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.

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