Monthly Archives: September 2012

Sunday, September 30th

Pentecost 18

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Prayer of the Day
Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Greetings everyone and welcome! As most of you know by now, Sesle and I will be away on vacation from Monday to Friday of this week. We will by flying out to Sedona, Arizona where Sesle will attend a continuing education event and I will be hunting beetles for my son Ben’s research projects. It promises to be an interesting time all around. If you are in need of pastoral assistance, please call the office or one of the lay ministers.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

I love the family in which I grew up. I think my parents did a wonderful job raising me and my siblings. I enjoyed doing things with my family for the most part. Family vacations constitute one of the few exceptions to that rule. We never went to Disneyland or any comparable place when we took the two weeks of vacation to which my father was entitled each year. Instead, we drove out from Bremerton, Washington to Iowa to visit my aunt and uncle, stopping in Montana along the way to see another uncle and aunt. This was before air conditioning was standard equipment for cars and long before digital technology transformed the back seats into travelling entertainment centers. We traveled in a Chevy station wagon, my younger sister and me sitting all the way in the back on a seat facing the rear. The car had not gotten halfway through Washington State before my sister and I were whining: “When will we get there? We have to go to the bathroom! We’re hungry! How much longer do we have to drive? Why do we have to go on this stupid trip? Why can’t we just stay home?” Multiply that by several thousand voices and forty years and perhaps you can begin to appreciate Moses’ dilemma.

But now let’s take a closer look at what is going on here. The people are angry. They have been travelling for a long time eating food that is unfamiliar to them. They don’t know where they are going or when they will get there. They have to rely upon Moses to give them that information and it appears that Moses is not altogether clear on the future either. So they complain. “Come on Moses! You told us that you were leading us to a good land! You told us we would live as a free people in our own country. But so far, all we can see is this wilderness that can’t support us. We have to survive by scrapping our bread off the desert floor. When are you going to deliver on your promises Moses? How long do we have to wait?”

Moses is angry too-at God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?”

I think everyone who has ever served as a congregational president or in some church leadership position has felt a little like Moses at some point. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory that everyone calls me for every little thing that goes wrong down at the church? Do I have to do it all?” Now I think we need to stop here and reflect on Moses’ complaint. In fact, God did not lay the burden of all the people on Moses. Moses assumed that burden himself. Has Moses also forgotten that it was God whose mighty works brought Pharaoh to his knees? Does Moses really believe that God expects him to “carry the people in his bosom?” Was it not God who has been carrying the people thus far? Part of Moses’ problem is that he has come to believe he is indispensible. He has convinced himself that no one is capable of leadership except him. Of course, when you assume responsibility for everything, you wind up taking the heat for everything. No human being can remain sane for long under that kind of pressure. God knows that. That is why God does not expect any of us to shoulder the load when it comes to mission and ministry.

Moses discovers that the people, who he sees as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensible, that there are other persons with prophetic gifts capable of sharing his responsibility of embodying God’s vision for Israel. Of course, that means Moses has to let go of some of his power. That is not always an easy thing for leaders. Most of us leaders are convinced that nobody can do things as well as we can. Most of us leaders are convinced that our way is “the” right way. The notion that God might be leading through the insight and knowledge of someone else is a little threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take that risk. He is secure enough in his leadership role to recognize the prophetic voice of God even when it is spoken outside of “official channels.” When Joshua reports to Moses that there are two men prophesying that were not among the seventy that he “properly ordained,” Moses tells him not to fret about it. Instead, rejoice that the generosity of the Spirit is bigger than our imagination and more expansive than our organizational structures.

This lesson serves to remind us that the church is not made up of leaders and followers. It is made up of a communion of saints each having their own unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ. So leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.

Psalm 19:7-14

The first six verses of Psalm 19 praise God for God’s self revelation in the wonders of the natural world, the heavens, the forests and fields. The second half of the Psalm, which is our text for Sunday, focuses on God’s self revelation in Torah, the teachings of the scriptures. “By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.”  This is not to say, of course, that God rewards people who are obedient to the law with approval or that people who keep the law are somehow immune from suffering or bad fortune. Meditation on the scriptures is its own reward. By so doing, we are drawn closer to God and deeper into the heart of God. By internalizing the scriptures, we give the Holy Spirit a powerful tool for transforming us into the image of Christ. That is why I continue to recommend reading two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.

The psalm concludes with a prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongue and the responsibility of being teachers in all that we do and say. This would be a good prayer to repeat each morning before we have had a chance to speak to anyone. It is a reminder that wherever we are, we are always in the presence of Jesus.

James 5:13-20

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Over the years, there have been several studies done in the medical community to measure the “effectiveness” of prayer for people who are sick. The results have been inconclusive. At best, some data suggests that where people are supported by a praying community, they tend to experience a faster and more thorough recovery. Other test results suggest that people who are the object of prayer feel a sort of “obligation” to recover. Because setbacks in recovery might be interpreted as a lack of faith or divine support, knowing that one is being prayed for might actually hinder recovery.

Obviously, the problem here is our understanding of effectiveness. If the measure is simply recovery of the sick person we are praying for from his or her disease, that measure is flawed. Eventually, all of us will suffer an illness or accident from which we will not recover. No amount of prayer will save us from our mortality. Consequently, I don’t believe we can take James to mean that prayer always results in healing the sick. Moreover, James tells us that when we pray for the sick person, the Lord will raise him or her up and forgive his or her sins. Is “raising up” synonymous with healing? It may be so in some circumstances, but not all. Recall that Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the side” that he felt was hindering his ministry. We do not know whether that was a physical ailment, but the point is that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, Paul was left to work around it and, in so doing, he discovered that God’s strength was sufficient for his weakness. Indeed, God was able to use Paul’s infirmity to strengthen his faith and deepen his ministry.

