Archive for August, 2014
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Last week it seemed as though Peter finally got it right. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus blesses Peter and says to him, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” It is gratifying to see that Peter finally has Jesus figured out. We have seen Peter fail to understand Jesus’ parables. We have seen him sink into a sea of doubt. But now at last he has got it right.
But this week we discover that, no, he doesn’t have it right. When Jesus begins speaking about his immanent suffering and death, Peter balks. “Don’t talk like that Jesus! I know there are some powerful people that don’t like you. But you’ve got us. You have the support of the crowds. Let’s not have any more negativity! Let’s be positive here! If you can dream it, you can do it!” His encouragement earns him only a stern rebuke from Jesus. Peter the church’s foundation stone has become Peter the stumbling block to Jesus’ ministry!
But let’s not be too hard on Peter. After all, the church has been struggling for the last two millennia to get Jesus right and often we have not been any more successful than Peter. Let’s face it, the cross is a hard word. Part of it we understand well enough. We know that whoever seeks to save life will lose it. We just don’t like hearing it and we don’t want to believe it. So we exercise, take vitamins and eat organic to lengthen our life spans. The cosmetic industry sells us creams, lotions and surgical procedures to erase the evidence of aging and preserve the illusion of youth. Yet even as we put our money down for this snake oil, we know in our heart of hearts that we are only fooling ourselves. Efforts to preserve life indefinitely are doomed.
But Jesus has something else to tell us, something we would not otherwise know. He tells us that all who lose their lives for him will save them. That is an important word for much of the church in this country that is scared to death of dying. Churches don’t want to die any more than individuals. My first reaction to the very thought that my congregation might fold or that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America might not reach the end of the century is much the same as Peter’s reaction to Jesus. “God forbid!” But the very good news for our church is that God is the author of our demise. That is good because God wounds in order to heal; kills in order to make alive; crucifies in order to resurrect. Neither survival nor sustainability is part of the discipleship package. Jesus does not promise that his church will survive. He promises much more than that. He promises that his church will be resurrected. Death is exactly where Jesus calls us to be. When we forget that, we just get in our own way and become a hindrance to the church’s mission. But when we remember that the tomb is empty and the one who broke it open from the inside is with us to the close of the age, dying is not such a big deal.
So next time somebody asks you whether you think the church is dying, respond: “Well of course it is. How else will it ever be resurrected?”
This passage is the second of six personal prayers of lament uttered by the prophet Jeremiah in the course of his ministry. The others are Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 17:14-18; Jeremiah 18:18-23; Jeremiah 20:7-13; and Jeremiah 20:14-18. These prayers are similar to the psalms of lament and contain much of the rich phraseology and imagery commonly employed by Israel in her liturgical/devotional life. The prayer is divided into two sections. In the first, Jeremiah addresses God. Vss. 15-18. In the second, God responds to Jeremiah’s complaints. Vss. 19-21. Jeremiah’s prayer begins with a plea for vengeance against his enemies. Professor Thomas Raitt says of this prayer and Jeremiah’s personal laments generally:
“Jeremiah’s so-called ‘laments’ are, at worst, sub-Christian expressions of vengeance, self-righteousness and bitterness about the sacrifices involved in filling the prophetic vocation. At their best these [laments] show that being a messenger of God’s word is a difficult calling and that often the last thing people want to hear is the truth, even from God, about their specific time and situation (which is precisely why prophets are not without honor except in their own country).” Raitt, Thomas M., Jeremiah in the Lectionary, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 161.
Jeremiah’s prayer certainly does illustrate the challenges of the prophetic vocation, but is it really “sub-Christian?” I must confess that I have always had difficulty with prayers for vengeance in the Bible, of which this is only one. Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central for Christian theology and practice that there seems to be no room for expressions of vengeance. But my pious unease is probably related more to my status and privilege than to any legitimate theological objection. I have never been raped or sexually molested. My children have not been murdered either by crazed fanatics in the service of their sick understanding of God’s will or by any respected, hardworking, church going Pentagon employee sitting in a cubicle orchestrating a drone attack in which my loved ones turn out to be “collateral damage.” I have never been driven out of my home by violence and forced to flee across the border into a foreign nation that does not want me. In short, I have not experienced the depth of human cruelty and oppression that gives birth to these laments. It is not surprising, then, that they do not come naturally to my lips.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that the psalmists’ pleas for vengeance are directed toward God. In praying for vengeance, they are confessing implicitly that retribution is the sole prerogative of God. God alone knows the hearts of human beings, what are their motivations and the external circumstances that often determine their actions. Too often, our perceptions of justice are warped by the pain of our own injuries and our personal need for “pay back.” We tend to focus narrowly on the perpetrator of a crime. But are not the parents who abused and neglected him equally responsible? What about his teachers who noticed bruises in odd places but remained silent? What about the neighbors who heard through the apartment walls the noise of abuse and his cries of pain and simply turned up the TV set because, after all, it was not their business. We can further expand this web of responsibility to include an entire nation whose priorities favor tax cuts to programs designed to assist families and children at risk. When it comes to dishing out retribution, there is never an end point. That is why Paul admonishes us in today’s lesson from Romans to leave this issue in God’s hands where it belongs.
German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the biblical prayers for vengeance must remain within our use of the psalter. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible, (c. 1974 Augsburg Publishing House). He goes on to point out, however, that our prayers against the “enemy” are to some degree addressed against ourselves as well. As sinners, we are our own worst enemies. When we pray for God to intervene and adjudicate between ourselves and our enemies, we can never fully understand what we are asking for. God sees our enmity in a different light and without the blind spots that come with the white hot rage of injury. The justice we get in answer to our prayers might not look anything like our expectations for a just outcome.
While forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the good news about Jesus, they are the end result of a process. If forgiveness is to have any meaning, the injuries inflicted by my enemy (and upon him/her as well) need to be fully acknowledged. Lament affords us the opportunity to lay out our wounds, our hurts and the resulting anger in the presence of God. If reconciliation is to be genuine, the mutually destructive relationship between my enemy and myself must be altered. Master and slave are not truly reconciled if, at the end of the process, they remain master and slave. New creation necessarily means the death of the old-which will not go down willingly. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation take time, patience and, above all, grace.
Jeremiah is unsparing in his criticism of the Lord he feels has abandoned him. “Yet,” as one commentator points out, “there is a contradictory character to this prayer, for even when doubting God’s care, it is to God that Jeremiah turns. God called him to be a prophet, and God’s service had been Jeremiah’s “joy” and “delight” as well as his pain and anguish. The prayer reflects a man who even in his deepest doubts about God’s care still knows that he is absolutely dependent upon God. God will be his undoing if God has really abandoned him; but God is also his only hope and to him he must return.” Bracke, John M., Jeremiah 15:15-21, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 175. One of the marvelous capacities of our human constitution is the ability to entertain two mutually conflicting ideas, two very opposite emotions and hope in the pit of despair. Even the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” makes this complaint to the very God whose absence s/he now experiences!
If Jeremiah had been expecting the gentle comfort of one trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, he would have been sorely disappointed. I doubt he had such expectations and, in any event, comfort is not the medicine Jeremiah receives. It is not God who has abandoned Jeremiah, but Jeremiah who has abandoned his God. After all, Jeremiah has been chiding his people for their own unfaithfulness; for their failure to trust God in the face of the Babylonian threat; for seeking salvation from foreign alliances rather than putting their faith in the Lord. Is his own personal danger and suffering any worse than what he is calling his own people to risk and to endure? If God has proved a “deceitful brook” to Jeremiah, has not Jeremiah been preaching deceit to his people? God will continue to be with Jeremiah to deliver him. But Jeremiah cannot expect to escape the judgment he proclaims for his people. That goes with the territory of the prophetic vocation.
These are hard words for leaders of God’s people ministering in hard times. We all know that the church can be awfully hard on the people that serve her. I have been lied too, betrayed, criticized behind my back and hurt by people in the church. Fortunately, these experiences have been only small islands of unpleasantness in an otherwise deep and expansive ocean of love, support and partnership. For the most part, even people with whom I have had deep disagreements remained supportive, caring and faithful to the gospel. My worst day in parish ministry was a romp in the park compared to Jeremiah’s experiences. Jeremiah serves to remind us all that we are calling the world to take up the cross and follow Jesus. That means taking it up ourselves. We cannot get out of being crucified with Christ, but the operative word here is with. Jesus does not call us to anything through which he has not already made a path.
Some commentators view this psalm as the plea for God’s intervention on behalf of one involved in a legal dispute soon to be adjudicated. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 117. Such a circumstances might have given birth to the stereotypical phraseology in the psalm, but the prayer seems to have a broader application as it now stands. Though likely composed as an individual lament prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E., it has been edited to meet the worship needs of the whole worshiping community. Such is the case with many of the personal psalms.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to pray this psalm. Who among us could declare in the presence of God that we “have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” Vs. 1. How many of us would invite God “to prove” and “try us,” to “test [our] heart[s] and mind[s]”? Vs. 2. Yet it seems to me that if we read these two verses as intimately linked to the rest of this prayer for vindication against enemies, they constitute an invitation to humility. Indeed, if we are going to pray for vindication against our enemies, then we must also pray that God will try our own hearts and minds, put us to the proof and bring our motives to light. For in reality, there is no such thing as a one sided conflict. Good and evil are never cleanly divided along the lines of combat drawn between human warring factions. Yet, as I argued in my post for July 20th, we Americans have a strong tendency to view conflict in precisely this fashion. That is why our politics is so dysfunctional. After all, how can you compromise with a party whose agenda is the destruction of American society as we know it? There can be no negotiation or settlement with evil, but only eradication.
Too often, the same is true for interpersonal conflict. We tend to demonize those with whom we differ, attribute to them the worst of motives and dismiss any possibility that they could actually have a meritorious point of view. They owe us an apology and until we get it, hostilities continue. The psalmist entertains no such simple minded illusions. S/he prays not merely that God’s judgment will fall upon his/her adversaries, but that it will penetrate his/her heart of hearts as well. From the psalmist’s standpoint (as from our own!), it may very well seem that s/he has taken the high road, that s/he has avoided “the company of evildoers” (Vs. 5) and “washed [his/her] hands in innocence.” Vs. 6. But in reality, s/he knows that there are in his/her own heart motives that are unseen and assumptions about the enemy that blind him/her to the big picture resulting in vast potential for misinterpreting the meaning of words and the significance of actions. Though the psalmist cannot see it now, s/he knows that when disputes are submitted to God with an honest prayer for vindication, the one seeking such relief must be prepared to discover his/her own complicity in that dispute and be prepared to accept full responsibility. Perhaps that is why the psalmist also prays that God “sweep me not away with sinners.” Vs. 9 (not in our reading). For “if thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.
