An Inconvenient Truth

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.

As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”

This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.

John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.

I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.

But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.

Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).

The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.

My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.

But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.

Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?

Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).

If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.

A Lectionary Reflection: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Judgement

I haven’t pondered the lectionary readings for a spell. The texts for July 9 are striking because (1) they are about judgment very broadly understood, and (2) the topic of judgment has been stripped out of the readings. Judgment is a subject we are very uncomfortable with.

I propose we are uncomfortable with it because people judge in a facile and thoughtless manner; we have trivialized judgment and thus made it obscene. Matthew 11:16-19 illustrates: John the Baptist, an ascetic, came along and people said, he’s too strict, “he has a demon.” Jesus followed. While not a libertine, he was far more lax about dietary rules than the religious leaders, and people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The bottom line is that the average person rejected both their messages, because both involved a fundamental change of life. But rather than simply rejecting or ignoring the message, they used a form of judgment that condemned John and Jesus. In this manner they were able, not only to ignore the message of repentance, but justify their doing so.

This should sound familiar, because this is the most common form of moral outrage we hear today. Rather than engage the other person’s ideas, we tend to respond with an emotional burst that we manage to justify by adding a moral component.

The result is that we cover our failures and wounds of corruption with a salve of moral outrage, expressed as judgment, and rarely get around to doing the hard work of changing the things that need to be changed in our own lives (in contrast to demanding change in others’ lives). The former is true repentance; the latter is obscene judgment.

The lectionary leaves out Mat. 11:20-24 and jumps to v. 25. It is the condemnation of the cities that didn’t accept Jesus’ message, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The actual point of this text (a point which has been completely gutted by the lectionary) is that authentic judgment will happen one way or the other. We can judge ourselves (that is, repent of our own corruption instead of judging others), or we can put that off (as the people did to John and Jesus) and be judged by a far more terrible judgment when that corruption that exists within us finally eats us up completely and destroys us.

Jesus ends the text with the familiar, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat 11:28-30).

The action here is not only getting rid of our burden, but replacing it with Christ’s yoke, the burden that was originally designed for us. This latter burden, Christ’s yoke, is “light” because it is designed as something that, while heavy and hard, is life-giving. The other burden of our own making is life-destroying. Using different language, a different metaphor of burdens and harnesses, Jesus is saying the same thing as when he spoke about judgment.

That process of judgment which does not examine the self but demands change in others is actually a terrible burden. We know deep down that we are truly wretched creatures (see the Epistle reading, Rom. 7:15-25, Paul’s mournful cry of powerlessness to change). Psychologically speaking, this secret knowledge of self that we try to deny by pointing at others will destroy us by manifesting itself as anger, despair, addictions, psychosis, heart problems, and ultimately, death. Jesus simply calls it a burden.

So the choice is ours. We can keep busy judging others for their failures, or we can enter into the very difficult work of judging ourselves (of removing of our burden) and changing our way of life and thinking pattern (putting on Christ’s yoke, or harness). One way will inevitably lead to the fruition of all the corruption that is within us – unbearable judgment, or if we do the hard task of judging ourselves, the other way will lead to life and fruitfulness.

I will finish with a popular internet meme featuring psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson. He rails against those who are busy trying to fix the world. Even though he approaches it from a clinical psychological perspective rather than a biblical perspective, his reasoning should now sound familiar. Such people are avoiding the hard work of fixing themselves by changing the subject and fixing others. “But how do we then improve the world?” ask the world-improvers accusingly. Peterson’s now famous answer is, “Clean your room!” (Remember, he’s a professor and his primary audience is college kids.)

Changing the world must necessarily start with changing yourself.  Any other way will ultimately lead to judgment, or chaos, or societal breakdown, or however you want to describe it. So here’s the challenge. We can follow the august example of the people who brought us the Revised Common Lectionary, and pretend that this ultimate judgment (that will ultimately come back and bite us if we don’t judge and fix ourselves) does not exist, or at least is so unimportant that we can skip over it and ignore it, or we can “clean our rooms” and our lives. As daunting as the latter option sounds, it’s actually a light burden compared to the former option. Jesus promised us this was so. Amen.

Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

I became fascinated with the Babylonian creation stories many years ago. The two original deities, Tiamat, the feminine god of chaos (or salt water, or the ocean, which is the embodiment of chaos), and her consort, Apsu, the masculine god who is very mysterious and unknowable, but was probably the god of fresh water, and particularly, the god of the springs from where the holy water of the religious rites came.

They had a number of children, but the key child – in terms of the creation story – is Anu, who killed Tiamat, chopped her up, and scattered her. Those scattered remains became the created order as we know it. Thus the created order came about from the defeat of chaos.

But chaos remained. Babylonian society was a small enclave of order surrounded by chaos.

This Babylonian creation myth came to mind because of the texts for Trinity Sunday, which was celebrated June 12 in the Western churches. The Christian creation story also starts with chaos: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was [chaotic] and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1f).

The difference in the two stories is striking. In the Babylonian story the outer chaos is something to be feared and avoided. I purposely quoted the RSV because it views Gen 1:2 from a Christian perspective translating the Hebrew “Wind” (blowing over the chaos) as “the Holy Spirit.” In this Christian version of the story, the chaos is there, but the Holy Spirit is present out there, above the chaos.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus sends the disciples out into the world. In the Babylonian view of the world, only a Hero would dare venture out into the chaos. In the Christian view, we ordinary people can venture out into the chaos outside our community because the Spirit is already present “blowing over the waters.”

As humans we naturally fear chaos (it’s actually biological) and in the last several years our world has become quite chaotic. For Americans that chaos reach a fever pitch with the recent presidential election. My liberal friends who are horrified by President Trump and live in abject fear of what they perceive as the chaos in the political order (and similarly, my conservative friends who were equally frozen in fear by the prospect of Hillary Clinton), desperately need to hear these glorious words of Trinitarian truth: The Spirit’s abode is above the chaos (in the same way the wind blows above the prairie). The chaos is therefore not so much a problem as it is an opportunity. As frightening as it is, the chaos is relatively safe. In chaos there be dragons! But in chaos there be God blowing upon the deep. It is the Trinitarian message of hope.

A Second Look at Glory

Transfiguration Sunday – as a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26 in 2017). It is about Jesus being transfigured, his hidden divine glory being revealed. It serves as the culmination of the Christmas cycle, where “revealing,” “light,” and “glory” are major themes. In terms of the lectionary Easter Cycle (which will start three days later), it gives context to the suffering that Jesus is about endure as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. By juxtaposing the Transfiguration with Ash Wednesday/Lent/Crucifixion, it emphasizes that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is a path of choice. Suffering and death were not inevitable as Jesus came up against the political powers. He submits himself to humiliation, not out of inevitability, but out of obedience to the Father.

The Feast of Transfiguration (in contrast to the Lectionary Day) is on Aug. 6 so this is a displaced Sunday that serves the purposes of the lectionary rather than celebrating the historical feast. This dislocation is something to which I will circle back momentarily.

I grew up on divine glory. Long before I was a Presbyterian I learned the first question of the Westminster catechism, which seems to belong to the whole Protestant Church and not just Presbyterians. A contemporary renderings of it reads, Q: What is a person’s chief end? A: A person’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Once I became Presbyterian, I realized the answer’s order (glory first, enjoyment second) and the placement of the question (first in the catechism) is no accident. Presbyterian theology is sorted around the idea of God’s glory. It’s God’s primary activity in the sense that God glorifies himself whenever God does anything. Why did God create? To glorify himself. Why did God allow the flood? To glorify himself. Why did God call forth Israel? To glorify himself. Why did God redeem? Well, you get the idea.

This year a simple question popped into my mind as the Lectionary Sunday of Transfiguration looms: Is all that actually true? I don’t think so because it stands counter to Jesus’ life and it’s revelation of the true character of God. While it is obviously true and very important that God is glorious and his glory shines forth all over the place, when we start with glory as the organizing principle, it manages to get our relationship with God out of sorts.

The chief end of God is [and here there are a variety of words we might use which I can’t decide between] fellowship, communion, union, all relational words that are rooted firmly in the divine attribute of love rather than glory. God is glorious because the glory arises out of God’s love and not vice versa. If glory were the starting point, the relationship would be profoundly different. It would be about God and not about God-with-us, it would be about God’s advantage over us. “For God so sought to glorify Himself that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in order that God could further glorify himself.” (Well, it isn’t an exact quote.)