Prayer is more than making requests and seeing them answered. One of my predecessors here at Trinity, Rev. Stephen Bouman, recently said that “lament” is that space between what should be and what is. I like that. I believe that prayer often has a dimension of lament where we struggle with a reality that seems to cast doubt on God’s love for us and commitment to our wellbeing. It is in that struggle that we finally arrive at the place where God would have us be. It is perhaps not the place we hoped to arrive at. It is probably much different than what we expected salvation to look like. But it turns out to be a good place nonetheless because it is the place where Jesus brings us.

Mark 9:38-50

The first part of this Gospel lesson is strikingly similar to the interchange between Joshua and Moses in our first lesson. James and John come upon a man who is doing the work of exorcism in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve or any of the disciples commissioned by Jesus. So James and John put a stop to his ministry because, “he was not following us.” Notice the pronoun “us.” The disciples do not say that this man was not following Jesus, but only that he was not with them. In modern parlance, we might say that this man was not “properly ordained” or “approved by the credentialing committee” or “on the clergy roster of any Synod of this church.”  Now we need to be careful here. As I said before, the church is not a community of leaders and followers. It is a communion of saints each of whom is given gifts for building up the Body of Christ. As one who has experienced firsthand the destructive power of ecclesiastical regulations and guidelines that operate to crush opportunities for ministry that don’t fit into narrowly defined understandings of how ministry is to be done, I resonate to Jesus’ admonition here. Do not stop someone from exercising his or her gifts for ministry just because they don’t fit into any predetermined pattern. Rather, examine the pattern to see what must be transformed so that this gift of ministry might be gratefully accepted and integrated into the full Body of Christ.

Still and all, a call to ministry is never merely a matter of individual choice. It is the Body of Christ, the communion of saints that must help each person discern, develop and exercise his or her gifts for ministry. I might be entirely wrong about what my gifts and abilities are. I may be immature and inexperienced in my exercise of those gifts. I am always in need of the church’s guidance, encouragement and discipline in the exercise of ministry. That goes not only for pastoral ministry but for all ministries in the church-music, education, stewardship, administration, etc. Nobody’s office in the church is above the discipline and admonition of the church.

What follows is one of the few instances in which Jesus preaches hellfire. Whoever causes one of these “little ones” who believe in Jesus to fall will have hell to pay. Is this a continuation of Jesus’ teaching last week to the effect that there is nothing greater in the kingdom of God than to receive a child? Or is it a further response to James and John for their suppression of the exorcist? I think it might be a little of both. The lectionary readings from last week began with the question: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus first tells the disciples that to be great in the kingdom of God, there is no more noble task than to receive a child. Under this standard, moms, babysitters and nursery school teachers will be elevated over presidents, generals, captains of industry, bishops, pastors and seminary professors. How does one lead with greatness in the kingdom of God? Well, certainly not by suppressing the work of other people who are exercising the power of that kingdom under the poor excuse that they don’t have the proper credentials. Rather, greatness requires keeping the borders of the church porous, hazy and in flux so that it will be capable of receiving the gifts of the Spirit wherever they are manifest.

Exercising the worldly greatness of hierarchy in the church is a crime against the Body of Christ. It ignores Jesus’ dictum that the last are first and the first last. It imports methods, values and structures into the life of the church that are antithetical to the ways of the Spirit. In the name of exercising authority for the sake of the church, people acting under such a false understanding of greatness actually stifle the work of the church, hinder the Spirit of God and undermine the church’s witness to Jesus.

Sunday, September 23rd

Pentecost 17

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Greetings and welcome to all! This last couple of weeks we have seen the start up of another school year. My own inner annual calendar has never been able to shake the orientation developed early in childhood toward Fall as the beginning of the year rather than the end. School played a large part in all of that. The beginning of the school year meant knew cloths; tablets that had not yet been written upon and brand new pencils with clean erasers. The first day of class was truly a new start. My teachers did not know me well enough to form an impression of me, good or bad. I did not have any poor grades, missed assignments or bad conduct to make up for. The coming year was a blank slate waiting for my imprint.

Yet that sensation of newness was also a little deceptive. Some things do not change from year to year. The learning difficulties I experienced throughout elementary and middle school did not go away over the summer. I still had my place in the pecking order of school social life-and it was nowhere near the top. The bullies from last year would be on the playground and lurking about the neighborhood this year as well. I remember that school was often a ruthless, dangerous and carnivorous environment. It is a wonder anyone ever managed to learn anything there.

In fact, however, I did learn a lot at school-and not only from the stated curriculum. School was the place in my early life where I began to wrestle with the big questions: Who am I? What is important to me? What am I willing to take risks for? How much risk am I willing to take? Where does God fit into all of this? I am still not through with those questions, by the way. I don’t believe we ever stop pondering them. The texts for this coming Sunday plunge us into the heart of these big issues. Jeremiah discovers that his prophetic ministry is placing his life in danger. The psalmist faces ruthless enemies. James discusses the true meaning of wisdom and Jesus describes what true greatness is. For those of us returning to the battles fought in school and for those of us who have never managed to escape those battles, these texts offer us some valuable insights into our struggles.

