Category Archives: Sermons

Send Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31]

LazarusTahull

Museum of Romanesque Art, Barcelona. Wall painting from San Clemente, Tahull (Lléida).

Several years ago, I was attending church in a well-to-do neighborhood of Boston. One Sunday, the deacons announced a new policy to deal with beggars who showed up at the office looking for handouts. They would no longer give out small amounts of cash. Instead, they would give out vouchers good for groceries at local supermarkets. They were very clear, however, that the vouchers would not be valid for alcohol, lottery tickets, or tobacco.

At coffee hour, people spoke approvingly of this decision. Everybody knew that for years the church’s money had been ending up in the cash register of Marty’s Liquors. Nobody wanted the church to be an “enabler,” but they didn’t want to turn people away empty-handed either. Grocery vouchers seemed like a good way to help without doing harm.

Now, I was feeling peevish that morning, not in control of my mood or my mouth. Thus it was that I asked what the deacons would do if a beggar didn’t want to buy groceries, but wanted to rent a DVD of “The Sound of Music,” or maybe take a Duck Tour of Boston, or buy a few carnations to brighten the corner where he lives?

This was not well-received, and the conversation went downhill fast. I was to blame, of course. It was an unfair thing to say, even for someone feeling peevish and looking to make a point. Everyone, including me, knows that beggars who show up at church doorsteps are not usually looking to spend an evening with Julie Andrews. Many are homeless, drifters, active alcoholics, mentally-ill. Not a few are con artists who give you a long detailed spiel about their woes. If you were to give them all money, sooner or later you’d get taken for an expensive ride, or you’d do real harm. And if word got out on the street that St. Polycarp-by-the-Pool was dispensing cold cash from the front office, it could even get dangerous.

So it’s no surprise that most churches have adopted a no-cash- approach to helping people who wander in from the street. The voucher plan was prudent. It was plain old good stewardship, for us and for them. It also gave the deacons a warm feeling. One deacon remarked that the church should be proud that our vouchers would keep street people from guzzling or gambling, and get them to eat a healthy meal for a change. I valued my life and didn’t say out loud what I was thinking about that—namely, that if the voucher plan was really aimed at getting street people to eat, say, more leafy green vegetables, then we should have put red meat on the exclusion list along with the booze, the scratch tickets, and the smokes.

Vouchers? Okay, fine. It makes a certain sense. But did we need to be so tickled about it? Why were we congratulating ourselves? Wasn’t it enough that we were the ones who had the wherewithal? The ones who got to stake out the ethical territory? The ones who could designate the proper objects of our compassion and choose the precise terms of our generosity? Wasn’t it enough that we were in a position to shape other people’s morality?

You’d think that upon announcing the voucher plan, we all would have had the good grace to feel a little embarrassed. You’d think that we would have reminded ourselves that the proper posture for giving someone a food voucher is not on your high horse, but on your knees.

 

Lazarus was a beggar who could have used a voucher. He was starving, lusting after Dives’ garbage. We don’t know much about him; the parable lacks the sort of data people like to have when deciding whether and how to help. We do know his name (he is the only character in Jesus’ parables to be given one), but we don’t know how he ended up starving at the rich man’s door. We don’t know if he was one of the ‘deserving’ poor, or whether he’d been a lazy, drug-addicted oaf, or simply peevish and ill-tempered like me. We don’t know whether he cornered the rich man every time he left the house to pelt him with pathetic stories of woe, or whether he just lay there, mute, day after day. All we know is that he was at the gate, open-sored, hungry, and visible.

And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.

We don’t have much information about the rich man either. Did he invite friends over to laugh and point at Lazarus, have his goons lean on the beggar to scare him off, gag at the sight of dogs licking his sores? We don’t know if he was a cold fellow who habitually averted his eyes from unpleasantness, or a self-preoccupied man who never saw the beggar; or if he did notice him, said an honest prayer for a sorry case, but stuck to his policy of never giving cash to street people, for all the high-minded reasons those deacons had decided on vouchers. We know only that he was rich, dressed well, ate well, and enjoyed his confortable life.

And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.

If you’ve read the gospels half-awake, you aren’t surprised by that reversal. Jesus is unnervingly repetitious about the mortal risks the wealthy run—so much so that two chapters later, the disciples get exasperated with him: “But (if what you say is true), Lord, how can anyone be saved?” It’s a familiar theme with an expected twist.

Yet there’s something in this story of reversal that has always struck me as odd. When the rich man wakes up in Hades, he is up to his neck in flames, but he doesn’t seem to realize that his new situation is for real and for good. He doesn’t seem to grasp that there is no way out, even for a Somebody like him.

Of course it’s not lost on him that he’s suffering, and that his wealth and Egyptian cotton underwear have been shot to hell. No doubt he’s sorry now that he failed to do right by Lazarus in life and would do things differently if he had another chance. But even hellfire has not burned away the capacity for self-delusion that made it easy for him to sin so greatly by omission while he was alive. In the afterlife, he has no wherewithal, but the stubborn residue of wherewithal remains. Privilege clings to him, even in hell.

“Send Lazarus,” he says.

This is not an idle line. It betrays life-long habits of command and control, habits that now make him oddly insensible to the gravity of his situation. He thinks he can still make things happen. He thinks he is still maneuvering in the earthly geography of status, power, wealth, and worth. He now recognizes that Lazarus is a man he should have helped more in life, but even now he wouldn’t trust him with cash. At best he will let Lazarus be his gofer. “Send Lazarus to bring me a drink.”