More, however, needs to be said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that: “The notion that we can never suffer innocently so long as within us there still hides some kind of defect is a thoroughly unbiblical and demoralizing thought.” Godsey, John D., The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1960 Westminster Press) p. 191. We can hardly fault a child in any way for injuries suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. Yet even in what appears to be a clear case of one-sided aggression, the aggressor is a complex individual whose motives, words and actions are the product of a lifetime of experiences that likely include victimization. As evil as his/her acts clearly are, the actor can never be written off as beyond redemption-at least not by us. Thus, while it is quite possible to suffer innocently, it does not follow that the full weight of guilt and retribution can be focused on the most visible perpetrator of the wrong.
As always, I encourage reading of Psalm 26 in its entirety.
The admonitions in verses 9-13 can sound almost pedestrian when they are read in isolation. Have genuine love. Hold to what is good. Show honor and zeal. Be hopeful, patient, prayerful and generous. Well, Duh!!! How else would a disciple of Jesus behave? It is critical therefore to read these admonitions in light of Paul’s earlier call for the Roman believers to present their bodies as sacrifices for God and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the gospel rather than conformed to the world around them. Romans 12:1-2. The “world” of which Paul speaks is the world of the Roman Empire, a hierarchical society in which everyone from the emperor to the galley slave had his or her fixed position. Honor was due from the lesser to the greater. As one commentator points out:
“J.E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by ‘the workings of honour and pride,’ which provided ‘the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactors’ that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain where always present, ‘the duty to “honour” or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself, is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…’ The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring…This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: ‘Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind…Everything, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.’ At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.” Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 citing Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292.
Paul turns this “pyramid of honor” on its head. Rather than compete with one another in the accumulation of honor, disciples of Jesus are challenged to “out do one another in showing honor.” Vs. 10. Within the church, the structures of honor and patronage holding the Roman Empire together dissolve. That explains why the church was accused (and rightly so) of “turning the world upside down.” Acts 17:6. It also demonstrates why Paul’s letter to Philemon is probably one of the most revolutionary documents ever written. Paul’s insistence that Philemon welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother struck at the very foundations of Roman society. While some of our aging commentators left over from the 1960s fault Paul for being less than fully socially conscious because he was not out demonstrating in the streets of Rome against slavery, I cannot help but note that the churches they represent are often just as segregated today as was Selma, Alabama in the 60s. It just goes to prove Mark Twain’s adage, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” Paul’s opposition to slavery was written into his practice-not merely on a cardboard sign. His church struck at slavery by ending it within a counter-cultural community valuing all persons, regardless of their societal status, as equally members of the Body of Christ.
Verses 14-21 echo Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-48. At first blush, they might seem to conflict with the sentiments expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist in our previous lessons. That is not the case, however. Like the psalmist and the prophet, Paul urges the Roman church to leave vengeance and retributive justice in the hands of God. It might well be that one’s enemy is deserving of punishment. But that is not the disciple’s concern. The disciple of Jesus is called upon to love the enemy, pray for the enemy and show kindness to the enemy whether deserving or not. By assuming God’s prerogative and seeking retribution, one is overcome by evil. Again and again we have learned that by fighting evil with evil’s own tools of violence and hateful rhetoric, we are conformed to the very image of that which we despise. Rather than be so conformed, Paul urges us to be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Romans 12:1-2.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus turns toward Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each of the subsequent transitional sections will remind us of that destination. Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22; Matthew 19:1; Matthew 20:17). Here Jesus reveals to his disciples for the first time that this journey will lead to his rejection by the religious authorities and his suffering and death. Vs. 21. Peter once again personifies what must have been the response of all the disciples: “God forbid!” Vs. 22. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this “rock,” upon which Jesus said in last Sunday’s lesson that the church would be built, has so soon after become a rock of “stumbling” to Jesus!) We now learn that Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Son of the living God, through accurate, is still unformed. He cannot reconcile the glorification of Jesus with the cross. He is not the only one. I have repeatedly been asked about verse 28 in which Jesus tells his disciples that they will not see death before they witness his coming in glory. “Pastor,” they ask me, “How can that be true? We have still not seen Jesus coming in glory.”
Of course, Jesus did come in glory. Our problem is that we don’t understand what glory is any more than we understand what power is. God is nowhere more thoroughly glorified than on the cross where the depth of God’s love for all creation is made known. God is nowhere more powerful than on the cross where even the crucifixion of his Son cannot entice God to turn against us in anger. God’s love is stronger than our sin. The cross, says St. Paul, is the wisdom of God and the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18-25. For Matthew, it is the coming of Jesus in glory. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us looking for a kick ass savior who will appear at the end of time to whoop the anti-christ and impose his reign in the manner of a Caesar on steroids. That is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because that is not the way God triumphs over evil. God overcomes evil in the same way Paul calls upon his churches to overcome evil: by loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them. That will probably take a long time. But God is in no hurry. Neither should we be.
The term “taking up the cross” has become a hackneyed phrase in our common parlance. Typically, it is a synonym for taking one’s own share of hardships that go with living. Suffering becomes a good in its own right, an end in itself, an opportunity to practice patience and self-denial. These are both fine virtues and to the extent one uses suffering to that end, all well and good. But this understanding has nothing to do with taking up the cross. As pointed out by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. The cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or a symbol of anything else. It was the means by which Rome put down anyone confessing a lord other than Caesar. Following Jesus means risking execution.
