2011-02-10 by David Howell

Preaching Deuteronomy 30:15-20

With Valentine’s Day at hand, preachers may be tempted by the text’s use of the word "heart". "If your heart turns away…I declare to you today that you shall perish," (vv. 17-18). With a little homiletical extrapolation an "As the Heart Turns" kind of sermon could be built around the notion that the disposition of the heart undergirds our life-and-death choices. The fickleness of God’s people could be decried, rivalry between God and other gods underlined. However a hearts-and-flowers approach to today’s text represents a risk, possibly a hermeneutical travesty. The word "heart" occurs only once in these six verses. Its Ancient Near Eastern definition is several worlds away from Hallmark’s. Most importantly, this text’s legitimate themes have a magnitude about them that is hard to overstate. Substantial and sober, they paint the passage in heavy strokes. Pink, lacy sermons are the last kind of treatment Deuteronomy 30 deserves.

A stronger word-study approach might focus on the word "life". It is the Gospel word in the text, the word that most-captures the Good News. It refers, of course, to more than the spirit of animation or a person’s "length of days" (v.20). A quick reading of the passage shows this understanding of "life" is something associated with loving, obeying, and a white-knuckled hold on God (vv.16, 20). Though the writer’s division of "life’s" characteristics into three categories has no doubt given rise to any number of tidy tripartite sermons, there are many layers to the term.

The "life" that Moses urges the Israelites to choose is more than consciousness, more than the antonym of death, and anything but tidy. In fact it is the very thing their parents tripped over. It is the life their parents were denied, the life the first generation of the Exodus passed up when nearly forty years earlier they had their turn on the banks of the Jordan. Where the first generation failed to love-obey-hold enough to get across the river and into the Promised Land, the second generation is now being given the chance to make the leap. In the strongest possible terms ("I call heaven and earth to witness…" v.19) Moses exhorts the grandchildren of the Exodus to find their spiritual nerve. Ancient Israel is on the brink of choosing what their parents never knew, the fullness of life that comes from facing the Jordan.

These are dynamics contemporary congregations understand. Whether the sermon treats the Jordan in terms of its most famous metaphor (death) or more generally as a trial of faith, contemporary listeners know this spiritual road. Long bouts of grieving, years of unrelieved unemployment and chronic pain management are part of most every faith community. Life in the Orange Alert era is characterized by all that holds us in death’s thrall: endless wrangling over sex, who is in and who is out, enmity between the right and left flanks of the church, obliviousness to all but our own personal concerns, and addiction to whatever palliative—spiritual or pharmacological—comes to hand.

We all have lie-awake nights. Figments of violent teenagers, financial ruin, and irrational bosses jump the fences of our mental motion picture screens, making us wish for a few friendly sheep. We look around for a hero who can show us the way out. What we find has clay feet and the same need for reassurance we already know so well. How can we find the help we need to get out of our confusion and into a healthier chapter, out of darkness and into light, out of the desert and into those well-watered alluvial planes?

Deuteronomy offers several answers to the question. One of the most useful to twenty-first century congregations is found in the texts’ peculiar use of "cleaving." "Holding fast" or "holding on hard" to God, the way a piggy-backer clings to the piggy-backee is one of the text’s more interesting ideas. The word used elsewhere to describe how a young groom sticks to his gorgeous bride despite his mother’s dark looks, is used here to describe a key ingredient of the fullness of life. The challenge of faith is about "loving, obeying, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days" (v.20).

This is life with a capital "L" Deuteronomy seems to say. It is the kind of life where God is not skulking off to the side of the screen or flitting in the margin of consciousness. In this kind of life God is not available only in peripheral vision, not next to or behind you on the river banks, but is standing smack in front of you in the middle of the white water, arms extended. It’s the kind of life you enter into when you decide that there is no father figure on his way to rescue you, there is no mythical hero in the wings, no experienced old head who will come and solve the problem. There is only you and God eyeball-to-eyeball. This is the kind of life you find when you find God dead center and filling the screen—not in your weakness but in your strength, not in your suffering but in your life.

Jana Childers

Isaiah 58:1-12; the Super Bowl
2011-02-04 by David von Schlichten

Thank you to Stephen Schuette for his contribution. Stephen offers useful insights about the images of salt and light in Matthew 5:13-20. Scroll down to taste and see.

In the ELCA, our first reading for this Sunday is Isaiah 58:1-12. In this passage, the Israelites are fasting, but God is not impressed because they are neglecting to help people in need.

In my sermon for this Sunday (which you can read at the cafe), I speak of first things and second things. Loving God and others is the highest of first things, while practices such as fasting are second things. The Israelites are confusing second things and first things. We often do, as well.

Sports, especially events such as the Super Bowl, are treated in America (and elsewhere) as first things. I live in Steelers country, where people revere the black and gold. There's nothing wrong with enjoying sports, as long as we remember that they are second things, not first things.

It is a great challenge to keep first things first and second things second. Thanks be to God that God always keeps us first.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Knowing Who We Are
2011-02-03 by Stephen Schuette

Matthew 5:13-20; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

You are salt and light!  It seems so straight-forward and direct.  And Paul’s assertion that, “We have received…the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” affirms something powerfully essential about us too.

We have, perhaps, taken to heart something that Paul has also suggested, to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought.  But these passages also seem to say that we make an equally terrible mistake by thinking of ourselves more lowly than we ought.  For can an emphasis on our sins, our flaws, our failures begin to settle into us in a way that locks us into place so that we become even more of what we believe, or at least rehearse about ourselves? ….I am a sinner…I am a sinner…I am a sinner…

In contrast think of Psalm 8.  And most 12-step programs have switched their customary introduction from "I'm John and I'm an alcoholic," to "I'm John and I'm dry 12 years."

