Archive for October, 2012
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Greetings! I hope that all of you are staying high and dry this week. As I write these lines, the wind is just beginning to pick up under a dark and ominous sky. By this time tomorrow, it is anticipated that the full fury of Hurricane Sandy will be whipping our coast and wreaking havoc well into the interior of the country. We do not know yet the full extent of the damage and loss this storm will inflict upon us. Yet we can be confident that however much the elements may pound us, they cannot break the bonds of friendship, unity and commitment to our neighborhoods that bring people together in times like these. So even under the threat of damage and destruction, we give thanks for these bonds that bind us together and pray that God may strengthen them for the tasks of comforting, healing, and rebuilding that lie ahead.
This Sunday we will be celebrating All Saints Day. We will celebrate the saints from our own community that have recently entered into eternal life: Elaine Abrahamson, Bob Nelms, Silvy Lehtmae, Ruth Tropello, Ralph Young and Douglas Campbell. We will celebrate the saints who serve our community of faith as Eucharistic ministers, ushers, alter guild ministers, church council and school board officers, deacons and teachers. We will be welcoming to the Lord’s Table this Sunday two very special young saints who have completed their first communion training. We will also celebrate the saints who throughout the ages have given us an example of faithfulness, compassion and courage in bearing witness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims.
Isaiah 25:6-9 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=218540966
As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied during the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters 55-65 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. So it appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to First Isaiah of the 8th Century, are more likely from the time of disillusionment that developed in the post-exilic setting, many centuries after the 8th Century.
The lesson is a small portion of a laeger section beginning at Chapter 24 where the prophet announces that the Lord will lay waste the earth and that all people will be caught up in its desolation. This desolation is of cosmic proportions. Chapter 25 begins with a psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord for God’s just judgment upon the world rulers and his protection for the poor and the needy. It is for this remnant, the poor and the needy who have been ruthlessly oppressed by the kings of the earth, that “the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things….” This judgment for the poor and oppressed includes all nations and peoples, but it is a particularly joyful event for Israel because it demonstrates that God is indeed the very God she has been faithfully serving and in whom she has been placing her hope. No wonder, then, that the people of Israel cry out: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.” This passage is a bold declaration that Israel’s hope in the justice and salvation of God is not misplaced!
Notice that Israel has played no active part in this saving work of God. She has only waited patiently for it. I have to say that this grates on me a bit. Having come of age in a generation that thought it would change the world for the better and which placed a high value on social activism, the notion of sitting and waiting for salvation feels grossly irresponsible. Yet when it comes to God’s kingdom, there is nothing else that we can do. God will establish peace and justice in God’s own time. The temptation we face is impatience. We want the kingdom now and we are prone to take all the military, legislative and revolutionary short cuts necessary to get there. We don’t have time to wait for love to persuade. We don’t have enough patience for the long and difficult work of reconciliation. Prayer seems so weak and ineffectual compared to action. So we push ahead with our own notions of peace and justice, employing our tactics of “shock and awe” to get the job done quickly and efficiently. But that is not the way of our patient God who has all eternity to work with. Changing hearts and minds takes time-a lot of time. God is willing to take all the time in the world to prepare every heart for the coming of his kingdom. Jesus promised that it was his Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. He never said it would be done within the first hundred days of his administration.
There has been much scholarly speculation about this ancient hymn of praise. It has often been thought that this psalm is a liturgy for the annual procession with the Ark of the Covenant commemorating David’s movement of the Ark to Jerusalem. (II Samuel 6). This is possible, but there is no direct evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that such a ceremony existed in Israel. It is probably safe to say that this psalm is a worship liturgy of some sort and that it dates back to the Judean monarchy and perhaps even to the time of David and Solomon. If the psalm does go back to the time of David, then the “holy place” is obviously not the Temple (which was built after David’s death by his son, Solomon), but a tent-like shrine or tabernacle. The “hill of the Lord” is Mt. Zion. The psalm reflects both dimensions of Israelite worship-the coming of God to the sanctuary and the coming of the worshiper into God’s presence there. Because “all the earth” belongs to the Lord, God is not confined to the sanctuary or bound to any holy place. The doors must “lift up” their heads that “the King of Glory may come in,” It is absurd to imagine that any humanly constructed sanctuary could contain the God who laid the foundations of the world. Yet God in his mercy and compassion for Israel voluntarily comes into the sanctuary to meet those who come to worship.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” The answer to this question in many of the ancient Near Eastern religious traditions would be strict measures of cultic purity such as ritual washing, fasting from certain foods, abstinence from sexual relations, freedom from disease or physical defect, etc. Indeed, these kinds of cultic purity requirements for worship are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But here the proper preparations for worship are ethical. Honesty and integrity trump external cultic preparations.
What, then, does this psalm tell us about worship? First, worship begins with acknowledging that “the earth is the Lord’s.” This has profound geopolitical, ecological and ethical implications, challenging our accepted notions of land ownership and national sovereignty.
“Get off my land!”
“Who says it’s your land?”
“I have the deed to it”
“Where did you get the deed?”
“From my father.”
“Where did he get it?”
“From his father.”
Where did he get it?”
“He fought for it!”
“Well, then, I’ll fight you for it!”
This little interchange goes to illustrate the obvious: If we go back far enough, we invariable discover that we are living on land our ancestors took away from somebody else. So even if you assume that whatever land is not occupied is up for grabs, it has been several millennia since there has been any such land available for the taking. Claims of land ownership are therefore intrinsically morally suspect. Moreover, the psalmist makes it clear that the earth, every inch of it, belongs to the Lord. Even the promised land was not given to Israel in any absolute sense. Life in the land of Canaan was to be lived in compliance with Israel’s covenant with God. When Israel began treating the land as her own, living contrary to the covenant and exploiting the land and her own people, God expelled her from the land.
Second, the earth is not a ball of resources we are free to exploit at our convenience to serve the national interests of whatever nation state we happen to belong to. If you go back to the second chapter of Genesis, the earth was created first. Only then did God create the human being to tend and care for the Garden God planted in Eden. The message is clear: It’s not all about us. The earth is God’s garden and we are here not as owners, but as gardeners. One objective of worship, then, is to re-orient our hearts and minds to accept God’s ownership of all creation and our privileged position, not as one of domination, but of careful stewardship and responsible care.
Revelation 21:1-6a http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=218541084
Revelation is by far the most abused, misunderstood and misquoted book in the entire Bible. It has been an inexhaustible source of speculation for people who understand it as the key to figuring out how and when the world will come to an end. This is not the place to embark on a lengthy discussion of the origin, purpose and meaning of Revelation. Nevertheless, I would urge you to read chapters 2 and 3 in addition to the lesson for this Sunday. There you will find seven letters dictated by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in a vision to the author, John of Patmos. The letters reflect the struggles of a church under varying degrees of persecution. Some of them face prosecution and death. Others face more subtle social pressure to compromise with cultural ethical norms and pagan religious practices. This is a church struggling for survival in a hostile society. The Roman Empire’s oppressive cruelty is given expression in the lurid images of beasts, demons and prostitutes employed by John. The imagery used in describing the Lamb of God, the heavenly court and the angelic forces of God all stretch the imagination to the breaking point, but affirm the ultimate victory of God over against the demonic forces at work in the Empire. Thus, Revelation is not so much a key to the future as it is a word of encouragement and hope for disciples of Jesus who face suffering and persecution in every age. For those of you wishing to understand more about this strange and wonderful book and its proper overall interpretation, I refer you to an excellent article produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at http://www.usccb.org/bible/revelation/0.
