Archive for March, 2013
Prayer of the Day
O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Do you believe the resurrection really happened?” That question has been put to me “gun to the head” style on many occasions. Most recently it came from one of my acquaintances with strict biblical literalist leanings. He went on to tell me that he just wanted a “yes or no” answer. In one sense, we can answer this question with a clear “yes.” Something must have happened two millennia ago to convince Jesus’ disciples that their crucified teacher was now alive. But I have a feeling my friend wants more of an answer than that. He was looking for me not merely to affirm that “something happened,” but to confirm his particular view of what happened. The question of “what” happened cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Our response requires a close look at what the New Testament witnesses are saying to us.
Let’s start with the obvious. When the women reached the tomb on Easter Sunday, it was already empty. Jesus had already risen. As far as we know, nobody witnessed that event. We have no way of knowing what the video camera would have shown. The resurrected Christ appeared to several of the disciples for some time after Easter. The stories of these appearances make clear that Jesus was bodily present. He ate with his disciples; he breathed on them and several of them touched him. My literalist friend therefore draws the conclusion that the resurrected Jesus was a fully revived corpse and that his body was taken up to the right hand of God in heaven where it will remain until he comes again in glory. But that says both too much and too little. Though Jesus comes to his disciples in bodily form after his resurrection bearing the wounds of the cross, something is clearly different about him. He is able to penetrate locked doors, appear and disappear from sight. The resurrected Jesus is often not recognizable to his disciples. All of this leads us to conclude that Jesus’ post Easter presence among his disciples is different from his relationship with them before his crucifixion. The resurrection therefore cannot be understood as the resuscitation of a corpse. Indeed, such a view of the resurrection is far less than the New Testament witnesses claim for Jesus. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. This is not a literal place, but a literary way of saying that Jesus is everywhere present and that whenever and wherever God acts, God acts through Jesus. A resuscitated corpse could hardly fill heaven and earth no matter how thin you stretch him. So where does that leave us, exactly?
I suspect that questions like these reflect a deep anxiety about our own postmortem fate. Perhaps the insistence on what my friend would call “the bodily resurrection” anchors his hope that there will in fact be a resurrection for us and that Jesus’ story is not just a literary metaphor for something like “authentic existence” or the “validation of radical commitment to the Kingdom of God.” There is something to that concern. Marcus Borg, a teacher and theologian I greatly respect, argues in one of his recent books that Christianity is losing members and influence because its preaching and teaching are mired in antiquated language and a world view that no longer makes sense to Twenty-First Century people. “Heaven” is one of the concepts he finds unintelligible to modern thought. Borg declares that he has no need for the promise of personal resurrection from death and that “We die into God…that is all I need to know.” Speaking Christian, Borg, Marcus, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., c. 2011), p. 201. Is that really enough?
One of the characters in John Updike’s very first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, felt much the same way as Professor Borg on the matter of eternal life. Updike’s story takes place in a state run home for the destitute elderly overseen by prefect Stephen Conner. Conner is a product of the New Deal. He believes in the inevitability of human progress through social evolution and the perfection of governmental institutions. Conner becomes engaged in a conversation among the residents about the afterlife. He shares his vision of “heaven on earth” formed in a future society where illness is overcome by advanced medicine; pollution eliminated through harnessing of atomic power; and oppression defeated through the spread of democracy. Mrs. Mortis, one of the residents, asks him whether this heaven on earth will come soon enough for her to see it. Conner responds: “Not personally perhaps. But for your children, your grandchildren.”
“But not for ourselves?”
“No.” The word hung huge in the living room, the “o” a hole that let in the cold of the void.
“Well, then,” Mrs. Mortis spryly said, “to hell with it.”
I side with Mrs. Mortis over against Professor Borg and Mr. Conner. I share Paul’s sentiment that “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I Corinthians 15:20. It seems Jesus’ declaration that God is God of the living and that all live to him (Mark 12:26-27) can only mean that “dying into God,” is at the same time being “united with Jesus in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:5. The New Testament promise of eternal life includes the assurance that all who live under God’s reign in this age beneath the sign of the cross will share in its consummation in the age to come. That means a bodily existence in a renewed and reconciled world. What does that look like? The New Testament gives us neither the specificity my literalist friend requires nor the neat rational fit with our modern scientific sensibilities that my more liberal friends seem to need. When questioned about how the awkwardness of reunion between a wife and her several husbands would be dealt with at the resurrection of the dead, Jesus simply replies that people at the resurrection “are like the angels” and thus do not marry. Given how very little the Bible tells us about angels, that isn’t very helpful. Perhaps that is Jesus’ way of telling his questioners that their question is not answerable. St. Paul is less diplomatic. When the church at Corinth asks what sort of body we will have at the resurrection, he replies that the question is stupid. Still, he goes on to answer it-after a fashion. He compares the resurrected body to a mature plant that springs from a seed analogous to the earthly body. While there is continuity of identity between the seed and the full grown plant, the plant is vastly different and much more than the mere seed. It is no more possible for us to comprehend our resurrected existence than it would be for a person who has never seen a sunflower to figure out what it looks like full grown from examining the seed alone. The bottom New Testament line seems to be that we just have to trust God on this one.
Unfortunately, the context is not discernible from the section of text we have in this lesson. Peter’s sermon here is part of a larger narrative in which the disciple is confronted with his prejudices, smallness of heart and the grand sweep of God’s good news in Jesus that reaches across national borders and ethnic divides to include all who respond to that news in faith. On another day, I might preach a sermon on what I believe to be one of the most damaging idolatries of our age, namely, nationalism. One way to ask the question “Who is your God?” is to ask “What are you willing to die for?” I find it very telling that in this country many of us will proudly send our children to die in our nation’s wars, but often object to taking them out of a sports program for church on Sunday. I recently heard a Christian preacher declare at a civil ceremony, “We may be Christians, we may be Jews or we may be Muslims. But the important thing is, whatever our religious differences might be, we are all Americans.” Understand that nobody believes more firmly than I do that disciples of Jesus should live peacefully with everyone of every faith. I also have a profound respect and appreciation for the cultural and religious contributions of faithful Jews and Muslims to American society. But is it really the case that our commitment to the United States of America is deeper and more fundamental than our baptism into Jesus Christ? If God shows no partiality among nations, how can we? Do I love my country? Of course. There is nowhere else I would rather live than in the United States of America. But I love Jesus and his church more. So if and when it comes to choosing between duty to country and loyalty to Jesus, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
As I said, though, that sermon is for another day. The focus of this lesson is necessarily dictated by its placement in the liturgical calendar. This is Easter, the queen of seasons. So I am looking at this text today through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in this sermon Peter welds the faithful life of Jesus to his death. Jesus died precisely because the life he lived led him into conflict with the powers that be. Moreover, he died a shameful death; the death of a criminal. Yet God raised Jesus from death. Understand the emphasis here. The remarkable thing is not that God raised Jesus from death, but that God raised Jesus from death. Unlike us moderns who struggle with the very concept of resurrection, the people of Jesus’ day had no doubt that God could raise a person from death. A miraculous resurrection would not have strained credibility in the ancient world. What proved to be such a scandal and cause of incredulity for the gospel message was the claim that God would bestow such a favor on a man whose life and career had ended in failure and shame. If you accept the proposition that God raised the one who spent his life associating with sinners, the unclean, the sick and the outcast only to die naked on an implement of torture, then you have to reconsider everything you think you know about God and divine power and salvation. The nature of God’s reign over creation is not demonstrated by the fact that God raised the dead, but by who God raised from the dead. If God had raised Augustus Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, General Patten or President Kennedy we could then go on believing in a God who reigns more or less like any other human ruler-but with more clout. God, however, raised Jesus whose life was spent serving the least of all people and who was put to death under the laws of the empire. God is not Caesar on steroids. God is Jesus, the crucified one.
