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.