Archive for July, 2012
Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15
Greetings everyone! It has been a while since I have preached. Last Sunday we were blessed with daughter Emily’s sermon and the testimonies of our young people, Olivia, Meghan, Ryan, Nicole and Brendan. July 1st we heard from the Rev. Dr. Carol Brighten and on July 22nd from Rev. Dr. Kathryn Ellison. This week I am once again up to bat and welcome your thoughts on a fascinating set of readings.
Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1323&cmpgn=5244
Once again, you need to have the full context of this reading to understand what is really going on. In the previous chapters 15- 16 you can read all about how God rescued Israel from Pharaoh, King of Egypt and his army, leading them through the Red Sea. This exciting episode is the climax to four hundred years of slavery in Egypt and oppression under Pharaoh. Finally, the people of Israel are free. Finally the people of Israel are liberated from the bondage of slavery. Finally they are on the way to a land of their own. But Israel soon learns that the way of freedom is not the way of ease and comfort. With freedom comes responsibility and the call to continue trusting in the Lord who made them free.
Israel, it seems, has a bad case of “good old days” disease. Wilderness life is difficult. The people are hungry. They begin reminiscing about the days back in Egypt where at least they had food. “We had meat to eat and as much other food as we wanted” they complain. I doubt that, as slaves, they really were that well fed. But that is how it is when you look back at the past through rose colored glasses. Everything was better back then. The church was so full we had to set up chairs in the overflow room. Kids behaved themselves better and had respect. People were more patriotic. Food tasted better. On and on it goes. Was the past really all that wonderful? Of course not! The Israelites were slaves. Had they forgotten so soon what it was like to be treated like a head of cattle? Evidently, they had forgotten. Barbara Strisand sings in her song, The Way We Were,
Memries, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
That is the problem with the “good old days” disease. Our selective memories make the past seem a lot rosier than it really was. We fall into the trap of measuring the present against a past that is no more real than the Emerald City of Oz.
Furthermore, “good old days” disease represents more than just delusional thinking. It constitutes rebellion against our God. “This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24. Who are we to throw the gift of today back in God’s face and tell God it isn’t good enough? Who are we to reject the time and place where God now places us and sit pouting because our memories of some other time and place seem better? God calls us to a new day. Our stubborn insistence remaining in the old one needs to be named for what it is: rebellion.
That said, the journey from slavery into freedom is long and difficult. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. The way was slow and fraught with dangers. Sometimes it seemed as though they were not making any progress. Sometimes they appeared to be going nowhere. Often it seemed that they were losing ground. The life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us is no different. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading us into a new creation when our bodies increasingly show their age, our energy level isn’t what it used to be and it seems as though the best years of our lives are behind us. That is often when the temptation to look back is strongest. But Israel is warned repeatedly that there is nothing for us in the past and that the only way given to us is forward.
Of course, the good news here is that God can be trusted to provide for our needs along the way. Our needs may not be the same as our wants. Perhaps quail is not what Israel would have chosen from a more varied menu. The manna may have been sweet as honey, but even the bread of angels can become tiresome after forty years. Yet it was enough to sustain Israel throughout her journey and that is what Jesus promises as well. As the gospel for this Sunday points out, Jesus is our “bread from heaven” that sustains us.
Psalm 78 is one of a relatively few historical psalms in the Psalter that recount the focal points of Israel’s history. In a pre-literate society where the common people had no knowledge or written language or access to books, the narrative of Israel’s journey with her God was passed on through song, poetry, liturgy and dance. This particular psalm begins with the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt and concludes with God’s selection of David and his descendents to lead Israel and “be a shepherd to the people of Israel.”
The rise of the monarchy in Israel was surrounded by controversy. The prophet and judge, Samuel, was appalled when the people demanded that he appoint a king for them so that they might “be like the other nations.” After all, God called Israel to be unlike the other nations. In a culture that regarded kings as equal to gods, only the Lord was worthy of the title “king.” Much of the prophetic tradition in Israel remained critical of the monarchy and saw it as a betrayal of all that Israel was called to be. Nevertheless, there is also in the Hebrew Scriptures an expression of the belief that God’s covenant with David and the rise of his Kingdom was a saving event to be celebrated with thanksgiving. Psalm 78 is an example of this pro-monarchy sentiment. The psalm concludes with the words:
[God] chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
71 from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
72 With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skilful hand.
We saw an echo of this pro-monarchy enthusiasm in last Sunday’s gospel when the crowd of five thousand, having eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes Jesus blessed, sought to take him and make him king by force. Clearly, Jesus must be the one sent by God to shepherd his people Israel. Had he not, as the psalm says, “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven”? Yet Jesus seems intent on not becoming a king like David-or at least the kind of king the people were seeking. That becomes clear as Jesus speaks in this Sunday’s gospel about the true bread from heaven he has come to offer.
As you may recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd of five thousand he had just fed as they were seeking to take him by force and make him king. The disciples set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee that same evening. Jesus later rejoined his disciples in their boat on the Sea and they arrived in Capernaum. Some of the five thousand pursued Jesus and found him there on the other side of the Sea. Now they are curious as to how Jesus was able to get himself across the sea without a boat, but Jesus cuts right to the chase. “You are here because you ate your fill. Not because you saw signs.” That might appear to be contradictory. The people had, in fact, seen a remarkable sign in the miraculous feeding. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they had witnessed a miracle only. They do not understand that the feeding was a sign; that the drama unfolding in the wilderness of Galilee was intended to reflect the wilderness of Sinai where the children of Israel wandered for forty years depending on the Lord for each day’s sustenance. The fact that they demand from Jesus a sign as proof of his claims demonstrates how thoroughly they have missed the meaning of what they experienced in the wilderness. They were looking for a king to restore Israel to a position of power and prosperity. Jesus offers them a restored relationship with the Lord who promises to lead them through the wilderness to abundant life. That is the true bread that comes down from heaven.
