Archive for August, 2012
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Greetings once again to our weekly reflections on the Sunday lessons. As many of you already know, daughter Emily has arrived safely in Rhodes, Michigan where she is beginning a year of pastoral internship at Hope Lutheran Church under the instruction of Rev. Reed Schroer. She has been given a warm and enthusiastic welcome. You can view Hope’s welcome message to Emily and find out more about her church and its ministry by visiting the website at http://www.hopeinrhodes.com/. I ask that you keep Emily in your prayers as she begins this new chapter in her pastoral instruction.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1343&cmpgn=5244
The lesson from Deuteronomy marks a new chapter in the life of Israel as well. Moses addresses his people, Israel, as they stand poised to enter into Canaan. The years of living as wandering nomads have come to an end. Israel’s settled future as a nation in its own right is about to begin. The critical question is: what sort of nation will Israel be? At the dawn of history, Cain asked God rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I think Cain’s attitude reflects the mentality behind most nations of the world. We look after ourselves and our own. We guard jealously our sovereignty and our national interests. Even within nations there exists a hierarchy of loyalties. My state, my community, my tribe, my family-the further away you travel from the people nearest and dearest to me, the less I care. I don’t want my tax dollars squandered on people down in Haiti. As a matter of fact, I don’t even like to see them spent on my own fellow Americans that I deem unworthy of assistance. Why should I be responsible for them? Israel, however, must be a nation guided by a different spirit reflected in different national priorities.
Moses makes clear to Israel that God did not liberate her from Egypt and bring her safely through the wilderness only to create another Egypt, another oppressive empire living off the forced labor of its oppressed subjects. Israel is not to be distinguished by its commercial wealth or its military might. When the nations of the world look to Israel they are not to be terrified of its power or dazzled by its wealth. Instead, they will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” vs. 6. “For what great nation is there,” asks Moses, “that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us; whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” vss. 7-8. Israel’s greatness lies in her recognition that the earth is the Lord’s. Her possession of the land is a gift given not in perpetuity, but as a sacred trust to be used for the greater glory of her God. Unlike Egypt which oppressed and enslaved the aliens living within its borders, Israel is instructed “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israel is not to replicate Egypt (or Arizona either for that matter!). Furthermore, Israel is to be a nation without poverty. Disparity in wealth there may be, but Israel’s statutes and ordinances governing commerce and agriculture ensure that no one must ever go without the necessities of life: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:22. Furthermore, “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
Jesus also made it clear to his disciples that they were to be an alternative community modeling a different way of living together. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45. The community of disciples we call the church is a kingdom without borders. It is a household where rich and poor, strong and weak, saint and convict sit at the same table, eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, straight or gay, legal or illegal, criminal or law abiding citizen. All of these are called to be one body of which Jesus Christ is the head.
According to the Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, J.W. Rogerson & W. McKay, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the Temple have less to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity than they do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. There is much that could be said about the importance of truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But I want to focus on just one characteristic of the righteous worshiper that caught my eye this week.
The one worthy to approach the Lord in worship does not put out his money at interest. Vs. 5. This injunction sounds a little archaic to generations raised in an economy that runs on credit. Unless we are one of the fabled 1%, most of us buy houses, cars and education for our children with money we have not yet earned. If there were no credit, I would not own a home and my children would likely not have had a college education. Hopefully, I would be able to find a rental unit within walking distance of the church. Otherwise, I would have to rely on public transportation or the kindness of my wealthier neighbors. There is no question that credit has allowed me to enjoy a lifestyle to which I could hardly expect to come close without it.
On the face of it, there is nothing unfair about reasonable interest. If I receive money from the bank that I have not yet earned, it is only fair that the bank be compensated for losing the use of its money for a period of time and for taking the risk that I might not be able to pay it back. But there is more than fairness at stake here. There is something fundamentally troubling about the fact that the middle class lifestyle many of us enjoy; the business opportunities that many entrepreneurs are able to seize; and the chances for making quick and easy fortunes on equities and commodities markets all are based on money which has yet to be made or on the future value of goods or business ventures that is speculative. If everything from my car to Facebook is being paid for with phony money-that is cause not only for financial concern but for deep moral reflection. There is an element of profound self deception here that hides the true cost of what we are purchasing and conceals the risks of the transactions we enter into. The projected cost as well as the anticipated profits from fracking for natural gas, exploiting offshore oil and building nuclear energy plants cannot possibly reflect the potential economic, environmental and geopolitical forces that might very well erase all profit and inflict losses now unimaginable. The value of the fruits and vegetables we purchase does not reflect damage inflicted on the soil and ground water by pesticides, agro fertilizers or the destabilizing effect of holding prices down through use of low cost foreign labor both here and abroad. What we should have learned in the 2008 debacle applies not only to mortgages, but to everything we purchase in a credit driven society: an economy that grows by encouraging people to spend money they don’t have to buy things they cannot afford is bound to crash sooner or later.