The rich man may be a damned man, but he is an important damned man who, as a courtesy, out of deference, should be exempt from the unrelenting thirst that so many others have known, exempt from the thirst of the beggar outside the gate.

It doesn’t work, but he isn’t deterred. “Well, then, if you won’t send him over here to me, send him to my kin as a warning.” The rich man believes that even in hell no problem is insoluble if you can just get your best people working on it, or if you have the right connections. God is bound to make an exception for people in the network: it’s one of those perks that money used to buy.

But there is no good news for the rich man. Abraham’s reply is truly terrible: Some outcomes cannot be altered. Some lines cannot be crossed. Things eventually harden. It is too late. There is no return. “Between you and us a great chasm is fixed,” says Father Abraham. Even the progenitor of the faith cuts no ice with a God determined to be just to the poor.

This is a bleak and unforgiving parable, one of the harshest stories in the gospels. It warns us broadly about the moral peril we incur if we ignore the needs of the poor who lie begging at our gates all the time while we go about the business of being and having and doing in a routine of indifference. But it also warns us about the delusion that persists in us even after we have seen the error of our ways and been shown the truth; even after we have acknowledged and acted on our duty of mercy towards others.

It speaks of the stubborn residue of privilege that clings to our egos and produces in our souls a mostly unconscious and unexamined confidence, a confidence that permeates and perverts even good deeds and intentions; a confidence that leads us to assume that because of who we are, we know what’s good for ourselves and for others, we can influence outcomes, we can define and ensure our own and others’ integrity.

The deep chasm in eternity that is fixed between Lazarus and the rich man is a snapshot of the scandalous distance that exists between the poor and the privileged here on earth. But it also depicts the chasm that exists inside each of us—the distance between our unthinking entitlement, condescension and judgment, and the sublime reality and true privilege of simple creaturehood; the distance between thinking of ourselves as self-made and the humility of knowing Who in fact made us, and of owing ourselves completely to that Other; the humility that establishes us in common cause and kinship with every human being and every creature, and makes plausible and possible our ideals of mutuality, love and justice.

There’s no final grace, no last minute reprieve in this parable for the privileged, entitled, self-deluded rich man; but we can hear some good news in it for us, for we are still living and thus still susceptible to a breakthrough. We can still hear Moses and the prophets. We can still listen to Jesus. We can still help each other to love being creatures and to love each other because of our common human condition, and to aspire to nothing more or nothing less.

There is no second chance for the man in the story, but there can be for us. We resemble him more than we know, but the God who makes the sun to shine on the wicked and the benighted as well as on the good and the just is ever-able to illumine our ignorance of our human condition and reveal our creaturehood to us as an unfathomable mercy. From the One who made us, there is courage, grace and healing at every turn, and Jesus promises that it will not be denied to the humble, searching, contrite and broken heart. Our task is to live fully into the calling issued by God from the beginning: to be creatures with our Creator, to be who we are before God and one another, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

To love them as ourselves.

It is hard, but it is possible. We have the Holy Spirit. We have the church’s ancient means of grace—prayer, sacrament, song, service. We have God’s Word. We have each other. And we have today.

And thank God for that, because this sober parable tell us plainly that for us who have the wherewithal for so much good and do not do it, there might be no tomorrow.

Muddling Through

the-prophet-elisha-cleansing-naaman-1560.jpg!Blog

–The Prophet Elisha Cleansing Naaman, Giogio Vasari, 1560

2 Kings 5:1-19

Years ago when I became a seminary administrator, a colleague at another school gave me some advice about dealing with the faculty: “Always remember, faculty members are people; and even when they have Ph. D.’s, publishing records as long as your arm, and noble religious motives, they still tend to act out of simple self-interest. So when you want them to do something, bank on the fact that they’ll invariably ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ If you figure out the answer before you approach them, you’ll go far in this business.” In other words, my job was to outfox self-centered intellectuals bent on advancing their own agendas!

Now, this struck me as pretty cynical, and it didn’t take me long to discover that it was not right: it was only partly right. If people acted only from self-interest all the time, it would indeed be easy to deal with them. But things are more complicated than that. It turns out that not only members of seminary faculties but all of us as well are motivated by a bewildering array of convictions, internal contradictions, needs, and frisky passions, many of which we are unaware of, cannot name, or don’t care to, and some of which, perversely, actually undermine our true self-interest.

Given this maze of self-asserting and self-subverting motivations, sometimes the most you can do as a leader is create conditions in which people can muddle along towards the goal the best they can, intervening only occasionally to keep them on track. Thus will the ragged human convoy of high-minded posturing, insecurity, piqued honor, hurt feelings, good humor, intelligence, and good will eventually wend its way to insight and accomplishment. The trick is not so much to outfox as to outwait.

I could have learned all this a lot sooner just by opening my Bible to the story of Naaman.

Here we have a proud and powerful man making his way towards health, a restorative knowledge of God, and a new understanding of himself; but only by fits and starts. What is in his self-interest is abundantly clear: to find a cure for the disease that threatens his career, his place in human company, his very life. When we see the huge amount of capital he takes with him to Israel, we can only imagine the sums he has already spent on specialists in Aram trying to find a cure, with no results. When the servant girl tells his wife about Elisha, the prophet in Israel, it has the anguished tone of last resort: “If only the master would go to Israel…”

If simple self-interest ruled Naaman, his story would be a lot shorter than it is. He would have gone to Samaria and done exactly as he was told. But since there’s more to human motivation, there’s more to the story.