It is obvious that the crowed has misunderstood the text from Exodus previously discussed. They credit Moses with providing the children of Israel with bread in the wilderness and they hope that Jesus will do the same. But Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but the Lord who provided for the children of Israel. Faith in Moses or any other human leader is misplaced. Furthermore, fixation on things like bread that ensure mere survival is insufficient. One does not live by bread alone. Life that is abundant and eternal flows from a vital relationship of trust in the God who alone can give us such life.
So what is this “bread” that comes down from heaven? It is Jesus, plain and simple. There is no “work” demanded by God as a price for this bread. It has already been freely given. The “work,” such that it is, amounts simply to “believing in the one God sent.” Belief, of course, is not mere ascent to a theological proposition. To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus; to live out of a relationship of faith in his promises. But this is God’s work, not our own. God wins our trust and strengthens our faith by consistently demonstrating his own faithfulness to us.
At this point in the letter to the Ephesians, the author turns to a description of what life in Christ looks like. The remarkable thing about this text describing life in the church is the total lack of hierarchy. In virtually every other organization, be it social, political or religious, the key question always comes down to “Who is in charge.” In the Body of Christ, however, the key issue is “What is your gift?” “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of us all.” Though the church is made up of individual members, each has his or her own “gift.” The gifts, however they may differ from one another, have one purpose: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Much scholarly debate has swirled around the enumeration of these gifts in vs. 11. Some interpreters maintain that the apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors represent offices in the church. Others maintain that these reflect natural gifts recognized by the community and exercised by individuals in non-structured communities. Whichever the case may be, it is clear that the gifts are not intended to enhance the recipient, but to strengthen the unity of the church. So what matters is not who has which gift, but how the gift is used. A pastor that pushes through an educational program that interests him or her, but does not meet the needs of the church is not rightly exercising the gift of ministry. A council officer that manages to get a new addition to the church building erected, but in doing so causes dissent and division throughout the congregation might be improving upon the structure of a building, but he or she is not “building up the Body of Christ.” That does not mean, of course, that we all walk on egg shells and do nothing for fear of offending anyone. Sometimes uncomfortable truths need to be spoken. Often the mission of the church must take precedent over deeply valued traditions in the congregation. Correction and reproof is part and parcel of living together in love. The church will necessarily deal with divisive and controversial topics. But unlike the rest of the world where the most powerful personality prevails and issues are often settled by a simple up or down vote, we are a community determined to take whatever time is needed to arrive at a resolution and course of action that everyone can live with-even if it means sacrificing “progress.” Getting together is more important than getting ahead. For that sort of living, we need a lot of lowliness, forbearance, patience and meekness.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 4:42-44
Greetings one and all! As you know, I spent the better part of last week down in New Orleans with Kim Pulido, my daughter Emily Olsen and five of our young people attending the ELCA Youth Gathering. This event takes place every three years and draws over thirty-thousand youth from all over the United States. Worshiping and working with these young people and listening to their thoughts and convictions has convinced me that the church they represent is not our parents’ Lutheran Church. This generation has no qualms about welcoming gay and lesbian persons as pastoral leaders. This question, that was so divisive in our church for over two decades, is not even an issue for them. These young people are passionately committed to justice for the poor; ending violence in the family, in the classroom and on the world stage. They believe discipleship means involvement with these very political issues, but they have little patience with abstract political red state/blue state kinds of arguments. They love worship that involves “heart and hands” as well as “voices” and preaching that reminds them of God’s love for them while challenging them to run with that promise of God’s grace in their daily lives.
This Sunday Emily will be preaching and our young delegates to the Gathering will be sharing their experiences with us. Following the service, there will be a coffee fellowship during which we will see photos and video highlights from the Gathering.
That serves as a good lead in to the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, the feeding of the five thousand from the Gospel of John. Unique to John’s telling of the story is an unnamed youth. He appears on the scene just as the disciples are facing what they view as a crisis. Five thousand people have been with Jesus for a long time out in the wilderness. They are hungry and we all know that hungry masses can easily turn violent. Buying food for all these people is not an option. Even if the disciples could have scare up two hundred denaii and there had been a deli nearby, the likelihood that it would have food on hand to serve five thousand is slim. At this point, Andrew brings the young boy’s tendered lunch to the attention of Jesus. I don’t actually know whether the boy offered his lunch or whether Andrew commandeered it. The lesson does not tell us one way or the other, but it would be just like a kid to do something like putting up his lunch in circumstances such as this. A kid doesn’t understand that what little he has in his lunch box will not even make a dent in the hunger of five thousand people. When he becomes a man, he will understand that there is only so much to go around; that if people are hungry it’s their problem, not his; that the best chance you have of survival is to hang on to what you have got and defend it with all means necessary. At this point, he is just a kid. He doesn’t understand “the real world.” The only thing he does understand is that Jesus wants to feed this hungry crowd. He believes Jesus can do it and that he has something to offer that Jesus can use. Small wonder, then, that Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:3 that “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The first step in becoming a disciple of Jesus is for us to unlearn all the lessons of adulthood. My prayer for the thirty thousand young people I met this last week is that they will never grow up into the kind of adulthood that can no longer believe in Jesus’ promise to provide for all our needs-and more. I pray that they never outgrow generosity or the capacity to trust Jesus.