Yet it is precisely in risking all for Jesus that true life is discovered. Until one is ready to die, there is no prospect for life. The church is called upon to risk all-to risk dying. That is a hard word to speak to a church that is obsessed with survival. Though we talk incessantly about “change” and the “need for change” and the benefits of “change,” the change we often promote is geared chiefly to preserve ourselves. That is understandable. It is easy enough to speak abstractly about the end of the established church in the post Constantinian era. That reality, however, means the loss of some very good social ministries built with the blood, sweat and tears of people whose careers have been defined by them. It means the loss of jobs and the end of career opportunities. On the congregational level it means the loss of century old sanctuaries with brass plates on every piece of furniture memorializing a loved one. It means the loss of cemeteries where generations of families have been laid to rest. It means the end of a multitude of voices singing those dear old hymns to the accompaniment of a majestic pipe organ. That is what the death of “church as we know it” will mean. By way of full disclosure, I have a daughter who is preparing for a career in parish ministry. So although I am close enough to retirement to have gotten my own share out of the Constantinian church, I am hardly a detached observer.
Matthew tells us, however, that we have nothing to fear from death once we recognize that “dying” is the place to which Jesus calls us. We hardly need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how frantically we try to preserve our lives, we are going to lose them in the end. It is the other side of the equation that spells the good news Jesus alone can bring, namely, that by losing one’s life, one gains it. There are, as I said in last week’s post, many new and lively manifestations of “church” in our midst. I do not suggest that any of these models can simply be copied. That, too, is a recipe for failure. But they testify to what is possible when we stop fretting about survival and focus instead on being faithful disciples of Jesus. If God is taking the church we have known and loved away from us, it is because God has something better to give us. Once our hands are free from vainly trying to hang on to what is being lost, we will be free to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst.
TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I don’t much like the story from this Sunday’s gospel lesson. I don’t care for the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman who comes pleading for the life of her daughter. Perhaps it is because I have memories of the night I was alone in the hospital with my own little daughter who had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was spiking a high fever. I recall how desperate and afraid I was; how hard it was to get the attention of anybody on the floor after midnight; how anxious I was as I waited for help to arrive. Thankfully, the nurses and doctors were kind and reassuring-once they finally arrived. They did not rebuff my pleas for help as Jesus did initially. I can only imagine how panicked I would have become if they had told me they did not have time to deal with my daughter’s situation, that she was not their responsibility or that I should just take a number and sit down.
I have heard all of the explanations for why Jesus treated the Canaanite woman as he did: he was testing her faith to be sure it was genuine; he was using her to make a point to his disciples; his banter was actually fun loving and gentle. None of that flies with me. When someone is pleading with you for the life of her child, you don’t question her sincerity, use her as a teaching tool or make jokes with her. So as far as I am concerned, Jesus has some explaining to do.
But then again, I am not sure that my own experiences with Jesus are so very different from those of this woman. I have prayed mightily for loved ones in desperate need only to watch them continue in their suffering. I pray regularly for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on my church and on my ministry, but continue to struggle with getting my church excited about the good news of Jesus Christ. Often, it seems, Jesus is ignoring me.
Still, the Canaanite woman continues to pray. Though ignored, rebuffed and denied, she just keeps coming back for more. She cannot help but believe that behind what looks like a decisive “no” there is a “yes.” In that respect, this woman is in step with the psalms of lament I have often discussed on this blog. Like the psalmists, she keeps on praying when it seems there is no more point to prayer. She keeps on pressing Jesus for help even when it seems too late for any meaningful help to arrive. She keeps on talking after being told by the disciples and Jesus himself to shut up. In the end, it turns out that she is right. Even under the cloud of “no” Jesus is, as Paul says, “the ‘yes’ to all of God’s promises.”
So maybe this story is about patience. Maybe our lesson is all about the time it takes to hear Jesus and the kind of prayer required to penetrate the darkness of his absence. Maybe the Canaanite woman is showing us that we must not take “no” for an answer because “no” is entirely out of character for the one who is God’s “yes.” The story does not tell us how long this encounter lasted. Perhaps this woman had been dogging Jesus for days before his disciples had finally had enough. Perhaps she had to endure hours of silence from Jesus before he finally spoke-with a denial. Her arguments with him might have been more extensive than the brief report we have in the lesson. Yet however lengthy or brief this encounter may have been, the woman never wavered in her belief that Jesus could and would save her daughter.
That is very much how prayer is for me a lot of the time. I pray for what I think is needed; I continue to pray when it does not materialize; I trust that eventually I will hear God’s “yes” in Jesus Christ. For some of my prayers, I have been blessed with a clear and resounding “yes.” Sometimes God’s “yes” has come after years of praying and in such a different manner than I had hoped for and expected that I fail to recognize it until long after the fact. For many of my prayers, God’s “yes” has not yet come into view. But I continue to pray to the Son of David because I know that his last word to us is always “yes.”
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight through listening to a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
It is not clear to me why the lectionary omits verses 2-5 as they seem to make up an integral part of the reading. “Happy is the mortal…” (Vs. 2) echoes the form of Psalm 1 which sets forth the two paths a human life may take: righteousness or wickedness. Righteousness is not simply general goodness or ethical behavior. It is a life of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. Sabbath observation is a critical sign of such faithfulness. According to Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath rest is woven into the very fabric of creation. Though ever a central commandment, Sabbath observance became even more important during the Babylonian Exile where it served as a line of demarcation between Israel’s covenant life and the surrounding pagan culture. The Sabbath was a visible sign of Jewish solidarity and identity.
