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.