Jeremiah 11:18-20

The time is somewhere between 609 and 587 B.C.E. Jeremiah had spoken forcefully against the leadership of Judah accusing the royal establishment of idolatry, injustice and oppression. Moreover, as war loomed on the horizon for Judah against Babylon, Jeremiah prophesied the victory of Babylon. Such preaching, especially during a time when the nation faced imminent attack, was thought to be subversive and perhaps even treasonous. Jeremiah was seen as undermining the morale of the people, failing to support the troops and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Jeremiah was a national security risk. That explains the assassination plot against him. We are not told whether the assassins are agents of the royal establishment or some ultra patriotic group of rival prophets. In either case, it is clear that Jeremiah is in danger and that this danger will only increase if he continues his preaching.

We seldom experience persecution in this country as a result of preaching and witnessing to Jesus Christ. In some parts of the world persecution goes right along with being a disciple of Jesus and living out your baptism. Such was the case for the New Testament church. Of course, I would like to think that the freedom from persecution we enjoy flows from our constitutional right of free speech and free exercise of religion. Yet sometimes I wonder whether our lack of persecution is due rather to a lack of faithful witness.  Perhaps our society and culture is content to leave the church alone because the church has become so compliant with cultural values and societal norms. Though it is quite uncommon, people still are getting arrested in this country simply for doing what Jesus calls them to do. I refer you to a remarkable message delivered by Shane Claiborne at the recent ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans that I had the opportunity to attend with our youth ministry leaders and five of our young people. Perhaps our preaching and our discipleship are too tame and domesticated.

The price of faithfulness required of Jeremiah harkens back to last week’s gospel in which Jesus calls all who would follow him to take up the cross. The cross, persecution and opposition, is the shape the Kingdom of God takes in our sinful world. Yet the joy of knowing that by faith we are already living in God’s future outweighs the burden of suffering which that entails.

Psalm 54

This psalm is a lament; a cry for help to God. The psalmist is threatened by enemies. We don’t know who these enemies are or why they are attacking the psalmist, but they are described as “ruthless” and they are seeking the psalmist’s life. These enemies are not merely political rivals in a hotly contested election or contenders for professional advancement in the ruthless world of office politics. These enemies are threatening actual violence. They mean business. No wonder the psalmist wants to see them punished with evil and put to an end.

At first blush, this psalm might seem not to reflect the attitude toward enemies we learn from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Yet while this is surely the ultimate objective, it often takes us human beings time to get there. When we have been hurt, we need to cry. We need to express that hurt and anger in language that sometimes isn’t very nice. Nothing is gained by putting on a false front, suppressing our anger and pretending it isn’t there. The issue is not whether to express our anger and hurt, but how and to whom we express it. That is important for two reasons. First, we learn that God is always open to hearing our prayers-not only when we are filled with praise and thanksgiving, but also when we are filled with anger, hurt and hatred. I don’t know about you, but my religious education did not make that very clear to me. Consequently, there were times when I felt too angry to pray, too hurt to worship and too filled with unworthy emotions to approach God. Through reading the psalms I learned that we are never too unclean, too mean, to petty or too sinful to come before God in prayer.

Second, this psalm teaches us where to direct our anger. The psalmist is not screaming at his enemies “I wish you were dead!” Rather, he is expressing these dark thoughts to God. The psalmist knows that s/he is not in a position to judge the situation. As strongly as s/he may feel that s/he is in the right and the enemies are entirely in the wrong, the psalmist also knows that “human anger does not work the righteousness of God.” James 1:20. In fact, anger has a way of distorting our vision. It is then that we are most prone to see everything in terms of black and white. It is when we are angry that we forget how there is always two sides to every dispute and resort to retribution before even trying to figure out what the other side might be. It is for this reason that the psalmist leaves the business of punishing the wicked and executing justice to God. God and God alone can be trusted to punish the wicked-or show mercy. Knowing that makes it possible to let go of anger and the desire for revenge. That is the first step toward seeing our enemy in a different light and learning eventually to love him or her.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

Once again, I find inscrutable the minds of the lectionary police who feel the need to censor the biblical writers. I find it impossible to believe that these few verses 4:4-6 and the second half of verse 8 were omitted merely to save space. Yet for the life of me, I cannot figure out what it is that they are trying to hide from us. In any event, I have chosen to give you the entire unedited and uncensored passage. Perhaps you will have more success than me in discovering that deep, dark secret.

James begins by asking the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Perhaps we need to pause here and ask ourselves what wisdom and understanding is. If wisdom is nothing more than the accumulation of knowledge, then our generation is surely the wisest yet. Never in the history of the world has so much knowledge been available to so many people. But it should be clear to us that knowledge does not equate with wisdom. As knowledgeable as we are, nations still cannot seem to settle their disputes without resort to warfare. Our agricultural ability has grown exponentially over the last several decades-yet so has starvation and the growing gap between the few very rich and the many poor. I think James is onto something here when he warns us that all the knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the world is useless where hearts are driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. Such wisdom, James points out, is actually demonic.

James goes on to point out that wisdom is shaped not so much by what you know as by what you desire. “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” James 4:1. If your desires are selfish, knowledge will only make your selfish ambitions more deadly and destructive. If your desires are for God and for God’s kingdom, your knowledge will be placed in the service of peacemaking, mercy and reasonableness. James 3:17. So James urges us to “draw near to God” because you are shaped by what you love.