It appears that Sabbath observance might have gone a bit lax within the community of the returned exiles. That would explain why the prophet urges his people to keep it. Vs. 2. Verses 3-5 are remarkable in that they offer full membership and participation in the covenant community to eunuchs and foreigners, both of which were excluded from the assembly of Israel under some provisions of the Pentateuch. Eg., Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Only decades later Ezra the scribe would take a more severe and exclusive stance toward outsiders. Ezra 9-10. As far as Third Isaiah is concerned, however, Sabbath observance and adherence to the commandments are what determine membership in the community of Israel, not blood. Foreigners are not merely tolerated but welcomed and encouraged to flock to the Lord’s mountain that the sanctuary there might become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Vs. 7. Such is the generous invitation from the God who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 8.
This openness to foreigners runs contrary to the current mood in our country, which is now more consistent with that of Ezra. Presented with these two words of scripture (Isaiah and Ezra) each carrying a very different message, we must determine which one of the two is God’s word to us at this time. The temptation is to select the one that comports with our own view of what is right and just. That can be hazardous as human nature always bends the scriptures to favor its own self-centered needs and desires. In the end, the polestar of our hermeneutic is Jesus. This Sunday’s gospel tips the scale decisively in the direction of openness and inclusion.
Based on verse 6, most commentators agree that this psalm is a harvest hymn giving thanks for a bountiful year. The song has a recognizable structure. It opens and closes with prayers for blessing that ultimately will lead to worldwide recognition and praise of Israel’s God. The middle section falls into two parts calling for universal praise: verses 3-4 call the nations to praise God for God’s just judgment and guidance. Verses 5-6 invite praise for God’s generous bounty in the form of a fruitful yield. Rogerson, J.W. and McKray, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 81.
“The Lord Bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us.” Vs. 1. These ancient lines are similar to and might be taken from the “Aaronic Benediction” (Numbers 6:24-26). Use of the word “Elohim” for “God” as opposed to “Yahweh” has suggested to some scholars that the psalm may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More likely, however, this is a very ancient form that has its roots in the period of the Judges. There is no mention of monarchy (either North or South) or Jerusalem.
“Let all peoples praise you, Oh God (Elohim).” Again, God’s works on behalf of Israel are to result in the praise of all people. This hymn affirms the belief that God is the God not only of Israel, but of all the earth. He is therefore exalted as a righteous judge and guide for all peoples. This echo of themes found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) has led a few commentators to date it after the Babylonian Exile. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Israel always viewed her God as supreme over all the nations. Moreover, the similarities to Second Isaiah could be the result of editing at a later time.
As noted above, verse 5 suggests that the psalm may have been composed for use as a hymn of thanksgiving for a fruitful harvest. Just as the Lord has brought about a successful growing year resulting in prosperity for Israel, so God’s life giving power will spread to the whole earth as Israel’s God is recognized as God of all peoples. The psalm concludes with a prayer for continued blessing that will have ripple effects to the ends of the earth. In the end, all the ends of the earth will revere the God of Israel who is, in reality, the God of all peoples. Vs. 6.
This chapter of Romans is critically important. It deals with a question very near to St. Paul’s heart, namely, the place of his own people, the Jews, in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. If there is one take away verse in this chapter it is verse 1: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” This verse is important because it puts the lie to nearly two millennia of Christian theology teaching precisely the view that Paul here rejects, namely, “supersessionism.” In short, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism. From this conclusion it follows that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s Chosen people. In its more extreme forms, the doctrine holds Jews solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and for that reason maintains that they are thoroughly rejected by God. This view has dominated the thinking of Christian theologians about Judaism until relatively recently and continues to enjoy support in many quarters.
It is important to remember that, in Paul’s time, there was no “Christianity” distinct from Judaism. The Jesus movement, sometimes called simply “the way,” was a reform movement within Judaism. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever dreamed of starting a new religion separate from Judaism. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and the conduit through which gentile believers were brought into God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Both Israel and the church were indispensable partners with God in the drama of redemption.
So how did we get to where we are today? The answer to that question is bigger than can be addressed on this post. But suffice to say that throughout the first century the line between church and synagogue had not been sharply drawn. It appears that Paul moved freely between the church and the synagogue in his ministry. Although some rupture occurred between the Jesus movement in Palestine and the Sanhedrin governing most of the Jewish community in the 90s C.E., there is documentation showing that disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues well into the 2nd Century C.E. If an event signifying the final break between church and synagogue could be identified, it would probably be the rise of emperor Constantine under whose influence Christianity became the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. In 380 C.E. Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by emperor Theodosius. From that point forward, all other religion, Judaism included, was disfavored if not strictly illegal. The Jews found themselves increasingly alienated in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Suspicion and fear of these communities that would not be assimilated into the larger culture often erupted into violent pogroms. The carnage reached its climax during the middle ages when knights on their way to crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land routinely destroyed Jewish communities and murdered their inhabitants along the way. Although the Renaissance saw greater tolerance and acceptance of Jews that continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, anti-semitism lay close under the surface. A deadly mix of these fierce cultural undercurrents of fear and hatred against Jews with the pseudo-scientific theory of white supremacy bequeathed by Enlightenment rationalism run amok infected Germany and several other nations with genocidal madness never before seen on the planet. The slaughter of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe finally led to a much needed (and far too tardy) reconsideration of the doctrine of supersessionism.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a good place to start in reconsidering the relationship of the church to Israel. Paul’s assertion that God does not reject Israel is simply the natural outcome of the view he has been expressing from the beginning concerning salvation by grace. God does not go back on his promises. Therefore, Israel’s disobedience no more invalidates God’s covenant with her than does the church’s disobedience void the promises made in baptism. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Vs. 29. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits Paul’s words to his gentile audience about the importance of Israel in the redemptive purpose of God and the fact that they, as outsiders to the covenant, have been graciously incorporated into the household of God just as wild olive branches grafted into a cultivated tree. Vss. 17-24. As such, the gentiles ought not to vaunt their status over Jews who as yet do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The rejection of Jesus by some Jews does not amount to God’s rejection of them. All Israel is and remains God’s elect by grace. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are fulfilling the purpose for which God called them.
