Communion in Exile
2007-10-02 by Jim Somerville

I tell my preaching students that if the time spent playing with the lectionary texts on Monday morning has been fruitful, there will be plenty of questions on Tuesday morning to send them running to the commentaries, to the Bible dictionaries, to the original languages. What is that word in Greek? What does Paul mean by “justification”? Who were the “Edomites”? 

On this Tuesday morning I’m still wondering about the longing for home, and thinking that it’s not only the Africans in my church but all of us who carry around some memory of a place where our souls were at peace, or some hunger for such a place and such a peace. I saw it on the faces of people in my congregation just a few weeks ago when we sang “Amazing Grace” in worship. It’s not as sophisticated as some of the hymns we sing. We don’t sing it often. But the people were singing it with everything in them, and when we got to that last verse their faces were shining like the sun. “Our hearts are tuned for Heaven,” Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, and on that day in worship a few weeks ago I could see it, I could feel it. 

The writer of Psalm 137 tells us what it’s like to be homesick: you hang up your harp and get out your hanky. And one of the reasons we love this psalm is that we all know something about that feeling, either because we’ve had a home like that or because we’re still holding out hope. Maybe our task as preachers on World Communion Sunday is not to take everyone home, but to remind the people in our congregations that we are all in exile together. Whether we are African, or Hispanic, or sixth-generation Scottish immigrants, when we gather for worship this Sunday we gather in Babylon with dreams of Jerusalem in our heads. We gather around the table of our Lord to eat bread and drink wine. We join hands and notice how different they are, and how much alike.  And, if we can do it around the lumps in our throats, we sing one of the songs of Zion. 

_______________ 

Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC; adjunct professor of preaching at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies; and one-time host of the Festival of Homiletics.





The Longing for Home
2007-10-01 by Jim Somerville

It was one of my colleagues at coffee this morning who reminded me that Sunday is World Communion Sunday (Oh, right! World Communion Sunday. What was I thinking?). Actually, what was the lectionary committee thinking, the committee that chose Luke 17:5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14 for this Sunday? I can’t think of a way to force those texts into the World Communion mold.  The readings from Lamentations and the Book of Psalms, however, hold some promise—especially Psalm 137.

At its heart this hymn is a longing for home. These people miss Jerusalem so much they can’t sing its songs anymore. They hang up their harps, they break down and cry, they pour out their grief: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand (my harp-plucking hand) wither! Let my tongue (my hymn-singing tongue) cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” The hymn plunges from highest joy to deepest pain as the people remember how the Edomites said of Jerusalem, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” The memory inspires the most bloodthirsty fantasies of revenge: “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We may have never encountered such seething rage but it’s a reminder to us:
 

There’s no place like home. 

On World Communion Sunday we might do well to remember those people in our own congregations who find themselves thinking of home and humming its melodies. I think of those Africans in my church who have confessed to me that sometimes, after worship on Sunday, they visit a Nigerian church just to hear the music, just to clap their hands, tilt their heads back, and sing their heart songs. Is there any way we can help them sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land this Sunday? Is there any way we can help them and others—through the universal elements of bread and wine, through the universal language of love—feel at home? 

_______________ 

Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC; adjunct professor of preaching at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies; and one-time host of the Festival of Homiletics.





Believe in God; Be a Slave
2007-10-01 by David von Schlichten

Thank you to Jim Somerville for placing the accent on the right syllable. People do indeed often speak of the power of prayer and faith, but the power lies in God.

How many people speak in this way because they are shy about talking about God, and how many because they are thinking that prayer and faith are primarily about us humans doing the right things to get God to do what we want?

Many hearers of Luke 17:5-10 will regard it as an indictment of our tiny faith and a challenge for us to make our faith bigger. Perhaps our focus is instead to be on our understanding that we are worthless slaves of God whom God has declared priceless because of Christ. If our focus is on our redeemed, liberated slave status and what that means for our living, then maybe the faith grows. I don't know.

Faith grows when stretching toward God, not curling in on itself, yes?

 Pondering in Christ,

 David von Schlichten, poedifier





I Don't Believe in Faith
2007-10-01 by Jim Somerville

It was a line in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Luke 17 that caught my eye.  When the disciples ask Jesus for more faith he says, “You don’t need more faith.  There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith.”

Is that true? Is faith like the flu in the sense that you either have it or you don’t?  If it is, then I’m not sure that I have it, because Jesus goes on to say that if you had even the tiniest bit of faith—even a mustard seed’s worth—you could do great things (although flinging a mulberry tree into the sea by faith doesn’t strike me as a particularly great thing).

It reminds me of similar conversations about prayer. When people ask me if I “believe in prayer” I often say that I don’t; I say that I believe in God. Prayer is simply the way I let God know what I need. It is the hair-thin link between me and the Almighty. I want to say the same about faith, that “I don’t believe in it,” but that sounds absurd. So let me say it like this: I believe in God. And although the tides of my faith ebb and flow there has never been a time when that ocean was empty.  

_______________ 

Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC; adjunct professor of preaching at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies; and one-time host of the Festival of Homiletics.





Windy Spaces
2007-10-01 by Dee Dee Haines

Thank you to Jim Somerville for so eloquently giving voice to all of us who are called to preach.  His thoughts reminded me of the lyrics from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song that gives life to some of the feelings we experience as preachers, teachers and disciples of Christ (The Calling, from the album of the same name).

 

“Whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling, you follow it knowing there’s no other way.”  She sings about a presence deep in our blood, a voice in our head that finds us.

 

I like the thought of being found.  I imagine a sparked, and sparkling Someone, searching for me when I’ve wandered through the text, and haven’t found my way.  It is in this thinly veiled spatial encounter where silent voices make themselves known.  It is here where the ancient stories throw open doors and windows so that the sacred breath can blow new life into the dusty conclusions we make before we are, again, amazed at how much we’ve learned since we thought we knew it all.

 

So I sit here this morning, with the cup of coffee, as recommended by my colleague, watching the mist come down from the mountain and feeling the smallest of my own self in the world today.  I’m reading the Gospel text from Luke and wondering about the size of my own faith. 

 

Maybe that wind of the Spirit that fans the coals will come more like a whisper of breath upon my face, not unlike the tiniest puff of breath I expend when blowing an eyelash from the tip of my finger, faithfully wishing, and hoping, for the best that can be--- as the Whole of the Universe conspires to call forth every good thing.

 

Dee Dee Haines

Isle of Man





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