Weekly Preaching March 20, 2022

March 15th, 2022

Isaiah 55:1-9. How eloquent, hopeful, countercultural, stunning! God’s prophet speaks to hopeless exiles, saying “Come and buy” – and “without money”! You can almost hear a street peddler hollering out to come and buy his wares – but at below bargain basement prices. You’re broke? You’re like that kid in that Norman Rockwell-ish postcard with empty pockets – but no worries. Come. Eat. Eucharistic. Grace.

God’s grace is unconditioned (unearned, undeserved) yet not unconditional (as in, a response really is required, and is empowered!) – as John Barclay puts it in his book Paul & the Power of Grace. Clearly – as the prophet who just spoke of eating without paying says “Let the wicked forsake their ways” and “Return to the Lord.” Isaiah might help us not to be so confused about Paul, or grace!

The prophet’s (and God’s!) question, “Why spend money for what is not bread, what does not satisfy?” evokes some images. Thomas Merton – or was it Stephen Covey? – suggested that we spend our lives climbing some ladder, only to get to the top and realize the ladder was leaning aginst the wrong wall. William Temple envisioned a shop window into which some devilish person has sneaked during the night and switched all the pricetags around – and so we spend our lives on what seems valuable but is worthless, and then miss what is precious but apparently cheap or free. Fritz Bauerschmidt notices that “When we expect the passing things of this world to bear the full weight of our love, they collapse under that weight, their own structural flaws revealed in their inability to bear that weight.” Ponder this! Preach this.

God’s ways “are higher.” There is a hidden plot beneath, or above, the obvious plot of the meandering of the world as we superficially experience it. We observe things from on high, as if on a high mountain surveying things – or to use Ron Heifetz’s business model, from the balcony, looking down so we get what’s going on big picture down there.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Paul (for my tastes) over-spiritualizes real historical things that happened for the Israelites. They at “spiritual food, drank spiritual drink – from the spiritual rock.” His angle on the exodus story could be read as anti-semitic or supersessionist – but need not be. It’s a long way from saying, lamely, “like Jews do, those Jewish idolaters rose up to play” and saying truly “like we all do, they rose up to play.” Echoes of the funny but humbling Exodus 32 here.

Arrggghhh. Paul utters one of those awful tidbits Christians toss out to make sense of and attempt to comfort those facing tragedy. “You will not be tested beyond your strength.” Many of us cope with issues far beyond our strength – but you just hang in there. Does God dole out our troubles, almost flattering us with more trials than the few the weenies must bear??

Context, context, context. Ben Witherington reminds us that in this chapter, Paul is a pastor for those tempted to indulge in pagan feasts. God gives those so allured to resist. “The Corinthians then are to endure and prevail over the temptation to go to idol feasts. God will provide them with an out… Paul believes that God never allows a Christian to be tempted to such a degree that by God’s grace one cannot resist or find a way of escape. This does not mean one willnecessarily resist.”

Roy Harrisville makes it more contemporary: “This test you face, this possibility of idolatry, of conceiving God in your own image, as a projection of your own willing and feeling… of understanding God as designed to actualize your potential, the option to define faith hope and love from below is as common as breathing. To resist it lies within the will and permission of God who will see to it that the test is matched by an escape.”

Available from Cokesbury

Luke 13:1-9. Two News Flashes! Pilate has ordered the execution of a group of Galileans, which takes place as they are offering their sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Josephus doesn’t mention this… Jesus hears this news, and reminds his listeners of the 18 who died when a tall stone structure hovering over the Pool of Siloam crumbled. Pilate’s bloodletting sounds a note of injustice, while the collapse of the wall feels tragic. Was the tower part of an aqueduct Pilate was building with pilfered treasury funds? 

Injustice and tragedy are clamped together here with a single response. Jesus might have consoled his friends with judgment on the wicked foreigners, the Romans. Instead, he invites the fuming disciples to repent! Self-righteous bluster can only shield one from the ongoing responsibility simply to repent.

Those who suffer injustice themselves need, always, to repent – and those who’ve endured tragedy need to repent, to turn to God. Bonhoeffer suggested that repentance “is not in the first place thinking about one’s needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ.”

Jesus clearly refutes any notion of retribution – which Dorothee Soelle called “theological sadism.” His query, “Were they worse sinners?” is simple for the wise to answer. Of course not. 

Wendy Farley is insightful here: “One of the most terrible beliefs of Christianity is that God punishes us with suffering. It is a belief inflicted on grief-stricken or pain-ridden individuals to justify their suffering and on groups to justify their continued oppression. The association of suffering with punishment denies the right to resist suffering. This sadistic theology conspires with pain to lock God away from the sufferer. This is the theology of Job’s comforters.”

Jesus’ parable of the fig tree turns tragic news into hope. It’s time to chop it down – but Jesus says Wait. God’s mercy extends – for years! Your ministry isn’t bearing fruit? Your people aren’t? You aren’t? Hang on. It’s God’s work.

About the Author

James C. Howell

James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
comments powered by Disqus