Weekly Preaching August 16, 2020

August 12th, 2020

When I think of the Joseph story, its weather seems hot and dry. Must be the Egyptian setting, and the famine in Palestine. Genesis 45:1-15 is, to me, without question, the high water mark of all of Scripture when it comes to drama and theological depth. I’ll preach on it once more, and send you to my blog from last go round, with illustrative material from Good Will Hunting, The Return of the King and To Kill a Mockingbird. To this now I’d add the final 10 pages of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is a profound, riveting exploration of forgiveness (and how much of it is courage!). What a text. If anything, I’ll probably over-explain. This is one we just trust. The preacher is like a docent in a museum, simply pointing: Wow, did you notice his sorrow? Did you see that he doesn’t give them a second chance? Can you fathom their anxiety, and relief? And so forth.

Time for personal, wrenching stories, I think. My dad died in July  and in an unreconciled, dysfunctional kind of way. Do I speak of God's ultimate reconciliation of me, with him? What would reconciliation look like for us in our society, with race, political ideology, etc.? Seems as impossible as Joseph reconciling in Egypt with his brothers??

How intriguing that the lectionary arrangers got the Psalm (133) right! “How good it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” Sounds like Isn’t it fun when siblings get along and enjoy one another! But maybe it speaks to the beauty of the broken, divided ones miraculously arriving at a space of reconciliation.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32. You’ve got to be a far wiser preacher than I to probe these little segments of the dense, emotional, theologically daunting Romans 9-11 section week by week! I’ve taught it in a class — which to me feels like what Paul is providing for the Romans, and for us.

Matthew 15:10-28. Jesus’ blunt thrashing of the pious: “Blind guides” (the same derogatory term he uses during Holy Week when the pious are already plotting to kill him!). What goes into the mouth? — makes it into the sewer! Jesus is so keenly obsessed with the inner life. As in Matthew 5, it’s the hidden murder, the cloaked adultery that are huge problems with those who externally behave properly. Just as you can murder or commit adultery in the privacy of your own mind, you can also bear false witness in there as well!

And then we come upon the peculiar episode where the woman won’t take no for an answer, upbraiding Jesus himself. She asks for mercy — for her daughter, of course, but then any parent who’s watched a child suffer needs mercy too. What to do with this blunt repartee? Floyd Filson, in his 1960 commentary on Matthew, suggested that he winked at her when he spoke these words, implying insider status for this one. Or was it a clever ploy on Jesus’ part to evoke deeper faith in her, or those watching?

Jesus did come to Israel — not for them alone but so they might be spurred on to their mission to be the light to the world. Morna Hooker, noting how Jesus confined his attention to the Jews, suggested that “the Gentile woman requests a cure outside the context of Jesus’ call to Israel; she seems to be asking for a cure which is detached from the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, merely taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the presence of a miracle worker. This is perhaps the reason for Jesus’ stern answer; his healings are part of something greater and cannot be torn out of that context.”

Joel Marcus is mindful of the history of bad blood between Tyrians and Galileans — and how the farm produce of Galilee so often wound up in Tyre, while the peasants in Galilee went hungry. So Jesus’ words make a bit of compassionate sense. Or should we suggest, as many have, that Jesus had a growing moment, a learning experience, a maturation in himself? Mistakenly, he turned her away — and her persistence cracked open a bit of hardness in Jesus’ Jewishness to leave space for a desperate Gentile? Depending on the height of your view of Jesus’ humanity, this may or may not work.

Martin Luther examined this text and thought of the ways Christians are to persist in trusting God, even when God seems to turn his back on them. They must learn to see the ‘yes’ hidden in his ‘no.’ Much wisdom here — although the preacher dare not resort to trifling ideas such as those articulated in Garth Brooks’s crooning “Unanswered Prayers.”

The woman’s persistence has recently been likened to the persistence of women right insisting on their place in the church. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became a popular slogan, t-shirt and hashtag this year. Persistence of all kinds is a biblical thing, falsifying the absurd notion of God’s will being associated with “the door was open.” Many open doors we most surely should not walk through. And many closed and bolted doors should be knocked down.

I am fond of Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s probing sermon, “Crumbs” — cited in Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s great book, Prophetic Preaching. “Crumbs. That’s all they are looking for. Crumbs. Not the whole life. Not even a slice. Just crumbs. You and I want the whole loaf…” — and then she speaks of our wealth, access, all the poor lack. But then she presses further: “Crumbs. They want more than crumbs because deep in their souls, they know they deserve more. And yet they often do not know who to ask or how to ask…”


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

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