You heard his rage when the prophet did not come out to him with all the fanfare Naaman thought he deserved. You heard his contempt for the simplicity of the plan, his haughty dismissal of the river Jordan. Where he comes from, the people are better-behaved, rivers course through their channels with power and beauty, and the gods are charming and sophisticated. Never mind that there was no cure for him there; Naaman craves respect even more than he craves health. He is so sure he knows what is right and fitting, so certain of what should happen, that he almost refuses the gift God is preparing to give him.

Almost, but not quite. Because it seems that God really wants him. And God’s mercy will wait him out. When Naaman doesn’t get the flashy respect he thinks is his due, God does not close the door on the offer of health, but lets Naaman go off to vent and strut. No lightning bolt consumes the pagan general in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends to warn him off his temerious display of pique. God abides the tantrum until Naaman rids himself of our common human propensity to work hard against our own good. And when the servants appeal to the general again, when he finally relents and obeys them, we begin to glimpse in him what God has seen all along, a man of faith.

For we’d be wrong if we regarded his healing and conversion as something sudden, a shocking miracle. What God outwaited in the story of Naaman was not just the tantrum he threw when he felt dissed; what God patiently awaited was the fitful progress of a transformation that had been advancing well before Namaan set foot on the soil of Samaria or waded into the puny Jordan.

When, back in his own house, the great warrior stooped to accept advice from women, God’s grace entered that slender opening, germinated in him, and began its wait.

When this loyal Aramean subdued what must have been revulsion at the idea of asking for help from an enemy, the grace of that enemy’s God widened the fissure in his soul a little more, made even more room in his heart for wholeness.

When he gave up his rage, overcame his sense of entitlement, relinquished his sophistication, surrendered to his own servants, and headed humbly for the water, his healing was already well underway.

Long before Naaman waded out into the Jordan, God had already established a pulse of faith in him—an irregular one, perhaps, and weak; but enough of a pulse not to be arrested by his prideful rage. When the mighty Naaman finally decides to give the prophet’s cure a chance, he is already far enough along in his healing that there isn’t a lot more for the disagreeable Jordan to do. All that remains is to go into the water and meet, knee-deep in mercy, the One God who had, unbeknownst to him, engineered all his victories and who had, unbeknownst to him, always presided over his life. Once awash in this revelation, Naaman, “a great man” from the start, becomes God’s man for good, a servant of the Living One.

Naaman has come a long, ragged way. The man who derided the unappealing river and the bush league prophets of Israel now goes home with mule-packs full of Israel’s soil, so that back in Aram he may spread it our, kneel down on it, and worship God on holy ground.

Now, I would be deceiving you if I told you that this is the end of his story. But while we live, healing is always a work in progress, our lives are always unfolding, new afflictions come at us from the outside and eat away at us from within; and the great tangle of passions, weaknesses, desires, hopes and needs that impel us raggedly through this life never quits threatening to derail us. Naaman’s skin will be, by God’s mercy, new as a boy’s forever; but the integrity of his heart, the depth of his faith, the wholesome trajectory of his life? Well, that’s another story.

He’s come a long way, but for him and for us there is always an iffy road ahead. We will always be traveling back and forth from Aram to Samaria, from our self-subverting passions to liberation in the humble trickle of pardon and healing. We will always be tempted to spurn simple mercy in favor of some other more sophisticated solution to our basic brokenness. Our progress from self-subversion to graced immersion will always be ragged, full of fits and starts.

But the story of Naaman instructs us not to worry too much about our one-step-forward, two-steps-back advance on wholeness. There is such a thing as “progress enough for now.” God does not expect even the miraculously-cured Naaman be mature in faith completely and all at once. I think that’s why the prophet Elisha, who is usually very jealous of Yahweh’s prerogatives, does not hold Naaman to the highest standards after his conversion.

You heard their exchange: Naaman is sensitive to the fact that in serving his king back home, he may need every now and then, for ceremony’s sake, to go with him and pay respects to the old gods in the House of Rimmon. And so he asks for the prophets’ blessing on this unavoidable compromise.

Elisha could have invoked the first commandment and insisted on a no-compromise-with-idols policy. But he doesn’t. It’s almost as if God takes whatever God can get. Given the erratic character of our human procession toward wholeness and some of the deadly pitfalls lining the road, even the God who demands that we put “no other gods before him” is not as touchy as we think about a now-and-then concession to the status quo.

Progress enough for now. Maybe that’s the good news in this story for us, especially those of us who expect so much of ourselves that we become enraged with others when they fall short. After all, Naaman is no stranger to us. If we are honest, we see in ourselves all the irritating and endearing, weak and tenacious behaviors in this story: desperate need, consuming self-importance, offense-taking and feeling dissed, tantrum-throwing, pleading and cajoling, seeing reason, eating crow, giving in — and we’ve all secretly hoped to be permitted a few of our necessary compromises. So to watch God leave Naaman alone while never leaving his side is a huge relief. It is also a strong antidote to perfectionism, a bracing reproach to our thousand-and-one daily judgmental impulses, a real cause for gratitude and praise.

God outwaits us while in everyday weakness our healing begins. While we futz around in life, God locates the fissures of possibility in the heaped debris of our fear and vented spleens. God infuses them with tender mercies, and in spite of ourselves we slowly learn to breathe the Spirit’s air. We are not all led to God by miracles, but we are all led to God by grace.

We will never approach the river of wholeness except “the best we can,” which is not that great all the time, Nonetheless, we are going to that river, whatever the reason or unreason that moves us. We may be just muddling through, making progress in fits and starts, but we are nonetheless being drawn inexorably into the healing waters of God by hidden grace. And we are going to wade right in.

