Texts for Preaching
“How to be a Poet” by Wendell Berry: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/41087
“…Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.”
(Excerpt from “How to be a Poet” by Wendell Berry)
That is to say,
make a poem from God’s prayers for us.
Well, if only each of today’s readings were so gentle.
There is no doubt Jesus was considered “evil”
by the mainstream culture.
Have you ever been called “evil?”
Have you ever done anything
or said anything
that someone else would have, could have,
labeled as “evil?”
Not just bad.
Not just derelict.
Not merely negligent, maleficent, or stupid;
As polarized as we are
as a culture and religion,
it would not be surprising if you had been.
No matter what perspective you have about abortion,
someone is going to think yours is “evil.”
No matter what your perspective on war
or The United States prosecution of war in Iraq,
Afghanistan, or anywhere,
someone is going to think yours is “evil.”
Even if you somehow got to this point in life
without forming or holding a strong opinion or two,
the absence of opinion could be considered “evil” –
a kind of studied avoidance and neglect.
So we can bet that Jesus was regularly called “evil”
by those that clung to and lived by
the mainstream culture around him.
That’s because Jesus was downright subversive,
and actively sought to corrode many of the values
that propped up people in power
that he considered “evil.”
Now let’s stop right there and define “evil.”
Evil is a special category of bad.
Many people define it as a spiritual noun
that creates despicable and degenerate adjectives.
In other words, a mythical spiritual entity named “Satan”
or some other boogiemen of the soul,
infects and directs otherwise good people
to do horrendously bad things.
I am not a big fan of the Satan legend
or devil myths,
because being in recovery,
I know my own capacity for really awful behavior,
and it has nothing to do with spiritual forces beyond me.
Take a stomach-turning peek at genocide
as it has unfolded anywhere in the world.
In Nazi Germany or Cambodia or Rwanda,
we will not find nasty spiritual genies at play;
instead, we will witness
the ordinary human capacity for evil
when there has been a deep societal descent
Evil is the natural consequence
when the core value
and principle motivation
of individuals or societies
is pure self-interest.
If you have a friend or family member
who is an alcoholic or drug-addicted user,
then you have seen up close,
someone who lives life in the shadow
That is the nature of the disease.
You cannot be an addict
without having been captured
by the raw obsession
for that thing you want and need and must have.
A person’s orbit around their lust or thirst or desire
will eventually become complete,
and anyone else’s need or wellness or concern
simple will not matter.
The self-orbit of the addict is the perfect image of evil;
and it is available to all of us
when we fall so far into our self-interest
that our perspectives turn singular.
You, my friend, are capable of odious, heinous evil,
and when you imagine that you are not,
that is precisely the moment
when you become most susceptible to it.
No dark figure,
no devil or bad spirit;
just us, with an infantile obsession for our own way,
the satiation of our own desire,
a death-grip on what we want or believe or must have.
Even though that is not a description of Jesus,
many thought he was evil.
That is why Jesus warns his friends
that they will be tarred with guilt by association,
and in fact, even those in their own households
will get blasted simply because of being related to them.
But let’s be honest.
We do not have a smooth and comfortable relationship
with Jesus either.
Most of us sitting right here today,
in this Church and many others,
do not really know what to do with Jesus.
He embarrasses many of us.
Many of us do not like the issues he drags up.
Many of us wish we could just be Christians in a gooey, amorphous kind of love-theology
without all the hostile and nasty rhetoric Jesus mutters.
Frankly, he is a stumbling block
and a source of division.
But even so, smiley Christians everywhere
just want us to love him.
Millions and millions of Christians
just know that we would love Jesus too,
if we would only take him into our hearts
and proclaim him our savior – whatever that means.
I call this kind of Christian religiosity “The Eggplant Syndrome.”
You may have noticed this food malady
in people around you, or you may have it yourself.
There are some people who just love eggplant,
like those Christians that just love Jesus.
They are so passionate about eggplant
that they cannot imagine there would be someone,
anywhere in the world,
that would not love eggplant.
“Just try MY recipe,” they sparkle with hope,
“you’ll love my eggplant.”
But so far, nothing and no one
has given me a taste for it.
On the other hand, I do love Jesus.
Not in the way that gooey-eyed Christians
“just love him.”
