Essay on 11/22/2015

This week\’s blog is an essay Dr. Hood wrote for Lectionary Homiletics, a professional journal for preachers.  The essay was prepared to assist subscribers on this journal in thinking creatively about their own sermon development of the lectionary text for November 22, 2015.

Preaching John 18:33-37
     In our lesson, we listen in on a conversation in which Jesus speaks about truth. The question of truth is universally human. Yet, it is the Greek mind that the search for truth is the most conspicuous. And it is the Greek world to which the Gospel of John is addressed. Jesus’ words in this text about truth are carefully preserved by the evangelist who seeks to show the answer of Christianity – the truth of Christianity – to the central inquiry of the Greek mind, the question of truth. That answer is also for us; for people today who ask the question of truth as passionately, and sometimes as desperately, as did the Greeks to whom the evangelist wrote.
     The surprise of this text is that it records Jesus’ own denial; Jesus’ denial of sovereign territory, “My kingdom isn’t from here” (v.36).  From inside the governor’s house, a center of power for a defined territory, Jesus disclaims royal territory. Certainly, Jesus’ denial is on the geographical level, his royal authority lies elsewhere and it is this “elsewhere” that defeats Pilate. For Pilate – and for us – sovereignty implies a specific place, such as the British Empire which encompasses specific land throughout the world. Christ denies any claim to this kind of power or rule. This is incredible! Here is a man putting his credibility at risk by a denial of authority.
     A sermon on this text might be titled, Christ’s Own Denial. Such a title may generate curiosity since many in the church are well familiar with the denial of Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest. What is often unrealized is that on the same night of Peter’s denial, Jesus denies royalty within the categories traditionally understood by women and men. The sermon may explore Jesus’ deeper understanding of his royal authority and what that means for those who follow his rule.
     I would begin the sermon with my own wrestling between Pilate’s grasp of power and authority and Jesus’ own claim to royal reign over a kingdom that “isn’t from here.” This “wrestling” of the difference is the heart and soul of this narrative. Is Pilate’s understanding of power – and, consequently our own – the ultimate authority? Or is Jesus? A careful eye will detect that John, the Evangelist, reverses the roles of these two men. Pilate is the one being judged, and Jesus is the judge. This encounter between Pilate and Jesus becomes an arm wrestling match between political power and spiritual power.
     What would be helpful at this juncture in the development of the sermon would be to help the congregation to understand again that “political power” directs people’s outward behavior by fear of unpleasant consequences, “spiritual power” changes people from the inside, directing their behavior by desire for “something more.”
     Easter morning, 2015, a couple spoke to me following the first service. They said they had lived “down the street” for years and had never worshipped with us before that morning. They continued by saying that though they had not worshipped before they were always grateful that the church was here. Politely and carefully, I asked, “Why?” “Why were they grateful that the church was here?” Their answer, “Each day it reminds us that there is something more.” They promised to return and then proceeded to walk down the street – presumably to their home.
     Jesus’ vision for life – and the church – could not be stated more elegantly, “To be something more.” Jesus’ denial of royalty as traditionally understood is because he wants more for us; wants for us “something more” than forced compliance to the political systems of the day. Jesus declares that his authority comes from another place outside this world. His confrontation with our political systems, in the form of Pilate, however, suggest that his kingship not only challenges the political state, it judges and calls into question the ability of the state to provide the life God desires for us.
     The May 29th, 2015 issue of the newsmagazine, The Week reports that the future of Christianity in America “looks very bleak.” The number of Americans who self-identify as Christian has dropped nearly 8 points, to about 70 percent while the number of citizens who claim no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high of 23 percent. One journalist suggest that the principal reason Americans are turning away in droves from the Christian faith is because the Christian right has tried to impose its harsh, Old Testament views on the entire country. Angry battles have been launched against women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage. Simply, Americans have little desire for this religious extremism. Few want to be affiliated with intolerance. Quite simply, the Christian right spoken of here seeks to exercise the political rule and authority of Pilate. Jesus challenges that rule today as he did before Pilate.
     Jesus did not make the same impression upon everyone who heard him speak. Those who sought “more” heard in his preaching the refrain of forgiveness, love and acceptance. Others sought to impose by force and political might their own views of how life should be lived. People’s judgement of Jesus varied with their spiritual capacities. It would appear in the crucifixion of Jesus that Pilate won. But the resurrection remains only a few days away.