Knee-deep in unaccountable love, we are going to meet the One who gives us all our ragged victories and is sovereign over all our lives. And then we are going to get up and go back to our countries healed and grateful, carrying within us the holy ground of faith, the sacred soil of hope.

We are going to be healed and grateful enough; that is, enough to know that we need healing and faith. Healed and grateful enough to know that we will never not need grace. Healed and grateful enough to stop demanding that God deal with us on our own self-defeating terms. Healed and grateful enough to give in to the simple, humble, unflashy and unclassy ways of God.

Healed and grateful enough to believe that whenever our stubborn rage subsides, God’s forgiveness waits.

 

The Real World

I recently read a ranting criticism of ‘religious people’ that I found infuriating, and hilarious. The topic sentence of the writer’s attack was that people like me (yes, I took it personally) who live by “old fairy tales”—i. e., the Bible—are deluded, and not a little useless as citizens of something the author called ‘the real world.’ Apparently, I live with my head in the clouds spouting unrealistic inanities about universal peace, love, and abundance for all; whereas sensible and morally serious people have their feet more firmly planted on the ground. They know that in the “real world” you have to face facts, make tough choices, and compromise your ideals.

An Episcopal bishop once commented on what he called a “very silly” op-ed piece in the local paper that argued that in the ‘real world’ the last thing we need is compassion and other mushy-headed values. What we need is unrestrained capitalism and unequivocal support for strategic U.S. allies, even the nasty ones. “My response,” wrote the bishop, “is to fantasize that there probably is a special place in hell for people who take religious types aside and deliver condescending lectures about the ‘real world’, as though standing at a thousand death beds, knowing first-hand the many forms of human misery, and nurturing hope where the system is not about to provide it were somehow ‘unreal.’ It’s those who think that the ‘real world’ is about the acquisition of wealth and power, and not about their generous dispersal, who live in unreality. It’s people who struggle for status or who are obsessed with control who are not free. It is those who would be embarrassed to be a little less affluent who are ‘unreal.’”

Now, this is not to say that there is an ‘us’ who have it right and a ’them’ who have it wrong. We are always crossing over the boundary of hope into the land of cynicism, and back again. The world that demands we face facts and deal with ‘reality’ is our world too. When we lack a habit of discernment and resistance, we frequently find ourselves echoing our detractors. Prayer and hope and mercy are fine most of the time, we end up saying, but sometimes you’ve just got to face facts. We are not immune to the silly—and deadly—notion that the ‘real world’ is more real than the kingdom of God.

The critical question is who gets to say what’s real. Remember this famous flap in the Reagan Administration? Questioned about the conservation of forests, then-Interior Secretary James Watt replied that it won’t make much difference in the end if we have this or that policy of conservation because, “After the last tree is felled … Christ will have returned.” And after that, presumably, we will have no need of trees, or of the planet for that matter. Bill Moyers summed up his astonished outrage in a NY Times op-ed piece by noting that in American politics, “the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seats of power.” And that was in the Reagan Administration. If we added our own examples, we’d be here all day.

I have long held the opinion that the best thing we can do in the face of the decline of the so-called mainline is to turn our energies to the renewal of congregational worship. I’m not talking about duking it out over styles of worship, but about recovering the ethical wallop of worship—the ways in which worship of any kind, if it is laser-focused on God and the ways of God in history, can be a stay against delusion. For every time a congregation gathers to ponder together one of those ‘old fairy tales’ and confess its hope in the vision of life it describes, it renews a struggle over who gets to name the facts. It is (or can be) a habit-forming exercise in discernment and resistance, a form of fact-finding, a bracing reality check.

What’s at stake in all our praising, singing, and silence-keeping; our confessing, assurance and offering; our praying, peace-passing and blessing is the very definition of ‘real.’ The kind of ‘real’ that allows us to see how precious are all the people and things the ‘real world’ has abandoned as useless and hopeless. The kind of ‘real’, as Will Willimon writes, that allows us to see a nondescript teacher “squatting in the dust with a gaggle of common fisherfolk and former tax collectors and know that they are the light of the world.” To hear an opinionated Paul tell a “ragtag crowd at First Church Corinth, after chewing them out for fighting in church and acting bad in their bedrooms,”  ‘You are God’s treasure.’” To recognize in our own congregations, just as we are without one plea, God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world, and see “a sneak preview of God’s cosmic redemption on-going in our midst.” And to encounter a million people like the woman in Louisiana who raised, on a maid’s income, sixteen foster children, and who, when asked how she did it, replied, “I saw a new world a-comin.’”

A new world. A real world. God’s real real world.

 

 

The Jesus We Get

2john_re–St John Resting on Jesus’ Chest, c. 1320, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

John 6

In one of the lectionary cycles, there’s a long stretch when we’re asked to plow through some of Jesus’ interminable discourses in the gospel of John. Jesus talks non-stop from the middle of July straight through August. After a few weeks of this stuff your start to wonder if John’s Jesus ever does anything but talk.

I know a pastor in a lectionary tradition who gets really cranky when the she’s confronted with preaching on these long speeches. She thinks John’s Jesus is way too into himself. It reminds her of an old cartoon in which a man on a first date blathers on and on about himself to his dinner companion. Finally he remembers he’s not alone. “Well, enough about me,” he says. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” If John’s Jesus is that self-absorbed, he is not the Jesus she wants.

