For The Someday Book

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For my Epiphany sermon at St. Luke’s on January 4, I was inspired by the If You Give… children’s book series by author Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond, best known for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you don’t know this series, you’re missing out, and I recommend watching the video below to catch up.

I noticed how the magi set out to do one thing–follow the star to a king–and ended up doing much more than they ever expected. Just like the mouse in the story, saying “yes” to a request from God often ends up to be a whole lot more complicated and involved that we expect.

For the sermon, I read the congregation If You Take a Mouse to the Movies, a holiday-themed book in the series, and talked about the unexpected turns in the magi’s journey. Then, inspired by Numeroff, I wrote my own Epiphany-themed version of If You Give… called “If You Go Where God Sends You.” It captures many themes from the magi, but also my own experiences with following God to unexpected places. I hope you enjoy it.

Epiphany 1

If you go where God sends you,

You’ll probably follow a dim light in the distance.

If you follow a dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

 

If you don’t know exactly where you’re going,

You’ll probably end up taking a few detours.

If you take a few detours,

You’ll probably take a wrong turn.

If you take a wrong turn, God will use that part of the journey as well,

so don’t fret about it.

 

While you are on a detour,

You’ll probably meet a few new people.

If you meet a few new people,

You may encounter some new ideas.

If you encounter some new ideas,

You might just find that your old ideas have changed.

When your old ideas have changed,

You might just find that you have changed.

 

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) - James Tissot

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) – James Tissot

When you have changed,

Some of people won’t like it, and you may discover they are unkind.

If you discover people who are unkind,

God might just ask you to help stop them from hurting others.

When God asks for your help in standing up to unkind people,

Chances are those unkind people are not going to like you very much.

If they don’t like you very much,

They may try to hurt you or hurt someone else.

If they try to hurt you or hurt someone else,

You’re going to have to listen to God even harder.

If you listen to God even harder,

God will probably tell you to go a different way.

 

Once you are going a different way, still following that dim light in the sky,

The light will eventually guide you to where you’re supposed to go.

But when you get there, God might not provide what you expect.

Even if it’s not what you expect, you’ll know it’s God, that it’s holy,

That it’s where you’re supposed to be.

You’ll know it because, instead of a dim light in the distance,

You’ll discover God’s light deep inside of you.

Epiphany 3

When you discover God’s light deep inside you,

You’ll want to give everything you have to God.

When you give everything you have to God,

You search your possessions, your gold,

Your titles, your precious treasures,

All the things that make you feel secure,

And give them away.

 

Once you have given everything away,

You’ll think you have arrived where God sent you.

When you think you have arrived where God sent you,

You’ll notice a dim light in the distance.

If you follow the dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

Epiphany 4

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The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins, 2006, 238 pp.

While I should have read this book earlier in Lent, to have it undergird my preparations for Holy Week services, it became my Holy Week practice to read a chapter every day, each corresponding to that day of Holy Week. The authors undertake a thorough examination of Jesus’ activities from Palm Sunday through Easter, focusing on the Gospel of Mark but often holding up other accounts to explore the differences. The book aims to provide serious and scholarly reflection on the stories of Holy Week so that those of us who celebrate them in Christian worship might move beyond centuries-old layers of theological interpretation and examine Jesus’ Passion with an eye toward what Jesus was passionate about.

The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel… We focus on “what Jesus was passionate about” as a way of understanding why his life ended in the passion of Good Friday. (from the Preface)

I have read enough Borg and Crossan before to recognize similar themes between this book and their other works. Jesus’ passion is about non-violent resistance to the Roman empire, about peasants and villagers who are unjustly treated by the empire and its collaborators, about an alternative vision of the world that is not based on violence and domination, but love, radical hospitality and economic justice. Thanks to Borg and Crossan, along with Walter Brueggemann, Walter Wink and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, that is how I have come to understand Jesus as well.

This book was incredibly helpful in connecting that understanding of Jesus’ life and mission with the events of Holy Week, which are surrounded by so much baggage of atonement theology, pietism and oversimplification—not to mention the baggage that comes from things like The Passion of the Christ or even Jesus Christ Superstar. As a preacher who tells and retells and interprets this story every year, I felt grounded and refreshed by reading this book. It helped me immerse myself more fully in Holy Week, (more on that here) while keeping me from lapsing into sentimentalism. While I did not ever cite the book directly, it certainly inspired and directed my preaching for the week. I highly recommend it for preachers, teachers and small groups who want to go deeper with the story of Jesus’ last week.