I am not suggesting a return to barter economy. Nor am I suggesting that you all go out and cut up your credit cards (though in some extreme cases, that is actually good advice). I do believe, though, that in this time and place when everyone is fixated on “the economy,” people of faith need to go beyond the sterile debate over how best to revive it and begin questioning the fundamental assumptions that underlie our economic relationships and whether those assumptions ring true.
First, a word or two about the Book of James: Though styled as a letter, the book reads more like a string of sermonetts on different topics. There is no lack of debate among scholars as to whether James, the putative author of the letter, was actually the brother of Jesus we meet in Acts addressing the earliest disciples of Jesus, or a disciple of James writing in his name to a second or third generation Christian community or some other Christian leader named James. Though many of the teachings in the book are close and even identical to the sayings of Jesus, Jesus is mentioned only twice. For a more thorough review of the book, its origins and content, I urge you to read the summary written by Prof. James Boyce of Luther Seminary at Enter the Bible, http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=59
The one theme that strikes me particularly this week begins at verse 19. “Let every man be quick to hear and slow to speak.” This is at variance with the encouragement I have always been given to “speak up.” As a shy introvert, I suppose that encouragement was a salutary influence. Yet as introverted as I might be by nature, I am just as prone as anyone to let anger take the wheel of my heart. Frequently, I take issue with people before trying to understand what the issue is. Often, I am more interested in refuting people I believe to be in error than in listening carefully for whatever truth may lay at the heart of what they are saying. Even when I remain characteristically silent, that does not mean that I am listening with care. Often my silence is spent in crafting my response to an argument I have not thoroughly considered. So shy people no less than extroverts must take James’ warning to heart.
Perhaps this admonition is also a good one for the church as a whole. We set great store by preaching-as well we should. Our ELCA has produced a number of provocative and thoughtful statements addressing important moral, social and ethical questions facing our world today. But as important as it is to speak boldly and truthfully, James reminds us that it is equally important to listen carefully and empathetically. I wonder what a ministry of listening would look like? I must confess that I have often been tempted to publicize a special event at our church inviting everyone in the community who has left the church, who is not interested in the church or who is angry at the church to come and tell us why. For our part, we would promise not to argue or even answer their charges. Our role would be simply to listen.
I would love to do that some day and perhaps I will. The only thing that gives me pause is doubt about my ability to keep my mouth shut. I am sure that I would hear many criticisms of the church that seem unfair, inaccurate or misplaced. I would be tempted to jump to the church’s defense with some well reasoned response. But that would defeat the whole purpose. The ministry of listening is just that: remaining silent; making space for people to express their hurt without having to fear retaliation; showing hospitality to strangers; and creating an environment in which reconciliation is possible. So what do you think? Are we up for this?
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1345&cmpgn=5244
Once again, the lectionary people have so thoroughly butchered this text that I hardly know what to do with it. Generally speaking, chapter 7 of Mark begins with a dispute as to what constitutes uncleanness. The disciples’ eating pods of grain in the fields with “hands defiled” sparks a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees. Mark tells us by way of a parenthetical remark that the Pharisees do not eat without washing. It should be noted that this has nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with ritual cleanliness. Jesus does not reject this practice per see. Rituals serve as reminders that every aspect of life is holy for God’s holy people. This is particularly true for meals. (That should come as no surprise for disciples of Jesus whose most significant worship activity is the Eucharist.) But ritual is distorted and burdensome when it becomes a master rather than a servant. When sickness or hunger prevent a child of God from enjoying the Sabbath rest God intends for all his creatures, it is sinful to prevent healing or preparation of food that would open the door to Sabbath rest for such excluded persons. So also the disciples, being out in the field and having no access to water or vessels for cleansing, should not be prohibited from receiving with thanksgiving what God provides to satisfy their hunger. The disciples were actually exercising their right to “gleaning” discussed in our review of the Deuteronomy text above. Where God makes provision for the poor, no one must seek to revoke that provision by resort to humanly devised rituals however useful or legitimate those rituals might be.
Excluded from the Sunday reading is Jesus condemnation of the use of “corban” to deny an aging parent the support owed by their children under the Ten Commandments. Vss. 9-13 The point here, too, is that the law was intended to serve God’s people in honoring God and loving the neighbor. When the law is used to circumvent that purpose, it is abused. A literal application of the law that violates its spirit is just as evil as outright disobedience.
Jesus goes on to discuss what makes a person unclean. Clearly, it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out. This theme will be repeated in the story of the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter Jesus heals.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Greetings everyone! This week marks the thirtieth year of my sojourn in New Jersey. That term “sojourn” is not really accurate anymore. For a very long time now I have considered New Jersey my home. As much as I enjoy visiting the State of Washington out on the west coast where I was born and raised, it is no longer home for me. The house in which I grew up has long since been sold. My parents are no longer living. Much of the area in which I spent my boyhood years has changed almost beyond my recognition.