I like John’s Jesus just fine; but I confess that I like him best not when he’s making long cryptic speeches, but when he’s making one of those impossibly tender gestures for which John’s gospel is also known, such building a fire on the beach and making breakfast for his sad and exhausted disciples. Now, that’s the Jesus I want.

Well, that’s the Jesus I want today. I’ve wanted him otherwise.

At one time or another I’ve wanted a Che Guevara Jesus, a flower child Jesus, a Galilean sage Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet Jesus, a divine savior Jesus, a judging Jesus, a warm inclusive Jesus, a cosmic bellhop Jesus, a finder of parking spaces in Harvard Square Jesus, a homeless Jesus, a crucified Jesus, a risen Jesus, a Jesus in you, a Jesus in me, a feminist Jesus, an historical Jesus.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of trying to follow him over the years, it’s that you can’t pick your Jesus. You can’t always have him your way. Because it turns out that he’s never just the Jesus you want. He’s not even just the Jesus you need, or the Jesus you think you need. He’s always, as an old mentor of mine once put it, “the Jesus you’re damn well going to get.”

Take that speech we call ‘The Bread of Life Discourse” in John 6. Jesus addresses it to a crowd that for months has wandered the countryside with him, drawn by his healings, transfixed by his teachings. But the crowd’s mood turns fretful when he starts making some big claims about who he is. They begin to murmur, and if you do any kind of public speaking, you know that’s not a good sign.

They murmur because Jesus suggests that he is greater than Moses; not the deliverer, but Delivery itself. He suggests that he is more than a sage, he is Wisdom itself, that mysterious being described in the Bible as playing in God’s presence, privy to God’s secrets before the foundation of the world; a mother calling her children to eat and drink a great feast without having to foot the bill or earn their keep.

This is perplexing. Troubling. Maybe even blasphemous. And it’s not this Jesus they want.

The Jesus who turned water to wine? Fine. The one who healed the sick and multiplied bread and fish? Swell. The Jesus who walked on water? Awesome. Wonder-worker, story-teller, that’s a good Jesus. A Jesus you want.

Up to this point in the story, John’s Jesus has glided from triumph to triumph, glory to glory, and it’s been visible for all to see. But now he asks for more than enthusiasm about wise preaching and merciful miracles. Now he asks for a relationship so close that to get at it, John has to use images of eating, which (along with sex) is the most intimate of all shared human experiences. Now he’s asking for a friendship so intertwined and interdependent that elsewhere John can only speak of vines and branches. Now John is saying that Jesus is no open book, that he must not be taken for granted, that he is in a sense unknowable and unreachable unless God reveals him to you. Now he is claiming that he can show us the character of God.

In John’s rendition of Jesus, this god-like, life-giving, sovereign and inscrutable man is also asking people to decide, to decide whether to accept his claims about himself and his claim upon them. Some followers won’t, or can’t. “We know who his parents are!” they say. “We know where he comes from!” Do they think Jesus is an overachieving small town boy who’s letting all the attention go to his head? He would, it seems, be closer to the savior they want if he were more modest; if only he would put forward lesser claims. Or if he would just let them remain agnostic about the whole thing.

But he won’t.  All of a sudden he is the Jesus they are damn well going to get. And so they start drifting away. The circle around Jesus continues to contract for the rest of his short career as more people find him bewildering. First these, then a few more, even some of his intimates, until at the end only three women and John stand at the foot of his cross.

Here’s what I think: No matter which Jesus you want now or have ever wanted, there is a Jesus you are always damn well going to get; and in this case it is the Jesus who, in whatever guise, will always try to be intimate with you; will always want to lay a claim upon your whole life; will always wait for you freely to decide for him.

Following Jesus’ teachings and emulating his tender gestures towards people in need and proclaiming a just and merciful kingdom against the enemies of life are what a true disciple does; but they do not exhaust John’s definition of a disciple. John, after all, is called the “beloved disciple,” and his community, “the beloved community.” His purpose is to face you with the Fierce Belovedness he identifies so intimately with this man, Jesus.

You don’t need to be a follower of John’s divine-ish Jesus to do works of mercy and justice. People of all faiths and no faith do them too, often better than those who bear the name of Jesus. You don’t need his example to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, testify at a Senate hearing on behalf of research for breast cancer. You don’t need faith in Jesus to give an at-risk kid a job, visit a prison, comfort the dying, or be kind to animals.

Although many of us do find the full motivation for our various ministries in Jesus’ example and teaching, we can’t say for sure that we would never have acted selflessly without them. We might have found some other wisdom in which to root a humane and caring life. Ethical and exemplary human beings arise from a thousand sources that are not Jesus.

Christian discipleship is not just a matter of selfless behaviors, even if the gospel of Matthew reminds us that loving service of our neighbor will be the basis of our judgment on the last day. For John, the distinctive of the disciple is not only merciful deeds; it is also intimate friendship with Jesus—the capacity and willingness to relate deeply to this person who is able to pour the wine of gladness for us and sing in us the new song of God’s delight and pull back for us the veil that covers the character of God. This friendship is what makes disciples brave and persistent; for when disciples become Christ’s friends and receive his joy, everything changes. Life and ministry become more wonder than competence, more  surrender than skill, more beauty than plans, more imagination than programs, more gratitude and praise than committees and votes, more celebration than obligation, more grace than guilt, more tryst than task.

This inestimable gift rarely comes from the Jesus we want. It is most often the gift of the Jesus we are damned well going to get. The saddest thing is that around this Jesus the crowds are thin. At the feet of this Jesus not every hand is upturned and open. In his presence only a few delight.  If you wanted to be there with him, there’d be room for you. If you wanted to be his friend,  you would not have to wait in line.

