Weekly Preaching: June 21, 2020

June 19th, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21 is a terribly depressing episode — yet with surprising hopefulness tucked inside. Phyllis Trible (Texts of Terror) and many others have read the text from a feminist perspective: Hagar symbolizes countless women trapped and abused by the power of men. Patriarchy and race are written all over Abraham’s stunning shunning of this woman. And yet she finally achieves liberation despite all that. She isn’t shunned by God, who sends a messenger, a promise, water in the wilderness, and comfort. 

Since we are online, my sermon will be a Zoom conversation with 3 women clergy on our staff about the marginalization of women. As it's prerecorded, you can view it here.

Gustave Dore’s image is shown here — one of an amazing number of artistic images of this haunting scene. Frances Klopper, a scholar from South Africa, notices that “the frequency with which the expulsion scene has been painted testifies to a fascination with the fate of the slave-woman who has been wronged by her master and mistress.” Getting inside Hagar’s sorrow: the poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker imagined her thinking “She threw me away like garbage… But I still wonder Why could she not love me? We were women together.” Can the preacher use this moment as a time to lift up domestic abuse and how women still get short shrift?

The image of the little boys Ishmael and Isaac playing together is intriguing. What’s more intriguing is that, evidently after years of isolation, Genesis 25:9 reports that Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham. How did they get back in contact for the funeral? Jonathan Sacks, after raising this question, also asks Who was Keturah, Abraham’s way late in life wife and mother of his subsequent children? Among many medieval rabbis, Keturah was none other than Hagar! After Sarah’s death, Abraham found Hagar, redeemed and married her, reuniting Isaac and Ishmael — which Sacks sees as a Scriptural warrant for friendly relations today between Jews and Muslims.

I’m unsure what to do with Romans 6:1b-11. I never encounter people who think I’ll sin more so grace will be even greater! We do presume upon God’s mercy, or maybe God’s laid back, laissez-faire attitude we fantasize God must feel. Voltaire famously quipped “God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Paul’s query, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” elicits the obvious answer: “Plenty of ways!”

Since Paul’s line of thought is so alien to how American Christians think, this is good cause to reiterate it and help people reimagine it. C.E.B. Cranfield opens a window by analyzing “four quite different senses in which Christian die to sin.” We die to sin in God’s sight; it’s God’s decision to crucify our sin. In Baptism, God seals and ratifies God’s own decision. Then death to sin is our calling to be holy — and as God calls, God simultaneously give us “the freedom to die daily and hourly to sin by the mortification of their sinful natures.” And death to sin is an eschatological promise; in eternity, sin will be no more.

So here’s an image from Austen Farrer: “You are to become Jesus’ body. You are to be nailed to Christ's sacrificial will. The nails that hold you are God's commandments, your rules of life, prayers, confessions, communions regularly observed. Let us honour the nails for Christ's sake, and pray that by the virtue of his passion they may hold fast.” And another: being born again. In my Birth book, it’s a whole new life, a whole new identity, learning dependence, mercy.

The death “no longer having dominion”: Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize by assessing how all our craziness and the havoc in our heads and relationships grow out of The Denial of Death. Recently I reread Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, where he speaks tantalizingly: “You are so afraid of dying alone. Your deeply hidden memories of a fearful birth make you suspect that your death will be equally fearful… Maybe the death at the end of your life won’t be so fearful is you can die well now. Yes, the real death – the passage from time into eternity from the transient beauty of this world to the lasting beauty of the next, from darkness into light — has to be made now.” Unsure how to preach that — but I bet it’s important for us clergy to live into as people and would-be leaders.

Then Matthew 10:24-39. I so long to say Beelzebub out loud in a sermon! Just fun to utter — as are the possible translations, “lord of the house,” “lord of dung,” “lord of the flies.” Jesus is all over the place in this text. Even if the lectionary has trampled over pericope divisions, Jesus must have talked like this, one topic, shifting to another, blurting out a reminder on something else. The preacher should take care not to latch on either the comfort or the severity themes here. Jesus clearly was comfortable with both, holding both together always.

A few details. Jesus “setting a man against his father” undercuts any trivial talk about Jesus and family values. Examples abound, such as St. Francis divesting himself of his father’s goods — and how his father never spoke to him again, spitting in his direction as they passed on the streets of Assisi.