Essay on 11/29/2015

This week\’s blog is an essay Dr. Hood wrote for Lectionary Homiletics, a professional journal for preachers.  The essay was prepared to assist subscribers on this journal in thinking creatively about their own sermon development of the lectionary text for November 29, 2015.

November 29, 2015
Preaching Luke 21:25-36
     When Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address he added two words which were not in the address as originally written. Written on the pages before him were the words, “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom…” However, when Lincoln actually delivered that line what he spoke was, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” Those two words have now become a rich part of our national vocabulary. But when Lincoln added those two words, unplanned and freely, it was unusual. What Lincoln sought to do was declare his deep and abiding conviction that the destinies of all people and their governments, including this one, are not beyond the reach and activity of God. It is precisely this conviction that is declared in this lectionary text. When the unusual appears in the sky and upon the earth it will not be a phenomenon apart from God. It will be an intentional act of God, God “coming on a cloud with power and great splendor.” (v. 27)
     This text offers a rich opportunity for preachers to speak to the fascination with speculation and observation of signs that the end of the world is drawing near. Contemplation of the end is not criticized here – the text itself engages in such contemplation. But such contemplation is not for the sake of marking a date on the calendar. Its purpose is for sanctifying the present moment. This text is less about the end times and more about discipleship; what it means to follow Christ both in our behavior and in relationship to others. The “Human One” is returning to the earth. Life will not go on forever, day after day, year after year, without some conclusion. All of history is moving toward an end. That knowledge is given to positively impact the decisions made today; decisions of the manner in which we will live.
     In considering the homiletical flow of the sermon, the preacher may begin by reminding the congregation of particular attempts to identify when the world will end. Many times the result would be people giving away all that they possessed, leaving jobs and looking to the sky for the consummation of history. Yet each would be proven inaccurate. Material resources for living day to day would then need to be acquired once more, jobs sought and the ordinary rhythm of life assumed again, many feeling a bit foolish. Rather than ridicule, the preacher may point to these people as models of a faith taken seriously. Where they missed the teaching of this text in Luke’s Gospel is that they prepared incorrectly; they fixed their eyes on the wrong object. Rather than looking to the sky for clues of a fixed date on the calendar, Jesus calls us to a vital and faithful conduct in how we live now in the ordinary rhythm of life.
     The focus of this text shifts in verse 28 from the various signs that will occur to a declaration of the hope that awaits those disciples who have been unwavering in their faith. What appears to be destruction is in fact the promised restoration and redemption of all creation. The world as we know it, with its brokenness and suffering, will come to an end, declares this text. But this will not be the end of life with God. What was lost in the Garden of Eden – an unashamed relationship with God and one another – is once again recovered. As a preacher, I would try to help the congregation claim the promise located here in this text that the end of the world is not something to anticipate with dread; it is the consummation of all God’s promises. What is required until then is that disciples adopt a consistent quality and style of living that reflects that new creation which is coming.
     I would then direct the congregation to the next major shift in the text, verse 36, “Stay alert at all times.” What does that look like in the lives of disciples today? What spiritual practices or disciplines are available that will keep our eyes focused upon God’s presence and work today? This is a call to intentional activity, not a passive waiting for the end. Here is a summons that we live purposefully, deriving our strength for living faithfully from the exercise of prayer.  In my own congregation I have offered five faith practices that may be useful for such a journey of faith: Worship Regularly, Pray Daily, Learn and Apply God’s Word, Participate in a Ministry and Give Financially to the Work of the Church. I caution the congregation that such disciplines are not the manner in which we earn God’s favor. That is freely given in the cross of Christ. Rather, spiritual disciplines as these have long been acknowledged by the church as a means by which we begin to imitate Jesus. They are a means by which we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit in such a manner that we see the image of God increase in our heart. Simply, these spiritual disciplines are how we take responsibility for our own growth; how we honor Christ’s call in this text to “Stay alert.”