 

A Festival of Rain

A rainy Memorial Day weekend. Very rainy. Torrential at times. It’s Springtime in Boston, always an iffy proposition. Of course, we need the rain. That was my mantra yesterday when I got caught in a downpour, stuck in snarled traffic, with zero visibility. We need the rain. It’s a way to make virtue out of vexation.

Of course we do need rain. All of us need rain: there’s always drought someplace in the world. It’s easy to forget that. We only occasionally get a bad one here in the Northeast. Our faucets routinely deliver great gushing quantities of water. It’s not the same elsewhere.

Sometimes, when I stand at my sink with the tap open, I try to imagine a life without easy access to water. I think about the exhausting grind of lugging water from a shared village well or a muddy stream. I think of places where control of water determines the balance of power; where water is used to subjugate, punish, and pacify, as it often is in Palestinian refugee camps. I think too of all the cities and towns of Israel where people have water, but where Israelis yearn also, as Maureen Kemeza says, to “drink the cup of security instead of the bitter dregs of terror.”

I watch the rain wash out my week-end plans and say, “Oh well, we need the rain.” I say it in the resigned, noble, yet slightly resentful way only someone divorced from the daily struggle for subsistence could say such an obvious thing. Meanwhile, somewhere else, a human being who had no week-end plans, no prospects at all in fact, looks down at dry cracked earth and prays for the rain I have resigned myself to; prays also perhaps for that other refreshment – for justice, as necessary for life as water itself.

In the gospel of John, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles, a week-long autumnal harvest celebration. By his day, it had taken on the character of a festival of rain. Each day of the observance, priests and people processed to the great fountain on the northeast side of the Temple. There a priest filled a golden pitcher with its water, as the choir sang a verse from the prophet Isaiah, “With joy you  draw water from salvation’s wells!” Then back up they processed, through the portal called the Water Gate. When they arrived at the altar of sacrifice, they marched around it, singing psalms. Finally, the priest ascended the ramp to the altar and poured the precious water from the pitcher through a silver funnel onto the ground.

Unlike us, who are disappointed when it rains on our parade, the celebrating Jews prayed fervently that it might rain during the Feast of Tabernacles, for rainfall during Tabernacles was taken as a sign that God would send the abundant Spring rains necessary for a good crop the following year. I have read that even in recent, more bitter years, Jordanian Arabs, who are not enamored of the Israelis, continue to keep their eye on the weather during the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, hoping for the rainfall that portends a good harvest for their own people too – common needs betraying a common humanity, in spite of everything.

In the midst of this festival of rain, surrounded by his people’s prayers for life-giving water, Jesus stands up, as if in answer to them all. He cries out that he is water, rain, the life we need. He stands up and promises that if we drink from his well, if we return repeatedly to the springs of wisdom, mercy, reconciling grace and generosity that flow within him, that he embodies, then living water will also flow from us who accept his invitation – we will ourselves become like fountains.

John tells us parenthetically that by “living water” Jesus was referring to “the Spirit” that would be bestowed upon his disciples after his death and glorification. The gift of this Spirit is the momentous religious experience we commemorated on Pentecost Sunday.

We associate Pentecost more with wind and fire than with water, because those heartier images are the star performers in the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles that we customarily read on that day. Thus we trend to think of the Holy Spirit as power and enthusiasm, impetus and ardor  –  a force to be reckoned with, transforming fear to boldness, inhibition to freedom, doubt to conviction. And so it is.

But Pentecost is also a festival of rain. And the Spirit is like holy precipitation. The rain we need. In Acts, we hear a Spirit-filled Peter try to explain to the stunned crowd what is happening. This, he says, is the drenching that was promised by the prophet Joel: “In those days, says the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit on everyone…” Pour it out, like water from a golden pitcher, like torrents from the sky.

Pentecost is a downpour, a soaking, a flood – a flood of life and possibility; and, miraculously, a flood of mutual understanding that washes away, if only for one blessed day, the desiccating divisions of clan, nation and tongue. It is like water turned mysteriously to wine, making the world giddy with hope and joy. It is a baptismal immersion from which the church rises, dripping wet, waterlogged with grace. The call given to us in those fathoms is to go and drip on everything; to rain on the drought-stricken world the rain of kingdom life.

Many congregations prayed for wind and fire last week. I wonder how many prayed for rain. As I was watching it fall very hard yesterday and late into the night, I hoped some did, because we really need the rain. We really need The Rain.

 

 

How Can We Keep From Singing?

–Nonviolent Student Protesters singing “We Shall Overcome,” circa 1963. Photo by Adger Cowans

 

A Sermon in Four Movements

Ephesians 5: 15-20; Mark 14: 22-26

I

On a January morning in 1990, George Peck got out of bed, walked to the kitchen, fell to the floor, and died. It was to have been his first day back to work after a year’s sabbatical. He was the president of Andover Newton Theological School. He was 58 years old.

Just two years earlier, Orlando Costas had died after a short struggle with cancer. He was the Dean of the School. A few months after his sad death, the Chair of the Board died too. And not long after George Peck’s death, a beloved professor of ethics, Jane Cary, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died almost before any of us could say, “Oh, no!”

The older faculty of Andover Newton refer to those three years of death as “the siege,” because it felt like one. It felt like we were surrounded by a fierce enemy that was picking off our friends, one by one.