August 6 is not exactly a high point on the liturgical calendar (aside from the fact that it is a Great Feast of the Church).  It is connected with first fruits (and grapes are a big part of the Orthodox feast). But there is no grand cycle surrounding it (like Lent or Advent). It’s just sort of there all on its own. And this is also, properly, the point of divine glory. It’s always there, it’s always fabulous when we se see it. We know we will bask in it in eternity. But the story of creation, redemption and the consummation of all things focuses on a different story arc altogether. Not much actually revolves around the divine glory itself.

And while there is little to no historical precedent (except in the last 500 years) for making divine glory central, there is a down side to such a practice. Glory is a “power” concept while love and fellowship are “servant” concepts. While the Old Testament is full of glory and awe and the “awe-ful” God, Jesus, true God come to earth in order to reveal God’s most fundamental true character, hid his glory and revealed the more foundational attribute of servanthood instead.

Starting with glory will give us a human kingdom, with all its abuses and horrors. Starting with servanthood and fellowship will give us the upside down kingdom (in John Howard Yoder’s words) that is no kingdom at all, but rather the pervasive Reign of God that is so hidden, smart people think they’re being really smart when they say that God can’t exist. Can you imagine the Twitter storm we would be subjected to if the Society of Really Smart People That Really Matter to the World decided the President of the United States didn’t exist?

But God’s not like that. God won’t tweet in protest when God doesn’t get the proper divine recognition and thus made really great. God is most glorified when God’s not the object of the world’s adoration, and instead the secret servant of that world. God is most glorified when God brings order to the chaos in the form of a wind over the chaotic sea, or a dewy breeze in a Garden. It is glorious precisely because it’s hidden, and thus accessible to everyone God wants to be with, even the least of us.

So, what’s the point of Mat. 17:1-9. the Gospel Lesson about the Transfiguration? In this context, it is that the true glory of Jesus Christ is that he veils his splendor so that the splendor itself will not lord over us. That true splendor of servanthood is revealed when Jesus is momentarily transfigured and then willingly returns to his veiled human self, telling the disciples to keep it all a secret. Divine splendor is always there, but the glory is that the splendor, the greatness, the power, the perfection is hidden so that Jesus, the Word and true revealer of God, can be a servant and call us friend.

Life and Prosperity or Death and Adversity

Why is there a “second Law” (the meaning of the word “Deuteronomy”) in the Old Testament? The people of Israel have been desert nomads for 40 years. That is more than a generation of people, so only the old people remember the mighty acts of God: the plagues, the escape from Egypt, the terror of Mt. Sinai when God gave them the Law. For this new generation, life has been like that of the Bedouin, following the herds of sheep and goats as they search for grass and water.

But now they are on the brink of moving into a new territory that is fertile enough to allow them to settle down. The Law God gave them was designed for this new life. It addresses things like land ownership, dealing with permanent neighbors, a holy city and a temple, that were not a part of their life for the last forty years.

This is why it was necessary for the people to reaffirm their commitment to the Law that God gave them (thus, a so-called second Law). This week’s Old Testament text, Deut. 20:15-20, is the culmination of that exercise. They have gathered. They have heard the Law. They must now make a choice. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15).

We don’t often think of God’s Law, or any law for that matter, in these terms. When we think of Law we think of an arbitrary rule. But God’s Law is a different sort of thing. It reflects fundamental reality. To oppose this Law is to try to fight reality itself. This is why Moses describes the choice as “life and prosperity” vs. “death and adversity.”

Moses warns the people that if they don’t obey, “I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Karl Barth describes the result of the sinful life in the following manner: “[The sinful one] stands under the wrath and judgment of God. He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD/IV:1, 175).

Moses’ words ring of arbitrary rules: If you don’t obey God, you will perish. Similarly, when we hear that Bible word “wrath,” we again think of arbitrariness and probably have a picture of an angry God. But Barth defines wrath in a completely different manner that fits perfectly with what Moses describes in Deuteronomy. Reality is thus and so. In the short term defying reality (by cheating your neighbors, not caring for the poor, etc.) may bring great reward, but in the long term, fighting against reality will only destroy you. As Barth says it, such a person ends up being broken and destroyed on God (note: not by God, but on God) like a race car that cuts a corner, ends up on the grass, and spins into the wall, the problem isn’t an angry wall, the problem is physics and bad driving.

