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?