Our lesson for Sunday constitutes the climax of Revelation. John witnesses the descent of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem from God to earth. This is highly significant. Note well that John does not describe Christians “going to heaven” to be with God, but God coming to dwell with God’s people. The words “Behold, the dwelling of God is with people,” reflects the heartfelt desire expressed by the Lord throughout the Law and the Prophets. It has never been God’s intent to destroy this world and replace it with a better one. Indeed, God specifically rejected that course of action in the story of Noah’s Flood. (See Genesis 8:20-22). Instead, God makes all things new.
There is both continuity and discontinuity in the new creation-just as there was continuity and discontinuity between the man Jesus the disciples had come to know throughout his ministry with them and the resurrected Christ who appeared to them on Easter Sunday. The Resurrected one was Jesus, to be sure. Yet he was not merely a resuscitated corpse. This resurrected Jesus was alive in a new and powerful sense that placed him beyond the reach of death. His ascension to the right hand of the Father as witnessed by the gospel of Luke does not make Jesus more distant, but renders him even more intimately present than ever before. In the same way, the New Jerusalem is not a spiritual shadow of the dying physical city. Rather, it is a resurrected city that is more intensely alive precisely because it is now animated by the very presence of God in its midst.
I think that the hope contained in this lesson is very well expressed by Professor Brian Peterson of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary:
“We do not create this new heaven and earth; the New Jerusalem comes down from God, and thus comes only as a gift. We can discern its outline already in the gospel of Jesus, crucified, and risen. Because God is with us already — in the proclamation of the Gospel, at the table of our Lord, and in the Spirit filling the church — we are witnesses to that coming new city, with our words and with our lives. We carry gracious hints of its coming when we live out costly love for one another (John 13), and when we practice startling welcome to those otherwise left outside (Acts 11).”
I urge you to read Professor Peterson’s entire article at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/2/2010
John 11:32-44 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=218541130
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s gospel is not divided into bite size readings that contain numerous nuggets of insight. John takes his sweet time spinning a yarn. He gives you numerous clues and hints to where he is going that only become clear a chapter or two later when he springs the punch line. I guess that is why John does not get his own year in the lectionary as do his fellow gospel writers. But perhaps the problem is more with us than with John. We are the ones with the short attention spans. We are the ones who begin to glance at our watches when we perceive that worship is not proceeding on schedule. We are a generation in a hurry. As a result, we miss a lot of living as we dart from one point to another with a third point on our mind.
If we begin at the start of Chapter 11, we hear first that Jesus was told of Lazarus’ illness while in Galilee, but chose to remain there another two days before beginning his trip to Judah were Lazarus was. Consequently, Lazarus was dead long before Jesus arrived. Why would Jesus do such a thing? Granted, raising a man from death is a lot more spectacular than simply healing a sick one. But is that any way to treat someone you love? Whatever the reason for his remaining, it is clear that Jesus moves on his own time. He will not let himself be governed by emergencies. He simply refuses to be busy. That must have been the Jesus quality that impressed John most. His gospel is anything but rushed. We proceed leisurely from Galilee to the outskirts of Bethany and more leisurely still from there to the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is in no hurry to his work and makes clear that what he is about to do will be for the benefit of those around him who are to witness this great miracle.
Jesus wept. Again, I am at a loss to understand why. I expect that Jesus knew what he was about to do. So why weep? I am not convinced that Jesus was weeping for Lazarus. His concern appears to be for the people around him. He is grieved that Martha, while she mouths faith in a future resurrection in the sweet by and by, does not see in him the very presence of resurrection and life. Jesus is grieved at Mary’s sorrow and her seeming lack of even Martha’s level of hope. Jesus is grieved at the mourners who have nothing to offer Mary and Martha but sympathy. He is grieved at the power death seems to be exercising over everyone. He needs to demonstrate in a concrete way that he is the resurrection and the life, that death has no power over him and that he is able to offer life to those enslaved by the fear of death. Hence, the raising of Lazarus.
This story is pivotal for John’s gospel. The raising of Lazarus provokes the meeting of the Sanhedrin at which the decision is made to kill Jesus. The irony here is that Jesus is to be put to death for giving the gift of life. The Sanhedrin will also plot to take the life of Lazarus as his presence constitutes an ongoing testimony to Jesus. This episode expands on and amplifies the prologue to John’s gospel in which it is said of Jesus that “In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:4-5 Neither by killing Jesus nor by murdering Lazarus will the darkness be able to overcome the light of life.
Among other things, saintliness is a life that is not driven. It is not driven by every occurrence claiming to be urgent. It is not driven by fear of what others might think or how they may judge what we do or say. It is not driven by the fear of death. The life of a saint consists of following Jesus at his own leisurely pace focusing on what is significant rather than on everything that seems urgent. This is a wonderful text on which to preach. I only wonder if I have the patience for it!
Reformation Sunday (Pentecost 22)
Prayer of the Day
Eternal light, shine in our hearts. Eternal
wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance. Eternal compassion, have mercy on
us. Turn us to seek your face, and enable us to reflect your goodness, through
Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Happy Reformation! I should start off by saying that the lessons considered in this week’s posting are not those appointed for Reformation but rather the lessons appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Not to worry! I fully intend to observe the Reformation this Sunday. The only difference is that this year I will be reflecting on the Reformation in light of the texts for Pentecost 22. Why? To be honest, I am tired of preaching on the Reformation texts. They come up each year without alteration-that is three times more frequently than other appointed texts. While I do not believe that I have come close to exhausting all these lessons have to offer, I am quite sure that I have exhausted my own stores of insight. So I am taking a break from the Reformation lessons this year. Maybe next year they will look fresh to me once again.
By way of reflection on the Reformation more generally, I have become less and less inclined over the years to focus on the battles of the Sixteenth Century. To be sure, these controversies were important and the expressions of faith that grew out of them need to be preserved. But reformation is not all about preservation. I am convinced that a true church of the Reformation is a church always in the process of reform. It is a church that is always asking important questions. Luther did not initiate the reformation in his day by offering a platform or agenda for reform. He set off the reformation by proposing a series of statements, not for blind acceptance, but for discussion and reflection. These are the famed Ninety-Five Theses. You can read them for yourself at the following link: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html In the spirit of Reformation Sunday, I have submitted some theses of my own that I believe the church should consider-particularly the church in the United States. I put these together almost ten years ago on the eve of Reformation for no particular reason. You can read them on this blog at the page entitled Thirty-Two Theses (I could not come up with ninety-five!). These statements are just that-statements. I am not suggesting that they be incorporated into any sort of creed or confession. They might not be phrased in the best manner possible. They have no purpose other than to stimulate discussion about matters that I believe are important.
