Preach

I am at the airport, waiting for my ride home from the Festival of Homiletics, and what shall I say? I have been broken and I have been stitched up. I have been blown away, and I have been blown away like a dandelion seed. I feel my lightness, my whiteness, my weediness, and my potential to wreak havoc.

Dr Forbes wanted to recruit us all (all?) to God’s Dream Team, and as my spirit protested and continues to protest, “In your dreams,” he countered, “And when did you last find a mountain in your way and order it to up and move?” His encouragement was kind and unrelenting; and the Rev Otis Moss III told us to hold on; that it was too early to say that it is too late for God to make a way. God works by any means necessary, making use of any person or voice that God chooses.

We cannot stop preaching, Dr Melva Sampson told us, because we do not have the right to remain silent in the face of cruel church and secular politics; because resurrection (she quoted a Facebook post by Dr Anne Joh, which will haunt me);

Resurrection is the collective realignment of the living with the dead and those already consigned to death. The transformative power of resurrection must not be in celebration of any kind of transcendnec but rather grounded in this defiant realignment of the living against powers and principalities of the death machine. Resurrection is our commitment to realign ourselves with the dead and those prematurely dying amidst us.

That will preach.

We need to preach, Professor David Lose told us, to counter the abuse of language in a world which tells us we are nothing, when God tells us we are everything. We need to keep preaching, because the gospel is so unbelievable that we need to be assured of it over and over.

We need to preach, the Rev William Lamar IV told us, because we can skew scripture, manipulate tradition, use reason to explain away inconvenient truths, but when we let the Holy Spirit loose, there is no controlling her.

We need to preach, said Bishop Yvette Flunder, amongst many things, because the Word of God is alive. We need to preach not only in the pulpit but in the public square; “If the only time you preach is in the pulpit,” the Rev William Barber II declaimed, “our are not much of a preacher.”

I have been blown away, and I feel blown away like a dandelion seed, one among a million, at once inconsequential and capable of wreaking havoc.

The Rt Rev Robert Wright diagnosed a minor imagination of God as the cause of little courage to defy the forces of empire and evil and to trust the power which God has invested in us: “Defiance is a part of the imago dei,” he preached, remembering the midwives of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and marvelling at their faithful defiance of Pharaoh’s murderous will. Non-cooperation with evil is by definition the stuff of God, he said; love is active rebellion against anything that is not love.

There is so much more to say, so many words, so many. I am broken by the weight of them. The call of God to preach has stitched me up. I am ready to fly.

 

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The lamb, the sheep, and the good shepherd

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C, Euclid, Ohio, 2019


In the book of Revelation, the Lamb has become the shepherd, just as in the gospels of Jesus’ Incarnation, the Shepherd became a lamb, and lived among us sheep. Revelation, a lament against oppression and a vision of God’s redeeming glory, proffers the ultimate reconciliation between sinners and their saviour; between life’s joys and hardships; between every language, people, nation, and tribe, and their religions, too; between the human and the divine realms.

This is the glorious vision that we celebrate in every Holy Communion, submitting our differences, our doubts, our souls to the reconciling love embodied by Jesus Christ, Messiah; becoming one Body with him and with one another, a foreshadowing and foretaste of the reign of God.

But in the meantime, in the gospel of John, and in the psalms of David, and in the lives of those who follow Jesus in the way of the cross, there is a long way to go and there are some serious obstacles to that ultimate vision of reconciliation.

Let me be uncomfortably honest for a second: whenever I am required by the church and its lectionary choices to read aloud in the midst of the congregation phrases that carry frankly antagonistic sentiments against “the Jews,” I am ashamed. I am embarrassed, I am concerned, I am conflicted, and I am ashamed; not of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be clear, but of the history of Christianity which has too often failed to be a sign and sacrament of reconciliation to many.

According to Marilyn Salmon, author of the book Preaching without Contempt, when John Dominic Crossan was asked once at a speaking event about the problem of John’s hostile language toward “the Jews” in much of his gospel, Crossan replied that we might just need to refrain from reading the fourth gospel in public for the next thousand years.* I would love to be freed from speaking the bitterness of John the Evangelist in the middle of the church, although I would miss his poetry terribly; but such a move would not solve the problem of the language that, even during our private reading and prayer, has the potential to poison hearts, nor undo a long history of Christian anti-semitism, wrapped in White supremacy.