It should be noted that this story is an opener for a lengthy discourse Jesus is about to have with his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. At the end of this discourse, many of Jesus’ disciples will desert him. This chapter is rich with sacramental imagery and challenges to faithful discipleship. I encourage you to read the chapter in its entirety before each Sunday in August.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, meaning that each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other. And so on down to letter Z. This kind of composition assists in memorization which, in a pre-literate society, is the only means of passing down music and literature.
The psalm as a whole extols the character of God as compassionate as God is almighty. It is both an expression of praise to God and also a confessional statement made to the people of God declaring God’s goodness to all of Creation. Note that although the people of the covenant are in the best position to recognize and witness to this God, they are not the only beneficiaries of God’s compassion. The entire earth is God’s concern.
We can see in vs 15 an echo of the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day or daily bread.” “The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” It is just because sustenance comes from the hand of God that we can be content with this day’s bread without worrying about tomorrow. The assurance and confidence in God’s willingness and promise to meet our needs ties in very nicely with the feeding of the five thousand and the discourse that follows throughout John Chapter 6.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Eph. 3:14. There is a play on words here that gets lost in the translation. The Greek word for “father,” “pater” is the root for “patria” which means “country” or “father land.” The significance of this claim would not have been lost to folks living under the yoke of Rome which claimed to be the father of all peoples. This is a question of “Who’s your daddy?” aimed directly at Caesar.
When the author of Ephesians speaks of “power” it is always the power of the Spirit that is grounded in love. Urging his listeners to “put on the whole armor of God,” the author of Ephesians turns this militaristic image on its head by identifying the church’s weaponry as truth, righteousness, peace, faith and prayer. Eph. 6:10-20. The author prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” It is through being “in Christ,” that one becomes grounded in love; for Christ Jesus is God’s concrete expression of love.
This short story is one of many about Elisha and his miraculous works found in Chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha, you may recall, was the prophetic successor to Elijah who was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire. He was a member and perhaps a leader of an obscure group identified in Second Kings only as “the sons of the prophets.” These folks seem to have lived together in communities. They were married, had children and apparently held property and so should not be understood as a monastic order of any kind. It is best to think of the sons of the prophets as a professional guild of persons with the unique ability to speak on God’s behalf. By the time of the prophet Amos, the guild appears to have become little more than the mouthpiece of the monarchy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Hence, Amos specifically denies being the son of a prophet. See Amos 7:14-15.
Based on what proceeds it in Chapter 4, we know that this story takes place during a famine. A man comes to Elisha with a first fruits offering. We do not know precisely why this offering was made. There is no statutory requirement in the Pentateuch for offerings to prophetic communities, but this appears to be a religious offering of some kind. Elisha orders his servant to share the offering (twenty loaves of bread and a sack of grain) with the rest of the sons of the prophets numbering about one hundred. The servant, quite understandably, balks at the notion. After all, the offering is not large enough to feed the whole community. It is better that the community’s leader, Elisha, be spared than that he perish from starvation along with the entire community. Elisha is confident, however, that there will be enough for the community and to spare. This confidence is based on a word he has received from the Lord to that effect. Like Jesus, Elisha focuses not on the magnitude of the hunger or the scarcity of his resources, but on the promise of the Lord to provide. Once again, this story challenges us to join the psalmist’s affirmation that God can indeed be trusted to provide for every living thing.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Greetings everyone and welcome! As you know, I will be in New Orleans next week from Tuesday through Sunday with five of our young members at the nationwide ELCA Youth Gathering. I ask for your prayers for all of us in our travels and for our enrichment as we join in worship, learning and mission with over thirty thousand other folks from around the country. Needless to say, I will not be present on Sunday Morning. Rev. Kathryn Ellison will be presiding in my place. As always, she will have a good word for us and I encourage you to extend to her a warm welcome.
The texts for this week seem to focus on “shepherding” or “pastoral” leadership. The prophet Jeremiah delivers a scathing critique of Judah’s rulers whose leadership has exploited and scattered the people of Israel and then promises that God will raise up a “righteous Branch” from the house of David to restore peace and security to the people. Psalm 23, of course, speaks eloquently of the Lord as our Shepherd. In the Gospel, Jesus confronts a crowd of people all in very great need. These people arouse his compassion because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” The lesson from Ephesians does not tie in thematically with the other lessons. Indeed, the second reading typically constitutes one of a series of readings from a particular epistle rather than a text selected to match a theme. Nevertheless, the author speaks about us gentile folks, who had no part in Israel or its covenant promises, being brought into (or herded into) that covenant through Christ. I must say that, as far as my own ministry is concerned, this Ephesians text is the most helpful model for me. I have never been comfortable with the term “Pastor,” which means “shepherd.” I am not the Good Shepherd. Jesus is. I recently read an article in the Christian Century in which the author (whose name escapes me) described his pastoral role as that of a sheep dog. I prefer that analogy. I am a lot like a sheep dog. I don’t know where the green pastures are or where to find the still waters. I can’t fight off the wolves or lead the flock through the valley of the shadow. Only the shepherd can do that. But I do know where the Shepherd is and I am certain that the Shepherd knows where he is going even if the rest of us, including the sheep dog, don’t. The sheep dog can herd the sheep to the Good Shepherd and keep them within the flock. He can seek them when they stray from the flock and keep the flock together. That sounds a lot more like what I do. The heavy lifting belongs to the Shepherd.