Since we are not big enough to see the full sweep of reality and how it all works together, it is easy for us to see these rules of the road as arbitrary. (Don’t drive ont he grass at 200 mph; don’t cheat your neighbor.) Now that we have made the great turn and have set our faces toward the cross of Good Friday and the upcoming struggle of Lent, we are reminded that what we are about to do is try to align ourselves with reality so that we avoid the rocks in the midst of the storms of life.

This Deuteronomy text is not a call to just obey a bunch of rules, it is a call to be careful so that we can live.

The Great Turn

Thursday, Feb 2, is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It occurs forty days after Nativity. There is a twofold logic to the feast that is more detailed than I want to get into in this essay, but this article offers a good overview.

Today most Christian communions consider Christmas to be a twelve day event stretching from Nativity (Dec. 25) to Epiphany (Jan. 6). This is an historical accident that, to a certain extent, has to do with various calendar systems. An oversimplified version is as follows: Certain older calendar systems were (and are, because so-called “Old Calendarists” such as certain Russian Orthodox groups and the Coptic Church) off twelve days from the Gregorian Calendar that we use today in our secular lives. December 25 on the old calendar is Jan. 6 on the new.

Long before that Christmas was a 40 day event (much like Easter, which is a 50 day event from Pascha to Pentecost). For instance, in 380 Egeria said that the Feast of Presentation was observed forty days after Nativity and marked the end of the Christmas season. Emperor Justinian codified many of the practices that had been normative in the church but never written down, and he said that the sermon for this Feast had to be focused on the Prayer of Simeon, or Nunc Dimitis, as it is called in Latin.

A forty day Christmas season makes a great deal more sense than a twelve day season because forty days typical marks a great salvation type event in scripture. Even though we no longer celebrate the Feast of Presentation as the end of Christmas, it offers a clue in one of the great turns in the modern Revised Common Lectionary.

For several Sundays after Christmas and Epiphany, the appointed scripture texts focus on “light”: A light has dawned, a great light is coming out of the east, let your light shine, etc. This is a season of simply reveling in the revelation of the light, so to speak. And then, somewhere along the line, the focus changes and we begin to hear texts of repentance. For a few weeks we look backward at the birth of Christ, and then, somewhere along the line, although there is no precise moment in the lectionary when this occurs, we turn around and start looking forward to Lent. The texts during this period might be called pre-repentance texts. Micah tells us we need to act justly, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, for instance.

This great turn in the lectionary roughly corresponds to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In Europe this feast is often called Candelmas. It is a service for the blessing of the candles and a service of candles. It is the final hurrah for our forty day period of reveling in the light of Christ. If we think seasonally, there is a palpable sense that winter is nearly over and we must now prepare for spring. The light of our candles is slowly recognized as a paltry prefiguring of the great dawning of the true day, the Dayspring.

This realization calls for action! We must get ready. We must evaluate our lives and measure them by the ruler of God’s truth. We must do a strength test and see where we are strong, but also where we are week and need to beef up. In this way we prepare for Lent, so that this forty day spiritual boot camp can be used most effectively as we prepare for the spiritual battle of Holy Week.

Foolish to the Perishing

In the congregation where I grew up, we were not people of the cross, the minister said, we were people of the empty tomb. There was a cross in the sanctuary, but it was an empty cross. No dead Jesus for us; we were resurrection people. The congregation was not unique and as I look back on this I am struck mostly by what this says about our contemporary Christian culture. We  have so fully embraced the cross, that it has become a stepping stone on our way to the victorious Christian life.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings (Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-21, Mat. 5:1-12) help put this in perspective. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” is how Paul begins this week’s epistle reading. What Paul is getting at (as is Jesus when he begins the Sermon of the Mount with Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.) is familiar to us. The world’s values ought not be (in fact, they cannot be) our values. Jesus’ values are the sort of thing that, if you think about it logically, will get us into the poor house, give us diseases, and ultimately get us killed. This is no way to run a kingdom!

But we’ve heard that for 2,000 years, and after 2,000 years of repetition, the rough edges of the message have been smoothed away and, since we already know what’s coming, we give assent with a momentary horror at how utterly upside down and difficult this would be if we were to take it literally, and then we take that rough diamond of the gospel now smoothed and shaped into a lovely gem, a piece of jewelry, and go on with our life.