Highlighted Passage: Matthew 4:12-23

The Calling of the Apostles, Mosaic, San Marco, Santa Maria Assunta in Venice

Put down your nets—you’re after the wrong fish.

When Jesus approached those would-be disciples on the shores of the Galilee, they were doing what they had done every day, probably since they were young boys—climb into boats, row out into the Sea of Galilee, cast out nets to catch fish, haul in the nets, sort the catch, cast the nets out again, haul in again, sort again. All day long. At the end of the day, they rowed back to shore, and mended the nets for the next day’s work. Cast, haul, sort, row, mend. One day after another, one net after another.

Until the day Jesus arrives. “Repent,” was his message. Turn around. You’re going the wrong direction with your life. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” The glory of heaven is right here all around you, next to you, and you are busy with nets. Casting, hauling, sorting, mending—you’re so focused on the nets that you’re missing the presence of heaven in your midst. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Put down the nets—you’re after the wrong fish. Come with me, and I’ll show you the kingdom of heaven. Come with me, and I’ll teach you what you really should be fishing for. Then you can show others.

I think we have a lot in common with these fisherfolk—Peter, Andrew, James, John. They had ordinary, familiar names. We all know our fair share of Peters, Johns, Jameses and Andrews. They work ordinary working people, just like us. Every day, they went out to catch fish. Some of the fish went home to feed their families, the rest to the market, sold to pay taxes and rent and buy clothing and medicine and anything else their families needed. The next day, the same thing. Work – eat – sleep –work – eat – sleep – work – eat – sleep.

Image by © Dave G. Houser/Corbis

How many of us live that kind of a life? We work hard every day, at the computer, on the assembly line, answering the phone, solving problems, building with our hands, tending to needs, managing papers. That work gives us the money we need to provide for our family—and so we spend it, to feed our families, pay taxes, pay the mortgage, buy clothing, medicine and anything else our family needs. Unlike those fisherfolk, most of us are blessed enough to have some left to buy televisions and computers, music and movies, trips to the mall and evenings out. But our lives are on the same cycle. Work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep. “Repent,” says Jesus. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And if you don’t put down those nets, stop the cycle, get beyond working/eating/sleeping/consuming, you’re going to miss it.

“Repent, and follow me.” Repent has a negative connotation of absolute depravity, similar to idea in 12-step groups about “hitting rock bottom” so that you can turn your life around. In reality, though, repentance does not require a rock-bottom moment, a 180-degree change-of-life. To repent is simply to feel regret at the direction of your life. It’s about breaking the cycle, correcting the course, deciding to make a change—whether it’s 180-degrees or 18. It’s about recognizing when you’ve been following the wrong pursuit, that your life is not headed in the right direction, that you are so busy casting, hauling, mending, sorting—so busy working, eating, consuming—that you have fallen into a life without wonder and purpose and beauty, lost the sense that the kingdom of heaven is near, and that we might glimpse it. Repent and follow me—put down the nets, you’re after the wrong fish.

Don’t we all, like those ordinary disciples, want more than working and consuming? That’s what Jesus offers. Follow me, and you’ll discover that heaven isn’t as far away as you think. It’s right here at hand. (For a great, fun explanation of how heaven is right at hand, check out the song “The Gospel Story” from Butterflyfish.) And if you stop following the cycle and start following me, you’ll have glimpse heaven around you all the time. You’ll start to see that God has more in mind for you than work and nets. You’ll stop fretting about the next day’s catch, the next day’s food, the next day’s mending. You’ll find the peace that passes all understanding, the confidence of God’s love and care for you, the light of hope in all things.

You and me together, says Jesus, we can show all those people trapped in their own nets of working, eating, consuming, together we can show them that there’s more for them, for all of us. There are people everywhere living in darkness, and we can show them the light—the light of heaven, all around them, beckoning them to live in love, to build peace and justice, to practice kindness and generosity. We can capture their hearts and together bring healing and good news to them all. Put down your nets, and follow me.

I am just downright irritable this morning. And I hate being this way.

Normally, I am a very chipper person. So much so that I am often accused of being annoying, pollyanna-ish and overly optimistic. But occasionally–like today–I am just downright grumpy.

And I don’t like it. Or much of anything else at the moment.

What frustrates me most at times like this is that I know exactly why I’m so irritated, yet I still find myself in the same position.

