Weekly Preaching: September 1, 2019

August 27th, 2019

Jeremiah 2:4-13. God sounds like a wounded lover or fractured parent here: “What wrong did they find in me?” Do we do this, finding fault with God? Or is it exasperation that the God of Scripture isn’t quite the God we’re looking for, or that God is inadequate somehow to the tasks we place on God’s shoulders.

From God’s perspective, they “went after worthless things, and thus became worthless.” The Hebrew is hebel, featured so provocatively in Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”): hebel is a wisp, a breeze, nothing really, just dust settling. Can I show hebel somehow? Dropping a little shred of paper or some dried up leaves?

When we as people pursue what is worthless, we ourselves become what our pursuits are. If we pursue God and substantive holiness, we become more like that. It's fascinating that our searching, our quest, defines who we become! The preacher is wise to ask, Who are the vain recipients of our devotion? It’s such a long list: Political ideology, for sure. Things. Others. Self. Institutions. I wonder if the church itself, as an institution, might be a curious kind of vain recipient of devotion.

Jeremiah suggests that we ask the wrong questions, or we fail to ask the right questions, like “Where is the Lord?” (which any random person might ask), and yet it’s not just any Lord, but “the one who brought us up out of Egypt.” Jeremiah wonders if the priests (that’s us, the preachers!) ask “Where is the Lord?” The preacher should ask this question now, later today, tomorrow, every day.

“Do people change their gods?” Well of course they do, have, and will! A sermon could explore the bogus gods we fixate on but with Jeremiah’s nuance that “Mine have changed their glory for what does not profit.” Wow. Romans 1 echoes this! God’s glory (kabod) is swapped for the unprofitable (yō‘Ä«l).

Jeremiah explicates, wonderfully, the double fix we are in. Not only has God been forsaken, but the new fake deities exasperate. Jeremiah’s image is that they forsake the living water, the font, the spring of fresh water (did he have one in mind?) for “cracked cisterns that hold no water.” What a vivid image! Can you, the preacher, locate modern parallels for cisterns that hold no water?

I love Elizabeth Achtemeier’s language: “Given a garden, we choose a desert (Gen. 3), and thirst and heat and fainting, as frantically we look for water from the useless deities of our own making.” Sounds like a mirage to me.

I recall my dad driving to the beach when I was a child. I’d see the mirage of what I thought was the ocean, but it was merely heat rippling across the hollow road. But the water was still to come! We were headed to the beach! I wonder if there’s a sermon there: The mirage is deceptive, but we really can anticipate something life-giving.

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Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 is a rich, astonishing text! Our unknown author says “Let mutual love (philadelphia!) continue," but this makes me wonder if he should have said “Let mutual love begin!” It’s not like we see it all that much. The Greek, philadelphia, reminds me of the Tom Hanks film by that name about a man suffering from HIV and AIDS, simply asking, in those early days, for fairness, acceptance, justice and love. The goal of philadelphia isn’t merely enjoying people like us, but philoxenia, love for strangers. Why love them? Hebrews, like Genesis 18 (Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers b the Oaks of Mamre), reveals that God has this quirky way of using the stranger to test us, to let God’s self be made known to us, so that new life might come through them, the them who should be we/us.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

You have to love the vision of Hebrews here. Remember those in prison as if you were in there with them. A bold act of imagination, abetted if we heed Jesus’ thought from his last sermon (Matt. 25:31-46)  when we show up in the prison to visit, we are in the company of Jesus himself!

What is an “undefiled marriage bed”? Two lie down: is the defilement lust (even then)? Dominance? Judgment? Iciness? Welcoming a stranger in this place is defilement. Listeners will suspect homosexuality might be in play here, and it must be the case that even those who totally embrace same gender relationships and marriage have to recognize that those beds, too, can be defiled in the same way straight beds are.

The counsel to “Be content” is almost as numbing as the Bible’s frequent admonition, “Be not anxious.” It’s like piling on! But the preacher has to do what no one else will: expose Madison Avenue and all advertising for what it is  a constant clamor digging into everyone’s soul, shouting Do not be content! You need more, newer, different gadgets, stuff, clothes, experiences.

Contentment isn’t even Okay, now I possess enough of those things. The Greek arkoumenoi means enough, sufficient. It resides in God’s promise never to forsake us. Flannery O’Connor once spoke of the Eucharist, noting how it’s not much yet it’s more than enough: “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

And finally this formulaic “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” — a glorious truth, not to be confused with crazed notions that Church rules or Bible interpretations are the same yesterday, today and forever!

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Luke 14:1, 7-14. I allude to this passage constantly, as it unveils how thin our alleged attachments to Scripture can be. The Bible is clear! Or We stand with Scripture! melts away (or should) when we notice how utterly uninterested we are in Jesus’ very simple and doable Scripture admonitions like Luke 14. I’m less sure how to preach on this. Just let it linger? Give people a few minutes to jot down whom they’ve eaten with lately or had over to their home?

Certainly Jesus flunked Miss Manners’s course in etiquette. Dinner with him is one faux pas after another! Jesus helps us see how we discern honor and shame at table  of all places! And it’s even more humbling to notice Jesus doesn’t say Don’t only invite those who can invite you in return but flat out, Don’t invite them! Sheesh.

Where’s the Good News? Jesus would liberate us from narrow social interactions and from patronizing versions of mission in his name. For years, my churches have collected food to be sent off somewhere for the hungry. I think of people who have with some grandiosity walked into my office with a ham, asking me to get it to some poor person. On bad days I’d say Thanks! On better days I’d say Find someone and deliver it to them yourself. On my best days I’d say Take it home, and invite the people you have in mind into your home and share it with them. That’s a Jesus-y meal, right?

It’s also Jesus’ intense love for the fullness of our souls that is evident in his dinner commandment. I’ve often said If you only hang around with people who are like you, you become arrogant and ignorant. I know of no exceptions. What better way to shed some arrogance and ignorance than to share a meal, at your own place, with someone very different?

What can we say September 1? 12th after Pentecost originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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