The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry took place during the last dark days of Jerusalem-as did that of Ezekiel (see notes from Pentecost 6). The little kingdom of Judah emerged from Assyrian domination around 640 B.C.E. under King Josiah and gained a large measure of power and independence. But that good fortune was not to last. Egypt and Babylonia soon rose up to fill the power vacuum left after Assyria’s fall. Josiah was slain in a fruitless battle with Egypt. The victorious Pharaoh Neco placed one of Josiah’ sons on the throne as his vassal. Shortly thereafter, in 605 B.C.E., the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzer defeated Egypt and what was left of Assyria in the battle of Carchemish. Nebuchadnezzer occupied Judah in 597, placed an uncle of the king, Zedekiah, on the throne. Zedekiah, intent on restoring Judah to its former glory under King David, engaged in a diplomatic strategy of playing his Babylonian master off against Egypt. This was a dangerous game that Zedekiah ultimately lost. In reliance upon a promise of support from Egypt, Zedekiah led his nation in revolt against Babylonian domination. Egyptian support never came
and Jerusalem was surrounded, subjected to a brutal siege that ended with its destruction in 587 B.C.E.
This is the context in which we read Jeremiah’s criticism of the “shepherds” of Israel, that is, her rulers. . Jeremiah’s critique rests upon a tradition that saw the Davidic monarchy as the champion of justice, the protector of the poor and oppressed. e.g. Psalm 73:12. Yet in a hopeless effort to achieve national glory, the king and his minions disregarded the covenant at the heart of Judah’s existence. Judah’s kings took to worshiping the gods of other nations and relying upon international military alliances rather than on the Lord their God. The people of Judah suffered the horrific consequences of Judah’s misguided and self serving political agendas. They were killed in the crossfire of war, driven into exile and impoverished as a result of the Babylonian reprisals. Rather than protecting and caring for the sheep, the leaders disregarded their welfare, exploited and scattered them among the nations. Yet the prophecy ends with a word of promise. God finally will raise up from the line of David a “righteous branch.” Jeremiah continues to hope for a faithful descendent of David who, like David himself, will rule Judah with an eye toward caring for the sheep.
This lesson comes to us in the heat of a presidential contest that promises to be contentious and divisive. It is appropriate to ask what our “shepherds” are doing to unite and care for the flock. Does winning the election trump leadership? Is purely selfish political ambition driving those who would be our shepherds? Judah’s rulers were intent on restoring the former glory of Judah under David and Solomon. That vision was entirely unrealistic under the current political circumstances. Moreover, Jeremiah would have his people know that what they regarded as the “good old days,” were in God’s view a dismal failure in terms of covenant faithfulness. Therefore, Jeremiah had the task of telling his people that God would not support the nationalistic aspirations of its faithless rulers and their diplomatic duplicity. God sought faithfulness, trust and obedience-qualities for which Judah’s rulers with their real politic had little use.
Ultimately, Judah’s shepherds were responsible for misleading the people with a false hope. They promised glory without obedience; greatness without faithfulness; prosperity without sacrifice. I might be on dangerous ground here, but I believe that both presidential candidates are guilty in equal measure of this same sin. And I feel compelled to add that we, the people, share in the responsibility for this propagation of false hope. What we need are leaders that tell us the truth: that we face a crisis in the rising cost of medical care; that the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate; that more and more of our citizens are falling below the poverty line; that our disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources is not sustainable. Further we need leaders who tell us that all of these problems are difficult and complex. Addressing them effectively will require sacrifice, hard work and profound changes in our lifestyles. But that is a message nobody wants to hear and we are not likely to elect a leader who brings us such unwelcome tidings. Instead, we elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear: that the solutions are simple and require nothing from us. We vote for people who tell us that we can have prosperity, security and peace without paying a penny more in taxes, without enduring any risk and without sacrificing an ounce of comfort. Of course, soon after putting these people in office it becomes clear to us that we have not elected the messiah, but another human being who cannot possibly keep the promises that had to be made to win the election. So when the next election rolls around, we angrily kick the false god we have made off the pedestal on which we placed it and set up another one in his place. I don’t see this deadly cycle ending until we finally face up to the truth. Our problems cannot be regulated out of existence nor will they miraculously disappear if only we let the free hand of the market economy do its magic. As long as we continue to believe in lies, we will continue to elect liars.
I don’t have any suggestions for fixing the political system in Washington (or Bergen County either, for that matter). All I can do is point to the righteous branch Jeremiah spoke of. He does not come to us with promises of easy fixes and miraculous cures. Rather, he calls us to the slow work of witnessing to God’s Kingdom and following him in a common life of service to one another. I have always been convinced that the one and only thing the church has to offer the world is a vision of God’s alternative for living together. Jesus did not preach easy solutions. To the contrary, “it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate that leads to destruction is wide.” “Whoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up the cross and follow me.” I doubt Jesus could ever get himself elected to public office, but that is not a thing to which Jesus aspired. The reign of God is made known not in the seats of empire or the halls of congress, but in communities that spring from the righteous branch where “the least” of all people are valued the most, where the truth is spoken in love, where daily bread is enough and where the offer of hospitality is made to all people all the time. That is where the truth that sets us free is enacted. That is where the light from God’s future breaks into the darkness of the present age.
What more can I say about Psalm 23 than has already been said? The biggest problem we have with this reading is that it is so familiar that I sometimes think it goes over us without our even hearing it. For example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.” Really??? Let’s think about this. What if God were to appear and ask you personally, “Hey, do you need anything?” Do you think you would really say, “Nope. I’m good.” Though there is nothing I absolutely need to survive until the morning, I could think of plenty of things that it would be very helpful to have. Yet maybe that is the point. After all, Jesus teaches us to pray for today’s bread. That is the only material thing Jesus instructs us to pray for-essentially what most of us already have. The rest is not need, but merely appetite. Jesus says nothing about prayers for the satisfaction of our appetites.