I love the guy who comes through the ancient text
of the Gospels – not in every word,
but in the amazing wisdom and insight
that breathes through even the blanket
of centuries and cultures and doctrines
that has been placed upon the Gospels
by time and intention and bad behavior.
Sometimes, when reading about Jesus
in those ancient texts,
I can get that feeling that comes
at the end of a terrific lightening storm,
when the air is clean
and everything around us still in tact.
Suddenly the atmosphere is clear
and colors vibrant
and everything is so much what it is
it is as if we can see it all with new eyes.
Jesus does that sometimes.
He gets in our face
and rattles our cage,
and if we do not reject him out of hand
we may just get a small moment of clarity.
Check out that hard-edged reading from Matthew.
The first thing Jesus attacks is “Family Values.”
He goes for the jugular of first century Judean society,
which was organized around
a rigidly stratified family structure.
Men were at the top – grandfather, father, son;
women were next – grandmother, mother, and daughter;
and at the bottom were children – oldest to youngest.
It is not difficult to understand
the value of such a rigid hierarchy.
It was a system that gave stability to life,
and it provided for economic transition
from one generation to the next.
At the same time, it also kept everyone in place,
from richest to poorest.
The family values Jesus railed against
were not unlike the family values proclaimed today:
they enshrined abuses with godly authority.
Men could harm women with impunity,
and adults could abuse children without thought,
and authority could not be questioned,
and so change and transformation
were shackled to resistance.
Jesus attacked it.
Jesus raised questions about it.
Jesus warned that he was there to crack it open.
Likewise, Jesus takes aim at us, today.
Jesus attacks our mind
when we over-identify with our children
so that our sense of self and self-worth
is enmeshed with what they are doing
and how they are doing.
Jesus attacks our mind
when we over-identify with our spouse,
or family name, or family reputation
so that it becomes the primary filter
for our own worldview.
Jesus attacks our mind
when nationalism and patriotism
bend our outward reaching compassion
until it curls back toward a tribal orbit
around me and my own.
Anything can capture us like that:
our job or profession,
our race or ethnicity,
our gender or sexuality,
our success or possessions,
our religion or ideology.
Jesus attacks it.
When any of these things become ultimate for us,
and begin to serve as the singular
or even most powerful filter
for our sense of identity and self-worth,
we are being drawn into a sneaky self-orbit
that we imagine
is bigger than ourselves.
It is not.
It could even be the beginning of evil,
because that is where evil begins:
turning the less-than-ultimate
into the primary and core belief
through which we filter all other perspectives.
has a god’s-eye view.
The rest of us are peeking through a pinhole.
Even Albert Einstein, the Dali Lama, or
whomever you consider a most insightful genius,
has only managed to push away a little bit more film
from the edges of the pinhole.
If or when we forget that,
and wrap our arms
around some tiny pillow
or family values
or religion –
and treat it as the standard of Truth
and the definitive filter through which to see –
we will be descending into self-orbit.
is to allow Jesus to rattle our cage
and push us up against our prejudices and fears.
is to allow Jesus to ride and break our sacred cows
like a quarter horse
so they can be ridden and not ride us.
is to allow Jesus to get in our face
and instead of being repulsed or angered
by something we did not want to hear,
we breathe deeply and listen;
we stop and notice the clean, clear air
that follows the lightening strike.
And that brings me back to Wendell Berry.
maybe most people,
if they pray,
are asking for things.
It is understandable, because
when we come to the edge of our powerlessness,
there is nothing to do but ask, “Anybody up there?”
But that very posture
simply brings into prayer
our propensity for self-orbit:
I want you to do for me…
There is nothing wrong with that;
we need daily bread, and forgiveness
as we forgive others.
Jesus recognized that also.
But such petitioning
really ought to be a secondary or tertiary
kind of prayer.
The first kind
probably ought to be the listening kind.
“…out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays…”
Our primary prayer should be the kind that listens for
God’s prayers for us:
A listening prayer;
a listening to the silence, kind of prayer.
The prayer I am talking about is a
listening for the god’s-eye view-kind-of-prayer.
I commend that kind of prayer to you,
even as an extravert,
not normally the kind of person that loves silence.
But if we want to catch a glimpse of a god’s-eye view
then we need to be listening.
We need to listen to God’s prayers for us
more than speaking our prayers to God.
And, as it turns out,
sometimes what God has to say to us,
that god’s-eye view,
comes to us through Jesus’ snarling and barking
and downright subversive rants.