Sermon Notes on Proper 20 year C

Almost every week I write about the questions I’m asking as I read the lectionary texts for the week.  This is not an academic enterprise, but my reaction to the text as I read them.   I ask the questions in advance because it helps me preach without a text.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What does it mean to be healed?  Can having money be healing?  Is it possible to have a sense of being complete, of joy through spending?  Certainly when we have none it’s possible to question our own worthless.  Is healing a feeling of peace?  When do we feel whole?  Why is it fleeting?  What is it like to move from satisfaction to dissatisfaction? 

In Psalm 79:1-9 the author says:

79:5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
79:6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.
79:7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
79:8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.

Here it’s almost as if, after asking for God to punish other nations, he is saying “Oops, I guess I wasn’t that great a guy also.”  This is how we feel about other nations – and religions.  But then he reframes his prayer:

79:9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Often our prayer is like a movement.  It goes from one stage to the next.  Our spiritual and emotional lives are always dynamic.  We initially seek revenge; but that is not where God is.  Instead of destroying others, we need to be saved from ourselves.

In the first letter to Timothy (2:1-2) the author seems to say, don’t look in my direction, King.  I don’t need your approval, I just want the best for you.   So just assume I’ve got your best interest at heart.  Don’t kill me.  I don’t think this is obsequiousness, but conveys the sense that the work of the church is not the same as the secular work of kings. 

The gospel of Luke this week (Luke 16:1-13) is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. 

I think of the manager as being average:  not frugal; just a cog in the machine.  The rich man gets wealthy through exploiting the work of others; and his manager is no different.

The manager thinks differently.  The prosperous are those who count every penny; they measure relationships through a careful inventorying of what allows them to accumulate.  The middle manager knows he will not have that kind of luxury to make those calculations. 

Debt and the accumulation of wealth are deeply linked.  Some argue that the origin of money itself is upon the backs of owing lives:  of the debt implicit in slavery.  Money is the accounting of a life.  The middle manager is divesting himself of that sort of debt.   

When Jesus says “dishonest wealth,” I wonder if he is implying that all wealth arrives through some sort of dishonesty.  It is not that people make money just through lying, but that we accumulate through denying the truth that a life cannot be counted. 

I might explore what is wealth for?  I’ve suggested before that it is to be spent and circulated, not hoarded.  But I also think that there are components of wealth the gospel critiques.  In our own culture, I believe the gospel would critique our culture of convenience, our implicit frugality in trying to get the cheapest deal, and the hastening of time and space which our economy has created.   It is not merely money that Jesus critiques, but money as a certain sort of technology that alters the way we manage our social life.

It is also possible that this is a problem of administration.  The reason why capitalism became successful was because of the interplay between prudence and discipline with accumulation.  Virtues associated with the church became a part of making money.  All economic institutions from the corporation to the state require administrative virtue if they are to be effective. 

What does it mean to serve wealth?  Money is an effective incentive, and counting matters.  But why does it matter?  For what do we strive?  It is not the buying things that is the problem; it is how that convenience, that quick gratification distracts us from God.

Holy Cross Day Sermon Prep

Holy Cross Day

I think of Moses’ serpent as a vaccine, a way of inoculation.

One rule is to just stay away from snakes.

But then another rule is when in the midst of snakes, stay focused.

How do we become inoculated in the world?  What do we seek to be inoculated from? Where are our contemporary snakes?

Moses’ snake is a form of power.  It is a form of grace. Grace is a way of talking about power: God’s power and our harnessing of it.

Or salvation, which may be a way of talking about having some space, some breathing room, some margins to move around in.  Making a little more room; not so much we lose a sense of integrity or lose our ability to act clearly, but enough so that we can see more clearly.

In Numbers, people can’t stand the change.  Who died?   Moses makes a symbol which seems to say:  take a look at the real thing here!  Don’t avoid the problems.  21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In Corinthians it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

I think of all the pundits writing about Syria.  Even the ones I like.  When we talk about signs and wisdom, we seem to be avoiding the problem of our own passions.  Christ Crucified is the clue:  how our passions make it so easy to kill our neighbor.

We’re reading John 3:13-17.  Most people emphasize 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In order to protect their being elected.  You believe, you go to heaven.  But the next sentence is the kicker:  3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Salvation, not condemnation.  Once it happened, the world could change.  One person at a time:  do you love or hate?  Can we be inoculated from the varieties of hate that destroy the lives around us?  Can you handle the truth of the passion and then choose eternal life?

Sermon, Proper 18 Year C and Syria

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research. 

Syria is on my mind.   Although I’m someone who wants to think that the involved institutions have the best interests of the country and world, I wouldn’t know what the answer is.  Many of the arguments either for or against are unconvincing.  Words like “credibility” and “confidence,” for example, are less important than a completed task.  For most people, feelings about the president seem to be prior to clear thinking or collaborating on finding a suitable solution.

Furthermore, I’m struck by the utter lack of creativity by the mindset that insists that the only proper reaction, ever, is a military response.  It was the view of the previous administration; it’s apparent it is the view of whoever holds the reins of power.  