Let me be even more uncomfortably clear: in the months and weeks following the deadly attacks on synagogues from Pittsburgh to Poway, California, reading John, putting into Jesus’ mouth the words, “you do not belong to my sheep,” cannot go unexamined or unchallenged. It is not enough to say, we don’t read much into that, nor mean anything by it; because if we do not, then others will make meaning of it, and we have seen where that can and does continue to lead; and it has not been to the vision of reconciliation and universal worship that John of Patmos proposed in his Revelation.

So what do we do with these harsh words that John writes? Different translations have been tried. In another sermon, I described “the Jews” whom John names here as a beltway elite, not the people themselves. Many books have been written to understand and explain the relationship between the church of John the Evangelist and the rest of the Jewish community. But how do we shield our hearts and our neighbours from the violence of contempt? The answer is in the gospel itself.

In fact, the gospel of John is steeped in Jewish tradition: the festivals, the temple, the scriptures of their ancestors. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman he is proud to identify himself as a Jewish man, telling her, “Salvation comes from the Jews!” (John 4:22).

It is John the Baptist who, at the beginning of John’s gospel, hails Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and in the other gospels, it is John the Baptist’s disciples who ask the question that is here attributed more anonymously to “the Jews:” “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). In those other gospel accounts, Jesus is exasperated. “Have you not been paying attention? Do you not see that the liberty of God has visited those who rejoice in the healing I have brought them? Open your eyes! And blessed are they that take no offence at me.” In this gospel, it is written that his words divided the community between those who believed that he was the Messiah, and those who thought it madness.

However sharp that division, it is clear from broad sweep of scripture that the promises that God made to God’s people from the beginning, from the days of Abraham and Jacob and Moses, through the exile and restoration, and the resistance under Roman occupation; it is abundantly clear that those promises cannot be rescinded nor removed nor undone; for “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand,” the psalmist proclaims (Psalm 95:7); and the Good Shepherd does not abandon his sheep, nor does anyone take them from his hand.

The promises of God from ancient times are not cancelled out by the revelation that we have received of God’s grace and mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the tight-knit, sectarian circle of the church of John the Evangelist (as described by David Rensberger** and others), recognizes that it does not tightly contain nor fully define nor dare it claim to curtail the reach of God’s revelation and grace, however enthusiastic its faith in Jesus Christ, Messiah. For even John also has Jesus say, “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold.”

In the reading from Acts that we hear today, Peter mimics the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, Elijah and Elisha, as much as he follows Jesus in the raising Dorcas from the dead. In the book of Revelation, the vision of John of Patmos borrows heavily from the Jewish apocalypses of Daniel and the prophets. There is no Christianity, no New Testament, no Jesus of Nazareth without the Jews. There is no Good Shepherd without the psalms. There is no God as mother bear without the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 13:8), and the Lamb of God is expected by John the Baptist only because of the prophets that preceded him.

In Psalm 23, so beloved of generations of Christians, we hear the voice of David, the shepherd anointed by God to be a king forever. When we hear him pray, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” let us be sure that by our words, and their tone, and by our silence we are not numbered among the tormentors of God’s anointed, nor casting shade across the paths of any of his flock.

In the age to come, John of Patmos envisions, every tribe, language, people and nation will worship together in spirit and in truth, gathered around the throne of God. When all political divisions, partisan denominations, petty arguments and violent pogroms have been put to rest, then we will find ourselves face to face not only with God but with one another.

This is the worship that we foreshadow every time we celebrate the Holy Communion, remembering God’s mercy and grace to God’s people from beyond our memory, and beyond our understanding. Remembering our own need for God’s forgiveness and faithfulness, we submit our selfish pride to the humility and kindness of Jesus of Nazareth. Relying not on our own achievements, but on the never failing love of God, the broken body and willing blood of the Lamb of God, and the tenderness of the Good Shepherd, we offer the worship of a fallen but ultimately hopeful people, formed for love, led by the Lamb of God.