Paul goes on to explain that the hearts of many of the Jewish people have been hardened toward Jesus-not because God is rejecting them, but because this hardening will open the way for faith among the gentiles. The faith of the gentiles will, in turn, awaken jealousy among the Jews that will ultimately draw them to faith in Jesus. Vss. 11-12; 25-28. I must confess in all humility that this is where I fall off the caboose in Pauls’ train of thought. It is not clear to me how Israel’s rejection of Jesus facilitates the faith of the gentiles or how the faith of the gentiles will finally draw Israel to Jesus. Obviously, that is not how things worked out historically. Nevertheless, be that as it may, Paul is absolutely clear about two things: 1) Israel is God’s people by the grace of election every bit as much as the church; 2) Israel plays an indispensable role in the redemption God is working out for all of creation. The church must therefore never understand itself as “the new and improved Israel” or as Israel’s replacement.
Every so often, the lectionary gets things right. Here the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” is further illuminated by the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus makes the point that one does not become unclean by what s/he consumes or by what s/he handles. Nor does one avoid uncleanness by adhering strictly to ritual practices. One is polluted by those things that fester deep in the heart. From a heart infected by greed, lust, anger and folly proceed evil words and actions.
In the Gospel of Mark, the woman in our lesson is described as Syro-Phoenician. Mark 7:24-30. Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite. Throughout the Pentateuch Moses repeatedly warned the people of Israel to have no dealings of any kind with Canaanites. Canaanites were to be exterminated thoroughly without mercy: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them…” Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Canaanites were repeatedly blamed throughout the Book of Judges for leading Israel into idolatry and betrayal of her covenant with God. That there probably were no persons living at the time of Jesus whose linage could have been traced to the Canaanite peoples of the Bronze Age is beside the point. Matthew wishes to make clear that this woman is the epitome of “unclean” in terms of Hebrew sensibilities. Yet she recognizes Jesus as “Lord,” and addresses him as “Son of David.” Her persistent plea for Jesus’ salvation for her daughter comes from a heartfelt confidence in Jesus’ ability and willingness to save. She, unlike Jesus’ ritually sensitive critics, is “clean.”
It is important that we avoid “dumbing down” this story. It is tempting to treat it as a morality play praising the heartfelt devotion of this woman while deriding the superficial ritualism of the Pharisees. Let us give the Pharisees their due. Faithful practices are essential to the development of character shaped by virtue. The ritual provisions of the Torah were designed to remind Israel in each of the most mundane and routine tasks of daily living that she belonged to her God. Prayer was woven into the fabric of work and play. Each meal was an act of worship and a celebration of community. There was no artificial division in Hebrew thought between secular and sacred such as we more or less take for granted today.
Jesus had no objection to ritual observances, but he would have us know that all such observances presuppose a covenant relationship of grace between God and the community of faith. To those on the outside, these observances must witness to the generosity of God and serve as an invitation to participate in that generosity. A community formed by the virtues of Torah and which practices Torah accordingly appeals to persons experiencing a hunger they didn’t know they had for a God they do not yet know. It is precisely for this reason that Judaism has in fact drawn proselytes from all the surrounding cultures in which it has made its home. That Jews have not historically sought such converts only further serves to illustrate the point.
Nonetheless, when religious practices become ends in themselves their meaning is distorted no matter how deeply scriptural they may be. That goes for Christian as well as Jewish practices. When prayer, the sacraments, preaching, fasting, tithing and Bible Study are used to manipulate, control and maintain power rather than to strengthen the covenant and nourish the community of faith, they become demonic. When observance becomes a measure of one’s worthiness to be part of the community of faith rather than means for inviting participation and strengthening membership, it conceals an unclean devotion to self-promotion and control of others. Under these circumstances, the joyous invitation to repent and believe in the good news is obscured.
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. Or, as St. Paul puts it, faith is belief in your heart that God raised Jesus from death. Faith is anchored in hope. Hope is possible when you believe that Jesus’ tomb is empty. That is where good preaching always begins, namely, with faith grounded in Jesus’ resurrection.
Sad to say, much of our preaching is not always so very good (yours truly included). That isn’t because preachers are not well educated, articulate and experienced in public speaking. For the most part, I believe they are. Nor do I believe that preachers are any less dedicated, less committed or less faithful than they have been in the past. The problem is that our preaching (along with our liturgy, pastoral care and social ministry) have become straight jacketed by our love affair with the Enlightenment and our seeming need to accommodate its assumptions about reality. The last few centuries have seen resurrection hope shrink from the bold vision of a new heaven and a new earth to mere metaphors for political reform/revolution, self-actualization, overcoming low self-esteem and “spirituality” (whatever the heck that means). We are embarrassed by the miraculous, uncomfortable with the mysterious and hostile toward the imagination. In our strained efforts to be “relevant” and to avoid appearing “unscientific,” our theology has cut down the bold biblical declaration of resurrection hope to fit neatly within the confines of what little space is left for hope in a predictable universe drained of mystery and governed by rationally discernable “laws.” Consequently, our preaching is just as boring, just as predictable and just as devoid of surprise as the dry, soulless, existence in which it is trapped.
