Archive for September, 2014

Sunday, October 5th

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 5:1–7
Psalm 80:7–15
Philippians 3:4b–14
Matthew 21:33–46

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

What would happen to the earth if people suddenly disappeared? The History Channel recently presented a dramatic documentary entitled Life after People, a fascinating blend of science fiction and true natural science, in order to answer that question. As it turns out, the world can go on very nicely-perhaps better than ever- without us. Almost immediately after our departure, nature would begin to reclaim our great cities. Weeds would break through concrete and asphalt; subways would become haunts for coyotes, raccoons and black bears. Vines would envelope our skyscrapers and national monuments as rust and rot begin to destabilize them. There is a good chance that civilization and culture might eventually re-emerge in some other non-human species. This documentary is a reminder of what we all should know deep down inside, namely, that we are not as important as we think we are. After our extinction, life will go on.

About a year ago the religion section of the Huffington Post featured some photographs of abandoned churches throughout the United States and Europe. You can view them by clicking on this link. These pictures, both beautiful and heartbreaking, are eerily similar to the digitally produced videos in Life after People portraying our cityscapes as they might look one hundred years after the demise of humanity. After the extinction of the church, life goes on.

In our gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus tells a parable about some tenant farmers who over-estimated their own importance, made some bad decisions and, as a result, lost both their tenancy and their lives. The tenants forgot that they were tenants. And in much the same way, we human beings forget that we are gardeners placed on the planet to till and tend it. Our ecological problems stem from our tendency to act as though we own the place. So, too, those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus tend to forget that the church belongs to Jesus, not to us. When we begin to treat the church as our own private club, an organization that exists to provide services for our convenience and an institution designed to meet our needs, we are treading on dangerous ground. What God gives, God can take away. That applies both to our planet and our church.

But here is another interesting fact. Despite the decline of Christianity in Europe and North America, the church as a whole is growing faster than at any time in history. Today there are more Lutherans in Ethiopia alone than in the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When Namibia, Liberia, Kenya and other African nations are thrown into the mix, it is fair to say that Lutheranism is more African than it is American or European. Similar parallels exist among other Christian traditions as well. The church is doing fine-just not here.

I often wonder whether the judgment visited on the tenants in Jesus’ parable has not already overtaken our churches in Europe and North America. I wonder sometimes whether “the kingdom of God” has not already been “taken away” from us and “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21:43. I wonder whether we have left God no recourse other than to let this section of the vineyard lie fallow until all the hateful, ugly and insensitive words spoken in the name of Jesus are finally forgotten; all the neglectful and selfish acts of the church lost to memory. Perhaps the land needs to heal before the good news of Jesus Christ can be heard as truly good news once again. Naturally, I pray that this judgment has not yet befallen us, that there is still time for repentance and renewal, that the  Spirit of God might still blow mightily upon the churches in our land and give them life. I have great hope for renewal in my time, but I know too well that I dare not presume upon it.

Isaiah 5:1–7

This Sunday’s lesson is an oracle from the prophet Isaiah who lived and ministered in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. His writings are found in Isaiah 1-39 along with much other material from various sources. For some more general background on the prophet Isaiah, see Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

The comparison of Israel to a vineyard or to grape vines is a common one. It is found, for example, in our psalm for this Sunday. See also Hosea 10:1-2; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 19:10-14. The vineyard is also a common metaphor for a bride. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd) p. 60. Thus, the hearers are put on notice that this song is about more than a disappointing harvest. It is about betrayal at the deepest, most intimate level. The word for “choice vines” planted in the vineyard is a translation of the Hebrew word “soreq,” which means either red grapes or grapes native to the valley of Sorek west of Jerusalem. Because Isaiah’s poem bears many similarities to songs composed for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, it is likely that the oracle was proclaimed to the people at this time, perhaps when they were gathered in the temple. Ibid. 59. Utilizing the language of praise and thanksgiving, the prophet composes a damning indictment against his people whose lives are as far from covenant faithfulness as wild grapes are from cultivated fruit.

After shocking his audience with this disturbing poem at a time when all are in the mood for celebration, the prophet asks the people to judge between the grower and his vineyard. What more could the grower have done? And more importantly, what must now be done with the vineyard? We are not privy to any response from Isaiah’s audience. If they have been following the prophet’s allegory, they already have an inkling of what will be revealed in verse 7, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The prophet declares the grower’s intention for the vineyard, which should come as no surprise. Land that is unproductive needs to lie fallow for a year or two. Rather than sheltering the land, clearing the soil of rocks and weeds, it must be left exposed to the elements.