     Richard Gribble tells a helpful story of a woman who made a discovery quite accidentally in her basement. One day she noticed some forgotten potatoes had sprouted in the darkest corner of the room. At first, she could not figure out how they had received any light to grow. Then she noticed that she had hung a cooper kettle from a rafter near the cellar window. She kept the kettle so brightly polished that it reflected the rays of the sun from the small window onto the potatoes. She would later say to a friend that when she saw that reflection, and the growth that it nurtured, she realized that she can be a “cooper kettle Christian” – she can catch the rays of the Son of God and reflect his light to some dark corner of life. This text announces that in that last day, each of us will “stand before the Human One.” Perhaps there is no better preparation for that future day than learning to reflect his light in the present. 

Faith in Prayer

“Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously
and not to be discouraged.”
Luke 18:1 (Common English Bible)
     I believe in prayer. I believe that prayer is the most important fact in the life of anyone who determines to follow Jesus. The trouble with prayer is not belief in the practice – it is what is expected from the practice. For many, prayer is practiced as some sort of holy magic. Pray correctly and with enough faith and the desired result arrives every time. Unanswered prayer is simply the result of praying incorrectly or with insufficient faith. This belief is troubling if not downright harmful to a person of faith. In this sentence from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that we are to “pray continuously.” Rather than suggesting yet another formula for prayer – pray continuously – I believe our Lord is inviting us to discover at least two ways that prayer is effective.
     On one level, prayer opens the one who is praying to a relationship with God. Meaningful relationships are not built by one or two sentences that are shaped into a request, not with God or anyone else. “Continuous prayer” is the cultivation of a regular conversation with God. This is the kind of conversation found naturally between two people who care for one another. Whether we are angry or thankful, whether we are sharing from a broken heart or celebrating, we share continuously with those whom we love. Such conversations draw us closer to one another. It is that closeness with us that God desires.
     A second level involves the one for whom we pray. By our prayers that person is not alone. Continuous prayer keeps them in the fellowship of our thoughts and in our hearts. A community of faith is created which liberates them from walking a difficult path unaccompanied by someone who cares. Encouragement and strength bubbles-forth when we know that there is someone who is “pulling for us.” Creating community among people of faith is one result of continuous prayer.
     Faith in prayer does not exclude expectations of the miraculous. God is still in the miracle business. But we are guilty of a grievous error when we reduce prayer to “getting what we want.” That makes God a dispenser of religious goods and services while we continue to build the life we want apart from God’s claim upon us. Christian prayer is always undergirded by a conviction that God is reconciling us to God’s self for the purposes of being used by God for God’s ongoing work in the world. “Continuous prayer” is an affirmation that our life is not ours to do as we wish. We belong to God and it is for God that we live.


Don\’t Hesitate to Be Enthusiastic

“Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic – be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord!”
Romans 12:11 (Common English Bible)
            This week I received in the mail a helpful reminder from Jiffy Lube that my car’s regular and routine oil change and service was due. The reminder stated, “This isn’t just an oil change; it’s preventive maintenance to help keep your vehicle running right.” Naturally, Jiffy Lube is appealing to my desire that my car continue to meet my transportation needs with little worry. Regular maintenance equals dependability.
            This is precisely what the apostle Paul is saying here in Romans. Paul is reminding us that a sturdy faith, a faith that is reliable in every season of life, requires regular and routine maintenance. The difficulty for some people is that they imagine that a Christian faith – and life – can be kept up without any particular effort. As David H. C. Read once shared, “Is your Daddy a Christian?” asked the little boy. “Yes,” said his friend, “but he’s not been doing much about it recently.” What is remarkable in that story is that the poor maintenance of a Christian life can be noticed by a little child!
            It is easy to take our Christian faith for granted and rely on being sustained by our past experiences or in the continuing life of our church family. When a reminder card arrives in the mail (or a monthly newsletter from the church!) to attend to our spiritual formation and growth, we simply ignore it. After all, our lives are already full. We simply don’t have the time for such a luxury of a daily discipline of reading the Bible or sharing a devotional with another. The sober truth is, like a neglected car, failure to remain enthusiastic in the Christian faith results in a faith that fails us when we depend upon it the most.
            You and I are either better Christians than we were a year ago – or worse. The Bible tells us that we simply cannot drift into God’s Kingdom. So does our practical experience. We cannot drift into a healthier diet or lifestyle. We cannot drift into a deeper relationship with those we love. And we don’t drift into a secure financial retirement. The same is true for our faith. Our Christian faith is confronted daily with doubts and challenges from the ever present evil and suffering around us. Be ready, says Paul. Be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord and your faith with sustain you in the midst of any storm.