Luke (who also wrote the Book of Acts) makes a point of letting his audience know through Peter’s sermon that Jesus ate and drank with his disciples after the resurrection. Vs. 41. Eating and drinking is a big part of Jesus’ ministry (and the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus fed crowds of hungry people. He broke bread both in dens of iniquity among notorious sinners and in the homes of respected religious leaders. His last meal with his disciples forms the heart of the church’s worship. The consummation of God’s reign is frequently described by Jesus as a banquet. Though food is a rich metaphor in Jesus’ teaching and ministry, it is never just that. Starvation resulting from barbaric inequality was a brutal fact of life for the world in which Jesus lived. 97% of the wealth was owned or controlled by 5% of the population leaving the remaining 95% of the population to survive on the remaining 3%. This stark reality is the subject matter addressed in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke 16:19-31.
This psalm contains many verses that are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. Because the psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another while some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist, many Old Testament scholars believe this hymn to be a compilation of several different works. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. Whether the psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the ark of the covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, fragments of this hymn have ancient roots in Israel’s worship pre-dating the Babylonian Exile.
The Exodus clearly stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It was the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Not surprisingly, then, Luke refers to Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem as his “Exodus.” See Luke 9:28-36. The context given for the last supper in Matthew, Mark and Luke is the Passover meal commemorating the Exodus. So the selection of this psalm for use in celebrating the Easter Eucharist is appropriate.
This text is but one small part of Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection throughout the whole of I Corinthians 15. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here Paul makes the very important point that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply his own, but the beginning of a general resurrection of the dead in which all believers participate even now. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the dead whose resurrection follows. The end comes when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power.” Vs. 24. This is precisely the claim that ultimately got disciples of Jesus into big trouble with the Roman Empire. As far as Caesar was concerned, there was only one kingdom and that was Rome. Suggesting that there might be another kingdom to which allegiance was owed could get you nailed to a cross. Asserting that all other kingdoms, including Rome, must finally be brought under the reign of such other kingdom was a direct shot across the imperial bow. These letters of Paul were considered subversive material in the First Century and would be equally so in the Twenty-first Century-if we really paid attention to what Paul is saying.
A word or two should be said about the destruction of death. This is not a distant hope to be fulfilled only in the indefinite future. Death is destroyed even now-if we understand that it is not the last word. I must say that one of the greatest disappointments I have experienced throughout my life in the church is our inordinate fear death. I cannot honestly say that I have found in the church any less denial of death, inability to discuss death or acceptance of death than in the public at large. Now I am not suggesting that death should be treated lightly or that anxiety about dying is unnatural or suggests a lack of faith. But I do believe that disciples of Jesus ought to know how to die. Like all other disciplines, the art of dying well is learned and practiced in a community of faith. The church should be a place where a person can discuss the deterioration of health, life threatening sickness and the effects of chronic pain in comfort and without awkwardness. We should all be assured that no one of us has to die alone. People in hospice should be comforted by visitors who read psalms to them, pray over them or simply sit at their bedside. A disciple’s funeral should be in the sanctuary where s/he worshipped. The casket should stand in the presence of the baptismal font and be surrounded by the symbols of faith. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as a testament both to our resurrection hope and the communion of saints that even now transcends the grave. The church should then accompany the casket to the cemetery where the body is placed in the earth like a seed awaiting the life giving Spring of the resurrection. None of this makes death pleasant. But, as Paul tells us, it can take the sting out of it. I Corinthians 15:54-58.
Archeological research has revealed that burial in First Century Palestine consisted of two steps. The body was placed into a shelf like compartment cut into stone. For the rural poor, these compartments were made in the soft rock of cliffs and hillsides. Families that could afford it purchased space in burial caves. These caverns occurred naturally or were excavated. They typically contained many such compartments. The body would be wrapped, anointed with spices to alleviate the stench of decay and placed in a compartment. Sometimes a slab of lime would be placed over the mouth of the compartment. After a period of years, the body would decay. When only the bones remained, these would be collected and placed in a large jar made of stone or clay called an “ossuary.” The name of the deceased would be inscribed on the jar which would then be placed in another part of the burial cave. Because the Sabbath began on Friday at sunset on the day of Jesus crucifixion, the women were unable to apply the customary spices to Jesus’ body until after Saturday. That explains why they came as early as possible on Sunday. This entire process and the archeological research through which it has come to us are discussed at length in a fascinating book jointly authored by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed entitled Excavating Jesus, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., c. 2001).
The men appearing to the women at the tomb on Easter morning are introduced into the narrative with the words, “Behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel…” vs. 4. It may be that Luke is drawing a parallel here between the resurrection and the transfiguration story where we are told that, as Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah who appeared in glory and spoke of his “departure” (literally, “exodus”). That great act of salvation Moses and Elijah foretold on the Mountain of Transfiguration has now come to pass in Jesus’ resurrection.
The two men repeat to the women the same message Jesus has been giving his disciples since Chapter 9 of Luke: “The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” Vs. 7. It is hard to gage the extent to which the women understand this message which has eluded the rest of the disciples throughout the narrative. In the Gospel of Mark, the women flee from the tomb in terror without telling anyone about what they had seen. According to Luke, the women make their report to the rest of the disciples only to be met with skepticism. The gospel narrative then adds in the final verse (vs. 12) that Peter went out to the tomb, looked in, saw the linen burial wrappings and returned home puzzled over what had taken place. Some of the earliest New Testament manuscripts do not contain verse 12 and the old Revised Standard Version omits it from the text referencing it only in a footnote. Whether or not we include the verse, however, the narrative theme does not change. The empty tomb, even when augmented by the announcement of the two men in dazzling apparel, is not sufficient to evoke understanding, much less belief.
