I begin sermon preparation by reading through the texts and writing a 200-word summary of the themes I observe in that initial reading. I include this summary in an online publication for the congregation I serve. It's called "Sunday is Coming," a title with an edge for the preacher.
When I do this reading I I look for trouble—for the obvious, palpable problems in the text.
I find more than a dozen military references in the Pauline corpus. In Philemon, Paul includes in his greetings “Archippus our fellow soldier.” In this week's second reading, Paul advises his readers to stand firm and strive side by side. The former Roman soldiers living in Philippi would have heard a reference to a Roman military formation.
The gospel reading for October 31 comes toward the end of
what most Lucan scholars call Luke's travel narrative. It begins ten chapters
earlier at 9:51, where Luke tells us, "When the days drew near for Jesus to be
taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem."
One would expect to follow Jesus' progress on a map—but the
coordinates make no geographical sense.
The people of God were slaves in Egypt when God heard their cries and sent Moses to lead them. But their hardships were not over. For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness. Moses died; Joshua took his place (Joshua means "God saves") and led the people over the Jordan and into the Promised Land. But their hardships were still not over.
Words of judgment are difficult to hear. Actually, I have no
trouble hearing how they apply to others. And when the preacher gives a logical
explanation of how the law applies to me, I understand it and nod my head in
agreement. But it often makes little connection with my heart and even less
with the way I live.
When I visited the Cathedral of the Icon of Kazan in St. Petersburg, Russia, a crowd was lined up waiting for a closer look at the storied image of Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most revered icons in Russia. After watching the scene for a while, I decided that two kinds of people were in line. Some were tourists, there for a quick look at the icon.
A young seminarian could effectively caricature the preaching of his supervising pastor. "Repent!" he would holler at the top of his lungs. "Too late," he would add sotto voce, his head turned aside, as if walking away.
"Pastor, my cousin is in General Hospital. Her name is Theda Manheim. The family doesn't go to church. Won't you visit her?" It was more of a command than a request. Clara Goggins was like that. She was known for her tangle of gray hair, ridiculous hats and sharp tongue. Her heart was pure, though—at least in regard to my visiting her cousin. She explained, "Theda's cancer has spread.
There was a time when Reformation Sunday provided the occasion for Protestants to get together and say bad things about Catholics. Reformation services were conclaves of smug pronouncements. We had the truth and they did not. They felt the same way about us.
When I read Leviticus, I can almost see the mini-blinds being swiveled shut on the everyday world. Leviticus, after all, holds to a God who is Wholly Other. The creation, including humankind, is fashioned by divine hands but not out of divine stuff. This was not the theology of the world surrounding Leviticus, whether you date the book pre- or post-Exile.
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