This is a word of comfort to an exiled people. Whether these words are those of the prophet Jeremiah who lived through the horrible last days of Jerusalem and witnessed its destruction or one of his disciples, they lie very close to the raw pain of war, dispossession and dislocation. These are people who know that they have lost much that will never be recovered. Life will never be what it was, even if the prophet’s promise of their return is fulfilled. For upon their return, the people will not find a land flowing with milk and honey, but a land ravaged by war, a city in ruins and a temple that is now only a pile of rubble. So whoever takes seriously this prophet’s promise that God is not through with Israel and that Israel has a future in her own land must wrestle with several important questions: What does it mean to be a nation when you have no government of your own, no claim to the land on which you live and no chance of regaining any measure of national autonomy?
Actually, Israel should know the answer to these questions. After being delivered from slavery in Egypt, Israel lived for forty years in the wilderness with no king, no land and no national identity. Israel had nothing in that wilderness but God’s promise to meet her needs-a promise that was fulfilled again and again along the way. As Jeremiah would have Israel know, God’s faithfulness is all that is needed to sustain God’s people. The rest is just a distraction.
Once again, I think there are parallels here with the people of God today in the United States. I believe that the church is learning once more to live on the margins of society. I say “once more” because we have been in that position before. There was a time when the church was just one of many religious alternatives in a pluralistic world. There was a time when the church dwelt in a hostile culture where she was misunderstood, mischaracterized by her critics and dismissed by the population as a whole. That time was the apostolic age during which disciples of Jesus began colonizing corners of the world with little communities of faith. The church in the days of the Apostle Paul held no real estate or seminaries or colleges. The only thing the church did possess was the good news about Jesus Christ-and that was enough. So to those of us who fear the demise of the church in the Twenty-First Century, Jeremiah would have us know that God is still a Father to us. We have been here before, folks. The future is not a threat to us, but an opportunity to learn all over again what it is that makes us God’s holy people.
The psalm begins with the words “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” An alternative reading is “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream.” If the latter reading is adopted, then “those who returned to Zion” are almost certainly the Babylonian exiles. This return was made possible by the edict of Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon. Cyrus decreed that all peoples taken into exile by Babylon, including the Jews, would be permitted to return to their homelands. Such an opportunity would indeed seem like a dream come true. Yet there were also serious obstacles in the way of returning to Palestine. The journey home through what is now the Iraqi desert was itself a perilous trip. Upon return, the Jews found a ruined city and hostile peoples who had come to inhabit the homeland. Rebuilding would be a long and difficult task. Hence, the psalmist prays “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb!” The “Negeb” is a hilly desert region of southern Israel. Water courses there are seasonal, being dry for most of the year but brought to life in the rainy season to revive dormant vegetation. So the psalmist hopes that God will likewise restore and nurture the community of Israel in the land to which she returns. The final verse of the psalm reflects the hope that, just as a bountiful harvest follows the toil of planting, so the sacrifice, hard work and risks taken by the returning exiles will be rewarded with the rebirth of a thriving community.
Of course, it is also possible that the opening lines of the psalm refer more generally to God’s many faithful acts of deliverance for Israel and that the prayer for restoration refers to an unknown calamity at some other point in Israel’s long history. Either way, this is a community that has experienced God’s salvation. Drawing upon this experience of God’s past faithfulness, the community prays hopefully and confidently for God’s future help.
This psalm is classified by most commentators as a “group lament.” A lament, you may recall, is a psalm in which Israel or an individual calls upon God to honor the covenant relationship with Israel and provide deliverance. Sometimes deliverance is rescue from enemies or healing from sickness. Other times it is forgiveness of sin. While the psalm does contain elements of a lament, the psalmist’s prayer goes beyond mere lament and into a bold expression of confidence in God’s faithfulness. Thus, one could also consider it a psalm of trust. The form, however, is of minimal importance. By whatever classification, this psalm is a powerful prayer challenging believers to draw encouragement from God’s past faithfulness as they face an uncertain future.
This is a continuation of the argument begun in last week’s reading. You might want to refer back to Sunday, October 21st. As you know, I view the Letter to the Hebrews as in part an effort to assist Jewish disciples of Jesus in coming to grips with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Consequently, the author goes to great lengths explaining how Jesus fulfills the function of the Temple and its worship, offering a deeper communion with God and a stronger basis for solidarity with fellow believers. Unlike the temple priests, whose mortality and human frailty required repeated sacrifices, Jesus has been raised from death after having made one single sacrifice that suffices for all time.
My take away from this passage: The church can afford to lose anything it has if only it clings to Jesus. That is basically my observation from last week and so I won’t expand on it further.
This is the last healing miracle Jesus performs in the Gospel of Mark. In order to appreciate fully the irony in this story of Jesus’ opening the eyes of the man born blind, we have to back up and review some of the stories we have heard in previous weeks. At the end of chapter 8, Jesus announces that he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the people and their leaders, handed over to the Roman authorities and put to death-and raised on the third day. Peter rebukes Jesus. Next, Jesus begins again to explain to his disciples that he must be put to death in Jerusalem and in three days rise. His disciples promptly get into a heated argument over which of them is the greatest. Then Jesus begins his pilgrimage to Jerusalem telling his disciples for the third time that he will die there and be raised. No sooner are the words out of his mouth than James and John approach with a request that they be seated at his side when he comes in glory. You begin to wonder whether these men are blind. Then, at the end of chapter 10, Jesus encounters, Bartimaeus, a man that is indeed blind. This blind man’s faith banishes his blindness and he rises up and follows Jesus on the way. Jesus, it seems, can open the eyes of a man born blind, but he cannot seem to make his witless disciples see.
This miracle prefigures what is to follow. Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as “Son of David,” which, though a messianic term, might also have been no more than a polite form of address. But whatever may have been intended by Bartimaeus, Jesus does ride into Jerusalem in the manner of a king, pronounces judgment upon the establishment of the Temple worship and engages in a number of disputes with his opponents focusing on the nature of his authority. Commentator Morna D. Hooker sees this story of Bartimaeus as a final challenge to Mark’s readers to “follow Jesus in the way,” even as it leads to the cross. The Gospel According to Mark, Hooker, Morna D., Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. (ed. 2005), p. 252. I tend to agree. I believe that Mark’s gospel is directed at a church that has become enamored with institutional success and is in danger of losing its focus on the cross. I base that not so much on assumptions about the Markan church. The truth is, we know next to nothing about the faith community to which Mark was writing. Rather, I believe that fixation on institutional growth, the struggle for power within such institutions and wrongheaded notions of glory have been endemic to the church in every age. That is why this gospel has been preserved in the New Testament. Its call to turn away from the tempting path of glory and success to follow Jesus on the redemptive way of the cross speaks to the church in every age.