The women and, if we accept vs. 12 as part of the text, Peter are looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. They are seeking the living and resurrected one among the dead. It is hard to be too critical of them. The promise of resurrection is pretty radical and difficult to grasp. At my first council meeting at my first congregation someone asked me, “Pastor, what do you think we can do to get all of our former members to come back to church?” We took a good hour or more going through the membership directory to determine just who these “old members” were. At the end of this exercise, it was pretty clear that getting the old members back would require kidnapping expeditions into the Sunbelt or grave robbery. I then launched into my standard speech about how the days of Lutherans coming into the neighborhood looking for a church to join were over and that if we were going to grow, we would need to start doing what Jesus has always told us to do-make disciples of all nations. We would need to start deepening our own discipleship and sense of call so that we could reach our neighborhood with the gospel. This we could do because the resurrected Christ has promised to be with us until the end of the age. When I was finished, the same council member said, “OK, well that’s interesting. But I was really wondering what we could do to get some of our former members to come back.” At this point I would have been ripping my hair out if I had had any. But I learned a valuable lesson just the same. People tend not to hear until they are ready to hear. That means we have to move according to the Holy Spirit’s schedule faithfully witnessing to the good news of the resurrection until, by that gracious Spirit’s work, it finally sinks in.
The disciples finally will believe the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. They will discover that, while the days of having Jesus among them as their teacher in the time of his ministry are over, Jesus will still be with them in a more profoundly intimate way. Jesus will now lead his church through the outpouring of his Spirit. For that chapter, you need to read the Book of Acts. For now, though, the disciples remain too shell shocked from the crucifixion and the bitter memory of their failures to recognize that a new day is dawning.
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
Prayer of the Day Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Unless you have been vacationing on another planet for the last couple of weeks, you know that the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have chosen Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the next Pope. As expected, the announcement that “we have a Pope” ignited a frenzy of applause in St. Peter’s Square and throughout the world. It is hard even for a non-Roman like me to remain unmoved by the drama, the passion and suspense involved with the selection of such a profoundly influential leader. But I expect that this enthusiasm will evaporate among many of these exuberant folk (particularly among some of my colleagues) when it becomes clear that the Pope is unlikely to lead the Church into acceptance of gay marriage, contraception and moderation of its teaching on abortion. Furthermore, it appears that the new Pope has neither the charm and polish of John Paul II nor the intellect and scholarship of Benedict XVI. I predict that within the month, the world (or a good part of it) will have concluded that, once again, we got the wrong man.
Of course, the world can be wrong and, if Jesus and Paul are to be believed, it frequently is. Maybe it is not the Pope but our hopes, expectations and ideas about what the church needs just now that are all wrong. It may just be that, while the Pope is not the man we want, he is precisely the man God needs. It is hard for baby boomers from the Woodstock generation like me who are so cock sure about what constitutes justice and social progress to admit that God’s ways are not our ways and our thoughts are not those of God. We find it hard to accept that our priorities-as deeply compassionate, humanitarian and progressive as they may be-might not be God’s priorities. So while the Cardinals may not have given us the Pope we had hoped for, maybe God has given us the Pope we need.
Jesus seems to have received a Pope’s welcome when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was a welcome that turned out to be as ephemeral as it was enthusiastic. The “people” who are part of the multitude welcoming Jesus with shouts of praise were soon crying out for his crucifixion. Jesus turned out not to be the savior the “people” were looking for. Nevertheless, God raised him from death to let us know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is the savior we need and the only one we are going to get. God did not give us what we wanted for Christmas. God gave us what we needed. We do not need for our hopes, dreams and expectations to be fulfilled. Our hopes, dreams and expectations are what killed Jesus and they continue to kill us. I sometimes wonder whether we ought to be asking God in our liturgy to “gather the hopes and dreams of all and unite them with the prayers we offer.” Should we not instead be asking God to nail them to the cross? What we long for is precisely what we need to be saved from. God loves us too much to give us what we want.
So I am hopeful about the new Pope. He is not the one I would have chosen if it were my place to choose. There are many issues on which I do not see eye to eye with him. But the older I get, the less that matters to me. Moral, social and political issues come and go. How anyone thinks about them seldom makes a difference in the way they resolve. Character, however, is a constant in every age and penetrates much deeper than ideology. When push comes to shove, we are finally driven less by what we claim to believe than by who we are. The character of Jesus’ disciples is formed by the communities of faith in which they live, serve and die. Whatever the Pope’s views on various issues might be, I like what I see in the shape of his character. A man who is as much at home with school children as with Cardinals, a man who washes the feet of drug addicts, a man who can laugh gently at himself when he stumbles, a man who calls for a “church of the poor” and takes “Francis” as his papal name strikes me as precisely the sort of person God could use to great effect.
According to one commentator, it was common for animals to be kept in front of inns and places of lodging near Jerusalem during festivals such as Passover. Travelers lodging therein could use them for trips back and forth from the city. J.D.M. Derret, Law in the New Testament, London, 1970, p. 241-253. Though such use would naturally be restricted to guests, it would not be unusual for an exception to be made for a well known visiting rabbi. Neither would it have been unusual to observe a rabbi riding his donkey into Jerusalem at Passover followed by his disciples. They would have blended in naturally with the other pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and rejoicing to see the outline of the Temple in the distance. It was the specific song of praise from Jesus’ disciples that appears to have attracted the attention of the Pharisees in the multitude. The Pharisees could well have been as concerned about their own safety as they were affronted by the disciples’ claims about Jesus. The Roman occupation force in Jerusalem was always beefed up and on high alert during Passover season for any sign of anti-imperial sentiment. The spectacle of a man acclaimed as king riding into Jerusalem, if only on a borrowed donkey, could easily bring down the full punitive wrath of Rome.
The phrase, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was a common greeting exchanged between pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem for Passover and other festivals. However, as used in the Psalm from which it appears to have been taken, the phrase is a greeting addressed by the priest to worshipers entering the temple in the Jerusalem of the Judean Davidic monarchy. Luke inserts the word “king” into the phrase giving to the song the flavor of a coronation liturgy. Of course, this begs the question: what sort of king will Jesus be? That question was posed in an oblique way to Jesus in the temptation narrative where the devil promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. The question will be brought into sharper focus when Jesus is brought before Pilate charged with claiming to be a king. Herod, after examining Jesus, sends him back to Pilate dressed in kingly apparel. Though intended as a joke, Herod unwittingly affirms what is in fact God’s verdict on Jesus. The matter of Jesus’ kingship and the nature of his reign will be illuminated further through the interchange between the criminals crucified with Jesus.