We should have known that our efforts to domesticate the gospel would end in disaster. What is the good news about Jesus Christ other than God’s declaration that humanity’s hope for creation need not be bound by laws of any kind, whether political, religious or “rational?” What is the purpose of the scriptures if not to open up new vistas into reality that transcend all we think we know? What does Jesus’ resurrection mean other than God’s refusal to accept the status quo of hierarchy, violence and oppression? What does the empty tomb mean but that death is not the last word and that the grave need not be the last chapter in anyone’s life story?
I don’t mean to dis the Enlightenment. It gave us some great ideas and new ways of thinking. But if the excesses of the latter half of the 20th Century teach us anything, it is that goodness, truth and beauty cannot be measured in terms of rational, empirical or utilitarian standards. Reality is more than what can be extrapolated objectively from raw data. There is nothing more real than the human imagination where the battle for human destiny is waged. The good news about Jesus Christ addresses a world that has lost its imagination; a world that cannot see a future for itself other than the kind of catastrophic destruction we see over and over again in the cinema. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news to a culture for which being “realistic” means accepting that the way things are is the way they must always be. That is not reality. Reality is the empty tomb.
The most fascinating character in the Book of I Kings is not a king at all, but the prophet Elijah. Elijah first appears during the reign of King Ahab over the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Continuing the policies of his father, Ahab renewed Israel’s Phoenician treaties solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess with a fierce loyalty to her god, Baal. Though Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel, he did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.
Elijah the prophet appears as if out of nowhere announcing to King Ahab a drought that would soon devastate the land of Israel for three years and end only upon the prophet’s word. At the prompting of the Lord, Elijah flees and lives for the next three years as a fugitive. Ahab, knowing that Elijah holds the key to ending the drought, seeks him throughout Israel and asks for extradition privileges from any other kingdom in which the prophet might seek refuge. At the end of the three year period, Elijah reveals himself to the king with a proposition. Let there be a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal. The God of Israel challenges Baal to a duel-high noon at Mr. Carmel. Let two altars be built, one for Baal and one for the Lord. The god who consumes the sacrificial animal on his altar is God indeed. Ahab agrees and the prophets of Baal turn out in force and build their altar. Elijah, too, builds an altar and places his offering upon it. Fire from heaven consumes the offering on Elijah’s altar. Baal is a no show. A rain storm follows breaking the drought. Everyone knows who to thank.
You would think the matter had been settled once and for all. Wrong. Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, issues a death warrant for Elijah. Once again, Elijah is a fugitive. Understandably, he is despondent. Three years of toil, sacrifice and danger with nothing to show for it. Baal still rules the religious roost in Israel, the priests of the Lord are being murdered or driven into exile and Elijah is a homeless fugitive. That is the state in which we find him at the top of Mount Horeb in our lesson for Sunday.
The voice of the Lord is sought in earthquake, wind and fire. But the word of the Lord is not found in any of these dramatic phenomena. Rather, that word is revealed in a “still, small voice,” as the RSV translates it. Vs. 12. The NRSV translates the term as “a sound of sheer silence,” seemingly an oxymoron (or perhaps foreshadowing Simon & Garfunkel?). The Hebrew word is unclear, but perhaps the critical and operative term is “voice” or “sound.” It is through the word that God achieves God’s purposes-not through spectacular shows of force. If fireworks could turn the heart of Israel back to her God, surely the fire from heaven coming down on Mr. Carmel would have been enough to do the trick. But miraculous shows of power alone, like the miracles Jesus performed, are incapable of producing faith. At best, they inspire fear and amazement. They might show that God is powerful, but they do not demonstrate conclusively that God is good.
Elijah gets a word that is not altogether encouraging. Seven thousand people in all Israel remain faithful to the Lord and have not worshiped Baal. Vs. 18. That isn’t very many. Elijah is instructed to anoint a new king for Syria, Israel’s arch enemy. Vs. 15. That cannot be a good sign. He is also instructed to anoint a new king for Israel. This is somewhat hopeful as it indicates God’s determination to bring Ahab’s corrupt line to an end. Finally, Elijah is instructed to anoint his own successor. This can only mean that Elijah will not live to see the work of his ministry completed. He will come to the end of his life with a lot of loose ends still hanging out there.
That might be God’s word to the church in the United States-or at least the protestant part of it. Gone are the days when protestant Christianity was recognized as the de facto religion of the United States. Gone are the days when businesses, sports leagues and civic programs ceased their activities on Sunday morning out of deference to the church. Gone are the days when everyone went to church somewhere (or claimed they did because they knew they were expected to go). The culture we live in today is largely indifferent to traditional, mainline Christianity. We are increasingly discovering that we must make the case for why Jesus is important, why the church matters and what difference all of this makes in one’s day to day life. In other words, we need to start doing what Jesus has been telling us to do for centuries: make disciples. Churches that are finding ways to do that are thriving. Churches that are carrying on with business as usual and simply hoping that people will someday come back are dying. That is the long and short of it.
There is much good news here for those with ears to hear it. The good news is that the reign of God is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom’s coming will be in God’s own time and in God’s own way. We are privileged to take part in that drama. We don’t get to choose our parts or write the script. For a church that has gotten used to being a powerful and respected force within society, becoming a smaller and poorer community speaking from the margins of society is a bitter pill to swallow. But for a church that recognizes in its poverty, decline and weakness the still small voice of God’s word, which is the only thing of value it has ever really had, this ancient scripture opens up new vistas of hope and promise.