That’s why that minister could move so conveniently and quickly past the cross and on to the resurrection. It’s a difficult thing, but it’s a known difficulty. Yes we have to die, but after that victory!

Today, may we should simply stop after the first half of that sentence: Yes, we have to die.

The resurrection is not ours to do or not do, the cross is the part we must embrace, Once we get the hang of that, the resurrection will take care of itself. If we can actually come to a full stop and live in that manner, we are indeed blessed.

The Pointing Prophet

John-the-Baptist-Matthias-Grunewald-1024x908This Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 1:29-42 begins with John the Baptist saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s an affirmation that John repeats again when he sees Jesus the next day. This text is the subject of Matthias Grunewald’s famous picture of John the Baptist at the foot of the Cross pointing at Jesus, with the Lamb of God looking on, in the Isenheim Altarpiece.

It was through Karl Barth that I discovered the image, he refers to it several times in the Dogmatics and it is the featured front piece in his biography. In the Grunewald image Karl Barth famously saw the “hand of judgment and grace” in the pointing finger of John the Baptist.

But as I have contemplated the image over the years I see in it a message specifically for preachers. The text from John 1 is familiar and comfortable. The phrase “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is an integral part of the liturgy. The metaphor “lamb of God” has so many great preaching possibilities. It’s easy to get lost in the potential of John the Baptist as a character and the phrase as a literary springboard.

And this is always the temptation for the preacher. How many times have I heard that someone attends a church because the pastor is such a great preacher? (Actually, I heard it again yesterday afternoon smoking with some other pastors and priests at the local cigar lounge.) How seductive is it for the preacher to put all his energy into a great sermon because great preaching gets exactly that result?

But in the Isenheim Altarpiece we see a glimpse of authentic preaching. Truly great preaching operates on two levels. On the one hand it is “beautiful” in the sense that it is accessible, understandable, winsome, and attuned to the subject at hand. This is the spotless lamb at the prophet’s feet. But at the same time great preaching is terrifying (and here I have in mind the original meaning of “awesome” – full of awe) because our God is an awesome God. And if the message comes across in the treacly manner that the cloying praise chorus of the same name comes across, preaching has utterly missed its mark.

Reality is a point in life that is sometimes mystery, sometimes utter befuddlement, sometimes happy, sometimes terror, and often very ugly. Reality is a point where life actually lived encounters the true God who is seemingly inaccessible because he is encountered at that point of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness. Great preaching is pointing to that very spot of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness and showing that God-in-Christ is right there in the midst of it. This is the disfigured and pock-marked Jesus hanging on the cross, weighted down so heavily with our burdens that the cross-piece on which he is hanging bends toward the earth.

And the congregation? They don’t even seem to realize the pointing prophet exists. They are on the other side of that radix of reality looking upon Christ weeping (with horror? with sadness? with joy? No, all three!), because at this specific point where they find themselves, God-in-Christ truly dwells, as revealed in the truly great sermon.

Later (in John 3), John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is indeed what we see in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and precisely what truly great preaching embodies.

We Hear what We want to Hear

Peter’s speech in Acts 10:36:43 is pretty much the same way Peter and the other disciples have explained the Gospel all along. “Peace [comes] by Jesus Christ,” “He is the Lord of all,” Jesus was “anointed with power by the Holy Spirit,” he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” he died on the cross and was raised up, and the disciples were “commanded to preach to the people and testify that he is the one ordained by God.”

But while this sermon is all the same words, it’s completely different because Peter is talking to Gentiles who have never converted to Judaism. Until a few hours prior to this, Peter didn’t believe that was possible. But God gave him a dream to disturb his sleep, and Peter was man enough to recognize that he got it all wrong and he recognized that the Gospel was for everyone (as Paul would describe it later, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female). As a result he is minutes away from baptizing the first Gentiles who have not first converted to Judaism into the Christian church.