The praise of the disciples for Jesus as he enters Jerusalem echoes the angels’ song to the shepherds upon his entry into the world. Praise is always the response of the cosmos to Jesus and it is futile to try stifling it. Even if Jesus were to silence his disciples, “the very stones would cry out.” Vs. 40. Stones were frequently called upon in the Hebrew Scriptures to witness oaths, treaties and saving acts of God. See Genesis 31:43-50; Joshua 4:1-7. Here Jesus takes the image one step further and declares not merely that the stones shall witness what is happening but even testify to it.
We know from the transfiguration story in Luke 9:28-36 that Jesus will bring about a salvation event on a scale equal to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. As we have seen since Luke 9:51, Jesus’ destiny has been sealed since he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” His final conflict is at hand. Jesus will now engage Satan, whose power is inherent in the religious establishment and the empire to which it is enslaved. It is only natural that Jesus’ disciples should be rejoicing at this moment. But as we will soon see, their rejoicing is to be short lived. The salvation Jesus promises will turn out to be something entirely other than what they expect. His coronation will occur in a most unlikely manner.
This is the third of four “servant songs” found in what has come to be called “Second Isaiah.” See article by Professor Fred Gaiser at enterthebible.org. 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? Old Testament scholars have debated these questions for over a century. 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.
The verse that strikes me this time around is vs. 4: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary.” That is truly a gift! I wish I had it. I see a lot of weariness around these days. Every week I meet people weary of looking for work; people who are weary with the work they have; people weary of maintaining a home that requires more strength and energy than they can give; people weary of being the shoulder everyone cries on; people weary of being the only one who volunteers for the jobs that have to get done so that worship can happen each Sunday or the school play will come together or the July 4th celebration can take place. I see too many good people carrying too many burdens with too little thanks. How I wish I could find words to strengthen their weary limbs and lift their weary spirits! How I wish I could preach life into dead bones like the prophet Ezekiel!
The prophet of Second Isaiah does just that. If you are ever down and out and ready to give up, read Isaiah 40-55. If that doesn’t lift your spirit, I don’t know what will. You don’t have to understand the historical context or the intricacies of Hebrew poetry to be carried away by the lyrical waves of joy and hope in these ancient songs composed for a people with seemingly nothing left to hope for. Yet people can be resistant even to good news. In fact, good news sometimes meets the stiffest resistance of all. Let’s face it, self pity feels kind of good. There is a part of us that loves to wallow in our hurt and lick our unjustly inflicted wounds. It takes an effort to stop brooding over the good times that are past and reach out for “the new thing” God is doing. Many of the Jews living in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem wanted the old days back again and, because they could not have that wish granted, they were not interested in anything new. How many churches don’t we know that take just that attitude! There is nothing quite so annoying when you are enjoying a good wallow in your sorrows than a prophet who comes around, kicks you in the pants and tells you to grow up, take some responsibility for yourself and open your eyes to the new thing God is doing right under your nose. It makes you want to slap his face and pull out his beard!
The prophetic writings in Second Isaiah provide just the right combination of carrot and stick. The prophet alternately paints vivid and compelling lyrical images of God’s faithfulness and acts of salvation on the one hand while all the time prodding us to abandon our silly wallowing in self pity. Next to the psalms, Second Isaiah is about my favorite book in the Hebrew Scriptures.
I cannot find a better description of this psalm than the one given by Arthur Weiser:
“The psalm does not exhibit a logically constructed thought-sequence; on the contrary, the development of its thoughts is determined by the psychology and logic of the life of prayer and, in a manner that is true to life, reflects the vivid movement of the emotions, moods and thoughts of a soul which in its distress seeks and finds its support in God. Here we gain an insight into the extent of God’s love-by the fact that the worshipper in spite of all the stereotyped forms to which he is tied can plainly and frankly confess the spontaneous emotions that stir his heart in his distress, the constant change of his fluctuating feelings; by the fact that the worshipper is allowed to come into the presence of God without hiding anything from him, and, guided in his prayer by an invisible hand, may gradually proceed from fear and trembling, as reflected in his urgent petitions, to comfort and strength, which are granted him in abundance as a result of his surrender to God’s hidden goodness.”
Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, S.C.M. Press, Ltd., c. 1962, pp 275-276.
“Stereotypical forms” might seem antithetical to spontaneity in prayer. Yet I know from experience that when “my strength fails because of my misery,” spontaneity and creativity are not close to the surface of my thinking. That is why we need to be schooled in the language of prayer. It is also why we need to accumulate an arsenal of prayer petitions in the depths of our souls so that when life hits you so hard that you cannot pray, the Holy Spirit has a good supply of prayer formulas to work with. So once again, my standard advice to people of all ages: Two psalms each day, one in the morning and one at night.
In addition to life-long suffering, the nature of which we can only guess at, the psalmist is surrounded by hostile people. Vss 11 & 13. His or her adversaries take a perverse delight in the psalmist’s pain. The psalmist’s acquaintances avoid him or her. That might not be due to malice, but merely because many people simply feel awkward and at a loss for words when confronted by someone obviously in the throes of grief and suffering. Still, avoidance adds to the psalmist’s sense of isolation.
The psalmist nevertheless finds comfort in the assurance that, though human companionship has failed him or her, God has nevertheless been faithful. Vs 14. The remarkable thing here is that there appears to be no evidence of deliverance from suffering. The psalmist is still in need of protection from enemies and healing from whatever ails him or her. Yet the psalmist is confident in placing his or her life in God’s hands.
This is a psalm for the aging who face the loss of hearing, memory and mobility. It is a psalm for people with chronic illness for which there is not yet any cure. It is a psalm for those struggling under financial burdens to which there seem to be no end. Even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is the presence of a merciful God. For the psalmist, that is enough to get through the day.
For a general outline of Paul’s letter (or letters) to thePhilippians, see my post of Sunday, March 17th.
Most New Testament scholars believe that these verses constitute stanzas from an ancient Christian hymn that Paul is quoting to make his point. Whether that is the case or not, the passage confirms that from very early on in the life of the church (50-60 C.E.) disciples of Jesus understood their Lord to be “in the form of God” and that he took “the form of a servant.” If not worked out in dogmatic detail, the seeds of the doctrine of incarnation are clearly present here. Paul urges the Philippian church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.” This is more than simply having knowledge “about” Jesus. As we have seen in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, his denotation of the Church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. According to Paul, the church is literally the Body of the resurrected Christ. It is the organism through which Jesus lives and breathes and embraces the world. In order for a community to be the Body of Christ, it must be guided by the mind of Christ.