To be sure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard in the Sermon on the Mount a word against cheap grace – the idea that we don’t need to do anything more than receive grace and then go about our business again.  (See The Cost of Discipleship)  But could it also be that cheap grace cheapens us, cheapens our whole value and worth, cheapens what God not only made us to be but then further redeemed and empowered us to be?

The last half of the Matthew passage, beginning in vs. 17 may seem hard.  And it smacks of a little defensive/competitive PR in relationship to the developing post-temple Judaism in the community to which Matthew is preparing this gospel, since this is unique Matthean material.  Did those continuing in strict Judaism view the followers of Jesus as sliders and slackers in their new relationship with the law?

But this passage, too, in its own way affirms the ability and potential to not only fulfill but “exceed” in righteousness.  Not, however, because of our effort, but through that spirit of grace that empowers us for this.  Ever work harder and get further behind?  A healthy drive isn’t bad.  But it matters a great deal what is doing the driving.

I hear, finally, a message of hope for who God made us to be in all these passages.

From this week....
2011-02-02 by David Howell



Preaching Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)

There are many homiletical paths into this text, most of them well worn and reliable. The images alone provide a dozen different doorways. Over the years, preachers have entered the text by following "yoke," "wicked fist," or "light" to its logical and theological conclusion. Others have developed "trumpet," "bulrush" or even "rear guard" for their context. Third Isaiah’s images are irresistible, evocative, multivalent, and a real gift to a preacher.

Footholds on larger themes are also well-marked. Acceptable fasts, the nature of true humility, and a theology of prayer are just a few of the important topics raised. Questions such as "what is the difference between what pleases God and what pleases human beings?" and "where have our own rituals become empty?" represent well explored avenues which may yet hold a few surprises. Isaiah 58 is a dense passage, rhetorically ingenious and full of substance. It offers many tempting roads.

However, it is the liberation themes that cry out from the page. Contemporary preachers will be hard pressed to look past them. On its primary level the text is concerned with social justice. In fact, if the text has ten layers of meaning the first nine of them have to do with justice. Whether the sermon focuses on verse 4 or verse 7, on the major themes or minor images, the bottom line of this passage is clear: oppression and worship don’t mix. Even a quick read of the text conjures up the cadences of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, and Desmond Tutu. Isaiah 58’s thunder sounds uncannily like theirs. Nevertheless each preacher must voice this text in his or her own way and for his or her own particular context. There are a number of options.

Many preachers, unable to skirt the obvious, will preach the message the text preaches, justice. For these preachers only a "full-throated" (v.1, NAB) approach will do. For them the question posed by Isaiah 58’s showing up in the lectionary this week is not "Shall I preach one of the text’s social justice themes or something else?" but "Which social justice issue shall I address?" A number of the issues associated with the United States’ economy or role in the larger world—resource wars, climate change, secularization, inter-religious relations and economic globalization, for example—resonate strongly with the text’s themes.

At a national level we are a people who both worship and oppress. Last year, the country’s highest paid CEO (Occidental Petroleum) reportedly took home $52.2 million dollars and the second highest (Disney) netted $20.8 million. That same year, fast food workers earned an average of $18,000 and the U.S. mean salary was $43,000. "What’s wrong with the minimum wage that we can’t fix it?" I heard a preacher lament once, though she knew the answers too well. A preacher who can link our culture’s selfish bent with forces that hold the needy and poor in place can preach Isaiah 58.

However, before the preacher decides on an approach that applies the text’s message directly and specifically to his or her own congregation, it may be useful to consider a few speed bump questions. These are the kind of questions not meant to deter prophetic preaching but to provide a safe-guard against harangue. 1. Whose role is it to "shout out," "not hold back," "announce," or "trumpet" (v.1) this message? Identifying with a prophet is daunting enough. The preacher who preaches today’s text is taking the even bigger step of preaching a passage that is rendered entirely in God’s voice. 2. Who is rightly on the receiving end of God’s sarcasm? "Will you call this a fast?" Caricature, scornful language, and contemptuous remarks are among the strongest and most negative forms of speech. 3. How can the sermon’s focus be kept on the communal, systemic, or national/international level avoiding appeals that address listeners as separate individuals? 4. How will the sermon motivate the listener? How will the preacher avoid paralyzing the listener with guilt?

An alternate approach to this passage takes verse 4b as its theme, "such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high." This sermon focuses on the God-as-Bellhop problem on a tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo understanding of worship. Isaiah 58 makes it clear that God will not be manipulated. Even people who are seeking something as lofty as God’s nearness (v.2) cannot coerce or control God’s movement. The text reminds us that there are people who praise or credit God—or participate in a religious ritual—for what they can get out of it or because they are slightly afraid of not participating. Have you ever seen a football player drop for a quick prayer and wondered about his motivation? No one but him can say whether he is superstitious or sincere. No one can know for sure about the spiritual state of the Grammy winner ("first of all I just want to give thanks to my Lord and Savior") or the politician ("Thank you, good night and God bless America."), but Isaiah reminds us to ask the question. He also reminds us that there is a Simon-the-Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24) mentality afoot in our culture that cries out "Give me this power." The desire for control is strong in human beings. It is so strong, Isaiah suggests, that it causes us to delude ourselves about our own motives. It can lead us to believe we want God to be near when what we really want is God at finger-tip control.

Jana Childers

San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, CA


Micah 6:6-8; Egypt
2011-01-29 by David von Schlichten

I posted my sermon on this passage. I hope you'll read it and give me feedback.

That passage stresses that God prefers justice, kindness, and humility over material offerings. People do, too. Material things can be valuable, but justice, kindness, and humility are far more valuable.

The Egyptians probably need some material relief, but primarily they are crying out for their government to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

That's certainly what God is crying out for.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

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