Monday, September 26, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 8 -- A Sermon About Bad Real Estate Decisions and Hope

The 8th episode of the Fooling with Scripture podcast consists of a sermon I shared with Georgetown University's Protestant Ministry chapel service in St. William's Chapel on Sunday, September 25th, 2016.

The text for the sermon is Jeremiah 32:1-15, though it also references Psalm 91.

Check it out here or on iTunes!

My understanding of the book of Jeremiah is heavily influenced by a class I took with Denise Hopkins at Wesley Theological Seminary. She assigned a number of different texts for the class, but particularly influential were Kathleen O'Connor's book Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, which looks at the book through the lens of trauma, and Terence Freitheim's commentary published by Smyth & Helwys.

The sermon also mentions Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which I've mentioned often before and I'm sure will again. The relevant quote is on page 293:
I have taken the phrase [The Noonday Demon] as the title of this book because it describes so exactly what one experiences in depression. The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to seem them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.
If that piques your interest, you can check out another sermon I gave on the topic by clicking here.

I mention in the sermon that Jeremiah is often associate with the book of Lamentations, which is a true statement, but the associate is likely not accurate. For a powerful and relevant take on the book of Lamentations -- including the possibility that it's true authors were likely the people left in the land after the exile, many of whom would have been women -- I'd highly recommend Soong-Chan Rah's recent book with InterVarsity Press, titled Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times.

I'll go ahead and post the text of the sermon below, but if you like this podcast and others like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon and sending me an email with any questions, comments, or suggestions!

Prisons, Prophets, and Noonday Demons
A sermon preached by David Finnegan-Hosey in St. William's Chapel, Georgetown University