Although Professor Kaiser dates this oracle early in the career of Isaiah predating the Syro-Ephraimite conflict of 734 B.C.E., it seems to me that this oracle fits well with conditions under the reign of King Hezekiah following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Isaiah’s audience could hardly miss the dire threat of invasion, destruction and exile implied by the abandonment of the vineyard. They had, after all, witnessed that very fate visited upon the Northern Kingdom. Whatever the case may be, the clear implication is that Judah has failed to produce the fruits of righteousness and justice that her God had a right to expect in view of his kindness and faithfulness to her. For that she can anticipate the consequences all too graphically demonstrated in the fate of Israel to the North.

As dire as is the threat of judgment, there is some grace here as well. After all, the ultimate objective of abandoning the land to lie fallow is its regeneration. However convinced Isaiah may have been that Judah’s justly deserved conquest and exile were near, the book as a whole testifies to God’s determination to stand with Israel throughout the time of her punishment and bring her through judgment to redemption.

Psalm 80:7–15

Using the same striking imagery of the vineyard employed by Isaiah in passing judgment upon the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the psalmist frames his/her prayer for salvation as a plea for God to come and attend once again his “vineyard” which has been inexplicably abandoned. Unlike the prophet, the psalmist does not make the connection between Israel’s unfaithfulness and her national calamity. S/he sees the pitiable condition of his/her nation as the consequence of God’s failure to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. Prayers such as this offend our Christian sense of piety and one commentator suggests that such sentiments as are expressed in this psalm constitute “an unworthy notion about the nature of God.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 157. But prayer has less to do with our theologies about Good and more to do with our relationship with God. As all people of mature faith know, the feeling of desertion and abandonment by God is very real. Genuine faith gives expression to what is real-not to what pious convention dictates. Look no further than Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross for confirmation of that point! Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.

Though the psalmist assumes that God’s displeasure with Israel is at the root of the nation’s troubles, the very fact that s/he brings his/her complaint to God demonstrates the conviction that God has not rejected Israel for all time and is still open to her prayers. The psalmist is convinced that the God of the Exodus will finally turn and show compassion for his troubled people. This psalm demonstrates how Israel’s conviction that the loss of her land, temple and royal line represented God’s judgment on her covenant faithlessness did not come in a flash. It developed over a long period of reflection upon her covenant traditions, the preaching of the prophets and her experiences in exile. There was for Israel a long journey from the raw pain of conquest and exile to a mature understanding of both God’s judgment upon her past and God’s promise of a new beginning.

Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.

Philippians 3:4b–14

Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

Whereas the lessons for the last two weeks came from Paul’s “Letter of Friendship,” this week’s reading comes from his third letter of warning against rival missionaries urging gentile believers to receive circumcision. While Paul’s opponents in his letter to the Galatians were partisans of Jewish believers from the church in Palestine, his rivals in Philippi appear to be more distantly connected to Judaism. They might even be gentiles who have enthusiastically embraced diaspora Judaism and seek to draw Paul’s churches into their orbit. This would explain Paul’s appeal to his Jewish credentials. “You want Jewish?” says Paul. “I’ll show you Jewish!” Paul then launches into his family heritage; his upbringing; and his education. He crowns all of these fine credentials by pointing out that, “as to righteousness under the law” he was “blameless” even though his zeal led him to persecute the church. Vs. 6.

Clearly, Paul has made the case that his Jewish roots are genuine unlike those of his opponents. But then Paul goes on to say that his flawless pedigree does not amount to a hill of beans. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Vs. 7. Paul does not disown his Jewishness. He remains proudly Jewish. Nevertheless, it is not his solid Jewish heritage that makes him righteous. Righteousness for Paul is not first and foremost a matter of heritage, practices and tradition. Righteousness is relational. One is made righteous, not by following the right practices or believing the right doctrine, but by trusting the right person. “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Vss. 8-9.

Paul then expresses the hope that he might know Jesus and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings to become like Jesus in his death. His hope is that in so doing he may share in Jesus’ resurrection. That all comes across as circular. Yet it makes sense. God’s resurrection of Jesus is God’s “yes” to Jesus’ obedient life and faithful death. To know the resurrected Jesus is to know the depth of God’s love, the immeasurable value of God’s promises and God’s determination to keep those promises. To become like Jesus in his death is to share the confidence of Jesus in the promises of his heavenly Father in the face of death. It is to live without fear of death.