“So how will he tie all of these texts into the Reformation?” You might be asking. Well, I think reformation is what happens to the people of God when circumstances make it impossible to turn anywhere but back to their Lord. We sing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” knowing that our God is a “Father” to us as Jeremiah points out. So when Israel lost her land, her king and her temple-the symbols of who she understood herself to be-she turned back to the God who gave her these symbols and who also took them away from her. Israel knew that for there to be any future at all for her, it could only come from the God who called her from slavery to become a special people. Of course, Israel would learn that there is no going back to the way things were. She had to learn that what she regarded as “the good old days,” were not at all good in God’s eyes. Israel would need to learn all over again what it means to be God’s covenant people. She would need to be “re-formed.” The hard work of reformation is likewise reflected in the psalm. Israel is always in need of restoration.
The author of Hebrews similarly calls his hearers to re-imagine their worship life without the Temple and apart from the traditions that formerly gave it meaning. Just as Luther called the church back to a more faithful understanding of Jesus’ atoning work for us by grace through faith, so the author of Hebrews called his hearers to recognize in Jesus the only sacrifice that will ever be necessary and to enter with confidence into the presence of God.
Finally, the Gospel gives us a vivid picture of God’s saving power that removes our blindness, giving us eyes to see the truth that is Jesus. Like Bartimaeus, we are powerless to open our own eyes. We are entirely dependent upon the merciful God who intervenes to save us from ourselves.
Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples on earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Greetings and welcome! I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for the flowers on Sunday in remembrance of Pastor Appreciation Week. It is good to know that I am appreciated-as so many of you have reminded me, not only this last Sunday, but each day of my ministry here at Trinity. It is truly a joy to serve such a supportive congregation!
One of the common themes in our readings for this Sunday is “the suffering servant.” Isaiah testifies to the mysterious servant whose unjust suffering and death somehow redeems Israel and perhaps the world beyond. The author of Hebrews argues that Jesus, as both priest and sacrifice, makes peace for us with God. In the gospel lesson Jesus addresses a power struggle among the twelve by pointing out that leadership under the reign of God is practiced not by the example of power, but by the power of example through loving service.
This passage might remind you of Lent and Holy Week. That is because it almost always comes into the passion observance at some point. The New Testament church recognized in these words the mission and ministry of Jesus. That is all well and good, but it is important, too, that we understand that this passage, which was composed five hundred years before Jesus was born, had a meaning of its own for the people to whom it was directed. This is the last of four “servant songs” belonging to the second of three sections of the prophet Isaiah. It is addressed to the Jews living in exile in Babylon at the end of the 6th Century B.C.E. Part of the prophet’s purpose is to make sense out of the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem and reassure the exiles that Israel has a future and an important role in God’s redemptive plan. He points out that the conquest of Babylon by Persia and the Persian policy of amnesty for peoples exiled under the Babylonian regime is part of that plan. The Jews now have the opportunity to return to the promised land-albeit as subjects of the new Persian Empire. Though they can never hope to recapture the glory of Israel under the Davidic dynasty, their life as a covenant people living in humble obedience to their God will reflect a different and greater glory.
Biblical scholars continue to struggle with the meaning of this particular passage. Who is the “servant”? What is the cause of his suffering and how does that suffering benefit the servant? Israel? The world? Is the servant the exiled remnant of Israel? The prophet? Some other individual? I am not sure the answer to these questions has to be a strict either/or. The prophet’s rejection and suffering at the hands of his/her fellow Israelites could well be a reflection of Israel’s rejection and suffering among the nations of the world. The prophet’s life may be a parabolic symbol of what Israel’s life as a people was intended to be and still might be.
How is the prophet’s/Israel’s suffering redemptive? As I have said before, this is dangerous theological territory. It must be said again from the outset that there is nothing at all redemptive about suffering in and of itself. Nothing good comes from spousal abuse, bullying, racial discrimination, economic exploitation, famine or disease. These are all instances in which suffering has been imposed on people by others or by circumstances beyond their control. There are some instances, however, in which people embrace suffering, not because it is good in itself, but because it is a necessary consequence of accomplishing a greater good. If you decide to have children, you will suffer in many ways: pain, discomfort and a degree of risk of serious physical harm (for women), sleep deprivation, economic loss, anxiety and stress to name just a few. And this is just the suffering you can expect when everything goes well! Still, we keep on having babies because we believe having and raising children to be worth the sacrifices it requires.
It costs God dearly to love this world that so often takes a self destructive turn just as it is costly for us to love a son or daughter whose choices derail their lives. Any parent who has ever walked with a son or daughter through the long and torturous path from addiction to sobriety knows that love is costly. The cost God was willing to pay for the redemption of the world was a long and often painful journey with God’s people Israel from slavery in Egypt, through doubt in the wilderness, through disobedience and rebellion in Canaan and through the dark night of despair in Babylonian exile. Yet this story reflects to all the world God’s commitment to redeeming all of creation. Therefore, Israel will finally be vindicated. Her suffering finally will be recognized as faithfulness to a gracious God whose salvation is for all people.
Not surprisingly, the church similarly recognized the redemptive love of God at work in Jesus’ faithful life, obedient suffering and willing death. His resurrection was seen as proof that “the will of the Lord” prospered in his hand.
This psalm has the infamous distinction of being the scripture with which the devil tried to induce Jesus to jump to his death from the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12) Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain to the mother. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez. I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.
But I digress. The point here is that we should not read this psalm the way Wilkinson interprets the prayer of Jabez, as some sort of magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has seen combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.
You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life.
At this point, you might want to review my introductory remarks on Hebrews from Sunday, October 7th. You might also want to take a look at a summary of the book of Hebrews written by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=58 I want to emphasize once again that the characterization of Jesus as the ultimate high priest is not a repudiation of Judaism, but rather a repudiation of the efficacy of Temple worship and piety as it had become in the days of Jesus. At its best, the Temple served as a powerful symbol of the actual presence of God in the midst of Israel. It drew worshipers from all corners of Israel to Jerusalem where they celebrated their common faith in God and their solidarity with one another through sacrificial meals. The priesthood served as a mediator of God’s mercy and faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s confession of sin, prayers for forgiveness and hymns of thanksgiving.
At the time of Jesus, the office of the high priest was highly politicized and notoriously corrupt. The Temple that stood during the time of Jesus was built by Herod the Great, a hated figure appointed by Rome to be “King of the Jews.” Herod, it should be noted, was not a Jew and so his designation as their king was therefore all the more insulting. The Jews, then, were naturally ambivalent about the Temple in Jerusalem. It was, to be sure, a magnificent piece of architecture that arguably dignified the worship of God. But it was also a cash cow for the corrupt priesthood and its Roman overlords. Consequently, both Jews and Christians viewed the Temple’s destruction as God’s judgment on a hopelessly corrupt priesthood.
Just as obedience to Torah and worship revolving around the synagogue replaced Temple worship in the Jewish community, Jesus was understood among Christians as the new Temple of God and God’s true high priest of an entirely different lineage, that of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is an obscure figure who, like our friend Jabez, makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abraham formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abraham as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abraham and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abraham with the words:
And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek, his lack of genealogy or history, that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice.