It’s easy to be misdirected.  What is revealed leads us away from what is concealed. Platitudes and conviction overwhelm logic, and humility and fear disappear in a wisp of bluster and braggadacio.   It’s hard to sell a war through humility, but I wish there were more people who could just say, “I don’t know” and admit that there are no good answers.

In the reading this week, Jeremiah speaks out of a country that’s been dismantled, dispersed.  The middle east even then was complicated.  How would he seek to bring the people together out of exile?  The Assyrians sought to conquer and scatter, while Jeremiah pleads to remember.  And then, like now, the challenge for us is to remember, to gather up the broken pieces around us, and with the grace of God always be ready to rebuild.  Our community, our church, our world.

In the gospel, Luke this week has Jesus admonishing:  “you cannot follow me unless you sell all your possessions.”   Jesus reminds us that the economic must be subservient to the human; it represents kinds of social relationships.  To sell possessions means always allowing ourselves to circulate.  This circulation allows for a dynamism for us, one that allows us to better handle the cycle of disappointment and success that marks the human experience.  We cannot get out of it; we can only see it clearly.   Those who hoard and accumulate will find themselves even more afraid of losing status; unable to handle everyday disappointments. Perhaps this may explain how the wealthier we get, the less resilient we become. 

The gospel this week also makes me wonder about how little we actually plan well.  The evidence is that we don’t always know what actually makes us happy; we are poor judges of risk.  Planning well is expensive, hard work, and requires patience.  We tend to underestimate the resources it takes to make an institution viable.   Instinctively, we often complete things on the cheap, hoping our band aid solutions will last for the long term: perpetually afraid of disappointment, we diminish the possibility of glory.

Sermon Notes, Proper 17 Year C

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research.  This week’s readings can be found here.

Jeremiah 2:11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

What is beneficial about a Chrstian pattern of life, if anything?  Jeremiah seems to indicate that the faith of Israel is simply ineffective – the other Gods do not work.   Worshiping other Gods is inefficacious, like using a cracked pot to carry water.  In this sense faith is practical.  This should assuage the scientist and even the agnostic.  What we do works, even if the reasons seem obscure or imprecise.

Usually people worship other Gods because they seem effective.  So what are those Gods, and what do they bring?  How are they mistaken?

Hebrews13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Sometimes I think that we could learn a lot about how church life should be from going to three *** restaurants (like this one I went to, when I got my doctorate).  Jesus refers to himself as the server – as if he’s the waiter who ensures that the wedding feast moves without a hitch.  To some extent He is invisible, making the plans.

Do our congregations do the work of hospitality?  It’s not easy.  Hospitality forces us to get out of ourselves and attend to the visitor.   Being an effective server also requires technique, skill and discipline – there are many ways to render a visitor invisible or uncomfortable.   Our “discipleship” is not just about formed thoughts but about the work of providing a space for others to experience the Sabbath.   We underestimate the preparation that requires.  Perhaps we should study church plans the way restauranteurs plan restaurants.

The Gospel inspires me to wonder what do we value?  When do we insist on taking credit?  What does it mean to be recognized?  Why would we be recognized?   To be seen is a deeply human need; and when we are not the humiliation can be too much.  But perhaps a deeper trust diminishes that need enough so that we can still be effective agents in the world though the only person who knows us is the one who made us.

Sermon Notes for Proper 16 Year C

  • First reading and Psalm
    • Jeremiah 1:4-10
    • Psalm 71:1-6
  • Alternate First reading and Psalm
    • Isaiah 58:9b-14
    • Psalm 103:1-8
  • Second reading
    • Hebrews 12:18-29
  • Gospel
    • Luke 13:10-17

The passage from Jeremiah is intriguing.   I can’t quite imagine that a boy would, or should, have confidence to speak God’s word.  He is certainly challenging the powers, reminding us that all organization is reorganization. We have to build anew: is this a question for the church?

Perhaps building an infrastructure takes years, so we often begin as children and must learn along the way.

I wonder if being a child is akin to being in a state of emotional “flow:” constantly learning and challenging, the slow building of mastery over a particular task.  In this case: learning how to speak.  But there many places we must simply do the work in order to learn, making mistakes along the way.  I wonder if our current society allows kids to just make mistakes enough.

Isaiah reminds me of Heschel’s statement that the Sabbath is God’s Cathedral.  In some way, the Sabbath restores a human economy, when we are not counting the goods we have, but simply enjoying them.

The gospel raises a few questions:  what does it mean to be set free from the bondage of Satan?  What are the steps to be free from envy or pride?  How do we pray this?  Is Satan here the same as sin?  It does not imply that the woman is a bad person; rather, she is burdened.

So to be free – can it mean free from self-delusion?  Do we become newly confident?  Or is that also an error.   Or does it mean being able to clearly see our mistakes, and to humanize our flaws and strengths, without thinking they’re judged by God.  I’ll be thinking about  what does it mean to be crippled

Sometimes I wonder about the ways we create our own obstacles.  We say mantras to ourselves that we inherit from other people.  We believe everything the media says.  We’re told we can’t sing; that we’re not worthy; that only through hard work on the Sabbath do we deserve to live.

