Weekly Preaching: September 22, 2019

September 18th, 2019

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. I preached on this exactly three years ago; it went well, but now I’m hunting some fresh angles so as not to bore myself (much less them!).

I’m struck by Jeremiah’s lament that “My joy is gone.” Jeremiah has never struck me as someone exhibiting the slightest joyfulness… and what was joy, after all, back in the Iron Age? Hardly a comfortable, satisfying life full of fun and relationships. His joy “has gone up” (as in “flew away”), and if that weren’t bad enough, grief “has come down.”

Such famous lines! “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Christians who want quick turnarounds might attend to Jeremiah’s timeline, where hope is assured — in a few decades, not years or weeks or days.

Our choir will surely sing “There is a balm in Gilead,” but the hymn/anthem turns Jeremiah’s intent into something sweeter than it should be. “Is there no balm in Gilead?”, a region known for its healing ointments. The answer? Of course there is a balm in Gilead, but it is of no use. The problem is deeper, down in the very marrow of the national soul.

I think of Gore Vidal's novel about Lincoln's life — so is this historical or made-up? Lincoln, after expressing weariness to some friends, was told to get some rest, to sleep more, to get away for a few days. His reply was that his exhaustion was deeper than that, not the kind that yields to a few more naps or a day at the coast.

Jeremiah’s grief is to be pondered. He not only grieves, he yearns to grieve even more. He wants to weep. “Oh that my head were a spring of water, my eyes a fountain of tears.” Who wants more sorrow? The one in sync with God, the one who gets Bob Pierce’s wish: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.” Preaching should perhaps begin with some sorrowing, even tears over our people and the world.

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Tears may heal or purge in some way. For Jeremiah, it’s all about solidarity with God. If you do not know Maggie Ross’s The Fountain and the Furnace, I commend it to you as one of the wisest, most provocative and profound books on life with God and ministry ever. Here is just a small sample of what she says about weeping: “God baptizes us with tears. God loves creation enough to weep over it… We have lost the understanding that the salt of tears is the savor of life. We need to recover our understanding of the life-flood of tears, God’s and ours, that mothers the fire of our life.”

Is there a sermon where we pause and simply weep together?

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1 Timothy 2:1-7. Paul presses for prayers “for all men.” Luke Timothy Johnson points out that the noun here is anthropos, not anēr, so it’s not males but all people; Johnson calls this “a leap forward in early Christian consciousness.” I like to think he’s right, given how paternalistic and male-centered Scripture seems to be.

Preaching could devote itself properly to the idea that we pray “for kings.” Most people either grouse about the President or mindlessly fawn over him. What if we expended these energies in prayer for the one in power? The prayer itself is dicey, as it’s not a blessing of or divine endorsement of the powerful. Johnson again is helpful: “The prayer for rulers is the Jewish and Christian way of combining a refusal to acknowledge earthly princes as divine and the duties of good citizens of the world.” He claims there is “an implicit critique of any claims they might put forward concerning their absolute authority” when we place them in God’s hands.

It's hard to escape what seems plain here: Paul prays, yearns for, and believes in the possibility of all being saved. Christians have their gnostic tendencies, wanting to feel they are among the elect, while others (even fellow-Christians!) will be consigned to perdition. David Bentley Hart has a new book out this month, That All Shall Be Saved, in which he explores the long-held belief by many of our greatest theologians through history that none will be lost. The preacher would need to process and communicate such an idea with delicate care.

Perhaps we can always remind our people of the wideness to God’s mercy with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s incontrovertible wisdom: we can and must at least hope that everyone will be saved. I’m not the judge, but if I love, and rank God’s love and power highly enough, I will never settle for believing that Yes, these guys are doomed and that’s fine with me. We yearn for, we hope for the salvation of each and every person.

* * *

Luke 16:1-13 is just so hard to dissect and to get inside Jesus’ head. In a Bible study, I have time to probe and get there. But in a sermon? If you’ve preached well on this text, send me what you’ve done! Jesus certainly isn’t all about goodness and being nice! The dishonest manager is commended. It’s not a “go thou and do likewise” though, is it?

Joe Fitzmyer (Anchor Bible on Luke) points out that the parable (verses 1-8) is puzzling enough, but the situation is compounded by the lectionary attaching the next five verses, as if they resolve the enigma. Augustine saw in the manager “foresight for the future,” and Wesley appreciated the craft of the man and his stellar use of money. But what kind of sermon can you cobble together from that? Wesley’s views on money would annoy my people. Jesus, wonderfully, turns our cozy expectations on their back ends. I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer’s provocative thought, that we often prefer our own goodness to doing God’s will. We want to keep our hands clean, when doing what God asks is about getting our hands dirty.

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