Mark 9:30-37

You cannot possibly miss the irony here. Jesus has been teaching the disciples that he must soon be handed over to the powers of Rome that will kill him. And this is not just a passing remark. It is clear from the context that Jesus has been making this point with his disciples throughout his journey through Galilee. In fact, that was the point of the journey: to avoid public attention and the distraction it brings so that Jesus could focus with his disciples on the meaning of his mission. At the end of this day of heavy instruction, Jesus asks his disciples what they had been discussing among themselves along the way. If I had been in Jesus’ place, I might have expected the disciples to respond that they had been discussing all that they had heard him say that day. I would have expected the disciples to ask Jesus why he was going to Jerusalem, what he expected to accomplish by getting himself arrested, what purpose his death would serve and what did he mean by “rising again.” But the disciples have been reflecting on something else altogether. They have been arguing over who is to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is rather like the teacher who spends the morning painstakingly explaining long division to her class, asks them for their questions and receives only one response: “Is it time for recess yet?”

Jesus responds with far more patience than I think I would have had under the circumstances. He takes a child in his arms and says, “You want to be great? I will show you great.” Now it is critical not to confuse this passage with others where Jesus uses the child as an example of faithfulness and urges his disciples to become as children. That is not the point here. Greatness is demonstrated by receiving the child. Understand that child care was considered women’s work then much as it is today in most quarters, despite the trend toward greater shared responsibility between spouses. Even today, greatness is seldom demonstrated through babysitting. Yet Jesus seems to place a high priority on children. In one of the very few instances where Jesus threatens hell fire, he directs his admonition against persons who cause one of his “little ones” to stumble. Despite his handlers’ efforts to keep Jesus on message with the crowds, Jesus insists on taking time to bless infants. Children are a priority for Jesus. There is no greater task than to care for a child.

It strikes me that our culture’s attitude toward children is ambivalent to say the least. Their parents frequently shower children with money or spend money for them. Not surprisingly, then, billions of dollars are spent on marketing to children. In what I can only characterize as a wildly neurotic and delusional belief in parental ability to ensure a child’s success (however that might be defined), parents in Manhattan compete for limited spots in prestigious pre-school programs that promise to put toddlers on a track to the Ivy League. At the other end of the extreme, there are 1.6 million homeless children in the United States according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. These are kids that get shuffled with their families from homeless shelters, to hotel rooms, to group homes or foster care-or simply live on the street. They suffer from poor nutrition, lack of proper medical care and education that is inadequate to non-existent. Some of these children are undocumented and, in the view of many people, that makes these little urchins worthy of even the sad little scraps that fall from our tables. I have a feeling Jesus would take a different view. Not surprisingly, deep cuts in the federal budget depriving these kids of the paltry benefits they now receive has not created anywhere near the stir made by mere rumors of cuts to Medicare. Unlike senior citizens, children do not vote. Neither do they have super pacs to lobby for them.

The welfare of children has always been a high priority of the church. The first orphanages were established by the church in the first century. Before that time, orphaned children without responsible relatives were doomed to a life of begging, thievery or prostitution. In the year 1886, eleven Lutheran congregations in the metropolitan New York area created the Bethlehem Orphan and Half-Orphan Asylum, to take care of children who were orphaned due to a severe outbreak of influenza within the German communities of New York City. Dedicated on May 30, 1888, the asylum’s mission was to care for and educate orphans and half-orphans to be Christians and useful members of society. Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSM/NJ) began with the establishment of an orphanage in Jersey City in 1904. The LSM/NJ Adoption Program has been a licensed adoption agency since 1948 and offers a multi-faceted statewide adoption program focused on building healthy families and supporting all those touched by adoption. These activities are significant insofar as the lives they touch and the values of God’s kingdom to which they bear witness. But they cannot address the magnitude of our children’s needs throughout the country. Only when all hearts are drawn to love the kingdom Jesus proclaims and recognize the greatness of embracing a child can we hope to see a transformation in the treatment of all children.

Finally, as school begins, I am reminded once again that between fifty and seventy children walk past our church twice each day going to and from school. Those of you who have served with me on the council know that I view this as an opportunity for ministry and mission. Thus far, I have failed to generate much interest or discussion on this point. So I would urge all of you to think more deeply about our responsibility to the children in our community, the opportunities we have to minister to them and what resources we might bring to such a ministry.

September 16th

Pentecost 16

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Prayer of the Day
O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Greetings and welcome back! This week’s lessons have a focus on suffering for the sake of God’s good news. This is crystallized in Jesus call to his disciples to “take up the cross” and follow him. I have to confess that “cross bearing” is a term I use with great trepidation. In common parlance, that expression has come to mean nothing more than a personal inconvenient circumstance, as in “we all have our cross to bear.”  But the cross is not just any misfortune that happens to occur nor is suffering patiently a virtue in itself. No woman should accept her husband’s violent and abusive behavior as a trial to be endured with patience and acceptance. No child should accept sexual abuse. No one should be expected to remain passive in the face of discrimination or persecution on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation. Similarly misguided is the notion that God inflicts suffering upon us to punish or instruct us. We now know that parenting methods that employ the infliction of pain and guilt do not produce healthy children. I don’t believe we can attribute to God child rearing practices that even we know to be defective.

So what does it mean to “bear the cross”?

