An Easter Sermon: “Seeing and Being Sent”

It was a great privilege for me this morning to give the Easter message at my father-in-law’s church. He was rushed into emergency brain surgery last Saturday so was obviously not able to preach this weekend. The invitation to speak came early in the week, and I didn’t hesitate to accept; this was a way for me help in a health situation that makes me feel helpless. John 26 was the RCL reading for this week, so I took it as my text and titled the message “Seeing and Being Sent.”

Here is an excerpt from the closing, slightly revised because I didn’t say it quite as I would have liked this morning (certainly not the first or the last time that will happen!):

There is just one more thing we shouldn’t miss.Eye John records a final few words between Jesus and Thomas. It seems they were meant less for Thomas than for all those who would come after him. These words are for the first readers of John’s Gospel and every audience after. They are for us. Echoing his prayer in John 17:20, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

It brings us back to that question: What is required of those being sent from their encounter with the resurrected Jesus? What is required of you and me? We have not been privileged to encounter the risen Christ in his physical form on Easter morning as they did. But we are sent, so what kind of “seeing” is required of us?

The seeing required of those who are sent is the mode of seeing that the biblical writers describe as “faith.” Faith is not blindness nor is it simple seeing. Rather, faith is the particular way of seeing that corresponds to the way in which God reveals himself. The author of Hebrews says that faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (11:1). While there seems here to be no sight involved in faith, just a few verses later it says that faith is a matter of seeing but seeing that which is promised  “from a distance” (11:13).  Faith is seeing, but it is not the mode of physical seeing the disciples were privileged to have prior to their sending.

This does not mean that faith is insufficient. Its sufficiency, however, depends not ultimately on us but on faith’s object. When it comes to seeing and being sent, the good news of Easter is that we are carried along by one whose faith is stronger than ours could ever be; we are carried along by the risen, ascended Christ who intercedes for us even now. Continue reading

A Good Friday Sermon by John Webster

Since Christmas I have been slowly reading a collection of John Webster’s sermons, The Grace of Truth. It includes twenty six homilies given between 1999 and 2005. I have been I long-time admirer of John’s work and had the privilege of studying at Aberdeen, so I scooped this volume up as soon as it appeared. I was not disappointed; here is a first rate Protestant theologian at work: careful attention to the text, wise theological reasoning, and all the while the lived existence of the Christian church kept in view.

The following sermon was preached on Good Friday at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in April 2001. The sermon was titled “The Triumph of Divine Resolve,” and its text was Isaiah 53:6, 10.

We end these thoughts on Holy Week where we began: with the central truth that what has taken johnwebster2place in the week that has passed, and what has taken place supremely at the event of the crucifixion is the outworking of the will of God. To the participants and bystanders, no doubt, everything seemed very far from that, just another muddle in a place inflamed with strife. And to the followers of Jesus, the little rag-tag caravan of men and women who found themselves attached to him, it was nothing short of disaster. Yet Isaiah speaks of the putting to death of the Lord’s servant as God’s will – as the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, as no accident but rather the placed where we are to learn to see God’s resolve, undeflected, undefeated, utterly effective. How can this be so? What is this divine resolve which is set before us here, in the affliction and grief of the servant of God?

It is the eternal resolve to be our reconciler. What is enacted in this miserable little drama is God’s plan and purpose to live in fellowship with us – God’s will that he will be our God, and that we will be his people. Fellowship with God is what human beings are for. That is, we flourish as human beings if we live in free and joyful and humble relation to God. To be human is to be in relation to God; and that relation to God is not a sort of added extra, something to supplement our lives: it is the core of being human; it is the way in which we are properly alive. We are alive and truly human as we live in and from that fellowship.

For this fellowship God makes us. But at the core of Scripture’s presentation of this fellowship is the devastating fact that it has broken down: the life-giving bond between God and his human creatures has been smashed to pieces; we have chosen to try and live outside fellowship, and so estranged ourselves from God. Fellowship is replaced by alienation, God’s friendship with God’s wrath. Isaiah puts it thus: “we have turned – every one – to his own way” (53:6). That is, there has been a great turning in human life, not a turning towards God but a contrary turn, a swerve away from God and towards ourselves, a veering away from fellowship and towards a way of living which is of our own making. We chose what Isaiah calls “our own way.” [...] Continue reading

Call for Papers: Virtues, Vices, and Teaching (October 2013)

Kuyers Institute Logo

I am co-chairing a conference in October 2013 that will be hosted by the the Kuyers Institute for Christian teaching and Learning (www.pedagogy.net) on Virtues, Vices, and Teaching. The conference will be held at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), October 3-5. See below for registration information and details for the call for papers.