Paul states quite honestly that he has not achieved such perfect confidence yet. He is plagued by a past that includes the persecution of Christ and his church. He struggles with personal impediments to his ministry. II Corinthians 12:7-10. Yet Paul refuses to let his present life be dictated by his past. Instead, he is motivated by God’s promised future that is made present to him in Jesus’ resurrection. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.” Vs. 14. As hopelessly corny as it may sound, today really is the first day of the rest of the disciple’s life. But this is not based on mere optimism. It is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus which is our own through faith in his promises.

The gospel re-orientates our lives. Rather than living out of the past, being shaped by our scares and having our relationships with others determined by the age old conflicts into which we were born, we are called to live now in God’s future achieved through the reconciling power of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. That changes everything!

Matthew 21:33–46

The gospel, like our lesson from Isaiah and our psalm, employ the image of the vineyard. But that is where the similarity ends. For Isaiah, the vineyard was the rebellious nation that forgot the kindness and mercy of her God, neglected the covenant and produced the fruit of violence and injustice rather than faithfulness and peace. For the psalmist, the vineyard is a broken people struggling to understand why it has been forsaken by its God. Jesus’ focus in the gospel parable is not so much on the vineyard as it is on the tenants responsible for its care and for giving to the landlord his share of its produce. The parable is thus directed against the leaders of the people who, as we have seen, rejected the baptism of John just as their ancestors rejected the witness of the prophets. Matthew 21:31-32; Matthew 23:29-39. Now God is sending to them his Son. How will the leaders react? Will they finally respect the Son and acknowledge God’s rightful reign over Israel? Of course, we know the answer to that question-or do we? As a religious leader myself, this parable gives me profound discomfort. I am forced to ask myself whether I have faithfully tended the vineyard and offered the first fruits of my labor to the Lord, or whether I have treated my calling as a profession, put in my time and been content to take my pay and go home. Is my section of the vineyard struggling because the tenant in charge of it has been lazy, complacent and self-centered? The questions raised in my introductory remarks hang like a cloud over this story.

The parable presents us with a couple of imponderables. Why would the owner of the vineyard send his son into a situation so dangerous and hostile that it already cost him the lives of some of his servants? On what basis did the tenants determine that murdering the owner’s son would result in their getting title to the vineyard? Some scholars have speculated that the tenants erroneously assumed that the owner had died and that title had passed to his son. Assuming that the son was the owner’s only son and assuming further that the son had no heirs of his own, there would be no one to lay claim to the vineyard in the son’s absence. The problem, of course, is that this explanation relies on quite a number of assumptions outside the scope of the text.

Professor William R. Herzog, II has an interesting take on this parable (as he does on a number of Jesus’ parables). According to Herzog, the parable is about the conversion of farm land supporting subsistence farmers into cash crops, i.e., grapes for wine. Herzog, II, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech, (c. 1994 by William R. Herzog II, pub. by Westminster/John Knox Press) p. 108. It is likely, Herzog contends, that the vineyard was taken from distressed farmers who now operate the vineyard as tenants and sustain themselves by growing vegetables along the edges of what once was their own land. Ibid. The tenants, having been “forced beyond the narrow parameters required for their survival…had no choice but to rebel.” Ibid. The sending of the owner’s son is explained in terms of class expectations. “The father’s reasoning…reflects his social location and class attitude. He speaks as a confident elite who is certain that peasant tenants, even rebellious ones, will respect his son. Seen within the framework of ruling-class attitudes and assumptions, the father’s reasoning makes sense.” Ibid. at 110.

This interpretation requires us to lift the parable out of its context in the gospel and insert it into a speculative reconstruction of the setz un leben or “historical context.” In order for this reading to work, we need to reimagine a so called “historical Jesus” apart from the ideological distortions of the early church’s witness. This age old quest for the so called “historical Jesus” and his true message is, in my humble opinion, a wasted effort. Nevertheless, if you would like to embark on that journey, Herzog’s book is a great place to start. He is thoughtful, thorough and articulate. Please give my regards to Slender Man and the Tooth Fairy should you encounter them along the way-a prospect about as likely as finding the “historical Jesus.”

According to the parable as we have it in Matthew, there appears to be no ground for animosity on the part of the tenants against their landlord. The text is silent as to how the land was acquired. It appears, however, as though the landlord has made a significant investment in the land and understandably expects a return. That the actions of the tenants appear inexplicable goes to the parable’s point, namely, that Israel’s leaders have ruled her people in their own self-interested way rejecting the warnings of the prophets and of John the Baptist. Sending one’s son into the violent and volatile setting of a rebel occupied vineyard might not make sense from the standpoint of an absentee landlord who is just trying to get a handle on his investment property. But the landowner is God and the vineyard is God’s chosen people. To his own beloved people, God makes God’s self vulnerable in order to achieve reconciliation and peace.