September 25, 2016


The prophet Jeremiah was no optimist.
            That’s important to keep in mind as we dig into tonight’s scripture reading, with its intertwined themes of hope and hopelessness, despair and faith. In church tradition, Jeremiah has been referred to as “the weeping prophet.” In addition to the book bearing his name, he is often associated with the Book of Lamentations which, as its title implies, consists almost entirely of songs of lament and recollections of tragedy.[1] Whatever else might be said of Jeremiah, he cannot be accused of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.
            Tonight’s reading wastes no time in painting a dire picture of Jeremiah’s current predicament. A powerful foreign army is laying siege to the capital city. Jeremiah is in prison, essentially charged with sedition for speaking out against his own government in the midst of a war. And King Zedekiah – the king of Judah, the ruler in Jerusalem – comes to question Jeremiah. “Why?” the king asks the prophet. “Why, in this time of all times, are you speaking out against me, saying that our people will lose this war, be cast into exile? Why are you saying these horrible things? Why don’t you honor and respect our nation and its symbols? Why can’t you say positive things about your countrymen? Why, Jeremiah, do you have to be so negative all the time?”
            It’s a question Jeremiah must be weary of answering. He has preached and written and prayed aloud so many times before – has said that God has compelled him to speak out against the failings and sins of his own people. He has cried out against the injustices of the temple and of the crown. He has begged, pleaded with crowds and with elites to listen to him, to heed the word from God to repent, to turn back to the way of justice, the way of God.
            But this time, when the king asks, “Why do you keep saying this awful stuff?,” Jeremiah just says:
            “Well, God told me to buy my cousin’s field off him.”
            It’s a strange story, to be honest – oddly specific in its detail and wildly irrational in its implications. For the next nine verses, Jeremiah recounts the dry and clerical particulars of his purchase of a piece of the family farm. We hear how much it cost; who signed what; where and in what container the receipt would be stored.
            It’s not the most gripping of scriptural narratives, but it does have a purpose. It confirms that this sale really took place, that it was legal, public, well-recorded, well-established. Jeremiah’s not joking. This thing happened. We’ve got it on video.
            And that’s strange. Because such a purchase seems to go completely against everything that Jeremiah has been hearing from God and repeating to anyone who would listen.
            Jeremiah has been saying, over and over again, for chapter upon chapter of this book, that all is lost, that there’s no hope for Jerusalem, that the city is going to fall, that the invading evil empire is going to win, that the rulers of Judah are going to be dragged into exile. And then God says, “Hey Jeremiah. Why don’t you buy some property outside the city?”
            Though the text does not record it, we can imagine Jeremiah’s response. “But…why? Why would I buy this field if all is lost?”
            “Because,” God says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Someday. Somehow. There will be peace. There will be justice. And this seemingly nonsensical act is a prophetic sign of this future hope.
            To act out of hope in such a hopeless situation makes no rational sense. And God says: “Do it anyway.”
            But here is what I am really interested in this evening: why does Jeremiah offer this story as a response to King Zedekiah’s questioning? The king confronts the prophet, demanding to know why the prophet is speaking in such harsh tones, and the prophet suddenly tells a story of irrational hope?
            Remember: Jeremiah is the weeping prophet. The critic. The voice of doom and gloom.
            Jeremiah is not accustomed to voicing hope.
            But when his motivations are challenged, he responds with this story. It’s as if he’s saying, “Why do I speak the way I do? Not because I want to. Not because I enjoy being negative or critical. It would be easier to just remain silent, to ignore the unrelenting voice of God, or perhaps to simply collapse into quiet despair. It would be easier. But I speak because, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite my own feeling of hopelessness, God assures me that some day, some way, there will be a hoped-for future of justice and of peace.”
            It makes no sense to speak out. It makes no sense to buy a field.
            But Jeremiah says – God says – we must do it anyway.
            I wonder:
            Is there anyone in this room who has felt some hopelessness this past week?
            Is there anyone in this room who has experienced some recent despair?
            Is there anyone in this room who has wondered, “Why bother?”
Why bother speaking out for justice? Why bother working for peace? Why bother leading a life of compassion? Why bother with faith or hope or love?
            Why bother, for that matter, trying to come together as a worshipping community, here at Georgetown University – why bother trying to build relationships across dividing lines of race and experience and theological understanding?
            Why bother, when it might not work, when this week and the next and the next we might be met by news of renewed violence across the world or right down the street? In Syria or in Charlotte? Why bother, in the face of a seemingly endless stream of names turned into hashtags by bullets? Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, just this week? Why bother, why risk, why hope, when it hurts to do so, when the evidence for the rationality of despair seems so much more overwhelming than the evidence for the possibility of transformation?
            If you have felt any of this, in the past week, or month, or lifetime, then I am not here tonight to tell you that your feelings are wrong.
You see, there is a lie that goes around, a lie made even more dangerous by its proximity to the truth. And the lie goes like this: “The community of faith is a community of hope. Therefore, feelings of hopelessness, of despair, of deep hurt, are foreign to our community. They have no place here.”
            But Jeremiah’s story tells us that hope and hopelessness are wound tightly together in the narrative of our faith. There is not a neat line between faith and despair. Rather, the lines are intertwined, wrapped around each other. Jeremiah’s trust in God’s future, represented by the purchase of a piece of land, only makes sense when understood against the background of fear, of terror, of trauma that he and his people are facing. His faithful action does not ensure that everything is going to be ok – no, not by a longshot. Jeremiah’s action is not coming from a place of sunny optimism. But God says: “Do it anyway.”
            Earlier we were called to worship with the words of Psalm 91. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry. But it does not shy away from acknowledging ugliness. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist speaks of “the terror of the night,” of “the arrow that flies by day” – perhaps today it would read, “the bullet that flies by day” – and of “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, “ of “the destruction that wastes at noonday.” In Latin translation, that last phrase is rendered as “the noonday demon.” “The noonday demon” is the name that theologians and church authorities in the Middle Ages gave to the phenomenon we might call depression. They used it to describe, in the words of contemporary author Andrew Solomon, “the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your soul away from God.”[2] The noonday demon was no stranger in communities of faith – in fact, it was thought to especially target monks and people committed to a holy life, strangling out faith with a despair immune to sunlight.
            Modern understandings of psychology have moved away from blaming mental health struggles on supernatural spirits. And I, for one, am exceedingly grateful for modern medical understanding. And yet there is something about that image, “the noonday demon,” that perfectly captures the reality of depression and despair, whether situational or clinical. In fact, Andrew Solomon’s book on the topic of depression is called The Noonday Demon for exactly that reason, he explains:
The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.[3]
Perhaps some of you have been visited by this noonday demon, this despair that seems immune to the sunniest of days. Perhaps it’s something that comes to you because of events in our nation and in our world. Perhaps it’s something that just seems to have always been with you, as long as you can remember. Either way, know you are not alone in this room. You are not alone in the community of faith.
No, far from it. You see, I can imagine the noonday demon, haunting Jeremiah as he sat, secluded, cut-off, imprisoned. I can imagine it lurking in the corners of jail cells with so many other prophets and paragons of faith, imprisoned for speaking the truth. Like Paul, who would write his most joyful letter from prison, not because of the hopefulness of his situation but because of its hopelessness. Like Jesus Christ, arrested, jailed, executed, who, you will recall, cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
            Or like the modern-day prophet Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, centuries later, himself imprisoned for participating in a failed plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler, would cite the story of Jeremiah in a letter sent from a Nazi jail to his fiancĂ©e Maria:
When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that ‘houses and field and [vineyards] shall again be bought in this land,’ it was a token of confidence in the future. That requires faith, and may God grant us it daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the hardships it brings us.[4]
Bonhoeffer was speaking of the faith of Jesus, crucified and raised again. We base our faithful action not on the apparent possibilities of today but on the often invisible, seemingly irrational hope of future resurrection.
And so, tonight, we have the words of the psalmist, and the story of Jeremiah, and the words of Bonhoeffer, and the words of Jesus, to remind us: we who gather together in communities of faith are no strangers to the noonday demon. We are no strangers to despair. And we are called not to deny that reality but rather to name it, to give voice to that which otherwise would have power over us in our voiceless-ness. We are called to name our experiences of despair, of depression, of trauma, to name them to God, to hold them up in front of God and to hold space for the possibility of a word from God, guiding us into faithful action.
            And what guidance does God offer us?
Buy the field.
In spite of all evidence to the contrary.
In spite of all the reasons for despair, in spite of the apparent reality of the present, act as if you had faith in God’s resurrection future.
            Buy the field.
Work for peace.
Buy the field.
Act for justice.
Buy the field.
            Do the hard work of community.
Buy the field.
Risk vulnerability and compassion.
Buy the field.
Do it. Anyway.

