Weekly Preaching: July 12, 2020

July 8th, 2020

Midsummer preaching is … challenging? Fun? Different? I enjoy fiddling around with Old Testament stories, not to make moral points but to open people’s minds to the world of the Bible. Genesis 25:19-34 is one fascinating text, inviting us into Rebekah’s womb where twins are kicking around, making her uncomfortable. A predictive kind of discomfort too: Did she realize in retrospect, once Esau and Jacob were grown and engaged in intense sibling rivalry, that their combativeness began in her own belly?

Henri Nouwen, in Our Greatest Gift, tells a charming story about an argument fraternal twins have in their mother’s womb. Check it out here. Profound, memorable, theologically suggestive: preachers should know and use it! — although unsure if it's Yes or No while dealing with Jacob and Esau… I may tell it, not as my main point, but as an aside, realizing the way an aside might be the bit of the sermon God actually uses.

These twins could not be more unidentical. Esau, hairy, an outdoorsman, is as stereotypically male as you could be. Jacob, smooth, preferring the house, a mama’s boy. The famous Alan Bennett “On the Fringe” comedy routine pokes fun at the text — and I suspect for the storytellers who passed all this along before it landed in Genesis, and throughout history, there’s a chuckle in here somewhere. Maybe at Jacob’s expense. I wonder if a sermon would dare to name gender stereotypes and how they lead to misperception and trouble.

I wonder, given where we are in 2020, if these unidentical, combative twins might mirror race, or political ideology in our country — or traditionalists and progressives in United Methodism. Black and white, progressives and conservatives, clearly kin... and yet so different, so implacable, so ill-equipped to get along. Yet Jesus' prayer at the Last Supper was that we would be One. It wasn't a command, but a prayer — and the enabling of oneness was to come the next day in his crucifixion, and in the sending of that Spirit he promised right before he prayed. Esau and Jacob are at odds for years, but at the end of the story, even these two reconcile. 

I'm drawn to speak of race — noting our sameness (Black and white virtually as identical as twins...), yet our sibling rivalry type division — perhaps explained in a fascinating way by Lloyd King, a man Studs Terkel interviewed for his book Race. King said our problem isn't that we hate each other. Rather it's that we love each other. Like a marriage that got off to a rocky start, we think we might prefer separate lives so we don't kill each other. But we really do love each other.

Alternatively, I'm tempted to psychologize — the idea that we have very different twins inside, who duke it out. Maybe the race work depends on inner work, finding that "hairy one" as depicted in Robert Bly's fabulous Iron John. A hunter shows up at a castle one day and asks "Anything dangerous to do around here?" The king says "Well, there's the forest over there, but no one returns." Hunter says "That's the kind of thing I enjoy." He plunges into the forest with his dog. They come upon a pond. A big hairy arm reaches up and pulls the dog under the water. The hunter says "This must be the place." He finds a bucket, starts bailing the water out until there's a big guy covered with red hair. Iron John. A parable for doing bucket work in the soul.

A moralist would fault Esau for thinking short-term desire, thus squandering his long-term destiny. Brueggemann reaches a bit in this direction: “The contrast is between deferred and immediate material blessing. Esau cannot wait. Jacob is the figure of trusting Israel, able to wait.” But that’s hardly what the text is about. It’s not a moral at all. It’s telling what Israel’s ancestors were like: robust, edgy, alluring, memorable, fitting ancestors. The theological thrust is that it’s the younger one, it’s the less muscular one who carries God’s blessing. It’s also the conniving, grasping one… God’s ways are so strange, not at all about human merit – and yet God’s people can be so very clever, even to their own undoing.

Russ Reno (noting this text’s usage in Romans 9-11): “Only God’s wanton disregard for our moral and spiritual worthiness makes fellowship with him possible. That God tosses reasons aside does not signal that he does not care, but instead indicates a love that tosses aside the fact that the beloved does not deserve to be loved.” I love that he adds that “the standard spiritual mistrust of the doctrine of predestination stems from a latent spiritual pride that encourages us to survey the divine pan from above and coolly judge its merits.”

Hard not to float onward in the story to the intense heartbreak to come, at first for Esau and Isaac, but then inevitably for Jacob as well. They come to make peace with one another, but only after years of conflict worse than that in the womb. They do reconcile. It is possible.

Romans 8:1-11 is well worth preaching if only to underline the truth the vast majority of clergy and other Christians have missed for centuries: “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” The church has dished out an endless spewing of condemnation, and we’ve harbored a lot of condemnation in our own heads, or in gossip. Worst of all, we turn our condemnation skills on ourselves. But the whole point of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection is that now, “Therefore, there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” We are no good at it, it’s not our job, it eats us alive and ruins everything – and is not the obligatory responsibility Christians assume is on their shoulders. I might make my whole sermon just this, maybe with some examples of how condemnation has been stupid, cruel, and the worst conceivable witness to the goodness that is Jesus. When Paul speaks of our minds being “on the flesh” in this text, we need go no further than our proneness to condemnation.

I love preaching on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Jesus’ parable of the sower. Every few years, when this text appears, I get a bag of seeds and fling them around the sanctuary as I’m preaching (you can watch one example here!). My history with this text goes back to a summer internship I did during seminary. The pastor, Marion Crooks, began his sermon by singing “What Kind of Soil Am I?” (to the tune of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”). He asked Am I thorny, a barren road, or fertile soil for God’s Word? Great sermon. But years later I read lots of commentaries on the parables, and they all were obsessed with the weirdness of this sower – which must have been Jesus’ point. What kind of sower is this? I might sing. Willing to waste seed, not frugal, downright profligate – like grace.

In my sermon last time, I spoke of my first rural appointment where I attempted a vegetable garden. I measured seed, bought just enough, planted so very carefully – and as unlike Jesus’ sower as possible. The surprise came when my carefully planted squash was mediocre – but then I had what country folk call “volunteer squash.” I must have spilled some seed in an unplowed area just outside my garden – and that was the fabulously productive squash. Why? There’s power in that seed. There’s power in the gospel. You never know where it’ll spring up.

I make this a parable about church life. We are so careful. We measure predicted results. We don’t risk much. Then Jesus lures us to be like this sower, flinging it around everywhere, trying any and everything. So what if stuff doesn’t work? It’s always been that way. But then you get volunteer squash people where you least expect it. And you’ve embodied as a church what the grace which founded the church is like, not measured, or plunked on the likely ones, but strewn all over the place.

How lovely of Jesus, by the way, to be preaching and find his illustrative material in a day laborer working in a field behind him. Millet's painting (above) captures the peculiar beauty of such everyday labor. Van Gogh did his own cover of the Millet. He'd started into the ministry before becoming a brilliant painter; he wrote that "I have sometimes had a lesson from a German reaper that was of more use to me than one in Greek." The simple observation of labor, so lovely, inherently godly, worth noting with no moral in a sermon. 

I’d add that scholars generally regard Jesus’ explanations of his parables as later interpolations. They usually are pretty lame, like explaining a joke, or taking the rough edges off a bawdy story. In the case of the sower though, the interpretation isn’t so bad, especially part 3, where it is “the cares of the world and the love for money that choke the word.” Indeed. Back to What kind of soil am I? or maybe rather, What kind of world is this where the Word of the crazy, generous Sower is always being swept aside?


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

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