Yet there was a time when Washington was home and New Jersey was a big question mark. I was twenty six-years old when I packed my few belongings into my Mercury Zephyr and left Bremerton for Teaneck, New Jersey to serve a congregation there. Referring to Teaneck as the Promised Land might sound a little hyperbolic, but in many respects, it was just that for me. Teaneck represented an opportunity for me to begin doing what I had spent years training, preparing and practicing for. It also presented me with the challenges of adulthood that are deferred for people like me who spend nearly the first decade of adulthood in school. I am talking about things that are pretty routine-like opening a bank account; finding a doctor/dentist; obtaining a New Jersey drivers license and getting my taxes done. Of course, these were all challenges I anticipated. I could never have anticipated meeting the girl of my dreams, having three beautiful children and the unexpected detour of my professional life into the practice of law. The Promised Land held more promises (and challenges) than I could possibly have anticipated.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1338&cmpgn=5244
The Book of Joshua is the story of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua, the successor to Moses, led the Israelites into Canaan where they conquered the Canaanites and redistributed the land among the twelve tribes of Israel. The book ends with a covenant ceremony in which the people of Israel vow in the presence of Joshua and their God to “serve only the Lord.” That is where our reading for this Sunday fits in. If you read one verse further, you will discover that Joshua is skeptical of his peoples’ ability to meet the challenge of living as God’s covenant people in the land which God has given them. He can see all too well how easily the lessons learned in the wilderness, where God fed Israel each day her daily bread, could be lost now that Israel had inherited a good land capable of sustaining her. Memory seems to be a key factor here. Fresh in Israel’s memory are the saving acts of God that liberated her from slavery in Egypt and God’s provision for all of her needs as she traveled through the wilderness. Perhaps that explains why “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua; and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel.” Josh. 24:31. The memory of God’s saving acts and the awareness of God’s continuing presence was fresh in Israel’s mind. When memory fades, so does faithfulness.
Statistics demonstrate that, of those persons who leave the church, a significant number are made of people who have moved from one community to another. Moving is a stressful and demanding process. So is the process of finding a new church home. Reasons given by people who have moved and neglected worship are many. Lack of time and energy is one factor. Getting settled into a new home is a chore in itself. Finding a good pediatrician for the kids and getting them registered for school takes time. Changing your driver’s license, auto registration, voting registration and opening bank accounts all take their toll on your time. Looking for a job in a new community also taxes your time, finances and psyche. For those who have made an effort to find a church, many are disappointed because the churches they visit seem less than friendly, or don’t have the programs they are looking for or “it just aren’t the same as our old church.” Whatever the reasons, often the first thing people shed when they settle into a new community is their faith. So Joshua was justified in his concern that, with all the demands of settling the land of Canaan, worship of the faithful God Israel had come to know in the wilderness would fall to the bottom of the priority list.
In some respects, each new day is another entry into the Promised Land. One never knows what any given day will bring, but we believe that “it is the day the Lord has made.” Psalm 118:24. There are always the routine and anticipated aspects of the day. Sometimes it seems as though that is all there is. Yet even in the most ordinary humdrum day there is some element of the unexpected: the card from that friend you have not heard from in years; the call from your child’s teacher suggesting a conference; the guy in the smelly sweatshirt that approaches you asking for money as you are coming out of the grocery store. These circumstances often present us with the same choice Joshua presented to the children of Israel as they prepared to settle into Canaan: will you serve the Lord your God or some other “god”? If we are attentive, we can hear Joshua’s voice throughout our day asking us, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
The psalm reading for Sunday is the third and last section of Psalm 34, the psalm we have been reading for the last two weeks. My comments on the content, style and form of this psalm are found in the posts for Pentecost 11 and Pentecost 12. I would only add as a point of interest that verse 20 is prominently cited in the Gospel of John.
“Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows* that he tells the truth.)36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ 37And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’”
John 19:31-37. For further perspective on this psalm, you might want to read the commentary of Henry Langknecht, Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This can be found at Workingpreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=8/26/2012&tab=5&cmpgn=5244
In this remarkable passage we are encouraged to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Then the author of Ephesians proceeds to turn everything we think we know about strength on its head. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood” says the writer. But there are many forces in our culture telling us that our struggle is against flesh and blood. It is against liberals and socialists; against conservatives and right wingers; it is against illegal immigrants; it is against terrorists and criminals. The devil is constantly trying to convince us through a huge array of ideologies that the world can neatly be divided into good people and evil people. As long as you are on the side of good, it is acceptable to employ violence to achieve justice and defend “our” way of life whoever “we” may be. The devil would have us believe that “God is on our side” and that he, the devil, is on the side of our enemies. Of course, the devil does not take sides in human conflict. He has no stake in who controls the world or which nation triumphs over all others. As long as people are hating and killing each other, it matters not who “wins.” As far as the devil is concerned, wherever there is war he is the winner.