Thus, the first two verses (34-35) that I didn’t include above are the critical ones. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

And this is the point of these weeks following Epiphany. Epiphany (Jan 6) is the twelfth and last day of the Christmas feast, when the Western Church celebrates the revelation of Christ to the Magi. It is preceded by Jesus’ Name Day (Jan 1) wherein it is revealed that this baby is the promised Savior (the meaning of the name Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew). This is followed in quick succession by celebrations of his baptism by John in the Jordan and his first miracle at Cana. It concludes (in the Revised Common Lectionary readings) on the Sunday before Lent with Jesus’ Transfiguration

In short, this is a period when hopefully we have the ears to hear the Gospel all over again, and this time, like Peter, actually hear it. Peter listened to Jesus for three years but he always put the message into his familiar categories and thus he thought of the Gospel as an improved Judaism and not something shatteringly new.

And this is what we do also; it’s not Peter’s failure, it’s a human failure. We come to the Gospel with a set of assumptions about how the world is, what its problems are, and how to fix them. And when we hear the Gospel we tend to hear something that improves what we already “know” is right.

This is why Christianity in East Texas sounds suspiciously like a Republican precinct meeting, while Christianity in Boston sounds suspiciously like the Democratic convention and Christianity in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis sounds suspiciously like an NAACP rally. It’s why “Panos,” the YouTube character, is able to make such wicked fun of the Greeks and their weird marriage of culture and religion.

We hear what we want to hear.

Great preaching isn’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Spiritual retreats and Bible seminars aren’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Daily devotions aren’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Maybe we all need to … if we dare … pray for a shattering dream that troubles our sleep. Maybe we need to “un-know” a lot of what we “know” is right. Maybe then, we can finally, like Peter, hear the Gospel.

That, my friends, would truly be an Epiphany!

Out of Egypt

After the election I read an opinion piece that was memorable because it appeared in a self-consciously liberal newspaper. It was a call by a Roman Catholic activist for Catholics to double down on their anti-abortion efforts in the new year because he suspects the Trump administration, and Tom Price in particular (Trump’s nominee to head Health and Human Services), will be friendly to these efforts. In the commentary he refers to the slaughter of the innocents, and says it is time that we work to stop the slaughter in our day and age.

When I read the essay I didn’t think much about his biblical reference, but when I opened up the lectionary readings and read Mat 2:13-23, it struck me how utterly off point the commentator was when referring to this specific text. It is the terrible story of the slaughter of children two and under by Herod while Mary and Joseph, with Jesus in tow, flee to Egypt. There is nothing in the telling about stopping the slaughter nor any thought of attempting it, just an angelic warning that the Family should run! It is a text full of the inevitability of grinding human political power and the mourning and weeping of loss by those who suffer under a despot’s heavy hand. It is a story of helplessness, and even divine helplessness, and desperate plans in the face of disaster.

In one of Jesus’ more cryptic parables, he claimed it was harder for a rich person to enter heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Mt 19:24). The parable came to mind as I compared and contrasted the Gospel Lesson with the activist op-ed. For the most part we are a wealthy people. I am certainly comfortable in my life and so I am unequivocally speaking to myself at this point. Wealthy people are typically not in the business of being overwhelmed by problems, we’re in the business of fixing them.

I suspect this penchant for fixing problems seeps into our perceptions of salvation every bit as much as it seeps into our reading of Matthew’s recounting of the Holy Innocents. When we think of the corruption that lies at the root of our eternal predicament, we see a fixable problem. Given enough time, resources, and effort, we can overcome anything.

But the Gospel is given to those who have to flee in the face of a despot, whose only possible response to slaughter is mourning because it is too dangerous and too impossible to even hope for revenge. Throughout Advent, when Isaiah spoke of crushing those who oppress us, he was not speaking of a political or diplomatic solution because such solutions require at least a tiny bit of power that can be leveraged. He was saying that in the Kingdom of God, the impossible will become true. The Gospel is the impossible addressed to the destitute and hopeless.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If our first thought is, “We have to do something about this!” when we see genocide, disaster, and unspeakable evil, chances are we are not yet capable of understanding the Gospel. Only when our best option is to simply stop and mourn will we be in a position to hear God’s quiet voice.

Those who are capable of bringing healing and comfort to the world are those with tears streaming down their cheeks. The unexpected gift of the Gospel is that those who are truly in a position to offer real help are those who have no ability to help at all.

“Out of Egypt I have called my Son” (Mt 2:15). Out of despair and bondage has God called his church.