But the touch of Jesus is simply this:  there is nothing you can do to deserve life; there is nothing you can do to deserve what you have.  By simply being a live you may shine in God’s glory.  Echoing Jeremiah, you have been made.  That’s all.  That’s enough.

Sermon Notes Proper 14 Year C

So it’s Monday, which means prepping for the coming Sunday.  Here’s what I’m beginning to think about.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.  I’ve got to choose between Isaiah and Genesis.

First, I cringe at the sentence, “incense is an abomination to me.”  Fortunately, we still have the Book of Revelation to trump that.

So Isaiah makes me consider that “learning to do good” is what is pleasing to God.  The “Learning” is interesting to me more than the task.  Admittedly, I think a risk here is to be vague without being concrete about what oppression, defense, and “ceasing to do evil” means.  Are Christians oppressed?  If so, how?  Is oppression about being shut out of economic networks?  It is not knowing how to plan for the future?  Most of the time, when my colleagues talk about “oppression” I sympathize, but then I’m not sure what it means.  Getting threatened – sure.  Just feeling bad about yourself?  Not convinced.

When God says, “Let’s argue it out” I wonder about how we talk to God.  What if argument is not about a war of words, but a way of learning how to think through the necessary tasks of doing good and seeking justice.  It mitigates the perfectionist, puritanical impulses of the utopian, making justice about a process of working through the problems.  Also “argument” prefigures the divine “logos” as logos, in Greek, can mean argument.  Jesus is the divine argument.

And then:  there is obedience.  I love preaching about obedience because it’s truly countercultural.  How is obedience different than being oppressed?  Sometimes it’s just easier and more liberating to just do the work you are told to do.  Can you imagine every musician in an orchestra demanding their own voice when rehearsing a symphony?    As the abbot of my order remarked to me:  Obey me in all the small stuff; argue the big stuff.  It makes life a lot simpler.

In Genesis (15: 1-6),  Abram seems a little disappointed in God.  Someone else will inherit his wealth because he has no children.   I think about how “inheritance” works – and what we do inherit from our families – cultures, traditions, wealth.  Those who inherit little are at a disadvantage in the US.  “What do you inherit” and “what will you pass down to your children?” are questions I might ask myself this week.

The passage in Hebrews references Abraham.  I’m struck by the kinds of characters God chooses:  it seems random, and not based on merit.  Rather, he’s the one who is chosen for absolutely no reason, except by faith.  But even that faith is the kind of argumentative sort.  Abraham is not exactly “obedient” but petulant and resentful.

What makes a “home,” a home and where do we find our home? What identifies the heavenly city, and can we find it here – even in NYC, or in the cities where we make our lives.  Perhaps in the school, our libraries, our Saloons, churches, are they places where we have already experienced the kingdom?  How so?

The gospel this week invites reflection about the apocalypse; or what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?  A month?  A year?  What if you knew that a planet was going to hit Earth (say,  like the movie Melancholia).   I’m also interested in exploring why Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give alms” and why I’m decidedly not going to do that.  Is it because the selling possessions and the end of the world are tightly linked?

I might explore the difference between a human economy and a commercial economy.  A human economy, as I would define it, is one where exchanges are not counted because trust between the different participants is assumed.  A commercial economy, by nature, requires a calculation of goods that are exchanged between strangers.  In both cases, the question is:  why do we trust our families?  Or our coworkers; or our commercial institutions?  What happens when they fail?

Easter 4 Year C

Easter 4 Year C

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

After reading this week’s lectionary, I’m considering “how to build a church 101” sermon.  Or a “how not to build a church 101” if I can get some laughs out of it.

“Ignore the people around you,”  “use Schoenberg for a mass setting.”

In the first passage we read – from Acts of the Apostles – the disciples accomplish amazing wonders, including healing of a bedridden paralytic and the raising of Dorcas, of the unfortunate name, from the dead.  Transformation is promised and delivered.   Upon seeing the successes of the church, people believe.  They believe in the power.   Who needs health insurance when you’ve got Jesus!

From this pericope I might discuss power.  I believe that Christians are too shy about talking about power.   The assumption: “power corrupts.”   I’d spend some time looking at different sorts of power – physical power; spiritual power; monetary power.   I’d assess the chaotic nature of power, and the power required to create order.

Power from people with the best intentions can have terrible results; and power from individuals who are manipulative and self-interested may result in wonderful changes for the common good.  But I believe, generally, that power is inextricably linked with life itself.  God is a God of power.  Dim, vague and vascillating (as Whitehead once said), perhaps, but present nonetheless.

In the second reading, I imagine the Christians, in the midst of the apocalypse, declaring God’s glory.   It seems defiant, the chant of a team that’s been the underdog for so long on the verge of victory. God wins.    They’re Cubs fans.  Trusting in the power of the underdog above the power of… money and commerce.

Continue reading “Easter 4 Year C”