The writer of Ephesians recognizes, however, that our real fight is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In truth, the line between good and evil does not run along national, racial, religious or ethnic lines. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and that is where we need to begin engaging evil. We are urged to put on “the whole armor of God.” The writer then uses a host of extremely militaristic images of armor and weaponry to describe the spiritual resources given to the church for its struggle against evil. This remarkable contrast is designed to emphasize the gentle means by which God overcomes the powers of wickedness that know only violence and coercion. The only body armor the disciple of Jesus has is truth, righteousness and peace. The only shield a disciple has to withstand the violent forces of evil is faith in God’s promises. The only protection from a mortal head wound is the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ. This is the armor with which disciples of Jesus were called upon to meet the brutality of a hostile empire with armies, weapons and torture implements at its disposal. The only offensive weapons disciples of Jesus have are prayer and the Holy Spirit.
So where are the principalities and powers, the hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places today? I suggest that many of them are found in the same places they were dwelling in the days of the New Testament church. They are found in the machinery of empire, the jealous sovereignty of nation states insisting that their own national interests trump global concerns for the wellbeing of all. When the “world rulers of this present age” insist that we must kill our neighbors in direct contradiction to Jesus’ call to love even our enemies and to resist not one who is evil, then we should be hearing the voice of Joshua from our Old Testament lesson crying out, “Choose this day who you will serve.” For too long, I believe, the church has sided with the principalities and powers in exchange for public support and respectability. For too long churches have confused the interests of the Kingdom of God with the interests of whichever nation they happen to reside in. The cry of “God and country” has too often muffled Joshua’s cry of either or.
I also believe that the principalities and powers often worm their way into the life of the church. A church that values doing worship “right” over worshiping Jesus well has succumbed to the powers. A church that values maintaining its traditions over welcoming its community and allowing the Spirit to transform it has come under the influence of the principalities. A church that values survival over mission is a church that is run by the rulers of this present age. A church that values its reputation over faithful witness to the scandalous and controversial good news about Jesus Christ is a church that has lost its armor and has become fearful of taking a stand for its Lord.
Thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ we are well armed. The power of truthful speech unmasks the powers of evil urging us toward violence and hate. The good news of God’s reconciliation in Christ gives us all the ammunition we need to wage peace. Righteousness and integrity guard us from temptation, threats and intimidation. Faith, the conviction that God has already accomplished all things needful for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to endure the seeming failure of our own faithful efforts. We know that Christ promises to complete what we can only begin. Finally, through prayer and the work of God’s Spirit within us we exercise the very power that raised Jesus from death. No more potent weapon exists or is needed for the advance of God’s Kingdom.
Last week it was the crowd and Jesus’ critics who mumbled and complained because Jesus said in very graphic terms that he was the bread of life and that having life meant eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This week it is Jesus’ own disciples who are doing the complaining. Many of them, after hearing these words from Jesus, no longer followed him. But I have to ask, were they ever really following him to begin with? These disciples may have cheered as Jesus cleansed the Temple and rid it of corruption and commercialism. They were thrilled to receive their fill of bread in the wilderness. If this is what Jesus is doing, what’s not to like? Now, however, Jesus offers them more. He offers them his very self. But these disciples do not want anything more. They do not want Jesus. They want all the good things they think Jesus can give them. They want to be disciples of Jesus, but on their own terms. To internalize Jesus, to be sustained by him alone and to be transformed by Jesus is more than what they bargained for. They wanted Jesus to transform their unhappy circumstances, but they had no intention of letting him change them. These disciples were prepared to be admirers of Jesus, supporters of Jesus and even followers of Jesus-up to a point. But when Jesus makes it clear to them that salvation lies precisely in going beyond that point, they want nothing further to do with him.
Let’s be clear. It is not that Jesus is demanding a higher morality, a higher level of devotion or a higher level of spiritual awareness from his disciples. Jesus has already said that the only work God requires is that we trust in him. Trusting Jesus means believing Jesus when he tells us that what he has to give us is what we truly need. Jesus offers to abide in us. Abiding in Jesus means being absorbed into Jesus, transformed into the likeness of Jesus and drawn into the mission of Jesus. We don’t accomplish that on our own. Jesus offers it to us as a gift. But therein is the rub: too often we just don’t want this gift. We don’t want to internalize Jesus. We want Jesus at a distance. We want him to be there as a shoulder to cry on, a gentle presence to give us peace, a savior who is there in times of trouble, but decent enough to stay out of our way when times are good. We want a Jesus who will defend our homes and protect our soldiers, but not the Jesus who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and then calls upon us to invite those enemies to the feast. We want a Jesus who will change our unpleasant circumstances, but not a Jesus who wants to change our hearts and minds. As the Gospel of John has already indicated: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19.
