Kenyatta R. Gilbert, founding director of The Preaching Project, is professor of homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. He is author of A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights and Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons About Justice and Hope.
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Hope for Some Evokes Fear in Others
WE ARE LIVING in a moment of ruptured imagination brought on by the growing specter of deadly violence, which has triggered in many a crisis of faith. But these lectionary readings say to Christians, “Wait a minute, not so fast!” A promise-bearing deliverer has come to topple competing kingdoms and bring distress to wielders of death. Matthew’s message is, “Keep awake.” And the prayerful petitions of the psalms outline the marks of righteous governance: defending the poor, giving deliverance to the needy, and crushing the oppressor (Psalm 72:4).
Salvation comes in the form of a child and angels act as divine emissaries—quieting fear in one instance and stirring up disquiet in the hearts of others (Matthew 2). Were it not for an angel allaying Joseph’s fear about Jesus’ atypical paternity, life as a teenage single parent would have been Mary’s lot. Had an angel not appeared to Joseph in a dream urging him to flee to Egypt, or had a dream not disrupted the course of the Magi warning them to not return to Herod, the scriptural record would have unfolded very differently.
The promise of coming joy and peace reveals much more than incarnational presence. Jesus’ coming brings to our expectant minds the essential nature of a God who wields love and salvation. God always provides a way to secure such provisions. Angelic envoys, as Matthew narrates, stand ready to do God’s bidding.
What Will Be the Sign?
THIS NOVEMBER CYCLE of lectionary readings encourages our stillness and trust in God in times of persecution (Psalm 46). It also asks us to reconsider the signs and wonders of Jesus’ public ministry as an invitation into his redemptive plan.
In Luke 19, Jesus extends mercy in the form of table fellowship to the wealthy and despised chief tax collector Zacchaeus, setting off alarms. Everyone who saw divine hospitality in motion “began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (verse 7). The taxation system of which Zacchaeus is a part, by profession and association, is no doubt inherently corrupt and socially abusive. Ironically, salvation comes to Zacchaeus with “breaking of bread,” table fellowship, and in the context of divine hospitality.
Luke 20 presents one of several vignettes that raise questions about the nature and origin of Jesus’ authority. Here a dispute pits Sadducees, the keepers of the Torah who do not believe in resurrection, against Jesus, the rabbi who scrambles and puzzles their logic. What is revealed is a strictness of theological imagination on the Sadducees’ part and radical truth-telling grounded in well-timed perception on the part of Jesus. Then in Luke 21, Jesus foretells terror, the kind which we 21st-century, world-redemption seekers would do well to hear: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes ... famines and plagues ... and great signs from heaven” (verses 10-11). You will be hated, Jesus says, but “by your endurance you will gain your souls” (verse 19).
What Makes a People?
HOW A GROUP survives under adverse conditions helps its members see and know who they truly are. These lectionary readings are instructive for politically disoriented and lamenting people groups attempting to build community in exilic situations while also finding hope in their distress.
Walls crumbled when the kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire and tribal social culture and customs ruptured. Forced migration compels ruptured communities to take stock. What carries cultural permanence and what gets reconstituted from one generation to the next helps us see that we are at our best when we recognize that our creaturely identity and divine potential are bestowed by a benevolent Creator.
In the epistles, Timothy is taught to call upon his spiritual heritage to accomplish his pastoral assignment in Ephesus, though Paul worries that Timothy’s mixed Gentile-Jewish ancestry might be more of a barrier than a blessing for him.
The Life-Giving Presence of a Debt-Canceling God
Wealth advisers teach us why and where to stockpile our assets and how to diminish our liabilities. “Save! Save! Save! Put away for rainy days. Establish your kid’s college nest egg now! Buy low and sell high! Get real estate to get more bang for your buck! Don’t touch your 401(k) or you’ll risk having nothing for retirement!” And of course, they earnestly urge, “Set aside enough for taxes or be bitten by Uncle Sam in the end!” Any good wealth adviser aims to cure their clients of unsound “robbing Peter to pay Paul” financial practices. Managing portfolios calls for vigilance because markets can be highly volatile and thus vulnerable to external forces beyond one’s control. For this reason, sound investment strategy requires advanced planning, goal-setting, and staying focused. This month’s gospel readings address the importance of honoring one’s faith journey by carefully calculating costs and practicing disciplined stewardship.
These themes color the pages of Luke’s gospel but also inform Paul’s eldering counsel to his young devotee, Timothy. Paul writes: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6), for true satisfaction is discovered at the site of contentedness, not on “the uncertainty of riches” (verse 17).
