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Festival of Homiletics: Walter Brueggemann

Day two at the Festival of Homiletics included two appearances by Walter Brueggemann, who is one of my favorite theologians. He's so brilliant and compelling, and it was a delight to hear him again in person. We were told that this would be his last appearance as a Festival speaker, and since Brueggemann is 85, it seems reasonable that he might want to slow down on his speaking engagements. I felt especially blessed with the opportunity to hear him, then. He both preached and lectured, although with preachers, it is hard to tell the difference!

His sermon was called “Meat, Anxiety, and Injustice," using 1 Kings 4:20-28, 9:15-19 and Luke 12:13-31 as texts. Brueggemann talked about how high taxes and low wages for peasants meant lots of meat for Solomon. He had huge places to store his wealth. He still didn't have enough - he wanted more and more, a relentless carnivore who lets his greed fuel his anxiety and his anxiety justify violence.

Jesus's story about bigger barns could be about Solomon, Brueggemann said. The main had extra grain. He could have shared it. Let the land lie fallow. But instead he stores it up. He wants more. He doesn't have enough yet. He congratulates himself. And then he died. He was about to do good. About to share. About to be generous. But he died. "He could not end off the holy reckoning in the night."

So, what's it about? Jesus tells us: "Get out of the anxiety system, because it will kill you. You will pursue the goal of more until you die because more is an illusion. It is a system meant to keep us frightened that someone will get yours. It keeps us dissatisfied, keeps us busy, because if you are busy, you won’t think any dangerous thoughts."

Can any of you, Jesus asks, by participating in the anxiety system enhance your life? No!

The Good News: there is an alternative to the anxiety system! God has been supplying all creation already with fresh water! All creation knows this, says Brueggemann, but we’re the only ones who instead think that more is better.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

Brueggemann said, "We can’t do justice when we’re anxious. The regime of anxiety is fake news. Our anxiety does not add a nanosecond to the well-being of our life." What if ministry is the call to refuse survival anxiety and budget anxiety and pension anxiety? Jesus calls us to be disciples away from the table of much meat. To love Jesus more than these.

Brueggemann's lecture was titled "The Joker Amid Class Warfare." My notes from this lecture are mostly unedited. It was just so. much. I was typing as fast as I could!

8 theses, 2 texts, 5 conclusions

Eight theses: 
  1. The justice agenda is participation in class warfare that requires imagination and movement beyond our comfort zones. 
  2. Class warfare is characteristically waged from above by the powerful haves. 
  3. Many people in mainline congregations have sympathy for the class ware that is waged from above. We’ve learned to the read the bible so that the issues of class warfare are not noticed, and lectionary mostly leaves them out. 
  4. Combatants in class warfare from above mostly do not want it noticed or talked about and when they’re raised from below the predictable reaction from those above is that those below are waging class warfare! 
  5. Much of the Bible is preoccupied with class warfare. Moses/Pharaoh. Between kings who preside over surplus, and prophets who promote justice. It is not different in NT, where Jesus is representative of subsistence farmers of Galilee, and has to go to Jerusalem to be judged/condemned by Rome. 
  6. The church when energized by scripture is an apt arena for the conduct of class warfare. In fact, only place that can be spoken about seriously. Contradicts our need for “nice” spirituality. Not necessarily abrasive and confronting, but needs to teach about theses conflicts of interest. 
  7. Class warfare always features two combatants: the powerful and the vulnerable, the haves, and have-nots, the rich whites and poor people of color. Is unequal because the interest of vulnerable have-nots is not explicit, is not organized, or recognized as legitimate force. From above: well-articulated, well organized, well mobilized, regarded as legitimate.  
  8. The good news in the gospel narrative is that there is a third participant in the dispute about justice: the God of the Exodus, parent of Jesus Christ. This particular, peculiar God is NOT neutral or indifferent, but has taken sides in the struggle for justice.

"Unless the pastors of the church help summon Yahweh to participate in class warfare, we know we will not win." 

Two texts: Psalm 10: A map of justice advocacy, calling Yahweh back to involvement in the world. 

The voice from below is unembarrassed, does not ask politely, gives God big imperative: Rise up! Notice us! Don’t forget us! "Praying for miracles is so different than the social justice prayers progressives pray that expect NOTHING." 

The Joker God is the third participant in the struggle for justice. A third party is in play, summoned by the poor who have no other advocate. And then the map of justice is radically altered, world is open to radical resolve. Jesus comes to make “effective room” for God. 

Luke 18:1-8: Jesus says, "If you pray this way, you won’t lose heart." Meek, timid prayers are a sign of having lost heart. 

Judge: "The only way I can get rid of her is to give her justice, so I gave her justice!" Do you think God will long justice if you cry out day and night?

I wonder, says Jesus/editor, if there will be people capable of such prayer? I wonder if there will be the capacity to summon the joker. A question left unanswered. Left for us to answer. Faith is the resolve not to give in to the low ceiling. The resolve that the holy must be summoned, has not been nullified. "The agency of God matters decisively, but that agency must be summoned." 

Psalms are addressed to God, but designed to be overheard. Psalm 10 both shames and recruits the congregation. A strategic maneuver to redraw the map of injustice, to include the Holy Joker who does Easter. 

Five Conclusions: 

  1. In good creation, everything works for good. And the haves and have-nots are engaged in neighborliness. All work for the common good. 
  2. When the Creator God is silent or asleep or indifferent, the powerful are free to occupy the space of creation in ways that prey upon the vulnerable. Good creation requires sustained attentiveness of Creator or the wicked will occupy that space. 
  3. The poor dare to summon God back into the enterprise of creation confident that when God can be mobilized God can be restored. (Psalm 44) Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep! Awake! Come to our help. Redeem us. Act for the sake of your tenacious solidarity (steadfast love.) We don’t use this psalm because we have trimmed God down – it is too much of an affront – so how can we summon God back to justice struggle? 
  4. It is the work of the church and its pastors to pray without ceasing, to be an engaged friend of the court, to file petitions on behalf of others, uncompromising intercessions, unaccommodating imperatives. (Psalm 88) It is the vulnerable who bear the brunt of the failure to tell the truth, but they have allies in the psalter, the church, when we are not derelict in our duty. 
  5. When God is summoned back into play, neighbors can be together in a shared well-being that is the work of evangelical justice. (Psalm 133) Good neighborliness yields abundance in contrast to the scarcity produced by predation. Justice is a theological matter that concerns the character of God and our relationship with God.


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