One might well contrast the Lord as shepherd with the shepherds Jeremiah excoriates in the prior lesson. The Lord leads the sheep to what they need-which may not be with they want or think they need. The Lord does not promise to annihilate the enemies of the sheep, but teaches them to live abundantly and confidently in the presence of their enemies. The Lord does not promise that the way in which he leads the sheep will be easy or free from suffering and death. Rather, the Lord promises to be with the sheep in the valley of the shadow and to lead them even there.
Finally, when it comes to “dwelling in the house of the Lord forever,” I think we have a parallel in the letter to the Ephesians which emphasizes “being in Christ.” Being “in Christ,” is for the author of Ephesians living in community with the people called together by the good news of Jesus, the church. According to Ephesians, “the blessings in the heavenly places,” “the forgiveness of our sins” and the mystery of God’s will all are revealed within the community of persons called out to live faithfully, truthfully and obediently with Jesus. See Sermon of July 15th at http://tlcbogotanj.org/
This text is a poignant reminder that we in the church are, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “wild olive shoots” that were grafted into the cultivated olive garden of Israel. This reminder is important because historically there has been a lot of bad theology out there suggesting that somehow the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. This understanding is further exacerbated by our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as the “Old Testament.” This might suggest that the covenant with Israel is obsolete, that Old Testament history is a story of failure that had to be corrected and replaced by the New Testament. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The God who raised Jesus from death is the same God that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land. The covenant, it must be emphasized, was with Abraham and Sarah and their descendents. We gentiles come into the picture for one reason and one reason only: Jesus, the messiah of Israel, invites us in. As Paul makes very clear in his letter to the Romans, God has not revoked the covenant promises made to Israel. Israel still is God’s people and no less so merely because in God’s mercy the benefits of those promises have been extended to us gentiles through Jesus.
Of course, this passage also emphasizes once again that the flesh and blood church, the communion of saints, is the place where God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is made manifest. It is in the church that the mystery of God’s intent for all creation is revealed.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1302&cmpgn=5244
Nothing infuriates me more than when the lectionary people take their unholy pruning shears to the scriptures and begin cutting and pasting together a reading made up of selective verses. That is exactly what has been done here. Between verses 34 and 53 we have Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and his appearing to the disciples in the midst of the Sea of Galilee walking on the water. I suppose this was done because we will be hearing John’s account of the feeding in next week’s gospel. I can understand why one would not want to place these two parallel stories back to back. Still, it seems to me that it would have been better to select another Markan reading that would not have required such brutal surgery. That said, the lesson is what it is. So I will take it as it comes, though I cannot ignore the feeding of the five thousand or the encounter on the Sea of Galilee as they both have an impact on the meaning of the text.
It is highly significant that chapter 6 begins with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth which is followed by his sending out the Twelve to preach and heal. This mission activity appears to have alerted Herod Antipas to the Jesus movement and he is convinced that his old nemesis, John the Baptizer, has been raised. Our text for Sunday begins with the disciples returning from their mission and what appears to be a retreat for debriefing. Jesus and his disciples go out to a “lonely place” only to find that the crowds have gotten there ahead of them. Jesus finds the people much the way Jeremiah found them six centuries earlier-like sheep without a shepherd. It is significant that, just as the disciples relied upon the hospitality of the towns they visited in their mission, so now the crowd is hungry and in need of hospitality. The disciples suggest sending the people away to fend for themselves, but Jesus insists that they be shown the same hospitality the disciples were shown on their mission trip. Five loaves and two fish seem inadequate for such an undertaking but, when placed in Jesus’ hands, they turn out to be more than enough. The reading ends as it began-with crowds of people seeking Jesus.
More than anything else, these verses illustrate for us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the very center of discipleship is hospitality-the willingness to make space, share necessities and take time for the neighbor. Sometimes I wonder whether our life as a congregation adequately reflects this radical hospitality that Mark paints for us in the gospel lesson. Indeed, sometimes I wonder whether it exists at all. That is one reason why I attend the Ekklesia Project Gathering each year. I always discover different forms of church life and different expressions of what faithfulness to the gospel looks like. One such expression is Church of the Sojourners. The Church of the Sojourners is a live-together church community of about thirty people of various ages and backgrounds located in San Francisco. The congregation resides in four large houses and shares money and resources. Worship is held in homes rather than in a church building. Members eat five meals together every week, spend time together and take vacations together. In the church’s own words:
“Here at Church of the Sojourners, we seek to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing our homes, resources, and friendship, our weaknesses as well as our strengths—not because living together is a requirement of committed discipleship, but because it is one real way we have found to provide us with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood which help build us into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.”
Obviously, this is not a model that every community can emulate. Nevertheless, it represents a challeng for us to examine our own ways of being the church in our community and think about ways to find deeper and more faithful expressions of our faith. I encourage you to visit the website for Church of the Sojourners at http://churchofthesojourners.wordpress.com/
Pentecost 7, Sunday, July 15, 2012
Greetings everyone and welcome back to the conversation. As many of you know, I spent the latter part of last week in Chicago attending the annual Ekklessia Project Gathering. Our theme this year was “Slow Church-Abiding Together in the Patient Work of God.” I suspect that I will be sharing more with you about this marvelous experience in the days ahead. In the mean time, anyone wishing to find out more about the Ekklessia Project or the Gathering is encouraged to visit its website at http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/.