George Peck’s funeral was held at First Baptist in Newton Centre, a cavernous church. That day it was packed to the rafters. And when the service was over, that whole prodigious throng stood up to sing George’s favorite hymn.

George was an Aussie. Every Christmas he’d call us together to sing all nine hundred sixty-seven thousand verses of “Waltzing Matilda.” He loved that song, but the song he loved most was Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That was the hymn that closed his service.

I had always hated that hymn. I am a sophisticated person, and I found it embarrassing. Remember how it goes? The world is full of temptation. Nasty little devils are running around everywhere, trying to trick us into sinning. We can’t do anything to defend ourselves. We are totally doomed. But thanks be to God, Christ the Holy Swashbuckler swoops down to rescue us. He swoops down and swashbuckles away—and he wins!

Ugh. It’s all so… 16th century.

But then came the siege—the funerals, the exhaustion, the sorrow—and the scary realization that we were powerless against the onslaught of Death. By the time we gathered at First Baptist, I was so sad and defeated, I needed some swooping and trampling. I ached for some swashbuckling. I required some demon-squashing triumph. So, at the end of George’s service, I took a deep breath and belted out that embarrassing old hymn. I sang it like I loved it. Like I’d always loved it. Like I really believed it. I sang it like a Lutheran—with all my heart.

And then it happened. When we got to the part about demons snatching us, we felt those claws grab at us, and we started trembling. When we sang about God sending Christ to help us, and we felt a mighty Presence swoosh into the room. We burst into applause. When we sang that God is a mighty fortress, protective steel descended. You could actually hear it clang down. The more we sang, the more the demons ran. To this day, I remember the way we climbed on the pews, thrust our fists in the air, and ordered the forces of death to back off.

… Okay, I lied. We didn’t applaud. Nobody stood on the pews. We didn’t thrust our fists in the air. But we did sing. We sang and sang. And, somehow, because we sang, we won.

Congregational hymn: “A mighty fortress…”

II

Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ last supper with his friends, one small detail always chokes me up. Did you catch it when it was being read? It says, “They sang a hymn…”

Jesus was full of dread that night, as if he knew what was coming. Even so, he didn’t hurry the ritual meal. He didn’t shorten the prayers. And he didn’t say, “We don’t have time for all five verses of the closing hymn.” Only hours before being hauled away to be tortured and killed, he stood up with his little congregation and sang all the verses. And the song they sang at that Passover meal was probably a psalm of praise—praise to God for delivering the people from slavery and death in Egypt.

How could Jesus sing like that, knowing what was coming? How could he praise God for deliverance when there’d be none for him? In the face of disaster, how could he keep on singing?

Why do we keep on singing?

Because singing is what we do when we are really living. Even if we are also dying. It’s an act of faith. We always sing against the odds. The children of God have always been powerless against tyrants, helpless against hate, defenseless against greed, pride and ambition, up to our necks in trouble, susceptible to weaknesses of every kind, hemmed in by death on every side. We don’t have a prayer—except for our songs. Anywhere you look in the human family, when trouble comes, the next thing you hear is singing.

Congregational hymn: “When in our music God is glorified” [include verse omitted from NCH: And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night….?]

III

Now, some people sing to entertain themselves. Or to forget their troubles. Or to look on the bright side. But the singing I’m talking about isn’t a distraction, a pep pill, or a night-light. It won’t help us cheer up, forget our troubles, or pretend that there are no monsters under our beds, no gremlins in our psyches, and no savagery in the world.

The song we’re talking about today is the song God sings into the world every day, especially on days of reckoning. It’s a song we know by many names—we call it amazing grace, firm foundation, everlasting arms, trust and obey, wondrous love, grace and glory, blessed assurance—but whatever name we know it by, God has sung it into us. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed in our baptisms, and like all the Spirit’s gifts, it’s no good unless we share it. Unless we give it away. Unless we sing it to others.

And because it is God’s own song we’re singing, once we’re singing it, once it’s out there in the air, things change.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, consider Sojourner Truth, the great abolitionist. Once when someone asked her how to destroy the evil of slavery, she said, “You lay a song on it.”

Or ask the people of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Remember, if you are my age or older, what it was like to hear freedom songs above the roar of fire hoses and snarling dogs?

Ask the people of Chile who the priority victims of Pinochet’s death squads were, and they will tell you that they always arrested the songs first. They poets and the singers were “disappeared” early. The government knew that they were the most dangerous people of all.

The song God sings in us and through us against all odds is hope, courage, and life. And as long as God’s people are singing it together, truth will get told, walls will tumble, chains will break, stuck things will shift, tyrants will fall—and the new thing God is determined to do will win out, even in the most hardened hearts, even in the cruelest systems.

But this victory takes time. A song is not a bomb. It is not a quick fix, like a firing squad or a politician’s promise. And that’s why we teach God’s song to our children, so that they will teach it some day to theirs. To get the whole universe singing God’s song is a project bigger than one lifetime.

But faith assures us that sooner or later, the songs we pass from age to age, the capacity for singing we enlarge and encourage, the power of the song we sing together will so bewilder the enemies of Love that they will sheathe their claws, hang up their pitchforks, and stop dealing in death, once and for all. Sooner or later, the song from God that we sing together will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will come true.

Jesus “sang a psalm that night, when utmost evil strove against the light.” That psalm was first sung by the Spirit to his ancestor, David. David then sang it to the people. They taught it to their children. And centuries later, Jesus learned it from his mother, who’d learned it from hers, who’d learned it from hers. He sang it countless times in his short life, that song chanted in exile and in freedom, in trouble and in peace for countless years. It was on his lips when he died, a failed prophet. It was on his lips when he rose triumphant from the grave.