For those of us far removed from the historical context, the argument is a little hard to follow. But the bottom line is that, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus is the focal point for communion with God and fellowship among God’s people. The Eucharistic meal now serves as the original purpose of the sacrificial meals in the Temple. Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice is now sufficient to feed God’s people so no further sacrifices of any kind are necessary. Consequently, Christians need not despair over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In some ways, our own context is analogous to that of the church addressed by the book of Hebrews. We are also experiencing losses-in terms of membership, in terms of financial resources, in terms of our capacity, both as a congregation and as a national denomination, to be the church we have always been. If current trends continue, the ELCA will be a smaller, poorer and less influential church by the middle of this century. Many of our congregations may no longer be in existence. If numbers, finances and the ability to run expansive programs addressing every conceivable human need are at the center of what it means to be church, this is disturbing news. But maybe size, wealth and programmatic success don’t matter anymore than did the Temple. In my humble opinion, a small, poor and marginalized church speaking from the edges of society is a more faithful witness to Jesus than a wealthy, powerful church entrenched in the structures of societal power speaking from the center. But that is just St. Paul and me. What do we know?
At first blush, it seems we should not be too hard on James and John. After all, this how things work among “the gentiles,” including us American gentiles. People who have donated generously to a successful campaign are rewarded with ambassadorships, cabinet positions and committee chairs in the new administration. (That is why prudent donors typically contribute to both campaigns. That way, no matter who wins, s/he will owe you. Why put all your eggs in one basket?) James and John have certainly paid their dues. They have been at Jesus’ side throughout his ministry, stood by him in the face of opposition and have joined him on a danger fraught journey to Jerusalem. It is hardly unreasonable to ask that Jesus reward their loyalty with some measure of privilege in the coming kingdom. This is how politics is practiced in the real world.
Much of the story’s irony will be lost on us this Sunday because the lectionary makers have failed to include verses 32-34 that come directly before the lesson. Here we read: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’” It is after this dark pronouncement that James and John come forward with their request for a high office in the coming Jesus administration. The warning that Jesus’ mission will end with his execution seems to have fallen upon deaf ears. The two disciples do not yet understand what Jesus’ coming in glory is going to look like. If they had understood, they might have been thankful to learn that the privilege of being at Jesus right and left hand had already been given away-to two criminals. James and John truly have no idea what they are requesting.
Yet, says Jesus, they will drink the cup he must drink and share in the baptism with which he is about to be baptized. That is a good word; a word of promise. James and John cannot understand it as such yet. Perhaps they cannot understand it at all. The question is, though, do we understand it? And if we understand it, do we hear it as good news? This is one of those texts that is more conveniently ignored-just like the one from last week in which Jesus calls upon the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. In fact, as I look at how most of our congregations are managed, how the New Jersey Synod is run and how our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is operated, we don’t look all that different from the gentile world. We have constitutions that divvy up power and authority between the pastor, lay leaders and committees. The pay structure for bishops, pastors of large congregations and pastors of smaller congregations does not suggest to me that we view “the least” as the “greatest.” We have our power struggles, disputes over authority and arguments over who is the greatest. I am not always convinced that our liturgy communicates the message that worship leaders and ministers of word and sacrament are “the least of all and the servants of all.”
Some of this, no doubt, is attributable to sinful human nature. After all, if we find power politics at work among the original twelve disciples, is it really so surprising that it persists among us today? Yet I wonder whether our structures do not contribute to our failure to practice servant leadership effectively. More importantly, I wonder if our structures are not the misbegotten fruit of a theology of church based on the notion of individual rights rather than selfless service within the Body of Christ. As a tail end baby boomer and child of the 60s (sort of), to be at all critical of “rights” goes against the grain of my moral conscience. But lately I have come to believe that my moral conscience is wrong. I do not believe that it is possible to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in the language of “rights.” The only way I can possess a right is to have an existence independent of the Body of Christ. If I am a member of the Body of Christ, then it makes no more sense to speak of my right to do this or that than it does to speak of my foot’s right to act independent of the rest of my body. To be baptized into the body of Christ is to die to any individual right I may have and to live henceforth for the good of the Body.
For a broken and divided world filled with individuals and groups all having conflicting interests, the language of rights does little more than define the contours of its fractures. The language of rights can only produce endless disputes over whose right is primary and how far a given right goes. That, of course, is colored by economic self interest, value judgments, cultural bias and a whole host of other distorting factors that virtually ensure a conceptual quagmire. When the church attempts to couch the gospel in the language of rights and frames its call for justice, peace and reconciliation in terms of rights, it invariably finds itself the dupe of some partisan interest. To be sure, the church has often sided with partisan interests that advance the cause of justice. But just as often it has sided with slavery, segregation, war and exploitation. In short, when we get caught up in speaking the language of rights, I am not convinced the church speaks truth any more clearly or faithfully than other people of good will. We are self interested too, after all.
Perhaps before we can speak of justice we need to experience it. Maybe we cannot ever hope to speak the truth unless we give ourselves to living the truth in a community that is founded not on inalienable rights, but on the unconditional mercy by which we have each been absorbed into a Body where our individual lives have been surrendered. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20. Maybe the first step in speaking truth and justice is simply to be the church, the Body of Christ, a community of servants who claim no rights, no privileges, no greatness or distinction. We might not be any better at living as a Body than were James and John, or the church in Corinth or any other New Testament congregation. Nevertheless, even a church that does church badly is a better witness than a church that has given up on being church and adopts the way of “the gentiles.”
What do you think?
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Greetings and welcome to the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The lessons for this week are a tad unsettling. They focus in one way or another on repentance. Amos points out to his people that their prosperity has been built upon a flimsy foundation of injustice and exploitation of the poor. He warns them that God, not the invisible hand of the market, will decide Israel’s fate. Unless Israel begins to do justice, she will soon face justice. The psalmist recognizes that life is brief and often filled with hard labor, disappointment and tragedy. Often, the sorrows we experience are brought upon us by our own folly. S/he therefore prays for wisdom to live his/her life wisely and well. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the word of God is “sharper than any two edged sword.” Though it is, to be sure, a healing word, healing does not come without the pain of self knowledge and repentance. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus offers a rich young man the gift of a once in a life time opportunity-but he cannot empty his hands to take hold of it.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1386
For some autobiographical information on Amos, I suggest you re-read the comment of July 29th. Israel was experiencing an economic, military and religious revival under the leadership of her King, Jeroboam II. Business was booming; the long struggle with Syria had ended in victory for Israel; the chief sanctuary of the Lord in Bethel was packed to the rafters with avid worshipers. It was morning in Israel. Yet despite all appearances to the contrary, things were rotten to the core. The courts were turning “justice to wormwood.” A new commercial class was gaining unprecedented wealth by ruthlessly exploiting the poor even as they patronized the temple singing the hymns to Israel’s God. It was Amos’ job to tell his people that their wealth was not evidence of God’s blessing, but kindling for God’s fierce wrath. Wealth built on injustice will not be tolerated among the people called to be God’s light to the nations. So Amos calls his people to “seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire against the house of Joseph.”