Isaiah 50:4-9a

As was the case last week, this reading comes to us from a section of the Book of Isaiah scholars attribute to “Second Isaiah.” For more information on this fascinating prophet, I refer you to last week’s post for the September 9th readings. This Sunday’s lesson is the third of four poems which scholars often refer to as “servant songs.”  There is no little debate over whether the “servant” refers to Israel as a whole, the prophet/poet or some other figure. It is probably misleading to insist dogmatically on any single answer to this question as the prophetic message of Isaiah (indeed, of all the Hebrew prophets) is layered and complex. In this reading, it seems clear that the servant is the prophet whose message is meeting resistance from among his own people. Nevertheless, the prophet models the call of Israel to live faithfully among the nations in obedience to a just and faithful God. Israel can expect that her faithfulness will bring about ridicule, rejection and perhaps persecution in a world governed by the brutal geopolitics of empire. Yet both Israel and the prophet have the assurance that the God of Israel, who yearns for a new and better day, struggles and suffers with them. The suffering in this case is not good in and of itself. But because it is the consequence of faithful obedience to the God whose purpose is to redeem and restore all of creation, this suffering will not have been in vain.

As we learned last week, the prophet of Second Isaiah had the task of convincing his or her exiled people that the time had come for them to leave their captivity in Babylon and make the perilous journey back home to Palestine. Many of these folks were skeptical of the prophet’s message and motives. No doubt some of them dismissed his daring vision as a mystical pipe dream. It appears that some folks were actually hostile to the prophet. They felt threatened by this impractical call to return to the homeland that was dividing families, disrupting communities and apparently convincing many families to uproot themselves and leave behind their land, livelihoods and loved ones. The intensity of opposition to this prophet is reflected in his reference to “those who pulled out the beard.” Shaving off the beard is a method of shaming a man still very much alive and well throughout the middle east. Taking off facial hair without the benefit of a razor adds a good measure of pain to the shame! We don’t know whether these measures were literally taken against the prophet or whether they are merely figures of speech. Either way, the prophet is experiencing intense opposition and isolation. This prophet is not a masochist. S/he does not revel in pain for pain’s sake. Nevertheless, s/he understands that the call to proclaim God’s new beginning for Israel will necessarily stir up opposition among those who are determined to maintain the status quo. The prophet does not shrink from such opposition, however, because the prophet is convinced that God’s new beginning is inevitable and s/he experiences joy in his or her part in proclaiming it.

Psalm 116:1-9

This is a prayer of thanksgiving offered by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. The prominent Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann would probably call this a psalm of “reorientation.” It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult cancer therapy and received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce that brought to an end a relationship that was supposed to last until death-and found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship.

This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it not suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost.

There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a better future that God promises.

Professor Walter Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of shear praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate.  Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God! Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 116, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow.

Once again, I strongly encourage everyone to read two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night before going to bed. There is no better path to deep, meaningful and transformative prayer!

James 3:1-12

Last Sunday Morning I stopped at the little convenience store on Main Street in Bogota to pick up some milk and cream cheese for the family education hour I hoped would follow the Eucharist. I met a very young woman with a little girl that could not have been more than four years old. The woman greeted me with the words, “Good morning, Father.” Then she said to her little girl, “You see that man? He is a priest. Do you know who a priest is?” The little girl said nothing. “A priest is someone who works for God,” the woman continued. The little girl looked up at me, wide eyed. I have no idea how much or little she understood about God or whether the word “God” had any meaning for her at all. But if she remembers anything from this interchange it will be that people who wear black shirts and collars like mine represent God. That is a scary notion! Now I think I understand why James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers.” Like it or not, we who teach are held to a stricter standard. We can protest that we are only human. We can insist that a clerical collar does not make us better people and that is certainly true. Nevertheless, the collar sets me apart and identifies me with God. Like it or not, I have to live with the consequences.

“We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”  That might not seem fair, but it’s true. It does not matter that the instances of pedophilia are actually much lower among priests than in the male population generally. When a clergy person molests a child it is always more devastating. In addition to the permanent emotional scars always left by such abuse, the abused child’s perception of God is horribly corrupted. The public’s perception of the church-which is called to be Christ’s resurrected presence in the world-is irreparably damaged. It does not matter either that clergy are statistically among the least susceptible to crimes of embezzlement and fraud. When a pastor abuses the trust of his or her church in matters of money, the damage to the congregation far exceeds whatever the financial loss may be. Again, the church’s credibility with the public is undermined and so is its witness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. So I read James’ warning with a degree of fear and trembling.

Of course, like it or not, we are all teachers in some measure. Our children learn from us more than they will ever learn in Sunday School about faith, worship and discipleship. We parents are teaching our children by example every waking moment about love, forgiveness, faithfulness and the importance of worship. We cannot avoid being teachers. The question is, how well and faithfully are we teaching? What lessons do our children come away with? What are they learning from our examples about what really matters?

James draws our attention to our use of speech as the chief source of potential destructiveness. It takes only one disparaging word to undo the sense of confidence, self worth and courage that parents, teachers and mentors work so hard to instill in a child. Once a false rumor gets started, it continues to live on, projecting itself over the internet, through mouths of talk show hosts and in idle conversation-even after it has conclusively been refuted. But the most insidious abuse of speech, as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, is its effect on our witness. Like every other gift, speech is intended to give glory to God and to serve our neighbor. Yet when speech is used to injure, insult and destroy, it becomes “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

The Eight Commandment is clearly implicated here: “You shall not bear false witness.” In his Small Catechism, Luther writes concerning this commandment that “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It is the second part of this commandment that needs our attention. It is easy enough for me to stand by and remain silent when I am part of a conversation in which someone is being attacked. Much harder it is to come to their defense, to speak well of them and try to convince everyone else to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly so in cases where I tend to think that the victim might deserve some criticism or when I have my own reasons for feeling angry at him or her. But whether the absent person is guilty or not, the point is that he or she is absent. That person is the one who needs to hear whatever criticism any individual may have. Speaking it in his or her absence only conveys a one sided account to other people who may not even have any part in the dispute. Such speech, rather than bringing about healing, reconciliation and understanding, instead broadens the conflict and contributes to distortion and misunderstanding.