This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety. If you read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it starts with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
Paul’s argument here is based on a passage in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Paul begins by reiterating what he has said previously: that if one would justify himself/herself by the law, one must do more than learn it and adhere to the letter. One must live by it. That, as Paul has already pointed out, is impossible while we remain in the flesh. The flesh is forever using the law to justify itself, ingratiate itself to God and elevate itself over others. Rightly understood, the law is a gift given to Israel to protect her freedom. It is the servant of love, never the master. Wrongly understood, the law is something that must be retrieved by “go[ing] up to heaven” or “cross[ing] to the other side of the sea.” In fact, the law has already been given to Israel to assure her blessedness in the promised land. But it does not secure God’s favor. The Book of Deuteronomy from which Paul quotes has already made clear from the outset that it is not because of any greatness or goodness on Israel’s part that God loves her: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. God loves Israel no more when she is obedient and no less when she is disobedient.
So Paul comes back once again to his gospel moorings. The “word” which is near us is the good news about Jesus Christ that inspires confident trust in God’s promises: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Vs. 9. This is wildly important and tragically misunderstood. “Belief” is not mere intellectual assent. Perhaps some of you can recall the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion program purporting to school believers in the art of evangelism. Would be evangelists are instructed to ask those to whom they witness: “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your response?” The problem with this whole approach is that it treats faith as though it were mere intellectual assent to a doctrinal proposition. What you need to get into God’s good graces is information. You have to come up with the correct answer and articulate it correctly.
That is nothing like the heartfelt trust in Jesus that Paul is talking about. Faith is the conviction that God raised Jesus from death. The tomb is empty. If that really is the case, human life should look altogether different than the way we experience it. If God raised the man who fed five thousand with just five loaves, then we ought not to sweat a few thousand children crossing the border into our country. If God raised from the dead the man who would not take up the sword in his own defense, then there is no reason any disciple of Jesus should feel the need to own a fire arm for self-defense. If God raised the preacher that gave us the Sermon on the Mount, there is no reason why any believer in Jesus should not be tithing his or her income. Quite frankly, the problem is that there are more atheists in the church than outside it. Functional atheism confesses Jesus with the lips but does not believe with the heart that God raised him from death. To borrow another phrase from Paul, too many of us are “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. That is why churches fight constantly over budgets. That is why the average percentage of income given yearly by the average Lutheran church member is a whopping 1.9%. That is why Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour in the United States. That is why protestant denominations are turning to highly paid consultants, resorting to capital fund drives and fundraising gimmicks under the false label of “stewardship” to save their institutional souls. All that religious stuff is fine for children and little old church ladies. But we all know that in the real world you have to be practical. So when it comes time to talk money, we politely ask Jesus to leave the room.
Paul would have us know that there are two starkly different claims about what is real and only one of them can be true. Either you believe that Jesus is still dead, that everything he lived for was hopelessly idealistic and impractical, or you believe that God said “yes” to the life Jesus lived by raising him from death. If Jesus is still in the tomb, nothing has changed. If the tomb is empty, everything is changed. Once you get it through your head and into your heart that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive, you don’t listen to practical advice from the worldly wise telling you how impossible it is to walk on the surface of the sea-which brings us right to the gospel for Sunday.
The lesson follows directly on last week’s story about the feeding of the five thousand plus. Now that the crowds have been fed, Jesus dismisses them. He “compels” his disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Because Jesus sends them “ahead of him” we can assume that he meant to catch up to them at some point. The disciples are making their way across the sea against a strong headwind when they spot Jesus walking on the surface of the sea. Understandably terrified by what they take to be a ghostly apparition, the disciples cry out in terror. Immediately, Jesus calls out to them and urges them not to be afraid. Peter then replies, “Lord, if it really is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Vs. 28. Interestingly, Peter seeks a command from Jesus. Apparently, he knows that he is incapable of such a feat on his own. When Jesus replies, “come,” Peter steps out of the boat onto the water and comes to Jesus. Vs. 29.
The way Matthew tells it, Peter is not entirely clueless as he is portrayed in Mark’s gospel. He believes that Jesus is both capable of walking on the sea and that he is capable of enabling Peter to do the same. This belief is not merely theoretical as Peter’s first step out of the boat onto the water demonstrates. Moreover, when Peter begins to sink as a result of his doubt, he nevertheless knows to call out to Jesus for salvation. His faith, albeit “little,” is nonetheless genuine. So, too, the disciples confess Jesus as God’s son-a conclusion never reached by any of the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Yet this knowledge, like Peter’s faith, is not fully formed. There is more to Jesus than meets the eye and more yet to be learned and absorbed.
The telling of this story is perhaps shaped by Psalm 107 which narrates the perils faced by pilgrims making their way to the place of worship in Jerusalem and God’s saving intervention on their behalf. Of particular interest are verses 23-32:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Just as the pilgrims in the psalm recognize the compassion and salvation of God in their escape from the dangers of the sea, so the disciples are compelled to worship Jesus who stills the storm and brings them safely to their destination. The face of Israel’s God shines through the works of his messiah.
Though they recognize Jesus as “God’s Son,” the disciples still must learn what sort of Son Jesus is. Their failure to understand or accept the death Jesus predicts for himself in Jerusalem, their failure to anticipate Jesus’ resurrection and their continued doubt even in the presence of the resurrected Christ show that the disciples’ faith leaves much to be desired and will require continual growth through challenges yet to come. The message, then, for the church from Jesus is this: your faith is genuine; you have what you need to be my disciples; but your faith is still “little” and in need of nourishment, formation and maturity. One never graduates from the school of discipleship.