[1] Norman Gottwald, “Introduction to Lamentations,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1141-42.
[2] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 292.
[3] Ibid., 293.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer and M. von Wedemeyer, Love Letters from Cell 92 (ed. Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and U. Kabitz; London: Harper Collins, 1994), 48-49. Cited in Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 459.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A bad dude with his hands up

"Looks like a bad dude," one officer said to another,
     watching the scene from far away.

"Have to make quick decisions in this line of work, you know."

"Never know what he might have been planning."

And so, they watched --
    from afar --
       as an innocent man,
          with his hands up,
               hung on a cross, dying
                     on a grim hill in Palestine.

And it was only a soldier closer,
    with blood
        spattered on their uniform,
              who muttered the truth
                   perhaps under their breath:

"Truly, this was a Child of God."

On Friday, 16 September 2016, yet another unarmed black man -- Terence Crutcher -- was killed by police in Tulsa, OK. An officer watching the scene from a helicopter can be heard in a video referring to Mr. Crutcher, a father of 4, community college student, and member of his church choir, as a "bad dude." On Saturday, a spokesperson for the police department stated: "Every situation is different. Officers are involved in typically fast-moving situations, and officers who choose to use force, base (those decisions) on the situation involved that they are facing."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 7 -- Respect My Exousia!

Check out the episode 7 of the Fooling with Scripture podcast, where I dig in a bit more to the concepts of authority and authorship that I introduced last week. I look at two scriptures this week, both of which include the Greek term exousia, often translated as "authority." You can read the Mark passage here and the Matthew passage here.

This week's podcast is as good a one as any to quote from one of my favorite bands, mewithoutYou: "The truth belongs to God. The mistakes are mine."

For a commentary on Mark, particularly the sort of upside-down image of power presented by Mark's Jesus, I'd again recommend the first chapter of William C. Placher's Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Westminister John Knox, 1994), particularly pages 11-18. For Matthew's gospel, I'd once again mention David Bosch's book Transforming Mission (Orbis Books, 2011), from page 57 on. I most certainly owe to Bosch the insight that one can't understand Jesus telling the disciples to teach others to obey Jesus' commandments without referring back to Jesus' identification of the greatest commandments, to love God and neighbor. 

The Anne Lamott quote is from the wonderful Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995), pages 85-86. Here's the quote in full, with a bit more of Lamott's trademark wit:
My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they've outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.  
On the other hand, in lieu of a plot you may find that you have a sort of temporary destination, perhaps a scene that you envision as the climax. So you write toward this scene, but when you get there, or close, you see that because of all you've learned about your characters along the way, it no longer works. The scene may have triggered the confidence that got you to work on your piece, but now it doesn't ring true and so it does not make the final cut.  
The Richard Rohr quote is from his book,, with Andreas Ebert, called The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective:
Only a few people have gotten permission from authority figures to trust themselves. Much louder and more frequent has been the order: "Trust us! Obey us! We know what's good for you." 
Rohr goes on to say:
I can still vividly recall that day when a priest for the first time allowed me to be my own authority figure and 'inner authority.' He begged me: 'Promise me, Richard, that you'll always trust yourself.'
Thank to you Father Howard Gray and Rev. Karen Thomas Smith for the insights that I shared in this podcast!

And finally, hat tip to the writers of South Park for inspiring the title of this episode:

Questions? Comments? Scripture you're interested in? Email me!

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Just an update without a clever title

Hi folks,

Just thought I'd share a quick personal update, with no catchy title or real theme.

