Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Prophetic Preaching in the Present Day

This week's scriptures are Ezekiel 34: 1-24 and Matthew 25: 31-40

Well, I went and changed the scriptures that I want to preach from this week. On Easter, when I first looked at what would be the focus of this week's sermon I was all set to talk about the appearances of Jesus following the resurrection in which He proved to His disciples that He wasn't a ghost by eating food and inviting them to touch Him. These are important passages. The invite you and me to also test and experience Jesus....and, they don't condemn us for the struggles and doubts we have along the way.

But then I started looking at and listening to the news, reading the paper, and watching the internet stories about Barack Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright. And it seems to me that neither Obama in his responses, nor the media in theirs, understand the role in our society of persons like Rev. Wright, nor how much we need them.

All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God raised up prophets to speak to God's people. The primary function of the prophet isn't to predict the future...though there is some of that in what they say...but to hold the people to account-on God's behalf-for their breaking of their relationship with God and with each other. Their words are often strong, hard to hear, and set them, almost always, over against those in power. They point out the inequalities in the social structure; condemn corruption; and comfort the oppressed with the knowledge that God will come to their rescue.

This is the kind of preaching that Rev. Wright was doing in his sermons that were quoted in the news. I doubt that this is the only kind of sermon Rev. Wright ever preached. I imagine that he often preaches sermons that are called 'pastoral' in nature...meaning that they seek to address the needs of his congregation for comfort, guidance, and care. A good pastor does both. Most of us find that our strength tends to lie in one direction or the other; my own preaching tends to be more oriented toward pastoral care...because of the historic role of the black church as a center for social discourse, many black pastors have great skill as prophet preachers.

Our society needs people like Rev. Wright who will hold our failings and our shortcomings as a society up to the light. For Senator Obama to dismiss his prophetic preaching as being "like an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with" and to condemn his remarks as "divisive" as though it is somehow the ultimate sin, is both insulting to his former pastor's skill as a prophetic voice and shows a lack of understanding on his part about the prophetic task of those called into ministry.

Of course Rev. Wright's words are divisive. They challenge us to look at the social ills that have brought about bulging prisons, poverty ridden neighborhoods, and an attitude that we as a nation can solve almost any problem by military action. We don't like to hear that kind of word. None of us does. It demands that we look and examine and decide whether we will change.

Would I, in preaching a sermon on these same issues, use the phrase "God damn America" as Rev. Wright did? Probably not. Do I agree with him that we've built an criminal justice system that perpetuates itself as it grinds up the poor and the disinherited; that we've supported state terrorism around the world when it's served our economic and political ends; and that we've treated our citizens as less than human-acting as though our nation, rather than God, is supreme? Absolutely.

If you want to hear more what I think scripture says about these issues, join us on Sunday at Broadneck as we try to take a hard look at the hard words about social and economic justice in the passages above.

I hope to see you then.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What They All Agree On

This week's scriptures are Matthew 28: 1-15 and John 20 1-18.

It's Easter. This year, because I'm the "new kid on the block" in the Broadneck Ministerium, I got 'volunteered' to preach at the sunrise service. This will be quite a feat for someone who can barely function before ten o'clock and two cups of coffee. But it should be a good day. Between the sunrise service on the Cape St. Claire beach and the worship service at Broadneck Baptist, there will be a breakfast sponsered by the Cape St. Claire United Methodist Church. So I know that after the first service there'll be good food and lots of good coffee.

Above I've put the scriptures I'll be using at the sunrise service (John) and at the 10:00 service at Broadneck (Matthew). There are some differences. In fact, all four Gospels have differences in the way that they describe what happened, who was there,what was said,etc. This, to my mind, adds credability to the story....different people, particularly after a long period of time, are going to remember things differently. It's only when everybody has "gotten their story straight" that you begin to wonder about whether there's some fabrication going on. Add to that the differences going on between different factions of the early church about what the resurrection meant; and you're bound to have different emphasis placed on the events as they are remembered.

Add to all this the passage in Matthew 28: 11-15 which describes the "spin" put on the empty tomb by the religious and politically powerful. We, in our day, are very aquainted with how quickly politicians get their 'spin doctors' to work after an event takes place in an effort to bend public opinion in their direction. So this too is no suprise to us.

One thing that may be a suprise is something often overlooked. They ALL agreed that the tomb was empty. Nobody said,"Hey! These folks are lying, there's a body there stretched out dead as a doornail."

The question is not the empty tomb. Or that something happened that Easter morning. The question for us is three fold:

-What do we think happened?
-What do we think it means?
-What difference does it make to us in our day to day lives?

What happened? What does it mean? What does it matter?

Each of us has to answer these questions for ourself. Each of us has to come to terms with the issue of belief, meaning, and impact regarding the resurrection and the rest of the Gospel message.

I won't claim to tell you what you have to believe. I, and the other members of Broadneck Baptist, will offer to journey with you as you work to find your own answers. And, if you're too far away to join us on Sunday; or if some other reason keeps you from being able: maybe you can take the time to listen to the sermon(s) posted by link here on the Blog page. And, if you have questions, or just a request for prayer, please use the link on our home page to email me at and I'll promise to write you back in a timely fashion.

I hope you have a good Easter. May the meaning of the resurrection grow in you and call you into new and exciting places in your life.

Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Cross

This week's scriptures are Luke 19: 28-39 and Matthew 27: 32-50.

This Sunday we're going to have some special stuff from the Wonderful Wednesday kids and some special music. I'm really looking forward to it and hope that you will join us.

Our scriptures this week are accounts from Luke and Matthew; one of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and the other a description of Jesus' crucifixion. One of the things that they remind us of is how easily we as human being can turn on those people we look up to when they don't meet our expectations. One has to ask, "how many of those folks waving palm branches and shouting 'Blessed is he who comes as king in the name of the Lord,' were also among those who passed by his cross a few days later and shouted 'if you really are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross'?"

I see myself reflected far too well in these folks. When what I expect...what I pray for...what I feel I deserve isn't what happens, I get angry. I'm even this way sometimes when I truly believe that what is happening is God's action in the situation. These folks in the crowd were suffering from the oppression of the Roman occupation. They were smothered by a view of their faith that was becoming more and more tied up in rules and regulations than expressive of God's journey with God's people. Jesus was offering something different, and they were sure that they knew what that something was going to look like. But they were wrong.

The first hint that they were wrong was the way Jesus came into Jerusalem. He came riding on an donkey or a young colt (depends on which account you read). The symbolism of this was that it was a mark of peace. When a conquering ruler came into a city riding on a war horse a very different message was being delivered.

Jesus came offering a radically different way of looking at the Kingdom of God and at our relationships with God and with each other. The miracles and the socializing with sinners weren't just an attention getting device so that Jesus could then say what the Kingdom was really, these behaviors were what the Kingdom of God is.

The Kingdom of God is that place where the outcast (no matter what the reason for that status-illness, sin, politics, race) is welcomed, healed, made part of the family. And Jesus made that clear by becoming one of the outcasts Himself.

See Him hanging on the cross: naked, tortured, dying. Feeling so abandoned in His agony that he screams out "my God, my God, why have you gone off and abandoned me here." In that moment, Jesus, in His innocence and by His own choice, becomes one with every person who has ever been outcast, been torture, been abandoned...regardless of whether it occured because of something they had done or because their social or political status made them vulnerable.

Jesus walked square into the center of our anguish and said, "I will stand here too." And in doing this, He taught us an incredible, almost unbelievable truth: THERE IS NO OUTSIDE IN THE HEART OF GOD. To God, all that we are; our joy, our pain, our anguish, our sins, our triumphs, or tragedies....everything, are wrapped in God's loving embrace. We're all on the inside. All of us. Nobody's left outside. Nobody. There is no outside to be left there.

If we take this view of the cross seriously it will radically alter everything we do as God's people in this time and place. It is a risky road to travel....but it leads to Easter morning.

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Surely He Has Borne Our Grief

This week's scripture is John 11: 1-44.

This week's story of the raising of Lazarus is one of my very favorite stories out of Jesus' life and teaching (rating right up there for me with the Woman at the Well, th Prodigal Sons, and Jesus' Healing the Leper). I'll tell you more about why on Sunday; but for right now I'd like to focus on the issue of grief.

It is amazing that in a time and culture in which women were kept silent and submissive, both Martha and Mary felt free to speak their mind to Jesus. One after the other they come up to him and the first words they say are, "If you'd been here, our brother wouldn't have died." And Jesus listens. If we're not careful...if we read this story into our own culture...we'll miss just how much this says about Jesus' attitude toward women and his relationship with these two women in particular.

It also tells us something about Jesus' acceptance of the wide variety of feelings that can make up our grief and our response to the tragic events in our lives. Sadness, rage, disbelief, paralysis...any and all of these can be part of our human response. Sometimes we aim those emotions at others. When I worked as a chaplain on a Surgical Emergency Unit we were warned that when we were with the doctor who told the family of a loved one's death to start out further than arms reach away....we could move closer later if we wanted to. Why? Because some people's instant, gut reaction was to physically strike out at the bearers of this news. And a chaplain wearing a clerical collar made as good a target as any for their anger at God over their loss. The phrase "driven to my knees" is a description of that awful agony that hammers us to the floor in a cry of anguish. The humanity of this story, the willingness of Jesus to walk into the middle of it and listen and be truly present to Mary and Martha speaks volumes about how God feels about us at the times of our deepest pain.

But Jesus doesn't just stand back detached. Both verse 33 and 38 talk about Jesus being "deeply moved." The Greek phrase here has bothered translators and commentators alike for centuries because it translates roughly to 'upset and angry.' The Revised English Bible translates verse 33 as "he was moved with indignation and deeply distressed." The New Revised Standard Version says, "he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved." Jesus felt his own strong emotions as well as having empathy for his friends. We've all seen the news clips of grieving mourners in Palistine. Can we imagine Jesus being so "touched with the feeling of our infirmitities" (Hebrews 4: 15) that he is part of such a grieving throng as they approach the tomb where Lazarus is.

Even before He called Lazarus out of his tomb, raising him from the dead, Jesus had entered fully into the life of Lazarus' sisters. What an incredible love it is that does this. It is a love that embraces us in our pain; calls us from death into life; and gives us the job of being the Body of Christ today in the world.

I hope you'll be there Sunday so we can talk about this some more.