Jesus wants to be acknowledged, not denied — not as a double dare you, but because of the blessing to the acknowledger and any who notice, and the dissonance in the soul of the one who denies. What does denial look like in 2020? Myriad stuff, like conventional living, fitting in, letting a racist slur slide on by, on and on. I wonder if piety can be a paradoxical denial of Jesus? You make sugary but harmful theological remarks (“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “Everything happens for a reason”) — which deny the more robust reality of Jesus who doesn’t deny but embraces suffering?

On taking up one’s cross, and losing one’s life to find it: I admire Joel Marcus for reflecting on Alexander Solzhenitsyn in (of all places) his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark! “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My former life is over, I shall never return. I no longer have property. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious to me.’”

Jesus’ pointing to sparrows: we have the new hymn, “God of the Sparrow,” which is lovely, but it’s tough to top that oldie, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It’s been recorded countless times: by Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Holliday, Sandi Patty, Marvin Gaye and even Michael Jackson — but I’ll take Mahalia Jackson any day. Here’s a reflection on the hymn, and on Jesus’ regard of sparrows, for a new book I’m finishing on the theology of hymns (and this will end this blog):

When I was a young pastor, I had a handful of members who were most unhappy with our “new hymnal” (which was nearly twenty years old at the time!) for several glaring omissions, the most egregious being “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” 

“We should never have replaced the old Cokesbury Hymnal!” They had plenty of copies on hand, but none of my people really needed a book to sing “Why should I feel discouraged?” Despite my resistance, a warbly soprano I loved deeply would do it as a solo now and then, although I detected a few semi-restrained eyerolls when she’d sing it. I just found it to be kind of corny, sentimental, not made of strong enough stuff for the tough theology I was lifting up to my people.

I must have been just the kind of guy Jesus hoped would overhear when he told people who didn’t matter in the world’s eyes that in God’s eyes they were fabulously precious. Thankfully I’ve fallen back in love with this old hymn I heard my grandmother sing while she went about her chores. Jesus asked us to see God’s handiwork and sustenance in mere sparrows. 

Walter Brueggemann (in A Glad Obedience) calls them “model citizens in the Kingdom of God.” They nest inside the glorious temple itself, too high to be swooshed away by the priest and their acolytes. God feeds and clothes them, quite naturally; these non-acquisitive, trusting creatures have no worries.

Easy for sparrows, I’d say. The hymn asks “Why should I be discouraged?” Let me count the ways. “Why should the shadows come?” is worth pausing over, not merely to count all the darkness that imposes itself in every life. 

Ray Barfield, in his book on beauty and suffering called Wager, speaks of “reverencing my shadow.” If you’re in the world, you cast a shadow; it’s proof you’re here. If there’s light, there is shadow, and if there’s shadow, then there’s light. Obviously – but that is why the shadows should come.

What’s so lovely about the hymn is that it doesn’t pledge or expect a quick fix or any fix at all. It’s not God will do what I ask, or God will repair everything tomorrow. It’s simply that God cares. God sees. His eye is on the sparrow — and as virtually worthless as a sparrow might seem to be (Jesus pointed out that five are sold for two pennies!), God miraculously cares intensely for each one. 

God sees the sparrow, and you and me. And it’s not just a passing glance. Birdwatchers are patient, focused people, gazing at length through their binoculars, noticing the slightest flutter of a feather, turn of the head, opening of the beak or twitching of a talon.

Who was Jesus? Who is he? His nickname at birth was “Emmanuel,” God with us. And his parting words were “I will be with you.” Not a magical fulfiller of wishes or fixer of all troubles. He is with us. That’s what my grandmother was singing about while sweeping and ironing. God’s abiding presence infused her with joy and strength. She was still dirt poor, and her arthritis pained her. But Jesus was her “portion,” a lovely echo of Psalm 73:26.

Indeed, my grandmother and my warbly soprano soared to the climactic high note in the hymn, which occurs on “I’m free.” Not free American-style, the paltry notion that I can do whatever I dang well please. No, I’m free, like a bird, as in Paul’s ringing declaration that “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Free from the cruel bondage of sin, anxiety, fretting over self-worth or terror of mortality.

Civilla Durfee Martin wrote this poem, later set to music by Charles Gabriel, after visiting with her friend, a Mrs. Doolittle, bedridden for over twenty years. Martin’s husband asked Mrs. Doolittle her secret of joy in the thick of affliction. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” That was in 1905. It was back in maybe the year 28 that Jesus said pretty much the same thing. No wonder the hymn, and more importantly, the reality of God’s tender care for sparrows and us people, lingers despite failing to make the hymnal committee cut.


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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