*Marilyn J. Salmon, Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism (Fortress Press, 2006), notes to Chapter 4:

Crossan made this comment during a reading and discussion of his book, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots or Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), at the Hungry Mind Bookstore, St. Paul, Minnesota, Spring 1996.

**David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (The Westminster Press, 1988)


Featured image: a house on the square at Joppa/Old Jaffa

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Prodigal prayer

Can we start over,
with my head bent low
and my knees bent lower,
my eyes evading your pain hung high
in case it engulfs my own?

Can we start here,
with my feet on the ground,
my toes rooted in the dirt
and my face turned toward the sun?

Can we start
whether or not the sun will rise,
or the air bend with the Spirit who exhales life;

whether this day, or one day
when the stars align, though my way is crooked,
and the time is ripe, though my heart went over;
and will you welcome me home?

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Sufficient

I came to you out of driving need:
a child’s wailing, howling hunger for bread
and tenderness. You fed me loaves of love
wrapped in wrinkled hands and silver

Now it is my need holds me at bay:
the need to appear slaked,
as one drunk on living water,
or to seem not only sated, but sufficient;

as though one who were whole enough
to live without you would want to.

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Undertow

I went to the water filled with chaos,
foaming with worry, frothy with fear;
I went to the water cold as winter, opaque as oil.
I went to the water to see your Spirit
spraying the rocks with invisible ink,
animation drawn out of every wave,
unconcerned with eternity;
I sank in the calm that rests beneath
the undertow of creation.

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Beating Guns

I wrote this morning at the RevGalBlogPals site about my Holy Week encounter with Shane Claiborne’ and Michael Martin’s #BeatingGuns tour. God Before Guns co-hosted the event with Pilgrim UCC in Tremont, Cleveland. Read more about it at RevGals; see a slideshow of images from the evening below.

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Reconciling love

An unusual Easter 2 homily this morning – because we celebrated a wedding during our regular Sunday service! The Collect for Easter 2 seemed to me to speak to the happy coincidence.


We prayed at the beginning of this morning’s service the Collect that begins:

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation …

The new covenant of Christ is all about reconciliation. The mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are all designed to provoke reconciliation, and to provide reconciliation, between creation and its Creator; between creatures and one another; between all that is, seen and unseen.

The new covenant of Christ comes with a history, the baggage of preexisting covenants and their complicated reckonings. The new covenant does not undo any love that God has bestowed upon the world since its beginning, nor any of God’s promises or blessings. But it does something new, and for those of us in need of it, it reconciles us to God in new and loving ways.

The new covenant of Christ has room for doubt. The Risen Christ embraces Thomas and his need for reassurance, returning especially for him, breathing Peace especially upon him. The new covenant reconciles Thomas and his doubt to the reality of resurrection, the promise of new life realized right in front of him.

The new covenant of Christ has room for doubt, but not for fear. The disciples were locked away out of fear, but the Risen Christ breached that division, breezing through their locked doors, and reconciled that closed-off room to the world which he has filled with the Holy Spirit.

The new covenant of Christ reconciles our hopes and dreams to what might be: to the kingdom of God. It brings within reach the faithfulness, the hope, the love for which we long; the love that casts out fear, and the faithfulness of God that endures for ever.

The Collect continues:

Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith …

The covenant of marriage, we are told by the church, is an image and an echo of that new covenant of reconciliation established by Christ. It models the bonds of eternity. Whether as participants or witnesses, it invites everyone to share in the good news, to examine our own vows, and the reconciliations on which our life depends. It does not come without apprehension, as of a future not yet seen; but it has power to reconcile our history as the path to our present hope. It comes with its own stumblings, as the way of the cross always does. It vows forgiveness. It makes concrete the hope, faith, and love that we invest in one another. It breathes new life into the most world-weary of souls. It is a mystery, even to those of us who live within it. At its best, as it most clearly reflects that new covenant of Christ, it reconciles us to one another, to God, even to ourselves, through the love for which God created us.

Into this covenant Ann and Ben now come to be married. May their witness to the love and faithfulness of Christ warm our hearts, our may our joy at their union be reckoned to us as a reconciling righteousness. Amen.

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