Category Archives: Preaching

Preachers: Don’t be a Hack

I think there are a lot of connections that can be helpfully made between the work of excellent stand-up comics and that of preachers.  Particularly helpful is the term “hack.”  A universal definition would be difficult to find, but this one from About.com is sufficient for my purposes:

Definition: “Hack” comes from the word “hackneyed,” which means that something has lost its meaning or impact by being overused or repeated too many times. Jokes can be “hacky” when they are too obvious or familiar, but comics can be considered “hacks” as well. Comics who use the same old material, or who use jokes that are known to everyone (and which that comic most likely did not write — they more likely came from an off-the-shelf joke book) are typically known as hacks. Some comics quickly develop the reputation as hacks for other reasons. Dane Cook has widely been called a hack by his detractors mostly as a shorthand for comparing his massive success to his perceived lack of talent (and also for often falling back on the same kind of shtick). Carlos Mencia has been called a hack after being accused of stealing material from other comics; even without those allegations, his reliance on Latino stereotypes for his comedy has a reputation for being “hacky.” Carrot Top has been labeled a hack in some comedy circles because his comedy is dependent on props; the same goes for watermelon-smashing Gallagher. Being called a “hack” is about as dismissive a label a comic can receive, at least among other comedians.
Also Known As: cliched, tired, familiar, corny, outdated, unoriginal
A preacher I respect very much once said in preaching seminar: “Don’t do the sermon that everyone is expecting you to do.  Don’t take it some place everyone has been.” That is, I think, “hack” preaching. Like hack comedy routines, hack preaching relies on established directions that are crowd-pleasers, very accepted and established, i.e. “successful.”  Done well, “hack” preaching is very popular.  But it isn’t what Seth Godin would call art.  It isn’t original. It isn’t bold.  And since the congregation has likely heard it time and time again, it is unlikely to be transformative.
Pulpit colleagues: our calling is high. Our work is complex. We deal in texts with intimidating pedigrees, with which many servants of the gospel have wrestled for centuries.  It is hard not to be a hack.  But our calling is worthy of that effort.
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Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

“Only God is Great”: A Homily for Election Day Communion

“Only God is Great”

Romans 13:1-10 & Psalm 146

http://electiondaycommuniondotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/edc-image-quotes-026.jpg
Courtesy http://electiondaycommunion.org

Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known.  He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming  Divine Right of rule.  He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great.  In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain.  When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral.  He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France.   He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him.  The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect.  Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch.  As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)

We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.”  Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus.  Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world.  His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming.  We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.

We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades.  It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be.  We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials.  Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague.  I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!

Where do we put our real trust and hope?  Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center.  Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God.  How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates?  If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year.  If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.

The Bible has some different thoughts about this.  I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there.  Trust God.  Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order.  Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all.  Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.

And love is in short supply these days.  We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions.  John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2)  As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love.  We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.

Today, like many of you, I voted.  Before I voted, I went to the bank.  As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.”  The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office.  As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth.  Jesus is Lord.  To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master.  It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget.  Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.”  Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross.  Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.”  Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power.  Jesus is Lord.  Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.

I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:

“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)

  1.  From: http://massillonchurches.com/JBMassillon.phtml
  2. John Danforth, Faith and Politics (New York: Viking 2006), 10.
  3. http://thedrum.typepad.com/the_drum/2012/11/an-election-day-prayer-from-stanley-hauerwas.html

“Have you met the Lord today?”

In his brief but potent book The Lord’s Supper, Martin Marty has some too-close-to-home comments about the presence of the preacher at the Table.  Describing the preaching that takes place before the meal, he comments,

If you are unfortunate, you will get a book review, a comment on world affairs, some how-to advice for personal success, or some doctrinal comment about the word.  A good homily or sermon relentlessly plumbs a text and lets its depths reach you…preachers are fallible, but this meal is also for them and for their forgiveness, including forgiveness for sins they may demonstrate in the very act of preaching.  And yet we call what they are doing “preaching the word of God.”

…[Afterwords,] someone asks, “Have you met the Lord today?”  “Yes,” you say, “in the stumbling words of a laborious preacher.”