The parallels here between 8th Century Israel and 21st Century Wall Street are not hard to miss. That pervasive infection of greed, selfishness and complete lack of conscience that built a mountain of phony wealth ending in a devastating crash ruining our economy is precisely the kind of sin infecting Israel. Like Amos, there were some lone voices in the business community crying out words of warning, but they were ignored. Though we can surely point to conduct by banks, mortgage brokers and venture capitalists that was absolutely despicable, I believe part of the blame for our present economic woes must fall squarely upon the rest of us who were all too willing to tolerate such conduct as long as it was growing our pensions and increasing the value of our homes. Nobody was trying to occupy Wall Street when the gravy train was on the roll.
Still and all, I think we need to be careful about drawing parallels. There is a difference between Israel and the United States of America. Israel was God’s covenant partner. She was called to be a light to the nations. She had received her freedom as a people and her land from the hand of God. She was God’s chosen people. Therefore, she was judged under the terms of the covenant relationship that her conduct had so grievously violated. The United States is not God’s chosen people. God has no covenant with America. Because America is not a party to the covenant, America is not answerable to its terms. That is not to say that God is unconcerned with what America or any other nation does or does not do. In general terms, God’s judgment falls upon all nations that practice injustice and unrighteousness. In general, God judges the righteousness of a people by how they treat and care for the weakest and most vulnerable in their midst. I think we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that God is not pleased with the conduct leading up to the crash on Wall Street or with how the economic burdens resulting from that crash have been distributed. That said, Israel, as a people called by God to live in a covenant relationship reflecting a better hope for all humanity, is uniquely responsible for obedience to the terms of the covenant under which that hope is given concrete expression. So this word of Amos is more properly directed to the people of God, Israel and the church, than to Wall Street. So we need to ask ourselves how these words speak to us at Trinity.
Over the years, our church has been blessed with substantial real estate holdings as well as some very generous donations. We must take care lest this wealth become a curse rather than a blessing. I know from bitter experience that when churches come into money, they have a tendency to become more like lawyers, businesspeople and accountants than faithful disciples. It is sobering to realize that Israel’s finest hours occurred at times when she had her back against the wall and nothing with which to defend herself. That is where she most often witnessed the saving power of God. When Israel had wealth, peace and power she tended to forget where these gifts came from and began to imagine that they were hers to do with as she wished.
We cannot forget that we have been called to be the Body of Christ. We are in the business of making disciples-not growing our membership, maintaining our facility or investing our wealth to make more wealth. Money is not evil, but the love of money is. Most of us have a hard time having money without becoming attached to it and allowing it to run our lives. The gospel lesson is a very pointed reminder of that very thing.
This is a gloomy psalm. It is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. We reach the point when we can no longer drive. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change. As I said, this is a gloomy psalm.
Gloomy as it is, though, it contains a ray of light. The psalmist’s prayer was answered. The psalmist concludes his/her prayer with the words: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” That we have this psalm in the scriptures, and that we will be singing it together on Sunday demonstrates that God in fact “established the work” of this psalmist’s hands. (I should mention that I owe this insight to Professor Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.) As dark as this psalm may be (and it is pretty dark), it is nevertheless a testament to God’s determination to make of our lives something beautiful and worth preserving. It reminds me of Paul’s assuring word to the disciples at Philippi: “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Time may be at work taking us apart piece by piece. But the Spirit of God is also at work piecing together the new person born at our baptism into Jesus Christ.
The writer compares the word of God to a double edged sword. This is a violent image. A sword has one purpose and that is to slay. Yet as discomforting as this image may be, it is entirely appropriate. To hear God’s word is to come very close to death. Recall the terror of Isaiah when confronted by a vision of God in the Temple of Jerusalem: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah 6:5. The word of God discerns the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” In its light, nothing is hidden.
I think a lot of us put a lot of effort into keeping secrets on ourselves. It has been said that every person has three selves: the one she is, the one she thinks she is and the one everyone else things she is. It is the first one that I am least likely to know because I am overly concerned with the first two. I want to believe that I am a person of integrity, courage, wisdom and vision. Those character traits are important to a minister. So I when I am less than honest, I rationalize it by convincing myself that it is all to spare the feelings of those who might be offended by what I believe to be the truth. When I am cowardly, I tell myself that discretion is the better part of valor. When I make mistakes, I make excuses. When I am at a loss over what needs to be done, I try to exude confidence. It takes a lot of energy to maintain a disguise. So as painful as a confrontation with God’s word may be, it is also liberating. There is nothing like the relief a person feels when a good and trusted friend says, “Who do you think you’re fooling. I know what’s going on here. Let’s talk about it.” Suddenly, the pressure is off. I no longer have to maintain the façade. I can stop making excuses, explanations, justifications and get down to the business of taking responsibility and making the changes I need to make.
That brings me to the second part of this lesson. The writer of Hebrews does not urge us to flee in fear from this blinding light of God’s word, but rather “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God never wounds us unless it is for the ultimate purpose of healing us. If the word of the Lord sometimes scares the hell out of us, it is because we were made for something better than hell. Those of you who have undergone joint replacement surgery know that healing can sometimes be a long and painful journey. A successful hip replacement can relieve you of a lot of pain and give you more freedom of mobility. But to get there, the pain is going to have to get worse before it gets better. So it is with the Kingdom of God. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells in our midst and we live together in peace with our neighbors and all of creation is one to which I am irresistibly drawn. Yet I know that I am not the sort of person that could live in such a renewed creation. I need a heart transplant and the only surgical instrument sharp enough to perform that operation for me is the word of God. Only daily repentance and forgiveness among people of faith can assist me in growing into the stature of Jesus Christ. With the psalmist, I must rely upon God to establish the work of my hands. I must trust Jesus to complete what he began at my baptism.
This is without doubt one of the saddest stories in the gospels. The way Mark tells it, this young man coming to Jesus yearning for the way to eternal life was sincere. And let us be clear about one thing. When the gospels speak of “eternal life,” they are not merely speaking about some distant event in the “sweet by and by.” Eternal life is life that is spent doing the things that are of eternal importance, the things that matter to God. Naturally, then, Jesus refers the young man to the Commandments, all of which he claimed to have observed from his youth. We are told that Jesus, “looking upon him loved him.” “You lack just one thing,” says Jesus. But alas, that one thing is just one thing too much for the young man. He wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted to spend the rest of his life doing things that matter
eternally. Instead, “he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”
I am afraid that I identify with this rich young man. No, I am not rich by Donald Trump standards, but like nearly all Americans, I enjoy a measure of wealth that two thirds of the world can only dream about. I have never had to go hungry. I have never had to travel further than the kitchen sink to find clean water. Like everybody else in America, I feel I am not making enough, that my taxes are too high and that everything is more expensive than it should be. But I have no fear of starving to death or having to sleep on the street or being driven out of the community in which I live. Even if I were to end up broke and homeless, I have enough family and friends that would see to my basic needs and a social safety net that, despite years of trimming down, is still there. That might not get me on the cover of Forbes, but it makes me filthy rich by standards of most the world’s population. I, too, want to live my life for the things that matter eternally, but at the cost of losing my wealth? I would like to think that this is just a hypothetical question. Of course Jesus does not expect all of us to give up everything. This rich young man was a special case because…well, because he was rich. He was addicted to his wealth. Just because an alcoholic must refrain from drinking to maintain his sobriety, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be teatotalers. So the argument goes. Trouble is, there is no indication that this young man was anymore addicted to his wealth than we are. In fact, we don’t even learn that he was wealthy until the end of the story. There is no indication even that Jesus knew about his wealth initially. Moreover, it appears that the twelve disciples, who do not appear to have been rich, also gave up all of their possessions to follow Jesus. I do not believe we can get ourselves out from under this troubling word by trying to make of the rich young man a special and extraordinary case. Giving up everything seems to go hand and hand with discipleship.
