will be. Jesus is expansively amazing, over, under and beyond all of creation. We are reminded that our worship of him isn’t about us; we praise, adore, listen, fall slack-jawed on our knees, dizzy from the grandeur.

It’s edgy and countercultural, too. If you adore this Jesus you might wind up suffering (as the latter segment of our text underscores), but you won’t even mind as you’re so lost in wonder, love, and praise. Jesus is set against claims of empire as Jerry Sumney (in his solid Colossians NTL commentary) explains: “The church possesses an allegiance that supersedes the claims of empire. This alternative allegiance will require them to live in ways that people around them see as disruptive and perhaps subversive or even illegal.” You can’t just swoon over Jesus if you don’t see him clearly or embrace what he’s about. I might praise my wife incessantly, but we might still wind up divorced if our values are out of sync (reminding us of the Amos text!).

I will surely clarify to my people how this text alone debunks all the DaVinci Code nonsense (I still can't believe the guy who played Gandalf also played Sir Leigh Teabing!) that Jesus was just a guy and later politicians hatched the notion of his divinity to hold the empire together. As early as two decades after Jesus, while plenty of folks were around to know better were it not true, Colossians has the most gargantuan, high Christology imaginable — higher than many Christians have today.

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Luke 10:38-42 gives a narrative, at-home version of the praise in worship articulated in Colossians. Visiting with his friends in Bethany, Jesus did the unthinkable in Bible times: He permitted a woman to sit at a rabbi’s feet. Shocking, way out of bounds, overturning religious convention — again. The story’s context is crucial; he’s still unravelling the primal commandment to love God and neighbor. First, he picks up love of neighbor with the Good Samaritan story. Now, he dovetails back to love of God. It looks like Mary, not Martha.

We may well sympathize with Martha. It is probably the Feast of Tabernacles, so she is doing the right hostessing, but also religious, thing in providing a festive, complex meal. Quite rightly, she upbraids Mary for doing nothing. Isn’t prayer and praise always doing nothing? I know of churches that have “Marthas” who serve at meals. You just have to chuckle. Martha is scurrying about doing good — even for Jesus! But Jesus asks us to listen for what he might want you to scurry about doing, but also just to him, being with him and adoring him.

Listening is the heart of the life of faith. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, said (in his memoir of being a biographer, Working) that the key to research is leaving long, awkward silences during interviews. People will eventually fill the void. His notebooks are filled with marginal markings: SU, SU, SU. Shut up! We SU. We listen, we relish the silence with Jesus. Instead of Lord, hear our prayer, we say Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Mary listened; the Greek is ekouen, the imperfect tense, implying “she kept listening.”

Jesus chides Martha for being “anxious about many things.” What could be more apropos for people in our day? The solution, the conversion, is to fix on “one thing.” Søren Kierkegaard’s book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing comes to mind. How daunting is this for us? Early copyists of Luke's Gospel made a fascinating textual change that can’t be a mistake! Instead of henos, “one thing” is needful, they shifted to oligos, “a few things are needful.” I can just imagine the abbot, the spiritual leader, getting frustrated over the monks not getting their work done; perhaps they even countered his demands by saying Jesus said only one thing is needful. He replied, and inserted it into Scripture, Well, a few things are needful.

Jesus upends things by saying Mary has chosen the “better part.” St. Augustine suggested he meant “a better meal,” namely the Bread of Life, the Eucharist.

What can we say July 21? 6th after Pentecost originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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