Mark 8:27-38

This episode marks the turning point for the Gospel of Mark. Several things are at play here: First, Jesus asks the disciples point blank who they think he is. Of course, we as readers know that Jesus is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah because we were told that in Mark 1:1. Jesus knows who he is because the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism by John in the Jordan, telling him that he is God’s Son, the beloved. The demons know who Jesus is and are ready to proclaim it-except that Jesus will not let them. Jesus’ disciples, however, remain in the dark about who he is. After Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples ask in wonder, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Now Jesus pops the question directly, “So, who do you say that I am.” Peter, ever the impetuous spokesperson for the disciples, blurts out his answer. “You are the Messiah.” That is half the answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah promised to Israel. But he is more than that. Peter’s answer is therefore incomplete. Just how far Peter is from understanding Jesus becomes clear in the next scene.

This is the first place in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus speaks specifically about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Once again, Peter is the disciple who responds to Jesus’ words-and with a rebuke. Mark does not tell us exactly what Peter said, but Peter seems to have taken Jesus aside to have his conversation in private. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable. It is what good friends do when they hear a friend talking about his imminent death. “Oh, don’t talk rubbish! Things will get better. You’ll see. Nothing of the kind will happen to you. I’ll see to that!” Jesus, however, turns and sees his disciples. Why does Mark add this little observation? What does the sight of Jesus’ disciples do to evoke Jesus’ harsh response to Peter? I suspect that the sight of his disciples reminds Jesus why his suffering, death and resurrection are so important. Yes, the cross might be avoided. Jesus could remain in Galilee with his disciples, teaching in the wilderness, on the lake shore and outside of the towns and villages. That way, he might evade capture indefinitely. Indeed, if Jesus were content to remain on the outskirts, it is possible that neither Rome nor the Jerusalem religious establishment would consider him a threat worth pursuing. But Jesus came not merely to level criticism against the powers that be from a safe distance. He came to challenge the right of those powers to rule God’s creation. He came to establish the reign of God. The world needs to be told that Caesar is not Lord. The world needs to hear that God is not the property of any religious elite. There must be a confrontation between the power of empire that claims to rule God’s world and the Son of Man who actually does. Only so will the world know how different the gentle reign of God over creation is and that this reign of God finally will displace the imperial rulers who seek in every age to grasp the reins of power.

Of course, the reign of God will not be born without the pain, rending and blood that accompanies every birth. Just as Jesus will confront the violent reign of the powers that be with the gentleness of God’s reign on the cross, so the disciples will be called upon to live under God’s kingdom in a world that is hostile to it. The shape of faithfulness to God’s kingdom in a sinful world is the cross. Again, this is not to glorify suffering in and of itself. Suffering is unequivocally bad. Nevertheless, suffering that is incurred as a result of faithful discipleship can be redeemed. Just as God raised Jesus, the one who was faithful to God unto death, so God raises up his disciples whose witness to God’s peaceful kingdom in a violent world leads them into the heart of conflict, persecution and suffering.

Staying alive is not everything. “Survivalists” fail to understand that in making survival the number one priority, they are surrendering what is most precious. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is worth living for. And if living for the kingdom results in our dying, then the kingdom is also worth dying for. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “If there is nothing you are willing to die for, you have nothing to live for.” Or in the words of Jesus, “What does it profit one to gain the whole world, but lose one’s self?”

Sunday, September 9th

Pentecost 15

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Welcome once again to our discussion of the Sunday lessons, this time for Sunday, September 9th. Beginning this Wednesday at 11:00 a.m., we will be meeting again face to face in the Trinity Memorial Chapel for discussion of these texts. Accordingly, if you can make time to join us and swell our ranks, I encourage you to do so. Of course, you are also welcome to share your thoughts with us here online. Moreover, I would like to remind you that you can have each week’s lessons sent to your e-mail by subscribing to this site, a simple procedure that begins when you click the “follow” tab at the bottom right of the screen.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

Today’s lesson comes to us from what biblical scholars call “Second Isaiah.” As those of you who studied Isaiah with me four years ago no doubt recall (has it really been that long?), The collection of prophetic pronouncements and narrative put together in the Old Testament book we call “Isaiah” can be divided into roughly three sections. Chapters 1-39 are associated with the prophet Isaiah who lived and preached in the Southern Kingdom of Judah at the end of the 8th century B.C.E. During this period Judah was living a precarious existence in the shadow of the great Assyrian Empire. Chapters 40-55 were written by an anonymous prophet between 150 and 200 years later. A lot of water had gone under the bridge during that time. The influence of Judah’s nemesis, Assyria, began to wane around 622 B.C.E. During this time, Judah was able to re-establish herself as a regional power, but this renaissance was short lived. The Babylonian Empire rose to fill the power vacuum left by Assyria’s decline and dominated Judah for decades. An ill fated rebellion against Babylon led by Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. and the deportation of Judah’s leading citizens to Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian and his edict of 638 B.C.E.  permitting the return of peoples exiled by the Babylonians to their respective countries opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) recognized in this development a new saving act of Israel’s God. Just as God had led Israel out of Egypt through the midst of the Red Sea and the wilderness into the promise land, so now God would lead the Judean exiles out of Babylon, through the desert wilderness back to that same promised land. This is the context of our lesson for Sunday.