The purpose of this conference is to explore the implications of a focus on virtues and vices for the way Christian teaching and learning are approached. Discussions of virtues and vices direct our attention away from rules and consequences and toward the role of character.

The scope of the conference is not restricted to moral education per se; papers are invited on topics that connect virtue/vice in general or specific virtues and vices with learning in any discipline or area of educational activity. Papers should focus on some aspect of pedagogy; both theoretical studies and accounts of practice are welcome. Questions that might be explored include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • What virtues and vices are evident in, or influence, our teaching and students’ learning?
  • Can we teach virtues? Do we teach vices?
  • How might a focus on virtues and vices help students in their vocation as Christian learners?
  • How might a focus on virtues and vices affect our approach to curriculum and pedagogy?
  • In what ways might the question of virtues and vices arise within the pedagogy of various disciplines?

Plenary Speakers include:

Jennifer Herdt (Yale), author of Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices

L. Gregory Jones (Duke), author of Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace

David Naugle (Dallas Baptist), author of Reordered Love, Reordered Lives:Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness

Paper proposals of 1-2 pages, including 100-word abstracts‚ should be sent via e-mail to seminars@calvin.edu no later than May 15, 2013.  Notification of acceptance will be made by June 3, 2013.  Additional information is available under the Conferences section at www.calvin.edu/scs/.

Henri Nouwen on Writing

Henri Nouwen’s words here about writing resonate with me. In the excerpt that follows Nouwen describes the challenges that face him and his students in their writing. Even now the anxiety he describes lurks over the keys, and I wonder after all these years if this ever completely resolves. Years ago when this blog began, Kyle and I were happy for any chance to write something other than our dissertations! Times change. So much of our creative energy is now poured into classes, and what is left is carefully managed for a host of publishing commitments; what is left of mine after all that might find its into a poem but less often a blog post. As I pulled together seminar readings for my seniors, I came across these remarks from Nouwen and they have been a timely encouragement to continue writing on TF, even when there appears to be little time or creative energy for it.

Writing…is often the source of great pain and anxiety. It is remarkable how hard it is for students to sit Henri Nouwendown quietly and trust their own creativity. There seems to be a deep-seated resistance to writing. I have experienced this resistance myself over and over again. Even after many years of writing, I experience real fear when I face the empty page. Why am I so afraid? Sometimes I have an imaginary reader in mind who is looking over my shoulder and rejecting very word I write down. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the countless books and articles that have already been written and I cannot imagine that I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said better by someone else. Sometimes it seems that every sentence fails to express what I really want to say and that written words simply cannot hold what goes on in my mind and heart. So there are many fears and not seldom they paralyze me and make me delay or even abandon my writing plans. [...]

Most students of theology think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, or visions. They feel that they first must have something to say before they can put it on paper. For them, writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach, true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do no know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves, “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to “give away” on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches (Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, 29-30).

“Grace,” the Broadway Play

Grace.Broadway PosterI love teaching at a Christian liberal arts university! My reasons are many, but one of them is the opportunity for participating in events outside my normal teaching area. Last night, for instance, I was a respondent for our theater department’s Readers Theater. The play was the black comedy “Grace” by Craig Wright. Imagine the scene: listening to bright young actors read a compelling and revealing script then discussing its themes and characters with all in attendance. What fun!

The play is intelligently written and explores religiosity and faith, suffering and mystery, human relationships and longing (and more). The plot revolves around the slow unraveling of Steve, a highly religious Christian seeking to make it big in Florida, and the slow awakening of everyone around Steve. Even though Steve is a caricature of conservative, prosperity-Gospel Christianity, the play itself, in my mind, is not really about Christianity at all.

What does it mean to be human, together? What does belief entail? How are we certain about anything? In the midst of grief, confusion, and mystery, where can “grace” be found? For instance, there is a fascinating scene in which Sam, a scientist who doesn’t believe in God, tells Steve about space probes that gather and send data back to earth. Steve is ultra confident in God’s will for his financial prosperity, but as Steve’s life rapidly spins out of control his confidence wanes. Where is grace found? In the muck and mire of life what can he really know?

SAM: Space is a tremendous distance that you have to get information across in time. That’s the problem with space.