This lesson is a reminder that there is no such thing as an individual believer. Whoever says, “I am a Christian but I don’t belong to any particular church” is making about as much sense as a man who says “I’m married but I don’t have any particular wife.” If you are not a member of a worshiping community nourished by the Word of God and fed with the Body and Blood of the Lord, you might still be a swell person, but you are not a disciple of Jesus. If you find that offensive, take it up with Jesus & Paul. I am just the messenger.
The mind of Christ is formed in communities of people who must learn again and again to forgive one another, accept one another’s shortcomings and discover through trial and error where the Spirit of God is leading them. That is how you become a new creation. You can’t do it alone. You need Spirit of God and the Spirit of God is not blowing in the wind. The Spirit of God dwells within the Body of Christ-with all its warts and imperfections. That is where you need to be if you would follow Jesus.
The passage concludes with the affirmation that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Vs. 11. Taken out of its context, one might draw the conclusion that this verse implies force or the threat of force to compel obedience to Jesus. But Paul (or the hymn he cites) makes clear that Jesus wins obedience not through a demonstration of “shock and awe,” but by emptying himself, that is, pouring out his life in winning our hearts for his kingdom. This is the “weakness of God,” to which Paul refers in I Corinthians 1:18-31 that is mightier than any human strength.
I never preach on the passion narrative. It preaches itself. What can you add once Jesus has breathed his last? Still, there are some fascinating things about Luke’s passion narrative that are worth noting. Luke alone relates a conversation in which Jesus warns his disciples that conditions are about to change for them. Whereas before they could travel with only the essentials and lack nothing, now the disciples must travel with purse and bag. Because, as the prophet Isaiah predicted, Jesus will be “reckoned with transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12), the disciples must be prepared to live as criminals. Jesus goes on to say, “let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” Luke 22:36. The disciples respond by pointing out that they have two swords to which Jesus replies cryptically, “It is enough.” New Testament scholars argue about what all this means. Some scholars maintain that this interchange is a remembered conversation between Jesus and his disciples that has been repressed in the other gospels. They further suggest that Jesus believed the new age would break through at his arrest initiating the final eschatological battle. Obviously, Jesus was mistaken; hence, the absence of this conversation in the other gospels. Luke, it is argued, tries to smooth over this embarrassing remark by Jesus through turning it into a metaphor that the disciples fail to understand.
Though the passage is a difficult one, I find it hard to believe that Jesus ever counseled his disciples to take up arms. Such a statement would fly in the face of all Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, including Luke. Moreover, it would be contrary to the church’s uniform teaching of pacifism that remained unchallenged for the first three centuries of its life. Furthermore, the recommendation to take up arms is sharply contrary to the passage from Isaiah 53 to which Jesus refers. There, the prophet says of the servant of the Lord that in response to persecution, “he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7. The servant went obediently to suffering and though treated as a criminal, he clearly did not act like one. Because this passage is cited by Jesus to reflect the trajectory of his own ministry, it is unlikely that Jesus would ask his disciples to arm themselves for his or their own protection.
Only Luke relates Jesus’ interaction with the criminals who were crucified with him. The mockery of the one criminal is consistent with Mark and Matthew, but Luke alone tells us about the repentant criminal who asks to be remembered by Jesus. Jesus promises that “this very day you will be with me in paradise.” This is one of only three uses of the word “paradise” in the New Testament. The other two uses are by Paul in II Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7. The rare use of this term led to much speculation in the early church over whether “paradise” was a synonym for “heaven” or something altogether different. Irenaeus, a bishop of the Second Century, wrote about degrees of eternal bliss in which distinctions are made between “heaven” and earthly paradise. Against the Heresies, Book 5, Ch. 36, para. 1 The former was for those deemed worthy of higher recognition, such as martyrs. The latter was for all the other believers. Similarly, Origen, a Second Century Christian scholar and teacher of Alexandria taught that paradise was a place for the souls of the righteous to train for entry into heaven. De Principiis (Book II), Ch.1 Most scholars today view Jesus’ remark as affirming his solidarity with the condemned man and promising that he would share in the new age Jesus had come to proclaim.
Other material unique to Luke is Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of his tormentors; Jesus’ warning to the women weeping for him that they ought rather to weep for themselves; and Jesus’ final words: “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit.”
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“I can remember when we ran two services on Sunday in this church and we still had to set up folding chairs in the aisle to accommodate everyone.” “This house used to be filled with the laughter of children. Now we just sit here in the silence and listen to the clock ticking away.” “Time was we were all friends in this neighborhood. Now the houses are full of strangers and half of them don’t speak my language.” There are times when I grow weary of these tired old litanies. There are times when I would like to shout out with the prophet, “Remember not the former things!” But, of course, that is not enough. When the past is all you have, it is unlikely you will let it go just because somebody tells you to. Snatching a bone from the jaws of a hungry cur only gets you bitten. Ah, but if you hold up a juicy piece of fresh meat, then the dog will drop his old bone in a New York minute and you will have earned a loyal friend!
That is chiefly what the anonymous prophet of “Second Isaiah” does. He preaches to a band of Jewish exiles in Babylon a vision of God’s purpose for Israel that is so exciting, so beautiful and so compelling it inspires them to do the unimaginable. The exiles let go of their pining for the glory days of Israel’s past and the secure lives they had built for themselves to undertake a dangerous journey back to the ruined homeland of their ancestors. Against all odds, this inspired band re-settled the land, rebuilt their temple and raised up the city of Jerusalem from the ashes. They were only too glad to let go of the good old days in order to take hold of the prophet’s bold vision for their future.
I wish I could preach like that. I wish I could preach a vision of mission to make my church see that its best days are in front of it. I wish I could preach the luster of eternal life into every nursing home I visit and turn those places into beehives prayer, joy and expectation. I wish I could preach the good news about Jesus Christ with such clarity and conviction that people would wish they had more time, more treasure and more talent to pour out for the gentle reign of God. Unfortunately, I lack the poetic imagination of the prophet and his or her gift for weaving language into lyrical testimonies to the ways of God. Still, I struggle with my own prosaic preaching to describe with words that for which there is no language. There is no other way. For in the end, words are all that we in the church have.
I must confess that at times I wish I had more than words. Words tend to become worn and hackneyed. They are so easily misunderstood, misconstrued and taken out of context. Their meanings get lost in translation. The words of the wise are so often buried under the relentless onslaught of idiotic chatter radiating from every billboard, magazine and digital device. How can the church’s preaching amount to more than a whisper in a hurricane? Yet as futile as speech can sometimes appear, words remain the means by which the mystery of God is revealed. God spoke the universe into existence. The prophets preached their discouraged people out of despair into hope and action. The Word made flesh continues to throb at the heart of the church judging, forgiving and inspiring because that Word is preached. By words we live. As the prophet tells us elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Isaiah 55:10-11. Words are enough.
