It’s that time again, and this week I’m torn between two lectionary paths.
The first idea that came to me is to preach intra-biblically using Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21. Both texts seem to me to be about questions of who gets to know God and how one gets to know God. In the gospel passage, the way to know God is through a bond of love for Jesus, mediated by the Spirit, and carried out by following Jesus’ commandments. Lots of interesting Trinitarian possibilities there, although I’m not sure I’ll go wandering down that road this Sunday. Jesus is talking to a group of his close disciples about how they will maintain this relationship with holiness after he is gone, and that shapes what he tells them: they will always know him by the presence of the Advocate and through their continued acts of love.
Paul in Acts is going in a different direction, but he’s also speaking to a group of people who are deeply interested in how they get to know the divine. They have objects everywhere to represent deities and give them images of divine power with which they can interact. But Paul latches onto one particular object: an empty altar to an unknown god. This God, Paul says, cannot be seen or understood in material objects. This God is known…when God chooses to be known? Through the desire to seek God? When we grope at and sometimes manage to grasp God? Or simply through living and moving and having our being in this God? Maybe some of all the above.
The two texts also share a common theme of God inhabiting us, which is a concept I find simultaneously comforting, inspiring, and creepy. It’s the creepy aspect that made me wonder if perhaps the other passages might bring me better possibilities this week, which brings us to option two: 1 Peter 3 with backup from Psalm 66.
Both of these passages are about suffering and trial, so if I preach about this, my new congregation will probably start to wonder if I ever preach about anything that isn’t a little depressing. But if I preach from these texts, it will likely be to give some corrective to the ways that the church often talks about being blessed in suffering.
First of all, this is specifically talking about suffering as a result of keeping Christian faith in the face of persecution. Actual persecution, like being arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed. It is not talking about the current persecution complex of a certain arm of American Christianity, which believes itself to be halfway up Golgotha when Starbucks dares to make plain red cups or children go through a day in public school without being required to pray.
Second, it’s not talking about the sanctity of all suffering. It is not instructing people to stay with their abusive spouses, for example. It is not saying that your poverty, or illness, or marginalization, or oppression is some warped gift from God that you should quietly endure. Jesus understanding suffering, or identifying with your suffering, may be a comfort when you are suffering. Enduring suffering may in fact shape you as a person in ways that turn out to be positive. But please for the love of all that is good, let us stop telling people that they just need to understand that their suffering is really a blessing.
If I go the second route, I’ll be pulling in some womanist theology, much of which comes down HARD on the notion that suffering is redemptive.
So, those are my initial thoughts on two very different possibilities for this week. Preachers, what are you preaching? Hearers and participants in the Word, what is speaking to you?