The texts for this Sunday illustrate the cost of speaking truth to power. The cost for Amos was deportation. The price of speaking the truth was death for John the Baptist. I think that in our age the greatest threat to the truth comes not from tyrants that would silence it with violence, but rather from an avalanche of inaccuracies, misinformation and outright lies broadcast over television and radio, forwarded to millions by malicious e-mails and posted on Twitter and Facebook. The Twenty-first Century prophet must struggle to be heard over thousands of voices hawking their religious, ideological and political wares while lying with absolute impunity. Yet somehow, when the truth is spoken, it has a ring of genuineness that evokes a response. Sometimes the response is faith, but in some instances the response is hostility.
Amos is a cranky prophet with several strikes against him. For one thing, it doesn’t help that he is a foreigner. Though born and raised in the Kingdom of Judah, Amos is called and sent to preach to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel was experiencing a period of military might, economic prosperity and religious revival under its powerful and successful King, Jeroboam II. Happy days were here again and the people were convinced that the prosperity they enjoyed was proof of God’s favor. God was blessing Israel. Amos had a difficult message for Israel: God was not happy with Israel. Specifically, God was angry at Israel’s government and upper class “who oppress the poor and crush the needy.” Moreover, God was about to bring the reign of Jeroboam and Israel’s era of prosperity and success to a devastating end. Do you remember the national response to the sermon of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright when he said:” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America.”? Well, you can just imagine how Israel responded to Amos when he stood up in the national sanctuary at Bethel to announce that “the high places of Israel shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and [God] will raise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Small wonder that Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, removed Amos from the clergy roster. It is hardly surprising that Amos was banished to the much smaller “Judah Synod.” As Amaziah observed, “the land is not able to bear [Amos’] words.”
Listen closely, however, to Amaziah’s words to Amos: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom”. Seriously? Is the sanctuary really the property of the Kingdom and is God nothing more than the king’s humble tenant? It seems that Amaziah’s only concern is with the honor of the King and respect for the kingdom. He is fiercely patriotic, but not one wit faithful. Amaziah is deeply concerned with the political ramifications of Amos’ preaching, but it never occurs to him to ask whether that preaching might actually be true. True or not, it is unpatriotic, dangerous, offensive and upsetting. That is reason enough for snuffing it out. As far as Amaziah is concerned, Amos is a national security risk and the best way to get rid of him is to strip him of his official clergy status and send him into exile. But Amos will not so easily fade away. He is not the least bit ruffled by his removal from the clergy roster. “I am no prophet,” he says. He needs no official credentials. Unlike Amaziah, Amos is not the king’s patsy. He belongs to the God who sent him to preach-and preach he will!
I think we would do well to ponder this lesson as we contemplate renovations to our own sanctuary. The first question we need to begin asking ourselves is whether it really is our sanctuary. I suppose that from Amaziah’s point of view, Trinity’s sanctuary belongs to Trinity’s members. After all, we built it. Our offerings support it. We should have the final say in what it looks like, how it is used and what goes on there. From a worldly standpoint, it is hard to argue with this logic. But as Paul would remind us, we don’t view matters from a worldly perspective. We view all things from the standpoint of our call to follow Jesus. No, the sanctuary is not ours to do with as we please to meet our own personal needs. It is a tool given us to serve Jesus in this neighborhood in which we are placed. So the questions we always need to be asking are: 1) How can we transform our sanctuary in ways that will reflect to the rest of the neighborhood the welcome extended to all people in Christ Jesus? 2) How can we make our sanctuary a tool for reconciling conflict, overcoming injustice and building peace in our community? 3) What is God calling us to in this community and how can we use our sanctuary to answer that call? We cannot afford to forget who belongs to whom.
This is a psalm of lament. If you were to read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. This is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmists belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
What is remarkable about this prayer is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken out of a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the past faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one myself and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust in someone develops over years and many experiences of discovering that the someone you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also through the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
A word or two about Ephesians. According to the opening verses, the book is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus. Although the piece certainly contains many images and concepts that can be traced to Paul, it is the consensus of most New Testament Scholars that Paul did not author the letter. Most likely, a disciple or associate of Paul composed the letter decades after the apostle’s death. The book of Ephesians was most likely composed somewhere between 85 and 90 A.D. toward the end of the first Christian Century. The apostles had all died, but the world kept right on turning without missing a beat. The second generation of believers was faced with the fact that the close of the age might be a long time in coming. So the question was, how to live in the interim? That is, in large part, what the letter to the Ephesians seeks to address. The author admonishes his audience to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” 4:1. Followers of Jesus are to live a life of love for one another in the unity of the Spirit. 4:3. As they make their long journey through time, they must bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ by lives lived in striking contrast to the surrounding culture governed by rulers, authorities, “principalities and powers, hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” 6:12-13. They must support themselves with honest work, speak truthfully to one another and conduct themselves in a manner that glorifies the God by whom they have been called. 4:17-32. The Church is a people called to “be imitators of God,” “to walk in love” as Christ loved them and gave Himself for them. 5:1-2.
In the lesson for today, the author of Ephesians articulates an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” 1:8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. Rather, the church is the first fruits and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” To be chosen is therefore not a position of special privilege, but a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people.
John got himself in trouble for criticizing Herod Antipas (not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Christ child). There were plenty of reasons for criticizing Herod whose ruthlessness matched that of his father. Perhaps John addressed these misdeeds also, but the issue that got him into hot water was a family matter. Herod divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea in favor of Herodias, who had formerly been married to his brother, Philip. In this day and age, one might remark, “So who cares?” As it turns out, this illicit marriage played a huge role in an escalating conflict between Herod and his former father-in-law, Aretas which finally blew up into a military confrontation that went badly for Herod and the people he ruled.