Thanks, Dr. Marty, for the reassurance that God can be met in bumbling, flawed folks like me.  And thanks be to God, who uses our weakness for His greater glory. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)

The Gospel: Liberal & Conservative

The following is an excerpt from the sermon delivered last Sunday, part of a series I’m doing on how to follow Jesus in a polarized culture.  I used Deuteronomy 4 to discuss the constant (conservative) call of Israel to remember God’s work among them, and Jesus’ controversial sabbath healings as an example of his (liberal) tendencies to stretch the bounds of acceptable law observance.  I’ve received inspiration from Adam Hamilton for this series, especially from his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White.  Here it is:

When it comes to thinking through and living out our faith in the world, our culture has set us up to fail.  Our talking heads tell us that everything has to be one way or the other: left or right, donkey or elephant, blue state or red state.  When we come to the faith assuming that everything can fit neatly into one of two boxes, we lose something very precious: the gospel itself.  Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, but all too often we try to argue that the view of the world we prefer must have been the view of Jesus.  Father James Schall put it this way:

“The division of the world into “liberal” and “conservative” on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a “liberal,” then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a “conservative,” or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.” (1)

The gospel is certainly something so marvelous, so transformative and beautiful and powerful, that a simple “left or right” is not remotely close to being able to describe it.  Today we are continuing in our series The Extreme Center: Following Jesus in a Polarized World.  I’m going to show today how the gospel is both “liberal” and “conservative.”  That, of course, is just another way of saying that the gospel is not easily defined one way or the other.  The message of Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed into our simple categories, it shatters them, it stretches us, and challenges us with a third way that is neither solely “liberal” or “conservative”: the way of cross and resurrection…

The gospel, then, is liberal and conservative. It’s both, which is also to say that it is neither.  The way of Jesus is higher than those cultural divisions.  Recognizing that is one way that Christians of all sides and stripes can seek the extreme center together: like Jesus, all of us seek to conserve some things and change some things.  None of us are a simple as these labels, even if we claim them strongly.  The gospel, the good news that God has entered the world as a human and opened up salvation to all people, also cannot be reduced to one of these categories without making it something unrecognizable. 

A few years back there was a commercial on TV that opened with two infants trying to learn their shapes.  They had those toys that hollow out different shapes in plastic, like a triangle, a circle, a square, and a rectangle, and the goal is to match them all up.  They are both struggling with the square piece, pushing and yelling and twisting, trying to get it to fit into the round hole.  Then it flashes forward, both of them are grownup mechanics under the hood of a car.  One of them is struggling with a battery, trying to make it fit right into its cradle.  He’s banging it with a hammer, and over his shoulder his buddy is yelling, “Just keep hitting it, it’ll fit eventually.”  Of course, the lesson was that you don’t want mechanics like this working on your car.  All they are going to do is damage your car.

Trying to fit the gospel into the convenient confines of a box like ‘left’ or ‘right’ also does damage.  In our polarized culture, Christians of every political persuasion want Jesus on their side, and so he is trotted out to bless this position or Scripture is quoted as simple justification of this legislation.  Parties and candidates try to convince us that they are God’s choice, which means that the other side must be against God.  All of this does great harm to the gospel.  It reduces the message of Jesus to a tool to gain power.  It renders unto Caesar what is God’s.  On a practical level it harms evangelism, it will turn off all those on the other side who may be searching for God but are suspicious of a God who looks tailor-made for this or that party or issue.

Chuck Colson, a writer and activist whose life was transformed after being put in prison as part of the Watergate scandal wrote this:

“…Christians should never have a political party.  It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology.  Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture.” (2)

Friends, the world doesn’t need more ideology.  We fight over it; families split over it; countries are torn in two by it; those in power kill for it.  The world needs Jesus.  Each and every person on this big, round rock need to know the transformative power of Jesus’ love.  But party politics masquerading as faith won’t do it.  People can smell ideology from a mile away; it stinks to heaven.  The gospel, on the other hand, is something so sweet it is unmistakable.  The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is too glorious to be contained by our simple categories.  It is its own party, its own “side”; the gospel bids us to show love rather than claim power, because Jesus was exalted by rejecting power and submitting to death.  So, too, all of us, who find ourselves drowning in a sea of partisan politics, of ideology, of talking heads and pundits, must reject our desire to be “right” and give our desire to win over to Christ.  The extreme center, the way of the cross, is the way that asks us to sacrifice everything to him.  To play with Paul a little bit: in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, republican, democrat, left, right, progressive, libertarian, socialist, anarchist.  However it is we participate in the world, whatever our views are, we are to present them at the foot of the cross, the throne of our true Lord, who bids us to be about Kingdom business.  In a world that asks us to choose between black and white, left and right, the only way to win is to refuse to play the game.  Let us follow Jesus not with timidity but extremely, with abandon, with gusto, keeping him at the center, and led out these doors by the Spirit to show a divided world a better way.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

1. “On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative,” http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/schall_libcons_may05.asp

2. Quoted in Lyons and Kinnaman, UnChristian.

Dragging Fosdick Into the Present

While preparing for an upcoming sermon series that deals with the cultural polarization that has infected our churches, I reread Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  I found the following sentences as applicable today, in our current controversies, as they were in the 1920’s.

Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this – shall one of them throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested?  The Fundamentalists say not.  They say the liberals must go.  Well, if the fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation – multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.

Within my own denomination, all inclinations are that we are becoming incapable of staying at the table with those with whom we disagree.  We are talking, but at one another and past one another, not to one another.  We have fallen into camps that are little more than a sad mime of cable news.  As Adam Hamilton asks in Seeing Gray, “Are Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong our only options?”

Charles Cousar on Galatians 3:28

In preparation for my sermon I came across a quote in Charles Cousar’s commentary from the Interpretation series.  He expresses a sentiment that I first learned from my teacher, Douglas Campbell, but puts it in a succint fashion that is worth sharing:

Galatians 3:28 has enormous implications which Paul himself could hardly grasp, much less implement, and which remain for the church to carry out. (Cousar, 87)

How true.  Campbell taught me to see that what Paul did to the division between Jews and Greeks is a far more radical shift than he often gets credited for.  Yes, Paul could in places be friendlier to women, and more programmatic in his (potential) opposition to slavery.  But if Gal. 3:28 is understood in its context, the place of women and other minorities in our churches becomes a no-brainer.  Alas, we still have a ways to go.

Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

Luke 13:31-35: “The Fox and the Hen” (Lent 2)

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Has anyone ever given you suspicious advice? Maybe someone who you know doesn’t like you, or who just doesn’t know you well at all, tries to give you advice like you are the best of friends. Should you take their advice, or not? With some people, you never know their real motivations. With others, experience teaches us not to take them at their word.
Our passage from Luke today opens with some advice from a strange source. Some Pharisees come up to Jesus and seem concerned. The approach Jesus and tell him, “You should get out of here, Herod wants to kill you.” No surprise here. This was the Herod we heard about around Christmas, the King that had slaughtered thousands of babies trying to prevent the birth of the Messiah. From all the Gospel accounts, we know that Herod, this coward, this puppet ruler who oppresses his own people on behalf of Rome, is no friend of Jesus. It couldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that Herod was plotting against him. But why would the Pharisees warn Jesus?
This is really suspicious advice. The Pharisees, the Jewish teachers of law, community leaders, actively opposed the ministry of Jesus. They were scared of his miracles. Perplexed at his teachings. Most of all, they were angry – angry and shocked – that so many people were drawn to this carpenter turned Rabbi. So it should strike us as odd that in our passage today we see Pharisees of all people trying to warn Jesus of danger.
But if you look at the context of this passage I think we get an idea about where this odd warning comes from. Just before this in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus was teaching about salvation. He tells the people to enter through what he calls “the narrow door,” that not all who wish to enter will be able to. He concludes this teaching by saying, “Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.” In other words, not everyone you expect will receive God’s mercy. It’s a scary passage for anyone. It had to be frightening for the Pharisees, the professional religious folks. No good Jew would have doubted their status in God’s kingdom, and surely none of the Pharisees questioned their own place in God’s eyes.
From the gospels, we can be sure that the Pharisees kept a close eye on Jesus as he taught. He frequently interacts with them throughout his ministry. They weren’t disciples, but they were certainly interested. You’ve heard that old advice that says, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer?“ Well, the Pharisees followed that. They saw Jesus as their enemy, and though they didn’t like him, they didn’t ignore him. And so they were close by when Jesus said, “Some of those who are first will be last.”
It can’t be an accident that their warning comes right after this. How convenient! “You Pharisees and other leaders – some of you will be last one day!” And now, all of a sudden, the Pharisees discover some concern for Jesus’ safety?! No…no, that is just a little too convenient. I’m sure Jesus saw through it – we can almost hear him thinking, “Yeah, right!”
Jesus isn’t impressed with the false concern of Pharisees, and he isn’t frightened by Herod’s anger either. He even challenges the Pharisees to take a message back to Herod. He tells them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Jesus wants Herod to know that his threats will not deter his mission. Jesus is on a journey towards Jerusalem, a journey to the cross, but it is not his time yet. His Father in Heaven will decide that and the Holy Spirit will guide him, but he will not be frightened into submission by a petty king. Eugene Peterson translates his response this way: “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now…I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick.”