As indicated previously, these words of the prophet are addressed to the Jews living in exile at Babylon. The prophet sees in the conquest of Babylon by Persia an act of God creating an opportunity for the exiles to return home to Palestine. Though the prophet admonishes the people “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old,” he or she is not suggesting that Israel forget her history. Rather, s/he is challenging Israel to understand her history in a new way. The Exodus, God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt, is not just an inspiring tale from Israel’s distant past. It is a prism though which Israel is challenged to look toward the future. If only the imagination of this people can grasp it, God is enacting another exodus for Israel. This time God is liberating Israel from Babylon. Just as God led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, so now God will lead Israel through what is now the Iraqi desert by a miraculous path of well watered garden. Israel, the people God formed for himself, will give praise to their God as they make their triumphal journey home. Even the animals will find shade and nourishment in this marvelous highway through the wilderness and will honor Israel’s God.
“Thus says the Lord.” This is a stereotypical formula for the making of a proclamation. Middle Eastern monarchs would make their decrees known by sending a messenger on their behalf who would proclaim in a public place: “Thus says the king!” The decree, order or declaration of the king would follow. Israel’s prophets often used the same formula when introducing a word from God.
“…who makes a path through the mighty waters, who brings forth the chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” While evoking images of the Exodus from Egypt, this sentence also reflects the overwhelming victories of Persia against Babylon. The prophet is intentionally using language that draws parallels between these two events in order to help his people “perceive” the new thing that God is doing for them.
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Evidently, the people do not perceive. Israel has been dominated by Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Now Persia is getting the upper hand. But so what? This only means that we have a new master oppressing us. Unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes. But this is not just a change of administration. Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, is promoting a different agenda. His policy is to allow displaced and exiled persons, such as the Jews in Babylon, to return home to their lands of origin. To be sure, Cyrus has his own self interested reasons for promoting this policy. But the prophet knows that God, not Cyrus, is the driving force behind history. God is using Cyrus to open a way of return for Israel to the land promised to her ancestors. “Can’t you see the opportunity here?” says the prophet. “Don’t you see God’s hand in this? We are experiencing a new Exodus miracle!”
This lesson challenges us to read the Bible not as a book of ancient tales from long ago, but to understand it as the lens thorough which we are to see and interpret our present circumstances and our future hope. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that, for the advancement of science, imagination is more important than knowledge. That is also the case for interpreting the Bible. Faithful imagination is the reason why a store front preacher with a seventh grade education can inspire a congregation of desperately poor people with vivid images of salvation, hope and liberation while a learned Reverend Doctor with an Ivy League degree can put you to sleep. Don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful for the theological education I received from seminary and find it enormously valuable in understanding the sense of the biblical texts. Yet I must also say that too often in my seminary career we tended to treat the Bible as a dead relic from the past that we needed somehow to “make relevant” to the modern world. The idea that we needed to learn from the Bible what is relevant and how to understand the world seldom occurred to us. But that is precisely how believers approach the Bible-with reverent imagination. Not until we can imagine ourselves as the people of the Exodus can we begin to see God creating new opportunities in our lives for faithful witness and service. Not until we enter imaginatively into the gospel narratives can we hear God calling us away from what holds us captive. Jesus has promised to be with us to the close of the age, but it takes a faithful imagination to perceive him in our midst. The preaching of the prophet in this Sunday’s lesson gives us a vivid example of the power of imagination.
This psalm served as inspiration for the revered hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The lyrics for the hymn, printed below, were composed in 1874 by Knowles Shaw.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
I bring this piece of trivia to your attention because it provides us with a splendid illustration of biblical imagination discussed under the heading of our lesson from Isaiah. Through his identification with the struggles of the returning exiles striving against numerous difficulties to rebuild their ruined land, Shaw gives meaning to the lives of Christian believers striving, sometimes with little evidence of progress, to live out their discipleship.
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 verses of the psalm reflect 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.
The psalm concludes with this promise: “He who goes fourth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing in his sheaves with him.” Verse 6. This could well be a proverb similar to the many found in the Book of Proverbs or it could be an oracle spoken by a priest in response to the congregation’s prayer for restoration. In either case, the image of planting what appears to be a lifeless seed just as one would bury the dead in the hope of new life at harvest is a powerful exercise of imaginative preaching! It calls to mind Jesus’ parable employing the same idea. See Mark 4:26-29.
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Understand that there is more going on here than a fight over circumcision. In fact, circumcision is not the real issue here. The problem for Paul is that his opponents measure their worth in the eyes of God on the basis of their religious accomplishments. Paul maintains that “righteousness” depends on faith, more specifically, faith in Jesus. In this secular age where “organized religion” (so called) is in steep decline, it is hard to find many people who are striving to be righteous in the sight of God. But there is no shortage of people who are striving to achieve some measure of self worth. I am not talking only about folks striving for the American dream of a six figure income, home ownership and a comfortable retirement. I am also speaking of many of my colleagues over the years that have entered the service of the church under the mistaken notion that they are choosing a “higher calling.” There is no higher calling than baptism into Jesus Christ. From there on out, it’s all downhill. I have likewise known a good many folks who have told me that they are serving the church because “I want to make a difference,” presumably for good. At first blush, this sounds quite admirable. Yet the “I” in that claim is a little troubling. Could the translation be, “I want to be important?” or “I want to count for something?”
The fact of the matter is that Jesus does not call us to make a difference. It is not our job to change the world. As our Catechism tells us, “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayers,” and I would add, without our hard work, sacrifice and dedication. We are witnesses to the Kingdom, not its architects and engineers. That means we might spend our lives doing work that doesn’t make a difference-at least not one we can see. We might die before the harvest and when it comes, nobody will remember that we did the planting. Indeed, the harvest itself might not be appreciated. Faithfulness does not always produce growing churches, successful programs and revenue for the home office. So to people who have told me they are considering service in the church (including my own daughter), I warn them that they might very well come to the end of their ministry with their congregations, their colleagues and the denominational authorities viewing them as having failed. If you have a problem with that, you belong in some other calling.
No one knew better than Paul how tenuous are achievements in ministry and how easily each hard won gain can be lost. Paul knew that in the end, regardless of who plants and who waters, God alone gives the growth. So his focus is not on the success of his work, but on knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection. Jesus, after all, was the quintessential failure. His ministry ended in a shameful death by public execution. His closest followers failed to understand him and they deserted him when he needed them most. But Jesus was faithful to God’s purpose for him and obedient to God’s reign-even when that obedience didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything. It is precisely that kind of faith in God’s promise to bring to completion what we cannot even properly begin that Paul is striving for. Such “striving” is nothing other than what should be happening whenever we take part in the order of confession and forgiveness. It involves letting go of what is past-both the painful memories of failure and the coveted memories of success. Failure, after all, might well prove to be a monumental triumph in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, the success in which we take such pride might prove over the long haul to have been negligible or even counter-productive. The only sure thing here is God’s promise and demonstrated determination to raise up from our shattered and imperfect lives something new and truly beautiful.