Jesus lost some disciples that day and he seems not to have been too worried about that. There are some kinds of followers Jesus does not need. Among them are those who are tagging along only for what they can get out of discipleship. There is a great deal of concern expressed these days about the decline in church membership among protestant denominations such the ELCA. Some folks are blaming the national church for its stances on controversial subjects. Others blame the synods for their lack of leadership. Many blame pastors for failing to speak effectively to the younger generations. We pastors, for our part, point the finger at our congregations for their lack of commitment and support. That is all counterproductive. Fixing blame for the sinking of the Titanic would not have kept it from going down and certainly will not bring it back up from the bottom of the sea. Moreover, I am beginning to wonder whether anyone is to blame or whether anything blameworthy is being done. Maybe the membership of the church is shrinking because its capacity for true discipleship is growing. Maybe we are driving people out of the church precisely because more of us are internalizing Jesus. When a church takes seriously its duty to show hospitality to the stranger regardless of the stranger’s legal status; when the church opens its doors to people who dirty its carpets, disrupt the flow of its worship and tarnish its reputation, very often long time members respond as did many of Jesus disciples in our Gospel lesson: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
These days I am hearing an ever more urgent call for some strategy, some new change of direction, some marketing ploy that will “turn the church around.” If by that we mean turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus and the new life he offers, then I am all for it. But if “turning the church around,” means only that we grow our membership by whatever means available and increase our income so that we can preserve our denominational institutions, I am not sure I want in on that. Maybe Jesus does not need a church that owns real estate in every town. Maybe Jesus does not need a guild of professional clergy represented in every congregation. Maybe Jesus does not need bishops who travel the world to address heads of state and numerous programs addressing every conceivable human need. Maybe all Jesus needs is a little band of sheep that hear his call and follow him. Perhaps a poor, small, broken church living faithfully at the margins with no social influence or political power is a more faithful witness to the resurrected Christ than a large, thriving corporate church. It may be that we are not dying, but only getting pruned. (See John 15:1-2). I don’t pretend to know God’s grand plan for the church in the twenty-first century. I do not even know what God’s plans are for the ELCA. I am convinced, however, that we need to be open to the possibility that our view of what our church needs might be vastly different from what God is doing with us. We may fear that we are getting too small, but from God’s perspective we may still be too big.
In sum, following Jesus is no sure way to success, institutional or otherwise. But then again, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That alone is why we follow Jesus. Jesus knows what matters eternally and tells us in no uncertain terms that we matter eternally to him. Jesus loves us too much to let us waste our lives pursuing bread that cannot feed us, chasing success in projects that don’t matter and satisfaction in pleasures that do not last.
August is a slow month on our calendar here at Trinity. We don’t have a lot of scheduled activities this month. But the calendar does not tell the full story. The needs of the poor and hungry in our midst are as acute as ever and our response to those needs is evident in the regular stream of groceries that come into our sanctuary each week. We welcomed yet another family into the Green House apartment this month. We concluded yet another successful session of our Summer Camp. Our sacramental ministers have been faithfully visiting our homebound and ill members. We continue meeting on Wednesday evening for prayer throughout the year. So don’t let the calendar fool you! The dog days of summer are filled with mission and ministry!
Our lessons this week all seem to touch on “wisdom” in some way, shape or form. The ninth chapter of Proverbs contains a beautiful poem in which wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman, calls people to abandon foolishness and simplicity in order to pursue understanding. The psalmist issues the invitation, “Come, O sons, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” The author of Ephesians admonishes his hearers to “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” In the gospel lesson from the sixth chapter of John, the dialogue between Jesus and the hungry crowd he fed with the loaves and fishes continues with a pointed discussion about what truly sustains life.
The Book of Proverbs, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and several of the Psalms constitutes a collection of works scholars often refer to as “wisdom literature.” “Wisdom,” loosely defined, is insight gained through life experience often expressed in short proverbial sayings. One such example is Proverbs 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” This is true as far as it goes. How many wealthy and powerful people have been brought down by an insatiable desire for wealth that knows no moral or ethical boundaries! But is it always the case that ill gotten gain leads to ruin? Is righteousness always rewarded? It didn’t turn out that way for Job. Furthermore, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes has this to say: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.” So which is true? Is it the proverb or the observation of the preacher?
The answer is that both utterances are true as far as they go, and they only go as far as the experiences of the people who make them. Human wisdom, though valuable and worth pursuing, is nevertheless incomplete, partial and subject to modification. It is true that righteousness and integrity can bring you respect and a good name in the community. But sometimes the cost of doing the right thing can be the loss of friendship, respect and social standing. Wickedness often is its own punishment, but we also know of people who inflict all manner of pain on others and are never brought to justice. That is why it is best to take these utterances of human wisdom not as moral laws governing the universe, but as the experiences of individuals who have lived their lives in pursuit of understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to step into the shoes of people who have lived life under numerous circumstances and view it from their perspective. Think of wisdom sayings as portholes into reality. Because they are unique and different from our own perspectives, they enrich our understanding. Yet we dare not forget that, like all human perspectives, these sayings are limited to the experience of one individual. They do not take in all of reality. So it should not surprise us to find different and even conflicting expressions of learned wisdom. Biblical wisdom does not fit neatly into a unified system because, as the product of human experience, it is necessarily incomplete.