“Go and tell that Fox!” This isn’t a gentle, meek and mild Jesus. This isn’t a Jesus who floats on the clouds and does nothing but whisper nice things to us. Luke shows us that Jesus had an edge to him, maybe he was even a little bit of a rebel. I suppose he’d have to be to openly mock a powerful figure who was trying to have him killed. “Go and tell that fox,” he says. Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Did Herod have red fur and a bushy tail? No. A fox had a reputation for cunning, for sneakiness, and trickery. Today, we might say, “a weasel.” Throughout most of human history foxes have been regarded as clever creatures – animals that the wise farmer would not turn their back on for an instant.
We see this reflected in many stories that have been handed down to us over the centuries, especially in some of Aesop’s fables. The fox was actually one of his favorite characters. Here is an example:
A fox one day fell into a deep well and could not find a way to escape. A goat, who happened to be extremely thirsty, came to the same well and, seeing the Fox, asked if the water was good. Concealing his sad plight under a happy facade, the Fox heaped praise upon the water, saying it was excellent beyond measure, and encouraging the goat to descend and try it for himself. The Goat, thinking only of his thirst, thoughtlessly jumped down. As he began to drink, the Fox informed him of the difficulty they were both in and suggested a scheme for their common escape. “If,” said he, “you will place your front feet on the wall and bend your head, I will run up your back and escape, and will help you out afterwards.” The Goat readily agreed and the Fox leaped upon his back. Steadying himself with the Goat’s horns, he safely reached the mouth of the well and made off as fast as he could. As he was running away, the Goat yelled him for breaking his promise; the fox turned around and cried out, “You foolish old fellow! If you had as many brains in your head as you have hairs in your beard, you would never have gone down before you had inspected the way up, nor have exposed yourself to dangers from which you had no means of escape.” The moral of the story: look before you leap.
“Look before you leap.” Know what you are getting yourself into and know who you are dealing with. Don’t trust a fox. They are tricky, dishonest and dangerous. Jesus knows who Herod is, and he lets everyone know that this deceiver will not stand in the way of the work the Father has given him. He will continue his work of healing and preaching, proclaiming the Kingdom, until the third day, and then he will be on his way to Jerusalem. As we continue on our own Lenten journey towards Easter, we see this as a foreshadowing of the three days Jesus would spend in the tomb.
After Jesus sends this message, he begins a lament for Jerusalem, a prayer of mourning and sadness. Here Jerusalem stands for all of Israel, for God’s people whom He desires. Jesus sounds a word of both hope and warning. He calls Jerusalem, “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Here Jesus is looking back to prophets like Uriah and Zechariah, sent by God but killed in God’s holy city. This is a word of judgment that changes to a message of Jesus’ longing for his people. He continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Many of us probably aren’t used to female images for God. Those of us who have been reading The Shack together have gotten used to it, that’s part of what is interesting about the book: many of us have found out that most of our images and ideas about God are very, very male-oriented. But we forget that the Bible does show feminine images for God also. Here Jesus compares himself to a mother hen gathering her children under her wings. Earlier he called Herod a fox; a conniving, selfish, untrustworthy beast. Now he likens himself to a nurturing mother hen.
Hens are known to be protective. I heard a story from a friend who comes from a family of farmers. He tells a story about the day that the hen house burned down on his grandpa’s place just down the road. His dad arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As he and the grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead near what had been the door of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed brown by the fire’s heat, her neck limp. The grandfather bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as he did so, he felt movement. The hen’s four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hens wings, protected and saved even as she died to protect and save them.
That is the story of Jesus. Jesus is that mother hen who would rather die than see its children suffer in agony. Jesus longs to gather his beloved under his wings to protect them; but here he says that Jerusalem is not willing. This city that kills prophets, these people are still beloved, but they are unwilling.
The story is not over yet though. Jesus says, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is almost exactly the chant that the people will give, waving palm branches as he enters Jerusalem in the coming days. Jesus has called Jerusalem the city that kills prophets, and he is going there anyway. He knows that Herod and Pilate and many other foxes await; many want him dead, but they will not get their wish until the appointed time. And even as the foxes plot his death, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. He goes to Jerusalem unafraid, as the hen who protected her children in the fire – pure, selfless, love, enduring pain and suffering, for those he loves. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He wants to be our Lord and our Savior. As the mother hen enveloped her young under her wings, Jesus will hang with arms outstretched, saving all who are willing to receive his mercy. For now, let us follow. Let us take up our crosses and walk with him until the appointed time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
Pastor
West ____ United Methodist Church