Weekly Preaching: September 15, 2019

September 10th, 2019

I love (vainly?) to say the lectionary imposes discipline on me. But do I select the easy one among the weekly offerings? Luke 15 is far more palatable to preach on than Jeremiah 4. Does God want us to preach the tough one  tough for our people but even tougher for the clergy? And then I wonder, when weighing texts, if God doesn’t want one of them to be one we linger over and ponder but don’t actually preach upon? 1 Timothy 1 might be a great gift to the preacher personally, not to be skipped over but relished.

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Jeremiah 4:11-28. I continue to wonder how to preach these texts (and both testaments have them, including right from the lips of Jesus!) which are straight up, severe judgment. I could just blast my people; some days they tempt me sorely! I wonder about teasing out what happened back then (Judeans were going through the motions, didn’t parse their own waywardness or their external threats, so here’s how Jeremiah reported on what was in God’s aggrieved heart), and then getting a tad sarcastic, like Thank God none of this applies to us! or finding the way to tremble and, with utter humility and solidarity with the people, say Friends, I’ve been lying awake this week, wondering if we aren’t grieving God’s heart in just this way.

What a vivid image Jeremiah employs when he speaks of the hot, burning east wind. The theological nuance of the Hebrew is inescapable: It’s a ruach, same word as God’s creative wind, same word we render as God’s Spirit. In this case, God’s Spirit is dry, harsh, unbearable. Jeremiah is thinking of the sirocco, the violent wind that scorches the Arabian desert to the east. George Adam Smith described it in his diary: “Atmosphere thickening. Wind rises, gale blowing air filled with fine sand, horizon less than a mile, sun not visible, grey sky with almost no shadow.” Thinking of this ungentle breeze, David Grossman entitled his harrowing book about the destructive violence of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis Yellow Wind.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

Is God like this sirocco? Does God unleash horrors on us out of the swirl of God’s wounded, grieved heart? Or is it that God created the world with an order that isn’t flouted without consequences, so when we get sideways with God there are terrors? Martin Luther distinguished between God’s proper work and God’s “alien work.” Wrath is simply the goodness, the grace of God, but how it comes at us when we are at a bizarre angle or entirely out of sync with God. If we pray for God’s Spirit, will it be a cool, life-giving breeze, or a harsh, burning wind of judgment? Are our social anxieties, our political issues, fretting over security, family division, international strife and injustices abounding all instances of the harsh east wind of God’s sorrowing over us? Can I tell this in a way that moves my people to repentance (which Jeremiah himself didn’t get done)?

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1 Timothy 1:12-17. I have a curious attachment to this text ever since I was on a retreat years ago and somebody handed me a little card saying “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me trustworthy in making me his minister." My gut reaction was “This translation must be out of kilter or tendentious in some way.” But the sense is Paul’s, expressing surprise and gratitude that, yes, God chose me to be God’s minister. I have had hundreds of these printed over the years. I stick them in notes written to clergy, I hand them out when I speak at clergy events, and I keep one in my car, one on my desk, and one in my sock drawer just to encourage and remind me.

I did hear a clergyman attempt what Paul attempts here. I didn’t know him at all, but I heard him declaring at some length “I am a worse sinner than any of you.” It was hard not to scratch your head and wonder what he was harboring inside; the sermon didn’t go anywhere good. I think Luke Timothy Johnson’s summary of the glory hidden in Paul’s manipulative language is helpful: “The mercy shown Paul was not simply forgiveness of past behavior, but the gift of power that enables him to live in a new way.”

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Luke 15:1-10 (which I preached on last time around). Is this really the easy one? Jesus’ signature is all over this short text. 

I’ll never forget the evening we had my former coworker and constant friend Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor of Capitol Hill UMC in Washington, back for a program. I opened by asking her a question she didn’t know I would ask: Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story — that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us.
The sheep story echoes this. It’s not sufficient in God’s Kingdom to say, Hey, we have ninety-nine, that’s not bad. No, we even risk losing the mass in hand to search out the one that’s lost.
I chuckle over the Mitch Hedberg comedy routine: You’re in a restaurant, and they call for the Dufresne family... but no reply. They move on to the next name, but Mitch wants to hunt for the Dufresnes: “They’re not only lost. They’re hungry.” The one sheep is lost, and hungry…
Of course, this little parable tells us how to be the church, and it tells us about God. We dare not miss the note of Joy in God’s heart featured so prominently. Years ago I heard someone I can’t recall preaching (isn’t this the way? a humbling realization for us who preach!) who used this evidently true story as an illustration. Several families were camping out west someplace, and as it was getting dark, when getting ready for dinner, they noticed a little girl named Cathy wasn’t there. Their search gradually became increasingly frantic as night began to fall. “Cathy! Cathy! Cathy!” everyone was shouting as they fanned out. Hours passed, and their terror mounted. Finally, almost at dawn, someone stopped shouting “Cathy!”, got really quiet, and heard the soft sound of a whimpering child. There was Cathy, suffering from some bruises, scrapes and exposure. They took her to the closest hospital where she was treated, and then her family was home that night. Her dad tucked her into bed, kissed her goodnight, turned out the light and was about to close the door when he heard her voice. “Daddy?” “Yes, sweetheart?” Perched on her elbow, she smiled and said to him, “I bet you’re glad you found me.” He replied, “Oh, if you only knew.”

What can we say September 15? 14th after Pentecost originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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