STEVE: Time.

SAM. Yes. How can we know what we need to know…in time – when what we need to know has to come from so far away.

STEVE: How can you?

SAM: You can’t. Ultimately. You can’t.

STEVE: Huh. That’s fascinating.

Steve is unsettled about Sam’s space probes because, for Steve, faith in God entails complete certainty about everything. For Steve, there simply is no mystery, nothing that remains inexplicable. Shortly later in the same scene:

STEVE: You talk about these distances you can never get across, “Oh poor us, space and time, its so far.” When you’re in the Lord, Sam, there is no space and time. Everyone knows everything.

Through a series of events which force Steve to “know” that he can’t “know” as suspected, Steve’s life quickly comes apart. As others awaken to mysterious “grace” in the midst of the tangible relationships around them, Steve refuses to listen or see what is happening at arms reach. What he can’t understand and can’t control he ultimately destroys.

I’m curious, if you saw the play on Broadway, what themes stood out to you? What was the overall sense of the play’s direction as you walked out of the theater? Did your view change after you mulled it over?

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (Walter Breuggemann)

“A New World Birthed,” Walter Breuggemann (Dec. 19, 2004)

Each of the Gospel writers begins the Gospel story in a different way, and Matthew does it with this remarkable story of the birth of the baby that is on the lips of an angel in a dream to Joseph. Before that, the part that I didn’t read in Matthew 1, is a long genealogy of 17 begats about father to son, son to son to son, all the way back to Father Abraham. TAngels Attendhe genealogy goes up till Joseph, except that Matthew plays a trick on us, because he traces this royal pedigree, but then at the last minute, in a trick, he tells us that Joseph is not really the father of this new baby, the one we celebrate at Christmas. There are some important things to notice about this narrative of the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew.

The first thing to notice is that the whole message to Joseph happens at night when he was relaxed and his guard was down. And in the night we are told that the angel came and said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the child in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Now that is a mouthful. It is a mouthful from an angel, a messenger of God, one sent from heaven to earth, a message given from outside, not in human terms, not in earthly terms, not according to Joseph’s normal assumptions. The angel spoke in a dream, not when Joseph was awake and in control. So the first thing to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas is that the expectation of Jesus, according to Matthew, is outside all of our normal categories. Our business is not to explain this text. Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.

The second thing to notice in this story from Matthew is that the baby has no father; and in this family, like every family, it is a scandal when a baby has no father. And Joseph was at the edge of scandal, but that is not the point. The accent, rather, is that the baby is from the Holy Spirit. Now we may set aside all of the silly speculation that has gone on about biological transactions and notice rather than this newness comes because God’s Spirit stirs among us. The Bible is largely a reflection on how God’s Spirit makes things new.

- It is God’s Spirit in Genesis 1 that creates a new world, a new heaven and a new earth. Continue reading

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Karl Barth)

Karl Barth, “John 1:1-5 (December 22, 1918)”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God;all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness….” We live from this truth. This light shiningshining light is like the air we breathe; we live from it without thinking about it. All that we know and have that is joyful, beautiful, and beloved comes from this shining light. But, like children who reject their parents, we can be ungrateful and forget the source from which we receive the best we have. Yet the source never ceases to flow, and we never cease to drink from it. We can indeed sit in a corner with the minuscule light of our own wisdom and righteousness, and act as if this little light were the only right one in the world, the one that should illuminate God and all other human beings. Even such minuscule lights would have no brightness at all, if it were not for that great shining light; without knowing it, we have kindled our little lights from that light….This shining light is given, and we live from it.

The light shines. We may hear this as a message of joy, good news, gospel for us and the whole world. We may proclaim it courageously and defiantly against all the darkness of our time; against the darkness in our own hearts, in our community, in our hospitals, mental institutions, and prisons; against the darkness in our conversations with one another and in the newspapers that we read; against all the darkness that darkens so many sickbeds and the beds of the dying; and against the pernicious darkness of our social conditions. Without hesitation we may proclaim against all darkness: the light shines. It remains true to itself; it remains what it is even in the deepest darkness, and that is why it shines. Because it is true, we may be courageous and defiant. There is no reason to doubt and despair, to give up, to think only somber and hopeless thoughts about ourselves, our community, and today’s world…..The light shines. This is what must be and remain most important, over against all that is otherwise true, all that otherwise occupies and fills our minds and hearts and causes us to be burdened with care. Continue reading