This story is so unsettling because it hits us right where we live. Next to the cult of individualism that has become so much a part of the American consciousness, I believe that the greatest threat to the health of the church today is our wealth. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot be the church without elaborate sanctuaries in which to worship, a seminary trained pastor for each individual congregation, a Sunday School, numerous programs to meet every conceivable need and a big piece of real estate that does nothing other than provide a place for people to park their cars once a week on Sunday. The churches in the African nation of Namibia cannot afford any of these things, yet these churches are growing exponentially even as American churches decline. The question here is not about individual giving to the church-important as that is. Rather, the question is whether, as a church, we have given all to Jesus. How much of what we do is geared toward satisfying our own wants and needs as members rather than surrendering all to become the Body of Jesus in our community? Do we trust Jesus enough to follow after him doing the things that matter eternally-even when those things are not financially rewarding, desired by our members or promising in terms of increasing our membership? We confess each week in the Creed that we believe in Jesus, but are we ready to put our money where our mouth is? A church’s budget is frequently a portal into its soul. What do our financial records say about who we are? Do they reflect a passionate concern for the things that matter eternally?
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Greetings everyone! As many of you know, I spent the last week out in the Red Rock Mountains of Arizona. In addition to getting in a lot of hiking, I managed to do a little star gazing. With the air as clear and dry as it almost always is in Sedona, it is possible to see more stars than you could shake a stick at. When one looks at “the moon and the stars which thou hast established” you have to ask along with the psalmist, “what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” The texts for this week all address this question in some shape or form. One thing is clear: to be human is to be related to other human beings, to all of creation and to God the Creator. When any one of these relationships go haywire, our very humanity is threatened. As the First Letter of John points out, when we claim to love God yet hate our sisters and brothers, we are deceiving ourselves. The one we hate is the very image of God. What we claim to worship as God is in fact an idol of our own imagining. Because we have forgotten that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” we treat it as a bundle of resources we are free to exploit no matter what the consequences to the environment, to human and animal populations or to future generations. To be fully human is to be rightly related to God, to our neighbor and to the rest of creation.
There is an element of humor in this passage that is very much underappreciated. I think that is probably because we have a deeply ingrained sense that religion, faith and the Bible are serious matters. To laugh at something in the Bible seems almost sacrilegious. Often, though, the biblical authors are intending to be funny. They see humor as part and parcel of every relationship worth having, including our relationship with God. Here God observes the earth creature just formed from dust and concludes that “it is not good for this creature to be alone.” So God creates the animals to be companions for this creature. The creature finds the animals interesting and perhaps endearing-so much so that it gives them names. Still, none of them proves a suitable companion. It appears that God is unsure of what is needed here; that God is fumbling around, turning out ever new and exotic animals that somehow fail to meet the creature’s deepest need. Then, in a flash of insight, God suddenly “gets it.” The creature needs a companion of its own kind. “Finally!” says Adam as Eve appears on the scene. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Note well that the name, “Adam” is not really a proper name. It means simply “taken from the ground,” or “earth creature.” We cannot call Adam a “man” in terms of gender because at this point there is no gender. Without the male/female polarity, the concept of gender is simply unintelligible. As Phyllis Trible, a prominent biblical scholar, has pointed out, the Hebrew word for “man” in the sense of a male human is not used in the Adam and Eve creation story until after the creation of Eve. Only then is Adam referred to as “ish” which means “male person” over against Eve who is “ishah” or “female person.” Consequently, the notion that the male human was created first and the female afterwards is erroneous. Both male and female came into existence when Eve was drawn from Adam.
This text has been cited frequently in the so called culture wars as a proof text for the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This, it is argued, constitutes the normative pattern established from the beginning. However, it seems to me that we need to read the text from the beginning rather than the end. And the lesson begins with God’s declaration that it is not good for Adam to be alone. God does not proceed with divine dispatch to the obvious (to us) conclusion, but experiments with the creation of other life forms to meet Adam’s need. But Adam’s loneliness is not merely “aloneness.” His longing is for an intimate relationship with one of his own kind. This longing cannot be satisfied by the companionship animals bring or even by his unique relationship to the Creator. The creation of male and female, then, was designed to alleviate that emptiness Adam experiences.
So this lesson is about more than just marriage. The primary concern from God’s standpoint is not the establishment of an institution, but rather the alleviation of Adam’s loneliness. Marriage is obviously not the cure all for loneliness. There are cold and loveless marriages in which one or both spouses find themselves desperately lonely. Conversely, there are unmarried individuals whose friendships, family and professional lives afford them a wealth of deep and lasting relationships in which they find comfort, support and much joy. This is yet one more reason why we should avoid getting hung up on the definition of marriage and hear what this scripture says about what makes us human: the deep and lasting relationships that meet our longing for intimacy and help define us as persons.
The question then, with respect to gay and lesbian persons, is this: “Is it good for them to be alone?” The text tells us that a man leaves his family and cleaves to his wife because it is not good to be alone. If that is the same reason for same sex relationships, namely, to find intimacy in a faithful union that overcomes loneliness, can we say categorically that such relationships are contrary to this scripture? Can the mutual commitment and self giving in marriage which for St. Paul reflects the love between Christ and his church likewise be found in same sex relationships? If so, what is to preclude recognizing them and celebrating them as marriages? It seems to me that we need to begin with the question presented to us by the scripture rather than the contentious and narrowly defined issues presented in the current political debate over the legal definition of marriage. Indeed, before we even begin talking about marriage, we need to have the more basic discussion over what makes human life “good.” We know that our being alone is not good. So how do our relationships enable us to overcome our loneliness and grow in our humanity? In what ways do our relationships hinder such growth, foster loneliness and frustrate our human development? In what way do societal expectations, class distinctions and cultural differences affect our ability to build friendships, cooperation and trust? St. Paul teaches us that in Christ, distinctions of race, class and national origin cease to be barriers and instead become doors to deeper community and oneness. Is that happening in our church? Is it reflected in our mission and ministry?