Although located within the collection of prophetic material usually attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th century, these verses are taken from a poetic composition that comes to us from the 6th century and is therefore attributed to Second Isaiah or a prophet of his or her circle. In order to get a clear picture of what is happening here, you need to read the entire poem which you can find by clicking on this link. The prophet’s principle concern was to encourage the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. Naturally, the exiles were hesitant. After all, most of these people were second generation exiles born in Babylon. For them, exile did not feel like exile. It felt like home. They had built their livelihoods in Babylon and set down roots there. How likely is it that they would want to leave all of that behind to make a dangerous trip through what is now the Iraqi desert to start all over again in a land that they knew only through stories, songs and tradition? The prophet announces that God will be with the exiles no less than with the Israelites in Egypt. God will cause a garden to bloom in the heart of the desert rich with pools of water, vegetation and shade. No dangerous animal will inhabit this Eden like paradise that will stretch from Babylon to Jerusalem. Moreover, the garden highway will remain forever as a memorial to God’s new saving act of deliverance for the exiles. As the exiles set out on their journey home, their illnesses will be healed. The blind will see. The lame will dance and the deaf will hear.

One might fault the prophet for over promising. After all, we know that no such miraculous garden ever sprang up from the desert floor. We know also that the exiles’ journey back to Palestine was difficult and dangerous. Moreover, when the exiles arrived back home they found their beloved city in ruins, the land occupied by hostile peoples and much political resistance to rebuilding the community. Yet in spite of all that, the exiles did in fact return. The prophet’s message inspired them to respond in faith to this new window of opportunity and so a new chapter in Israel’s history began.

I believe this reading is instructive for us on many levels. First, it teaches us to look for the doors of opportunity God is opening for us in the unremarkable occurrences of everyday life. The exiles might have looked at the conquest of Babylon by Persia as no more than a geopolitical event that meant nothing to them. One tyrannical empire conquers another. That is how it has always been. So now we have a new master. So what? It took a prophetic imagination to see in this event an opportunity for something truly new. It took the eye of a prophet to spot God’s hand at work in what most would cynically characterize as “geopolitics as usual.” So where are the opportunities God is making in our life here at Trinity? What doors are being opened? Is God dangling a glorious future right under our nose, but we fail to see it because we are so fixated on the past we lost and to which we long to return? What will it take to reignite a prophetic imagination in our hearts and minds?

Another aspect of all this is that, in some respects, the prophecy failed. The miraculous signs did not occur. The eternal memorial highway from Babylon to Jerusalem never materialized. The rebuilt community did not become the glorious magnet of wisdom and teaching that would draw all nations to peaceful co-existence. Then again, maybe the prophecy has not failed. Perhaps it still awaits fulfillment. Maybe this word of the Lord is bigger and more profound than even the prophet realized. Does God still have plans for Jerusalem? I hesitate even to ask the question because there is so much bad theology out there about the restoration of Jerusalem. Some of that theology calls for uncritical and unquestioned support for the State of Israel based on the mistaken belief that the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple (highly unlikely to occur for many reasons) will trigger a bloody end to the present age and the dawn of a new one-for the survivors anyway. Naturally, we don’t want to encourage these misguided notions.

Still, we ought not to over spiritualize this text. Clearly, Jerusalem is central to God’s saving work in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and broght his ministry to conclusion there. The New Testament speaks of Jerusalem as a potent symbol of the fulfillment of God’s ultimate intent of living among human creatures. Revelation 21:3-4. Jerusalem has been throughout the scriptures a unifying symbol of peace. Yet throughout history, the city of Jerusalem has been anything but that. Like the prophecy in Isaiah, the symbol that is Jerusalem has yet to become an historical reality.

I have never been a fan of “interfaith” dialogue. I find that enterprise generally trite, superficial and unproductive. Nevertheless, I cannot overlook the fact that the city of Jerusalem is a potent symbol of salvation, justice and peace for the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps a good place to begin a truly fruitful discussion is around the city of Jerusalem that means so much to all of us. How do we understand the role of Jerusalem in each of our faith traditions? Are we content to let Jerusalem continue being a source and center of bloody conflict? How might Zion become the crossroads where nations come for instruction in the ways of peace and justice? See Isaiah 2:2-5.

Psalm 146

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure.

During this binge of craziness that comes over us every four years as presidential elections draw near, we who follow Jesus would do well to take to heart the psalmist’s admonition: “put not your faith in princes or in any mortal that has no power to save.” That includes presidential candidates who tend to make messianic claims. Let’s put some perspective on this folks. What we are doing these days is a job interview-nothing more. We have narrowed the resumes down to two final contenders. One will get the job and the other won’t. There is no more to it than that. Contrary to what the candidates and the pundits are telling you, this is not an historic choice because presidents do not make history. The Lord makes history. The Lord sets the prisoners free. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the sojourners. The Lord upholds the widow and the fatherless. Does God use presidents to do that? I don’t know, but I do know that the Lord does not depend on them and neither should you.