While marriages today are typically not part and parcel of international treaties, they do involved families, friends, and frequently produce children. That is why who sleeps with whom is never a purely private matter, despite the insistence of many folks to the contrary. Marriage has ripple effects among large circles of people. So also does divorce. John understood that very well. There is no such thing as “purely individual and private.”
Note that when Herod hears about Jesus, his conclusion is that John the Baptist has been raised. In a sense, he is right. The same God that spoke through John is now speaking again through God’s Son. Herod’s attempt to silence John’s voice, first through imprisonment and then through execution, has failed. With the advent of Jesus, John is back in spades. Herod is rightfully fearful. Herod was always fearful of John. Having him in jail was like holding a hot potato. Herod knew John to be a righteous man and was afraid to kill him. Yet at the same time he was afraid to let him go, knowing that John’s words were as dangerous to his kingdom as those of Amos to Jeroboam. Finally, the king’s pride trumps his fear and he has John executed to save face in front of his guests.
It is interesting to note that John’s disciples came forward to give their master a proper burial. Jesus’ disciples will do no such thing. Only the women will visit Jesus’ tomb and then only after his burial.
Pentecost 6, July 8, 2012
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Greetings to all and best wishes for your July 4th Celebrations! Though I will be presiding at Sunday Eucharist, I will not be preaching. In view of the fact that I will be away most of the week and driving back from Chicago on Saturday, Ken Dore’ has graciously agreed to take on that office for the day. It is wonderful to have such gifts as Ken possesses in this congregation. I am sure that, as always, he will have a good word for us.
Still, I cannot seem to stay away from the readings for the coming week. Here are my thoughts. As always, I welcome yours as I am sure Ken would also.
The time is just before the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 B.C.E. The little nation of Judah, all that remains of the twelve tribes of Israel, stands alone against the might of the Babylonian Empire. Judah’s king made the decision to rebel against Babylonian regional control in hopes of receiving military support from Egypt. The decision was a bad one. Egyptian support never came. Now it is too late to turn back. The die is cast. Babylonian troops will soon encircle the city. Only an act of divine deliverance can save Judah now. That is precisely what Judah is hoping for.
In the midst of this crisis, Ezekiel is getting a tough assignment. He is sent to speak a word to people that don’t want to hear it, won’t listen to it and might even resist it violently. He has got to tell the people that there will be no divine deliverance this time. The Babylonian invasion is God’s judgment on a rebellious and recalcitrant people. Resistance is futile. In repentance alone lies Judah’s last hope. Neither king nor people are having any of that. They are determined to hold out for a miracle.
If you have ever had the experience of having to say “no” to your teenager or, as a teenager, you have tried to move mom or dad from “don’t even start with me” to “yes,” then you know how hard Ezekiel’s job was. Once people get dug into a position, the harder you try to push them off of it, the more tenaciously they cling. It seems as though God the irresistible force is pressing against Judah the immovable object and poor Ezekiel is caught in the middle. God does not seem to have much confidence that the word spoken to Judah will be received. Nevertheless, as a result of Ezekiel’s ministry, Judah will know that God’s prophet has been among them.
Perhaps the good news here comes from the mere fact that we have these words from Ezekiel at all. Obviously, the people of Judah finally did recognize that there had been a true prophet among them during those last dark days of Jerusalem. Clearly, the words of Ezekiel declaring God’s judgment helped the Jewish exiles begin to make sense of the terrible thing that had happened to them. In all probability, this recognition did not come until long after the destruction of Jerusalem and very likely after Ezekiel’s death. In short, the prophet may have died without ever seeing the fruit of his ministry.
That should give some encouragement to all of us who have taught Sunday School and confirmation class to a generation of children who are no longer in the church. It should give some hope to a church that increasingly finds itself smaller, poorer and further out on the margins of society. The word that has been sown will be received-but in God’s own time which might not be in our own. The world will one day know that prophets have been at work in its midst whether we live to see it or not.
That is not to say, of course, that we should not work at speaking the word in fresh and creative ways that engage people of all ages. The last thing I want to do is promote bad preaching and boring worship. Still, we cannot judge our faithfulness to this task by our own perceptions of effectiveness. The critical question is whether we are answering the call to preach the word God gives us in Christ Jesus-whether anyone seems to be listening or not.
I turn next to the Gospel lesson because it appears to be paired with the lesson from Ezekiel. Here, too, the prophet (Jesus) is met with hostility and skepticism. I must confess that I don’t understand the opposition Jesus faces in his home town of Nazareth. Jesus has attained rock star popularity throughout Galilee. He cannot go into a town without collecting mobs of people. You would think that Nazareth would welcome its famous son with a parade down Main Street. After all, Jesus put Nazareth on the map. Even today, would anyone know about Nazareth if it were not for Jesus of Nazareth? Yet so far from welcoming him, the people of Nazareth treat him with contempt. “Who do you think you are? What is so special about you? We know your people and they aren’t anything special. So where do you get off teaching in our synagogue as though you were some sort of celebrity?”
I suspect that this coolness toward Jesus in Nazareth might go back to chapter 3 where his family, assuming him to be insane, came out to take charge of him. When they send word that they have arrived and would like to see Jesus, Jesus responds by asking: “Who are my mother and brothers?” He then goes on to explain that his true family consists of all who obey the Word of God. So in effect, Jesus has repudiated family ties for the new loyalties created by the reign of God. Family ties run deep in small agricultural towns. Each family has long tentacles that penetrate other families and embrace the entire community. These ties are the stuff that binds a town together. When you cut them, you sever the blood vessels of the whole community. It may well be that Jesus is now experiencing the fallout from the encounter with his family back in chapter 3. If loyalty to the Kingdom of God requires one to renounce or at least subjugate family and clan loyalties, then a prophet who preaches the Kingdom in his own back yard is likely to earn a good deal of hostility.