I am in such an ornery mood because I am stressed out about the sermon for tomorrow (notice that no sermon sapling ever got posted this week). I am nervous about the sermon tomorrow because I haven’t spent enough time this week preparing for it. I haven’t spent enough time preparing for the sermon because I have been overwhelmed with other pressing commitments at the church. Because I have been overwhelmed, I have not had any time to decompress or relax or take time for myself this week, except in desperation when I watch some bad TV or go to bed early. Because I have not had (or made) the time to relax, I can’t clear my head well enough to concentrate on the sermon. So I get more and more nervous about the sermon, more and more frustrated at all the distractions, more and more irritated, and more and more anxious. It’s a cycle of escalation.

This is a bad situation. I don’t let myself get in this position very often, but sometimes it just sneaks up on me.

The only cure, I have found, is to take the time to relax. The sermon won’t come to me in such a mood. No one wants to hear a sermon written by an irritable preacher—there is much griping and little good news in one of those. I have lots of ideas of what to say this week, and they will come together if I can just claim the space to let the Spirit in.

I have learned, after nearly 10 years of preaching, that the best thing that an irritable preacher can do is absolutely nothing related to the sermon. Instead, she should do something that helps her reclaim a sense of space and a sense of God’s presence. For me, it usually works to undertake something I wanted to do–for myself or even for church–that I didn’t have time to do during the week. Somehow that makes me feel like I have reclaimed the speed of my life and put things back into balance. This morning, I cleaned the kitchen and posted this blog entry. It may not be a sermon sapling, but I feel better for having written something at all this week.

By the time I hit the “publish” button, my mood will have already improved greatly. Especially since it means sharing that funny picture of a grumpy baby. I trust God’s forgiving grace will be with me, and with any other preachers who stumble across this entry when they are too irritated to write their own sermons.

Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.

The Visitation, Juan Correa De Vivar

I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.

Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.

This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.

So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.

The Dream of St. Joseph, Rembrandt

In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.

Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.

When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)

No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.

Home by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, 325 pp.

Marilynne Robinson is the master of tension. In Gilead, the tension is all internal, as she dissects the mind of Rev. John Ames, the Congregational preacher haunted by loneliness, history, guilt and grudges. Home moves down the road in the town of Gilead, to examine the family of Rev. Ames’ best friend, Rev. Robert Boughton. Rev. Boughton is the Presbyterian pastor and father of a brood of children, including his eldest son the perpetual troublemaker and disappointment, Jack. The story in Home takes place as Rev. Boughton has reached the age of infirmity, and his daughter Glory returns to take care of him. While she is there, Jack returns home after an absence of 20 years.

The tension in this story is no longer contained inside one man. Robinson writes with such subtlety and beauty that she creates a tension between Glory, Jack and their father that made the book almost agonizing to read, as I felt every small slight, strain and stress between them. Both characters and readers are rewarded, however, when the ice slowly begins to thaw between them, and Robinson treats us to glimpses of true grace, forgiveness and love. She explores what it means to be “home,” the place that seems to exist only in recollection, and is therefore both permanently fixed and constantly elusive. In the end, Glory, Jack and Rev. Boughton  find home with each other, if only for a short while.

One of the great gifts of Robinson’s prose is its ability to capture a level of spiritual honesty, born of a long friendship with God. She records Rev. Boughton’s prayer on the first evening of Jack’s return, as they gather awkwardly around the table for dinner and forced ease and familiarity:

Holy Father…I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. Because I always knew the time would come. And now I find that words fail me. They do. Because while I was waiting I got old. I don’t remember those prayers now, but I remember the joy they gave me at the time, which was the confidence that someday I would say one or another of them here at this table. If I lived. I thought my good wife might be here, too. We do miss her. Well, I thank you for that joy, which helped through the hard times. It helped very much…

The prayer continues, but that is just a taste of the intimacy and beauty of Robinson’s language. I want to write an entire sermon about hope based on that prayer—the way that prophecy and hope help us find joy in the hard times, trusting that the joy will come from God someday.

Another insight on prayer, as Glory struggles to deal with the complexity of her love, anger and frustration at her brother:

Her father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity, for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be. The Lord knows your needs. So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would by my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse. But it cost her tears to think her situation might actually be that desolate, so she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding–for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake.

There’s an entire sermon on prayer in that paragraph—about honesty, about God’s ability to hear the things we cannot say and see beyond the words we can utter, about taking our brokenness to God, and on and on.

The novel is full of incredible moments like these, passages that call out for further contemplation. It should be savored for all its rich layers of flavor and meaning. Home is a thing of beauty, and so is Home.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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