Our spiritual ledgers get out of whack when wealth accrual is decoupled from gratitude and when we forsake practical wisdom. Dialing back the spiritual appetite for hoarding temporal goods is not only good stewardship but crucial for securing tomorrow’s sacred dividends. Having an appropriate perspective on wealth is the initial deposit for moving into the life-giving presence of a debt-canceling God.
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Biblical storylines of God’s dealings with Israel vary little in terms of plot. The master narrative of unrequited love loops over and again in the prophetic literature. Taglines proceed in this order: “As they pursued worthless things, they forgot their first love and were forced to submit to the exacting demands of their foreign foes. Yet again, a faithful God is love-spurned by a prized people who contented themselves with serving lesser gods of their own making.” Sacred love tales of this sort get nauseating, at least I think so.
End of the White Throne
THE NATURE OF dishonor and consequence are what these passages teach. For the average Bible reader, the front matter of the book of Hosea—specifically the first three chapters—disturbs the conscience. At the time of Hosea’s calling, God’s first words are: “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (1:2). Wow!
The writer of Hebrews proposes an alternate reality: Any reality worth seeing comes into view through faith in the unseen (see Hebrews 11:1). Prophet Isaiah sees what God sees through another portrait. Like believers today, empty rituals and defiled worship strain Isaiah’s eyes. Do we have eyes to see what the prophet saw in our context of racial intolerance and religious bigotry? Harsh judgment meted out in scripture is generally in response to an act of rebellion or for defaulting on a covenantal agreement. An aggrieved God enters our contemporary global vineyard asking Christians today, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (see Isaiah 5:1-4).
The essential work of the guardian is to protect the investments. While we are not permitted to “psychologize” the prophet Jeremiah, we can still say that shame is evident. To say, “Why me, God?” rather than “Why not me?” is to be imprisoned by a faulty internal transcript.
Distress the Comfortable
CERTAIN WORDS cause problems. When I ask first-year seminarians to take seriously the importance of using inclusive language for God and humanity, who would have thought my urging would generate such panic and skepticism? To my suggestion that “Father God” is grammatically (and theologically) on par with “Heavenly Parent” or “Mother God,” I can see in their blank stares and grimaces that they feel, yet again, that the God known to them is being tampered with.
Perhaps the term “inclusion” is difficult for some because it means that all things done in word and deed that do no intentional harm to others are at worst permissible, because God’s love is boundless. Equally fraught is the term “expansion.” Notions of colonialism, manifest destiny, and Christian triumphalism come to mind.
How did the words “inclusive” and “expansion” become problematic, polarizing terms? One might place blame squarely on the shoulders of postmodernity, with its demand that Christians shed their husks of credulity and theological defensiveness. Others argue that for Christians to be taken seriously today, they must join the postmodern conversation with a revelation that can hold up in a world of scientific advancement and Twitter.
How God Intervenes
KENYATTA GILBERT: What does “being prophetic” mean to you today?
WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think it means to identify with some clarity and boldness the kinds of political and economic practices that contradict the purposes of God. And if they contradict the purposes of God, they will come to no good end. If you think about economic injustice or ecological abuse of the environment, it is the path of disaster. In the Old Testament they traced the path of disaster, and it seems to me that our work now is to trace the path of disaster in which we are engaged.
The amazing thing about the prophets is that they were able to pivot, after they had done that, to talk with confidence that God is working out an alternative world of well-being, of justice, of peace, of security—in spite of the contradictions.
How do we establish a sense of clarity about who we think God is in this world of radical pluralism? As long as we try to talk in terms of labels or creeds or mantras, we will never get on the same page. But if we talk about human possibility and human hurt and human suffering, then it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking with Muslims or Christians or liberals or conservatives; the irreducible reality of human hurt is undeniable.
WHEN I WAS A YOUNG, green, pre-tenured professor, I joined Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, and the eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on an academic panel about preaching. I had accepted the invitation to participate only a month before; two other panelists had canceled, and I’d been tapped to stand in as a substitute.
Walking into the standing-room-only conference hall, I was elated and anxious. Respected biblical scholars and experts in the art of preaching lined the walls; over-eager doctoral students had secured front-row seats. In this sea of spectators, I knew not to flatter myself: Most had come to hear Professor Brueggemann. Though I had never had any prior formal acquaintance with this sage of biblical scholarship, I had spent nearly five years in my doctoral program in conversation with his work on the prophets, including his popular and widely influential The Prophetic Imagination, published in 1978—only four years after my birth.
I listened to my co-panelists’ presentations. Then, not long before I had the floor, my purpose became clear: I had not come to pay obeisance to veteran scholars. I was there to realize my own voice and declare my own contribution to the conversation. And though I had been deeply shaped by Brueggemann’s work, his scholarship on the prophetic voice had sparked new questions I needed to answer.