This beautiful hymn glorifying God is bracketed by a refrain at its beginning and end that says it all: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” This hymn recognizes both the glory of God under which all created things pal in significance. Yet it is this very glory that dignifies and gives meaning to creation generally and to human beings in particular. Small as we are, God does take note of us. More than that, God has given to us human beings the unique task of ruling over creation and having “dominion” over every living thing.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals* that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
It is important to understand what is meant by “dominion.” Note that the dominion we are given is over the works of God’s hands. God is still the rightful owner of all things over which we have dominion. We are stewards, not owners. To get an idea of what that means we need to return to Genesis 2:15 which regrettably was not included in our reading for Sunday. The verse reads: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” From the dawn of creation it has been the role of human beings to “till and to keep” God’s garden. This means, of course, that we are not free to make whatever use we will of everything under our dominion. Being made in God’s image means that we human beings have a unique capacity to create. We have the ability to altar the face of the earth in ways that no other creature can. This ability enables us both to enhance the beauty, habitability and productivity of our planet and to wreak catastrophic destruction on it.
Proper human dominion is a pressing issue for us today as the earth’s human population grows and consumes the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report says that if the world continues using its resources at current rates, humanity will be getting through some 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass annually by the year 2050. The report described this as “three times its current appetite,” and an “unsustainable” rate of extraction. http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15065771,00.html This sorry state has evolved from our viewing the earth as a ball of resources divided and owned by nation states each claiming sovereign control over those resources within its borders and/or owned throughout the world. Faithful dominion requires a different vision that begins with the acknowledgement that the earth belongs first and foremost to God. Our use of its resources cannot be guided by a desire to perpetuate a way of life that ruthlessly exploits and carelessly consumes with no thought for the health of the world’s ecosystems, the suffering inflicted on our fellow human beings throughout the planet or the welfare of generations to come. Proper dominion over the earth means learning to stop being consumers and to begin living as contributors. That, of course, will affect the homes we live in, the cars we drive (if any) and the way we eat. It will change a host of other daily habits that injure the environment, foster inequality and threaten peace. The psalm does not give us any concrete guidance in implementing these changes, but it does suggest to us that the potential for a better world is within our reach-when we finally learn to let God be God, let go of our desire to possess our planet and recognize it as God’s garden to be tended and cared for.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1369&cmpgn=5244
Let’s begin with a word about Hebrews. This is an anonymous letter written in the latter half of the first century, probably between 80-90 A.D. In the past, and to some extent today also, Hebrews has been viewed by biblical scholars as a comparison of Christianity to Judaism. The intent, they maintain, is to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. I don’t buy that. It seems to me that both Judaism and the church faced a common catastrophe, namely, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Obviously, the Temple was central to Judaism. There are indications that it was likewise important for New Testament church. Jesus cleansed the Temple and taught in the Temple. According to Acts, the post resurrection church gathered in the courts of the Temple. The early church, being primarily Jewish, continued to worship in the Temple with fellow Jews. The destruction of that Temple was widely believed in both Christian and Jewish circles to signal the end of the age and the coming of God’s kingdom. That obviously did not happen. So both Judaism and the church were faced with understanding their existences without the Temple. For Judaism, the fulcrum of faith and life became the Torah and the worship of God it inspired in the Synagogue. For the church, Jesus Christ was the Temple of God, the locus of God’s presence. In my view, Hebrews is not an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, but rather an attempt to demonstrate that the messianic mission of Jesus was not refuted by the destruction of the Temple, but rather lives on through the church which continues to embody that faithful mission.
The passage for this Sunday reminds us that disciples of Jesus are not a people of the book. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2. We are disciples of Jesus Christ whose ministry of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation continue in his resurrected Body, the church. Of course, the Bible is critical to us because it constitutes the normative witness to God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not, however, an end in itself. We read it seeking Jesus. We interpret it through Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We can call the Bible God’s word because it points us to Jesus.
“We do not yet see everything in subjection to [Christ].” That is true today as then. It does not appear that Jesus reigns. Yet contrary to all appearances, we confess that he does. More than that, we live under the belief that he does. For if Christ is not Lord of heaven and earth, the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense. It is not practical to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression. It is not practical to give to people who beg from you. It is not practical to love an enemy that is trying to kill you. At least none of this is practical in a world run by the principalities, the rulers and the assumptions of this age. But disciples of Jesus maintain that Caesar is not Lord. Nor is the invisible hand of the market nor is dialectical materialism nor is any nation state. Jesus is Lord and the day will come when every knee will bow and tongue so confess. Therefore, we throw in our lot with the one we know to be victorious even if that means we will have to take some lumps from those who have not figured that out yet. We take the long view. The Kingdom of God is coming and so we gather as Christ’s Body animated by the Spirit of God so that we can be transformed into the kind of people capable of living in such a kingdom.
This passage and the way the church has interpreted it in the past is responsible for a lot of pain inflicted on a lot of people. I can still recall the days when our churches would not perform second marriages on the basis of this passage. I have heard a number of heartbreaking stories about woman who have been counseled to remain with their abusive husbands so as not to “put asunder” what “God has joined together.” So I think it is critical that we get this scripture right.
First, note that Jesus does not dispute the law of Moses in this regard. Divorce is permitted under the terms of the law. Jesus goes on to point out, however, that Moses wrote this commandment “for your hardness of heart.” Marriage was designed to be a life-long commitment. Because “it is not good” for a person to be alone, dissolution of a marriage is contrary to its purpose. Yet because our hearts are hard, many of God’s good gifts to us are ruined. Marriage is one of them. It is important to emphasize here that the “hardness of heart” necessitating divorce is not found solely or even primarily within the divorcing couple. Due to our ever increasingly mobile society, many young married couples begin their lives together and raise their families in neighborhoods far from where they grew up and where their families reside. They lack the family support and encouragement that is often so helpful in building up and supporting a marriage. Demand upon professionals to work long hours takes a toll on marriage. Loss of employment, financial stress and illness of a spouse can test even the strongest marriages. I speak from experience when I say that marriage is too big a job for couples to manage on their own. I am thankful that Sesle and I have enjoyed the support of Sesle’s parents who served as a “second set of parents” for our children when they were small. We never had to worry about babysitting or day care. I am thankful for a vibrant community of faith that stood by me during times of illness in my family. I am likewise indebted to a supportive employer who was flexible enough to give me the time I needed to care for my family in periods of crisis. This week I will celebrate 29 years of marriage-but not with any sense of pride or accomplishment. I know only too well that I owe my successful marriage to a host of partners who stood by me and Sesle in time of need. I also know that there are better people than me whose marriages have broken under the strain of the factors discussed above.
In sum, there are many guilty parties in every divorce, such as uncaring and unflexible employers, unsupportive faith communities, distant and disinterested neighbors and corporate business entities that put profits before the stability of communities and the welfare of their workers. So also, behind every successful marriage there usually are a host of supporting angels that have been present at critical times to encourage faithfulness and endurance. Most significantly, the sins involved with the breakup of a marriage are no different from any other sin. They are covered by God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just as God raised Jesus from death, so also God can bring new life and love out of the ruins of a failed marriage.