These verses constitute the second half of the psalm from last Sunday. For my observations on the psalmist’s style and its literary characteristics, see the post for Pentecost 11.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the psalmist in Psalm 110:10. Not surprisingly, then, the psalmist in our psalm for this Sunday calls us to learn the fear of the Lord. “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?…Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Does good conduct lead to a long and satisfying life? Often, but not always. Again, this is the experience of the psalmist. It is also my own experience. Let me be clear about this. I have not always been so very successful in departing from evil and doing good or seeking peace. But when I am, I discover that life is better. I am much happier when I am not pursuing a zero sum game, win at all costs strategy, but looking instead beyond the immediate conflicts I have with people to the people themselves and working toward building relationships of trust. That makes it possible to find win/wins solutions.
Still, in all honesty, that has not always been my experience. Sometimes people take advantage of my trust and return my offer of friendship with hostility. The psalmist appears to have had similar experiences. He or she goes on to say, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Clearly, righteousness does not immunize one against the slings and arrows of living in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. Indeed, righteous conduct sometimes invites hostility. The righteous are sometimes “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us that even at these times “the Lord is near.”
The author of Ephesians admonishes us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” That is a tall order. It isn’t that I don’t know generally what God requires. The problem arises when I try to understand what God requires of me in the minutia of my day to day life. If God is not active there, then God’s will is largely irrelevant.
Oddly enough, we are not given much guidance here. We are warned against drunkenness-that clearly will not get us to an understanding of God’s will for us. But when it comes specifically to figuring out God’s will, we are told simply to be filled with the Holy Spirit-and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Yet maybe the apostle is on to something here. There is nothing like singing to create a sense of community and shared vision. Other than the national anthem sung at sports events, I cannot think of any situation in our culture except worship where people still sing together. There is something about singing that opens a person’s imagination to a broader vision of things. A hymn is sort of like a snowball. The more you sing it at different times and places in your life, the more meaning it accumulates. I suspect that for all of us there is a hymn that makes us tear up, a song that helps us visualize the mysteries of faith that escape conceptualization. I think that the practice of singing our faith together helps us to internalize that faith and so also create space for the Spirit of God to begin working out God’s intent for us. We don’t begin by trying to figure out God’s will and then trying to do it. Rather, we begin with worship. Gradually, we begin to recognize God’s will unfolding in our lives after it has seeped into our bones through the practices of worship, singing, prayer, generosity and hospitality.
I have to confess that my initial reaction to this section of John is, “Yuck!” The image of someone eating flesh and drinking blood, even when understood metaphorically, is distasteful to put it mildly. And clearly, Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. This conversation started out with Jesus providing bread to five thousand people who proceeded to eat, chew and swallow it. Jesus then identifies himself as the bread of life, that which sustains human existence. But lest we get to comfortable with this assertion as a benign figure of speech, Jesus drives it home with some very graphic language: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” The bread of life Jesus offers comes at the cost of his own death at the very hands of those he came to feed. Moreover, the way to eternal life is through sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death. The crowd which initially sought Jesus with enthusiasm thinking that they had found an ATM with a limitless supply of bread, now begins to turn on Jesus. How can Jesus’ flesh satisfy their hunger? How can his blood satisfy their thirst? They want desperately to turn the conversation back to plain old bread. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “The bread you are seeking,” says Jesus, “won’t satisfy your hunger.” Even the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness could not satisfy the peoples’ deepest need. What the people needed and what we need is a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father. Reconciliation requires risk, sacrifice and even loss of life. Not surprisingly, Jesus paid with his life for the reconciliation he offers our troubled and warring world. The early Christian martyrs knew that witnessing to the reconciliation achieved in Jesus leads to persecution. The price of pursuing peace and reconciliation was death for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This living bread, so freely and generously shared with us, comes at a terrible cost.
It is also worth noting that, for John, eternal life is more than just living forever and it does not begin sometime in the distant future. Living eternally means doing the things that matter eternally. That is what Jesus’ “signs” are all about. Jesus shares his bread with a hungry crowd; Jesus provides wine in abundance for a peasant wedding; Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman-a bitter enemy of his people; Jesus heals a cripple who is living on the fringe of the fringe; Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind and deemed under the curse of God. These are signs not because they are miracles, but because they show the miraculous power of God turning toward the poor, the outcast and the rejected. What matters eternally is how we treat those deemed the least of all people.
These verses resonate, I believe, with our Lutheran insistence that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically Christ’s Body, but truly and actually the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so because unless the resurrected Christ is present, there is no Church. But because the bread and wine on our altar is the Body and Blood of Christ and because we are what we eat, the congregation eating this food is likewise the Body of the Resurrected Christ in the world today. I have always found it interesting that John’s gospel does not end with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel or with Jesus ascending to the right hand of God. John’s gospel ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their nets and their boat to follow after Jesus. It is as though John simply cannot conceive of the church without the presence of its resurrected Lord.