OK. So let’s start by acknowledging that Judas’ motives here were not as pure as the driven snow. Still and all, isn’t he right? In a society where malnourished children are surviving day to day on discarded scraps, how can you justify using ointment that would fetch three hundred denarii for a foot massage? Bear in mind that a denarius constituted about one day’s pay for a manual laborer. That is a lot of meals for a lot of hungry people. Judas could cite any number of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures supporting his claim that the ointment should rightly have been sold for the support of the poor. For example, the prophet Amos castigates the aristocracy of Israel because they “anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Amos 6:6. There are many other such instances in which the prophets make clear God’s priority for care of the poor over opulent living and even proper worship. It seems that Judas is on pretty solid ground here.
So let me respond with a story that I once heard as a sermon illustration. I can’t remember anymore the preacher I got it from and have no idea whether it really happened. In any event, there was a parish in an impoverished neighborhood that decided to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to feed the hungry. So the social ministries committee appointed a young woman to oversee this work and she planned a Thanksgiving Day meal for the poor and homeless families in the community. Knowing how hard life is out on the street and in the grip of poverty, she decided to give her guests at least one night of fine dining in a family style setting. She bought white table linens, rented fine china with real silverware, catered a meal with one of the most renowned restaurants in the area and, to top it off, she hired a string quartet to provide music. The guests were overwhelmed. One fellow said, “I’ve been treated like a tramp for so long, I forgot what it was like to be treated like a man.” Another woman who came with two small children in tow remarked, “This is the first time in I don’t know how long that I felt like I was really welcome.”
On the Monday after Thanksgiving an emergency meeting of the church council was called and the young woman was summoned to appear. The council members were livid. “How could you so irresponsibly and thoughtlessly squander the resources of this church?” bellowed the president. “You could have fed all of those people for a fraction of the cost and still have had a substantial budget for the days ahead!” The good president had a point-as did Judas. It would have been cheaper and more efficient to serve the people processed turkey on paper plates with plastic silverware. They didn’t need table cloths. Music could have been provided via a boom box. But that really misses the point. Jesus does not simply feed the poor. He invites them to the messianic banquet. The poor are not a demographic. They are not faceless numbers on a spread sheet or social problems needing to be solved. They are people for whom Jesus has a special interest, people who are gifted and highly valued. You don’t feed God’s special children rubber turkey and you don’t anoint Jesus with cheap perfume.
So here is the point. Mary is anointing Jesus for burial. Her act is one of profound love and significance beyond what she can fully appreciate. You cannot so honor Jesus without honoring the poor for whom he lived and died. Standing with Jesus is acknowledging the full humanity and value of the poor in the fullest possible measure. Judas did not grasp that because he could not see beyond his balance sheet. His chief crime here is neither greed nor theft. Judas’ worst crime is his lack of imagination. That brings us full circle to where we began with Isaiah. Commitment to mission is good. Bible knowledge is good. Theological education is good. But without imagination, all are worthless.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
There are more ways than one to be “prodigal.” That term, synonymous with “wasteful,” usually gets applied to the younger of the two sons in Jesus’ well known parable. The role of lead character is given to this restless and impulsive young man who demanded from his father his rightful share of the family inheritance, left home and promptly squandered it on “riotous living.” At least that is how it was told in Sunday School. But there were two sons in the parable and thus two stories. Lately, I have been drawn to the lesser known elder son. Here was a boy who did everything a good boy should. He was obedient and hard working. He never talked back, stayed out past his curfew or got into trouble with the law. He put his whole heart into helping his father run the farm, but Dad never paid him any attention. His eyes were always turned down the road where he last saw the image of his other son disappearing over the horizon. So the boy worked harder than ever, harder than anyone of his father’s servants. He kept on working even when there was no more work to be done. Still, his father didn’t even seem to notice.
Then one day, as the boy was coming home from his work in the field long after sunset, he heard the sound of singing, dancing and celebration. “What does this mean?” he asked one of his father’s servants. “You haven’t heard?” he replied. “Your brother has come home! And your father has slaughtered and roasted the finest calf in the herd to celebrate!” This was more than the poor boy could bear. He fell to his knees, slumped over and wept. What will it take to make his father see that he has two sons? What will it take to make him understand that he needs to be loved and cared for as much as his wayward brother? What more can he do to earn the love his father lavishes so freely on his brother?
Jesus brings the parable to a crescendo with a confrontation between the elder son and his father. The last word we hear is the father’s plea for his eldest son to join in the feast of celebration which is, after all, for him as much as his brother. “We had to celebrate,” he tells the boy. This day belongs to all three of them. So ends the parable.
I must say that the conclusion is most unsatisfying. I cannot help wondering what happened to this family going forward. Did the older son ever hear the ocean of grace in the words of his father, “Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours?” Did he finally join the party? Did he ever learn to stop trying to earn his father’s love long enough to receive it as a gift? Did he ever come to understand that love is not a finite resource that diminishes as it is shared?
I also wonder about the younger son. I am not convinced that repentance is what turned him back home to his father. His decision to return seems driven more by a calculated analysis of his situation: “I can stay here and fight the pigs for a share of their slops; or I can go back to my father’s farm. Even if he treats me as one of his servants, I will be better off there than here.” I don’t know whether beneath his well rehearsed speech there was any true sorrow on the part of the younger son for all the pain he had inflicted upon his father. So I have to wonder, did his father’s lavish and generous welcome have any effect on him? Did the younger son ever come to appreciate the love he had so carelessly thrown away and had now so marvelously received back again? Is the heart of this boy melting with thankfulness or is he smugly congratulating himself for having once more pulled the wool over the old man’s eyes?
Jesus doesn’t give us much closure here, but that is not surprising. Jesus is not big on closure. His parables are layered and textured. They draw us into stories where judgment, grace and redemption are made possible. There we are left to struggle with our wasteful efforts to win praise, approval and recognition at the expense of love. We are confronted with the pain our self centered choices have inflicted upon those who love us most faithfully. But most importantly, we are left with the image of a God who loves us desperately in spite of all the obstacles we keep throwing in the path of such love. That’s where Jesus leaves us: not with closure, but with hope.