Are presidential elections important? Of course they are. So are job interviews, but seldom does the fate of a company hang in the balance over a hiring decision. Even more preposterous is the notion that the flow of history hinges on such a decision. When we start to think otherwise we stray into the sin of idolatry. Either God is sovereign or not.

James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

As those of you who were in church last Sunday already know, I will be preaching on the Book of James throughout this month of September. Therefore, I encouraged everyone to read through the entire book of James sometime this week. Oh, stop groaning! It is only four pages long! If you do that, I think you will get a lot more out of the lessons we will be reading and reflecting upon each Sunday.

This Sunday’s lesson begins with an admonition against making judgmental distinctions among people within the church. Of course, there are legitimate distinctions among members of the Body of Christ as Paul points out. There are various gifts given to different members for use in building up the church. Some are called to preach, others to teach, still others to evangelize and so on. But there is no hierarchical distinction here. Rather, each person is to use his or her gift in building up the Body of Christ. It is not important which gift you have but rather how you are using it.

James is not talking about such distinctions here. Rather, he is coming down hard on the practice of importing into the church distinctions of rank, class and social status that deserve no recognition among disciples of Jesus. Distinction based on wealth noted by James is but one example of such improper discrimination. There are many others. Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated time of the week in our country.  Some churches distinguish between charter members or “long time” members and more recent members by affording more respect and giving greater deference to the opinions of the old timers. I believe also that our ELCA is in danger of making its rostered leaders into a special class. Indeed, one of the deep reservations I had and still hold toward the Call to Common Mission agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church in the USA is the provision for setting bishops apart as a special class of clergy uniquely capable of ordaining persons to the ministry of word and sacrament. This model of channeling the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through hierarchical channels has troubling theological implications to say the least. The liturgical pomp and circumstance that has grown up around the office of the ELCA bishop and has trickled down to parish pastors as well over the last couple of decades hardly reflects the kind of leadership Jesus models for us in the gospel and certainly does not make the greatest among us like the least.

Often I believe churches practice an unintentional but deeply improper discrimination against children. I have never favored the practice of running “child care rooms” during the worship service or conducting Sunday School classes while the grownups are in church. Yes, I know how hard it is to be in church with small children. I raised three of my own. I know what it is like trying to keep them pacified, taking them in and out to the bathroom, enduring the annoyed and agitated stares of people in the surrounding pews. I’ve been there and done that. But I will add that I don’t regret a minute of it and I believe that there is no better place for a small child to be during the worship service than in the worship service. And let me go on record here to say that, as a pastor, I don’t care how loud, disruptive or hyperactive kids get during worship. From my perspective, there is only one thing worse than babies crying in church: no babies crying in church.

Mark 7:24-37

I don’t much care for the way Jesus treats this Syrophonician woman, but I can understand it. Jesus went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is gentile territory, territory where Jesus probably would not be generally known. Evidently, he wanted it that way. Jesus entered a home intending not to be seen or recognized. Jesus had had enough. He had fed two crowds of people after teaching them for several days. He has had to endure constant sniping and criticism from his enemies. He has had to put up with the faithless and dimwitted antics of his disappointing disciples. Now Jesus is entitled to some down time. But even in this district where he should be anonymous, he cannot be hid. A woman comes crying after him, begging him for help. Jesus snaps at her. “Let not the children’s bread be thrown to the dogs!” That sounds harsh and it is. But it is just a fact of life. Not even Jesus can heal everyone in the world. You have to draw the line somewhere, don’t you? Furthermore, dogs are dependent animals. They live from the hands of their masters, “the children.” If the children are not fed, the dogs will perish as well. Jesus needs his bread. If he doesn’t get it, nobody gets fed.

Yet the woman will not leave it there. Yes, she says, the children must be fed. But even so, there is enough left over to feed the dogs. This remarkable woman is turning back on Jesus his own teachings that have been demonstrated not once, but twice in his feeding of the five thousand and four thousand respectively. God always provides enough for everyone’s need (if not for everyone’s greed). We cannot tell from the text, but it would not surprise me if Jesus smiled at this point as if to say, “Alright, you got me.”

If it is a little discomforting to see Jesus getting tired, irritated and losing his cool, perhaps that is because we forget that he was, after all, fully human. Jesus got tired and cranky like everyone else. Jesus was afraid of suffering and prayed to be delivered from the cross. When he was crucified, the pain, the suffering and despair was real. It was not just Superman playing dead. Living faithfully as God’s son did not make Jesus any less human. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the only one ever to have lived a genuinely human life.  We say that he was without sin not because he lacked human limitations, but because he lived faithfully within those limitations trusting his Heavenly Father with all matters beyond those limits.

The second story in this Sunday’s reading is Jesus’ healing the deaf and speechless man. This healing is intensely personal. In contrast to the exorcism of the Syrophonician woman’s daughter whose demon was cast out from a distance, Jesus gets physical here. He touches the man’s ears. He spits and touches his tongue. He looks up to heaven and sighs. He shouts, “Be open!” The casting out of the demon in the prior story seemed almost effortless. This healing seems to require a great deal of exertion on Jesus’ part. I am not sure what is going on here. Is Jesus slowing down? Is the frantic pace of his ministry as related in Mark’s gospel finally starting to take its toll? In any event, Jesus once again enjoins this man who has received the benefit of healing to secrecy. As in prior instances, Jesus’ admonitions prove ineffective. The news of his good work spreads despite his efforts to keep it confidential. It appears that not even Jesus can keep a lid on the good news of God’s coming reign.