1 Kings 19:4–8
John 6:35, 41–51
Greetings and welcome to the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. One of the big stories this week is the draught plaguing much of the Midwestern United States. Crops are withering. Animals are being sent to slaughter en mass because there is no feed to keep them alive anymore. We are told that the consequences of this catastrophic draught, the worst since the dust bowl of the 1930s, will be felt in our pocket books this fall. Some economists estimate that food prices may rise as much as 7%. The pain will be felt by all, but none more than the families already struggling to make ends meet. The food pantries and soup kitchens throughout our country are already under stocked. Consequently, our summer food drive could not come at a better time. Please remember to contribute what you can to our drive for groceries that will end August 26th.
While we are on the subject of famines, it was just that lying behind the Prophet Elijah’s problems. Once again, the lectionary in its wisdom has given us an indecipherable fragment of a much larger story. The time was the ninth century B.C.E. The place was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Unlike the Southern Kingdom of Judah where the Davidic dynasty reigned over a more or less stable monarchy, Israel was governed by a series of dynasties succeeding each other through coups and violent revolutions. The King in Elijah’s day was Ahab, but the power behind the throne was his Phoenician wife, Jezebel. Jezebel was determined to uproot the worship of Israel’s God and replace it with the worship of her own god, Baal. Under the queen’s orders, the altars of the Lord were being destroyed and the priests of the Lord were being executed. Elijah was sent with a word for the King: “As the God of Israel lives before whom I stand, there will be neither rain nor dew for three years except by my word.” When the drought came as Elijah warned, the King was determined to kill Elijah. Elijah spent the next three years of his life as a fugitive, hiding in the wilderness and living in exile. When the three years had ended, Elijah appeared to Ahab once again with a proposition. “Tell you what, your highness: you and your prophets of Baal build an altar to your god with an offering on it. I will build and altar to the Lord. The God who answers by consuming his offering with fire is God indeed.” Ahab accepted the offer. The story of the dueling gods is a gripping tale that you need to read in its entirety. (I Kings 18:1-40). For our purposes, it is enough to note that the Lord answered by fire. Baal was a no show. After this demonstration, Ahab appears to have been convinced that the Lord was indeed Israel’s God. Jezebel, not so much. When the queen learned of the outcome of the contest, her determination to kill Elijah hardened into a campaign against him. Poor Elijah was on the run once again. That is where we find him in our lesson for Sunday.
Elijah “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die.” Can you blame him? Three years living as a fugitive until finally he can get a hearing before the king. After such a spectacular demonstration of God’s Lordship over Baal, you would think the issue had been settled once and for all. Instead, this remarkable sign only hardens the opposition to Elijah and the God he proclaims. Everything he has done seems to have been for naught. His whole life seems to have been wasted. This is midlife crisis on steroids! We are then told that Elijah was “touched by an angel.” But the angel has no message of hope, no promise of better things to come and no clear direction for him. The angel, however, does provide what Elijah needs most at the moment: food to continue his journey-wherever that might lead. The bread does not change Elijah’s desperate situation, but it gives him strength to go another forty miles. And that is the end of the story.
OK. That is not the end of the story, but it does constitute the end of our reading. I encourage you to read on to find out what else happened. Initially, I was somewhat miffed that the lectionary does not give us that story here or in the weeks to come. Yet I am beginning to think that maybe the lectionary folks actually got it right this time. I have to say that the angels that have appeared in my life seldom came with solutions to all of my problems. Most of the time, they have given me just enough of what I needed to take the next step. I think of my brother-in-law Bill, who spent three days with me at University of Washington Medical Center when Sesle was gravely ill. Or I recall the court officer who once clapped me on the shoulder as I stood in the Union County Courthouse rotunda during a break in a difficult trial and said to me, “You look like you got the weight of the world on your shoulders. You ought to know your shoulders ain’t big enough for that. You got to let the Lord Jesus take that load off you.” These angels did not take away the challenges I faced or remove the obstacles in front of me. But they gave me just enough encouragement to take a few steps more. I think that is very often how God’s assistance comes to us. We don’t get what we pray for. We don’t get what we want. We get what we need and sometimes just barely enough.
There are some memories, too, that constitute angelic bread for me. I know one such memory always will be last Sunday’s worship service at which my daughter Emily preached and at which five of our young people shared with us their faith experiences at the ELCA youth gathering in New Orleans. There were also three young children at our worship service whose presence was hard to miss. I was especially moved by young Jeremy’s sense of being at home in this sanctuary. I share Dr. Brighton’s sentiments fully: “would that we were all that uninhibited in our worship and witness!” The church of tomorrow is alive and well! That is bread that will sustain me for a long time! (If you missed that service, you can catch at least the preaching and testimony portions on the TLC website at tlcbogotanj.org.)
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. The psalmist recognizes in his or her deliverance from harm and danger the saving work of God. Like Psalm 145, this is one of the “acrostic” psalms, meaning that each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. (See Pentecost 9). This suggests to me that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. Perhaps I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced I see only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have never made a choice in my life that I felt certain was inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.