In the next part of the lesson, Jesus sends the Twelve Disciples he selected back in chapter 3 out in twos. He does not give them specific instructions, but he does give them authority over unclean spirits. They are charged to bring with them no provisions whatsoever, but to depend upon the hospitality of the towns to which they are sent. We are told in crisp, succinct Markan fashion that they “preached that men should repent and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”
What I find striking here is that the disciples are dependent upon the hospitality of strangers. The sharing of hospitality and meal fellowship is an intimate act-usually restricted to family and clan. One does not go into the home of sinners to eat with them. But Jesus’ disciples are sent out to question that proposition, as indeed Jesus himself already has. Repentance means breaking away from learned patters of behavior and acculturation to embrace the openness and generosity of God’s table which is open to all. In return, the disciples are commanded to make available to all people the blessings of God’s reign in the form of casting out unclean spirits and healing.
Note well that it appears there was no formal education to prepare these disciples for their ministry. They were not authorized by any ecclesiastical authority other than Jesus. There was no “mission feasibility” study done in advance; no demographic research done to ascertain the racial, ethnic and cultural makeup of the target populations. Needless to say, if we in the church had been in charge, this never would have happened. Thanks be to God we were not in charge. And very great thanks be to God we still are not in charge-even if we like to act that way sometimes.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a group of psalms of which it is a part (120-134). The meaning of this title has not been established beyond doubt. The title is thought by a number of scholars to mean that the group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition. This psalm begins as a personal individual lament. The psalmist makes a humble affirmation of faith in God. In vss 3-4 the psalm continues as a communal plea for deliverance from oppression. This could be a plea on behalf of Israel as a whole or an oppressed group within Israel. Either way, it is clear that the psalmist/s are subject to oppression and contempt by “those who are at ease” and the “proud.”
It is difficult for me to pray this psalm. I have never been held in contempt (though I came close a few times while practicing law). On the whole, I have been relatively at ease in the land. Nobody has ever detained me, asked for my citizenship papers or inhibited my ability to speak my mind or worship freely. So this psalm seems not to apply to me personally. But then again, being a disciple of Jesus is never just a personal thing, is it? There are other parts of the Body of Christ that live under grinding poverty. There are places in the world where simply being a follower of Jesus places one in jeopardy. There are disciples living in war zones, refugee camps and prisons whose lives are in constant danger. They are no doubt praying this prayer or one like it. So should I not be joined in this prayer with them? In fact, is not more than prayer required here? Recall how, in last week’s lesson from II Corinthians, Paul reminded the Corinthian Church that where one church has a surplus, it should be applied to any other having a deficit. So the psalm poses the question: How can disciples like us, who are “at ease in the land,” use our wealth, position and influence to meet the needs of those “who have seen more than enough of contempt” and “scorn?”
II Corinthians 12:2-10 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1291&cmpgn=5244
This is without doubt one of the most fascinating and difficult Pauline passages in the New Testament. Again, we are a little embarrassed by Paul here. That, I think, is why the folks who prepare the readings have clipped off verse 1 of chapter 12 which reads: “I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Paul has already delivered a laundry list of his many accomplishments, his many sacrifices for the work of the Gospel and the suffering he has endured. If you have been reading the last couple of chapters, you are by now probably a little sick of Paul. I think there is no getting around the fact that Paul had some serious personality deficits. He was arrogant and prone to boasting. He was also hypersensitive and tended to take a lot of things far too personally. I have noticed that these two personality defects often come together. Yet it is precisely this-and the fact that Paul is very self aware-that makes the man so endearing. At the end of his unabashed boasting that climaxes in an account of a profound mystical experience, he goes on to say that God afflicted him with “a thorn in the flesh.” There has been no end of speculation as to what that thorn was. Some of that makes for fascinating reading, but for all that, it is still just speculation. We don’t know whether Paul suffered from a physical ailment, a moral weakness or some spiritual/emotional struggle. Whatever the case may be, it was of sufficient severity that it kept Paul’s inflated ego in check. Paul recognizes that it is this very weakness that has made him realize how he must rely solely on God’s grace and mercy. The power of God, Paul knows, is made perfect in weakness, in vulnerability and in the recognition that we have nothing but what is given to us. Without that thorn, whatever it was, could Paul have reached such a profound understanding and acceptance of God’s grace?
Like Paul, I struggle with my own thorns and limitations. I often wish the quality of my voice was richer, more powerful-more like James Earl Jones and less like Woody Allen. I wish I had a more impressive physical presence-which is another way of saying I wish I were less of a geek. I wish I could stop blinking. Life and ministry would be easier if I were not such an introvert. I could name perhaps a dozen other changes I would make to myself that, in my opinion, would make me a more effective minister. But highly effective ministers typically face highly charged temptations. How many powerful and charismatic preachers can you name that have been brought down by scandal of one kind or another? Maybe pride is a vocational liability for preachers. As Mac Davis says (or sings): “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” Neither Paul nor I come close to perfection and it is still hard to be humble. Since humility is essential to faithful ministry, perhaps it is a good thing that we are so far from perfect. Maybe it is better to have a few thorns keeping the helium from inflating your head than to experience a spectacular explosion and fall from high altitude. I cannot imagine how insufferable we would be if, God forbid, either Paul or I ever achieved perfection. Perhaps flawed, imperfect and broken people make better ministers than would the perfect people we would like to make of ourselves.
These are my thoughts. As Always, I welcome yours.