Leigh and I took a great little trip to Asheville for our first wedding anniversary. Hooray one year! I was going to write a reflective post about a year of marriage, and still might, but I kept starting it and stopping it and eventually just figured I'd at least share how grateful I am for Leigh and for all we've been through together over this past year. It's been a tumultuous year with a lot of transition, but also a lot of growth and learning. Also, of course, we added Penny to the family, and she got to come with us to Asheville. Let's just say she had a good time:
"I bet she won't go in the pond," I said.
"I bet she will," Leigh said.
In other news, I've had a few blogs posted on other sites this week -- one about Penny Lane as a model for ministry which you can read at the Georgetown Campus Ministry blog and one about listening to mental illness which you can read at We Stand With Love. (By the way, the We Stand With Love website is worth spending some time on, it's a really wonderful contrast to the tone of electoral politics.) I've also completed a proposal and two chapters of my book, and have submitted it to a few publishers. I've gotten some good feedback -- nothing concrete yet, but nevertheless, it's exciting. If you want to support that project, and/or my podcast, and/or new music, and/or just my creative stuff in general, please consider checking out my Patreon page. Every little bit helps.

Since blogging and writing a book doesn't really bring in the big cash, I've also started walking dogs for a bit of extra money. Honestly, it ain't bad work if you can get it -- I've been having a good time and it still gives me the time to work on some writing. It gets me out of the apartment, keeps me moving around, and of course, I get to hang out with dogs, which ain't bad. Although Penny Lane is getting a wee bit jealous.

And of course the chaplain-in-residence gig at Georgetown keeps us all busy. Our new students are great and we're really looking forward to seeing all this year has in store!

Hope this finds all of you reading in hope and good health. Would love to hear from you -- feel free to email me! And keep an eye on this space for more posts and new podcast episodes, coming next week!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Fooling with Scripture podcast, Ep 6 -- But why bother?

Here's the sixth episode of Fooling with Scripture. In this one, I'm starting a conversation, which I hope can continue, about the idea of "the authority of scripture." One way to get at this is through the question, "Why bother?" Why bother with scripture to begin with?

Next week I'm going to dig a bit deeper into the concept of authority, with a story from Jesus' life, but this week I wanted to take a look at the text that's generally brought into the conversation when Christians ask why scripture is important: 2 Timothy 3:10-17.

There's plenty out there about the disputed authorship of some of the letters attributed to Paul, if that's the kind of thing that floats your boat. Here's a brief (if dry) summary, which gets at the main point I was trying to make: this would not have been viewed as forgery or dishonesty in its original context, but rather as an honoring of a founding figure. Note the underlying assumption of the ancient world that "old is better" -- wiser, more honored -- which stands in contrast to the general U.S.American assumption that newer and more original is better. 

I slightly misquoted Arundhati Roy's speech "Confronting Empire" from the World Social Forum in January 2003: "Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe." It's a beautiful quote, and gets at both the tentativeness and the hopefulness (rather than the power and authority, at least in a traditional sense) that I hear in the word "inspired," or "breathed into." Here's the full speech if you're interested.

Like this podcast? Help out by becoming a patron! Every little bit helps. I mean it.

Have a question, a comment, an idea, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? Send me an email! I'd love to hear from you. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Bonus "Fooling with Scripture" Episode -- God's Sleeves

Hi folks! I promised on the last podcast that I'd post a bonus episode this week, since I missed last week. So here it is!

A lot of you have probably already heard this version of my song "God's Sleeves," but I thought it was a fun example of some scripture foolery.

If you're interested in learning more about some of the surprising (rather than spectacular) aspects of the weird and wild book of Revelation, check out Brian Blount's book Can I Get a Witness, which (among other things) reads Revelation through a hip hop lens.

If you haven't already, check out my Patreon page -- patrons have access to even more bonus content! Every little bit helps -- even just $1/month.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Fooling with Scripture podcast, Ep 5 -- When Healing Calls

Check out the fifth episode of the Fooling with Scripture podcast (or find it on iTunes), in which I talk about the call to be healed in the story of Bartimaeus.

You can read the full story -- it's a quick read! -- in Mark 10:56-42.

My favorite commentary on Mark's gospel comes from the first chapter of a book by William Placher called Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

I mention a couple of sources about calling and vocation in the podcast. The first is the famous definition of vocation from Frederick Buechner. I've seen a bunch of different versions of that quote from different sources; here's an extended quote from one source, Buechner's book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC (HarperSanFrancisco, 1973, 1993):
It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done....The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet (pgs. 118-119)
I also mentioned Parker Palmer's book Let Your Life Speak (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), which is one of my all-time favorites. The paraphrase of Father Howard Gray is from a personal conversation I was privileged to have with him a few years back.

Also, if you're interested in questions of purpose and calling, and especially if you're a young adult, check out the latest issue of Ignited Magazine -- and consider submitting your writing and/or art!

I hope you find some of this helpful, and even more so that you find a space for healing and wholeness this week!

Questions? Comments? Want a particular scripture fooled with? Want to be a guest? Email me!

Like what I'm doing? Please support me on Patreon! Every little bit helps -- even $1/month -- and I'd really like to get some better technology, which will improve the quality of the recording and also let me add more voices to the podcast. So please help out if you are able!