The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” This invitation ties in well with the gospel lessons for both this week and last in which Jesus tells the crowds who came seeking him after they had eaten of the loaves and fishes that he, himself, is the bread of life. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.
Ephesians 4:25—5:2 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1329&cmpgn=5244
“Therefore put away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor.” I believe it was Dr. Stanley Hauerwas who commented that this verse just about sums up the whole of Christian ethics. Clearly, truthfulness is at the center of life in Christ. There is no better testimony to the importance of truthfulness than the New Testament. The gospels do not tell the story of a strong church led by heroic personalities. They are unsparing in their portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as flawed and broken people who each in their own way failed their master in his greatest hour of need. The epistles reveal a church divided by bickering, power struggles and disputes over theology and morals. We tell these stories on ourselves not because they make us look good (they don’t) or because we are trying to conceal the skeletons in our closets (the skeletons are on full display in the living room), but because they tell the truth about us who follow Jesus. We are broken people in need of judgment, forgiveness and healing. Like recovering alcoholics, we need each other to help us remain sober. Nothing threatens our sobriety more than lies, secrecy and self deception.
Sometimes I think the church fails to speak truth to the world in a straightforward and convincing way because we have failed to speak it effectively among ourselves. Though nearly every Christian denomination has issued numerous statements condemning racism, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the United States. Though we tend to worry about the lack of young families in our churches and fret about how to draw them into the life of the church, too many congregations still maintain a policy of “children should be seen and not heard” during our worship services. (As anyone who attended last Sunday’s worship service can attest, that is not our policy at Trinity). I believe that the only path forward for our churches is to begin having deep and truthful conversations about our discipleship in light of the scriptures and under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. That is the direction that I hope our future cottage meetings will begin to take.
What can it mean to be “imitators of God”? Usually, when we accuse someone of “playing God,” we mean that this person is exercising authority he or she does not have. Or perhaps we mean that such a person is overreaching his or her limits and making decisions that affect the lives of people who have no input or say in those decisions. That figure of speech betrays a profound misunderstanding of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The God and Father of Jesus Christ does not exercise overbearing power, but walks among us as the man who gave his life for the sake of others, suffering death rather than defending himself with violence. If we would truly “play God,” the proper model is not the CEO, but Jesus.
The gospel lesson continues the dialogues set in motion by Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand at the beginning of chapter 6. Last week Jesus explained to the crowd that came seeking him after the feeding that he, himself, is the bread of life; the bread which comes down from heaven. Now the crowd begins to murmur. No doubt John would have us recall the murmuring of the children of Israel in the wilderness when they were hungry. For reasons that escape my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have chosen to exclude verses 36-40. That is a shame because simple-minded people like me need those verses to get the full impact of what follows. So, for my fellow simpletons, here are the missing verses:
“But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:36-50.
Now you can see why the crowd was murmuring. What is this mad man talking about? He didn’t come down from heaven! He came up from Nazareth. We know his family. We know the neighborhood where he grew up; the school he went to and the girls he dated. Where does he get off telling us that he came down from heaven?
This is actually a very important question. Jesus’ answer is about to turn everything we think we know about God, heaven and eternal life on its head. In the first place, asking how Jesus could possibly be the Son of God is altogether the wrong question. It is wrongheaded because it assumes we know who God is apart from Jesus, his Son. It assumes that we can somehow find our own way to the Father. It assumes that we come to know God by being taught about God rather than being taught by God. It is through trusting in Jesus that God is made known. It is through fellowship with Jesus that the Father draws us to himself. You don’t start with your understanding of who God is to figure out what to think about Jesus. You begin with Jesus who draws you into knowledge of the Father.
John is also unapologetic about Jesus’ obvious human origins. Yes, Jesus is a flesh and blood person that can be touched. He is the living bread that can be “eaten.” That will be the topic of next week’s gospel. That is the way in which the Father draws us to himself.
Whoever believes in Jesus both knows the Father and has eternal life. Note well the present tense, “has.” This is not the promise of some future blessed state. Life that is eternal begins now for all who believe. To live eternally is to live out of trust in Jesus doing those things that matter eternally. Unfortunately, we in the church have not always fully appreciated this present sense meaning of eternal life. We have tended to think of eternal life as synonymous with “after life,” or some notion of “heaven” as a strictly future reality. But Jesus would have us know that discipleship is not about passively waiting for eternal life as we sweat our way through this vale of tears. Discipleship is acknowledging that new life is ours today; the kingdom of God is now; and life that is eternal is life lived in fellowship with Jesus.
The humanity of Jesus was a barrier to the crowds’ acceptance of his claim to be the bread from heaven. But if the idea of God in the midst of dirty diapers, adolescent crushes, soil and the sweat of hard labor is difficult to swallow, that only demonstrates how much we have to learn from Jesus about God, about heaven and about eternal life.