Sunday’s reading from the book of Joshua marks a significant transition in the story of Israel. Moses, the man who led Israel through the wilderness for forty years is dead. Israel’s nomadic existence is ended. No longer will she eat bread from the hand of God and water from miraculous springs. She will now get her bread from the good earth God has given to her-and therein lurks the next temptation. Israel has no experience with agriculture. Though the God of Israel is clearly competent when it comes to leading nomads through the wilderness, what does he know about farming? Can Israel manage to transform herself from a nomadic society into an agricultural society without losing her soul to the Canaanite gods of fertility? Her new Canaanite neighbors’ entire culture is founded on farming and fertility. Where religion permeates all of life, it is nearly impossible to separate the mechanics of planting, growing and harvesting from the mythical underpinnings and cultic practices that accompany these tasks. It is hard to download this new agricultural app from the surrounding culture without importing the designer’s malware into your spiritual hard drive. The tales recounted in the much older book of Judges suggest that Israel’s transition was a rocky one. The conquest narrative in the book of Joshua reflects the gravity of the issues involved and the stark choices Israel must face every time she finds herself in a new cultural context-whether that be Canaanite, Babylon, Persian or Roman.
I sometimes wonder whether the internet and the cornucopia of communication media it makes available does not pose some of the same problems for the church. I have heard terms like “virtual church” and “liquid church” tossed around in some circles. Online discussion groups consisting of faceless monikers and online IDs can sometimes approach a sort of closeness that resembles intimacy. Yet how, I wonder, can intimacy exist in such a medium where you cannot even be sure that the people you are communicating with really exist? (Ask Monti Te’o about that!). More to the point, how can a church professing to be the Body of Christ, claiming that the Word of God became flesh and asserting that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in bread and wine exist in a virtual universe? How do you share the peace of God in a chat room?
Yes. I recognize the irony involved in making an argument like this on a blog. Obviously, I am not a Luddite rejecting all things digital. The internet brings together people and perspectives that might not otherwise meet. Online discussions may lack the warmth and humanity of a face to face discussion. Still, they enable persons who might otherwise lack time or mobility to engage in conversation with others about things that matter. Moreover, I tend to think online discussions give introverted persons who usually get shouted down and talked over in face to face meetings a better shot at being heard. This blog, Trinity’s Facebook presence and our webpage provide valuable links to folks we might not otherwise reach. Still, I am fully aware that whatever else I might be doing here, it is not church. The folks who regularly interact with me on these posts might arguably be classified in some sense as a community, but they are not the Body of Christ. For that you need to be physically present at 167 Palisade Avenue on Sunday at 9:00 a.m.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicine and Post Nicine Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
This advice is good as far as it goes, but the psalmist’s experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” As last week’s gospel makes clear, sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
A few introductory words about the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians are in order. The church in Corinth, you may recall from previous weeks, was a congregation only Paul could love. See Post for Sunday, January 20th. Paul’s first letter makes clear just how divided, conflicted and scandal ridden this church was. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing his first letter. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote his second letter to express his gratitude to the Corinthians and to encourage them in their faith.
For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul. To further complicate matters, there is a fragment at II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 that seems to have no bearing on what precedes or follows suggesting that we might have part of a third letter in the mix. Some scholars believe that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. If that is in fact the case, the reading for this Sunday comes from Paul’s letter of thanksgiving.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” To fully understand the import of this sentence, you need to back up and read verses 14-15: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” To regard no one from a human point of view is to regard everyone from God’s viewpoint-as people for whom Christ died. Consequently, I believe when we read that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” or, as some translators put it, “when anyone is in Christ-new creation,” Paul is not talking about some inward individual spiritual renewal. We are talking about a radical reorientation in terms of how we see the world and the people in it. Because Christ has died, all have died. Because all have died, all are reconciled. It is the task of the church to live as an embassy of God modeling and proclaiming the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus.
From a human point of view, our enemies are defined for us by the U.S. Department of State. Our interests are defined by national borders and international treaties. Our neighbors are defined by accidents of geography, demography and history. But from the perspective of God in Christ, these are distinctions without a substantive difference. The starting point for viewing every individual is the conviction that such individual is reconciled to God in Christ. Whether he or she knows it is entirely beside the point. We know it and that knowledge shapes our thoughts and actions. The implications of this text are subversive to say the least. Reconciliation is a fine objective-as long as it applies only to neighbors with nothing between them but white picket fences. Take it into the arena of geopolitics and you could get yourself crucified.
I have expressed my reflections on the gospel lesson above. Here are some interesting points that may or may not influence your understanding of the story.
A father could dispose of his property in one of two ways: 1) by a will that is probated after his death; or 2) by a gift made during his lifetime. Though there is no specific provision for disposition of an estate prior to the testator’s death in the Old Testament, there is some evidence that the practice existed even if discouraged. The book of Sirach written in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. contains the following admonition:
“To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let anyone take your place. For it is better that your children should ask from you than that you should look to the hand of your children. Excel in all that you do; bring no stain upon your honor. At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.” Sirach 33:19-23.
In any event, it would be highly irregular, to say nothing of presumptuous, for a younger son to initiate the settlement of his father’s estate with his living father. The parable tells us nothing of the son’s motives in making such an unusual request or those of the father in acquiescing. At first blush, it might appear as though in “dividing his living between them” the father had made a complete disposition of his estate between his two sons. But it is obvious from the balance of the story that, at the very least, he maintained control over his property. His gifts to the returning prodigal, slaughter of the “fatted calf” and preparation of the lavish celebration all indicate that the balance of the estate remained under the father’s control.
The degree of the younger son’s reinstatement is a matter of dispute. Some commentators see in the provision of the robe and the ring an echo of Pharaoh’s elevation of Joseph, the implication being that the younger son was being included once again in the father’s inheritance. I think that is something of a stretch. The father assures his older son at the end of the parable that “all that is mine is yours.” In view of this assurance, the only conceivable complaint the older son might have is that the lavish party for his brother was diminishing his future inheritance. I am not convinced that the legal framework of the transactions in the parable can be reconstructed or that doing so would give us any clearer picture of what is going on. Like the ungrateful guests who refused the royal wedding invitation, the circumstances of this parable appear to be exaggerated for literary effect. No one could imagine a son so blatantly disrespectful and imprudent. Nor could anyone imagine a father forgiving and receiving back such a son, much less with so lavish a reception. Against this seeming madness, the elder son’s protests come across as the single voice of sanity.
The one constant in this parable is the father whose love pursues in unrestrained measure both of his wayward sons. The lavish party is given not because the younger son deserves it, but because he needs it. The elder son must learn that his father’s love for him cannot be earned but only received as the free gift genuine love always is. We cannot know how these two sons will respond to their father’s love, but it is clear that their father is determination to continue loving both his sons, come what may.