Jesus knew what every faithful soul and every faithful community knows—as long as we are singing, the struggle goes on. As long as we are singing, we are invincible. As long as we are singing, we will rise.

Choral anthem: “We shall not give up the fight…”

IV

Jesus once said to his followers, “Go into the whole world and announce the good news.” In other words, “Evangelize!”

A lot of us are reluctant to evangelize. We can’t picture ourselves hitting the streets with a floppy bible and a converting message, buttonholing our neighbors, preaching to strangers, handing out tracts.

Okay. Fair enough. That’s hard. But maybe we would be willing to sing?

Maybe we could sing the church’s faith, its ancient story, its treasury of tune and rhyme, its vast repertoire of grace. Against the odds that are stacked up against the world God loves, maybe we would be willing to sing for its life and our own.

Maybe we could sing as if we really believed that God can make life different. Maybe we could sing as if we really believed that locked chains can snap and locked doors can open. Maybe we could sing as if we believed that at the sound of God’s song on our lips, one more hatred will shrivel and die, one more war will end, one more generous heart will embrace a stranger, one more wall will tumble, and another will never get built. Maybe we could sing as if we believed that one day the only sound in all creation will be a melody of delight—God’s delight in us, and ours in God.

If we believe, if we know, that God’s new song can do all this, can do it through us, then why would we, how could we keep from singing?

Congregational hymn: “My life flows on’ [How can I keep from singing…?”]

 

Preaching Thomas on “Low Sunday” — Some Possible Pathways

Doubting_Thomas_sm

John 20:19-31

In the traditional reading of this post-resurrection appearance, Jesus rebukes Thomas for doubting and commends believers who come to faith without requiring the proof of nail marks. This reading still stands up, I think, even if many preachers these days prefer to present Thomas as a model for people who struggle to believe, reassuring their listeners that doubt is a normal, even necessary, part of faith that is honest and maturing. None of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament ignores the vexed nature of Easter faith. It is only fair and helpful, then, to point out that if we have trouble believing, we are not the first, and we are not alone.

What a “doubt is a good thing” reading of this story may miss, however, is its ecclesial dimension. When one looks at the story through that lens, Thomas may not be guilty so much of incredulity as he is of singularity. Asking for evidence (the same evidence Jesus had already granted to the others in v. 20) is not his biggest problem; refusing to trust the witness of sisters and brothers is.

He doubts the resurrection of Jesus, but more significantly he doubts that the church has faith and wisdom to give him to supply his lack. Thomas wants a private experience, a revelation of his own, prefiguring not so much our modern intellectual rejection of particular articles of the creed as our post-modern unwillingness to grant the tradition any wisdom that does not first pass the test of private reason, personal experience, and emotional comfort. Thomas was “not with them” (v. 24) in more than a geographical sense.

Jesus does not commend unseeing believers (v. 29) because they accept the “fact,” much less the “doctrine” of the resurrection, but because they trust the church’s testimony. They open-heartedly receive the tradition of his rising. They are “together” in this handed-on faith that is not the private accomplishment of any one of them.

The communal way in which we come to faith is an important preoccupation of this story, and of many others that were recorded, John says, so that we might come to believe (v. 31); but believing as such is not the final goal. The reason the evangelist is eager for us to believe in the first place is “so that [we] might have life” (v. 31), life with Jesus—a life found most richly and mysteriously through insertion in the fellowship of disciples. It is not for nothing that the other readings this Sunday focus on the fellowship (Acts 4:32-35; Ps 133; 1 Jn 1:1-2:1) and aim, in part at least, to impress upon us “how good and pleasant” (Ps 133) a company it is.

In contrast to the idea that a person comes to faith through an individually-achieved struggle for private conviction in this small moment now, the preacher might present coming to Christian faith as a shared project of trust and mutual traditioning in an ample fellowship of believers of all times and places who, by the grace and power of the Spirit, edify one another in strength, and supply one another in lack.

We might speak of the church in this season of Easter as a company of disciples learning to pool the gift of faith, eagerly inquiring into and trusting each other’s experience of God, and ever building thereby a great storehouse of small faith and great, new and seasoned, questioning and serene, from which we borrow and to which we lend, generation to generation, until he comes again.

Another avenue for preaching the text is to remove the spotlight we always shine on Thomas and put it back on Jesus, the first born from the dead. His bodily appearance is full of mystery, to be sure, and one could get sidetracked attempting to explain the physics of his penetration of that locked door or the funky nature of resurrection bodies. Better to ponder instead the tender condescension of the Living One.

He knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them encompassing shalom.

He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes Spirit into their flagging hearts.

He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation.

He knows they can hardly believe he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—he shows them his wounds.

He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the following week to make sure the Twin is not left out.

He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination. It is not surprising that in the presence of such immense tenderness, our text says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) that the disciples “rejoiced.” The preacher could frame Easter in these terms, as the in-breaking of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, and restorative love like this, for all.

The preacher might also wish to inquire into the ethical edges of the text. A starting point might be Jesus’ refusal to blame and exact his due, thus breaking the relentlessly violent cycle of revenge by which the ordinary world turns.

One might also explore further the text’s stunning image of a Risen One who in the life of glory does not leave his wounds behind—the signs of his passion for us persist in his new flesh, such that when we see similar scars in the flesh of the neighbor, or on the body of the world, we will recognize him. And as we place our hands in mending on the wounded ones he loves, we too will exclaim on awed and bended knee before them, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).