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Vs. 42. This is a quotation from Psalm 118:22-23. The “chief corner stone” is probably the main stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.

The stone has a dual function in the gospel. It is the cornerstone of faith, but for unbelief it is a stumbling block. “The one who falls upon this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Vs. 44. This is possibly an allusion to Isaiah 8:14. “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” It might also stem from a popular Jewish midrash: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot! Either way, woe to the pot!” cited at Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 880. Either way, the immovability and permanence of the stone stand in stark contrast to the seeming vulnerability of the landlord’s son. The “stone” sayings might be said to reveal the true state of things that the tenants in the parable misunderstand to their own undoing.

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Sunday, September 28th

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32
Psalm 25:1–9
Philippians 2:1–13
Matthew 21:23–32

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Paul urges the church at Philippi to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who humbled himself taking on the form of a servant. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like very good advice. In an environment where good jobs are scarce, education pricey and scholarship monies dwindling, humility is about the last thing you need. So how in good conscience can I recommend humility to high school graduates competing for a limited number of openings in prestigious schools? How can ask young people applying along with hundreds of others for a single job to “count others better than yourselves?”

Perhaps part of the problem lies with our understanding of what is meant by the word “humility.” For many, the word denotes shyness, lack of self-esteem and reluctance to assert oneself. Clearly, that does not describe Jesus who, for Paul, is the model of humility. Jesus was never one to remain silent when he felt a word needed speaking. He was as much at ease in the homes of wealthy and powerful religious leaders as he was in the homes of tax gatherers and other social misfits. Though he refused to employ violence even in his own defense, he was never intimidated by violence. What, then, is Christ-like humility?

First, humility is a matter of priorities. For Jesus, the highest priority was the kingdom his heavenly Father promised for the world. Because Jesus trusted God’s promise that this kingdom had indeed come, he was confident living under the reign of God even in the midst of a sinful world. Jesus understood that God’s kingdom of reconciliation, justice and peace is the future for our planet and that the future is now. That is the only explanation for the Sermon on the Mount which spells out a way of living that makes no practical sense in the world as we know it. But it makes perfect sense in the world as God knows it.

Second, humility is recognizing that it is not all about you. God raised Jesus from death precisely because he was the one who lived always and only for the kingdom of heaven and the world to which it is offered. Because Jesus was certain that the kingdom was God’s gift and would be established by God in God’s own good time, he was under no compulsion to succeed. His only concern was to be faithful. In terms of success, Jesus’ ministry was something of a disappointment. His people never really understood him; the leaders of Israel rejected him; his disciples deserted him; he was executed as a criminal. But Jesus remained faithful to his Abba until the end. Humble people value faithfulness over success.

This is not to make a virtue of failure or to demonize success. Nobody should deliberately set out to fail or accept failure as proof of faithfulness. Again, it’s a matter of priorities. Sometimes you must sacrifice success in order to remain faithful. During the 1960s, there were churches that lost membership or that fell apart because their leaders insisted on addressing the presence of racial inequality. By every institutional standard, these leaders might be said to have failed. But their failure was the consequence of faithfulness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed. Humble people are as eager to succeed as anyone else, but they also recognize that what we view as success at any given time is likely to be highly overrated in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, what might seem like failure today may actually be the seed of tomorrow’s fresh new growth in mission and ministry. Humble people therefore pursue faithfulness above all else and let the chips fall wherever they will.

Third, humble people don’t need accomplishments to boost their self-esteem. They know that they were adopted as children of their heavenly Father and made siblings of Jesus Christ at baptism. What accomplishment, award or achievement can add to that? Humble people don’t worry constantly about getting credit for their ideas or recognition for their contributions. A humble leader introduces his/her ideas in such a way that his/her followers think they discovered it themselves and run with it enthusiastically. S/he can do that because s/he knows that all the recognition s/he will ever need is already given in baptism. As long as the project faithfully witnesses to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims, it doesn’t matter whose name is on the commemorative brass plaque.

Fourth, humble people don’t have to win. That is because they don’t view life in terms of “wins” and “losses.” They understand that winning an argument while losing a friend is not really a victory at all. They also understand that it is better to lose an election, have an idea rejected or see a project fail than to sail into the sunset of success on the wake of hurt feelings, broken relationships and resentment. Again, humble people are not any more adverse to winning than they are to success. But for a humble person, it matters how you win. Humble people know that the ends never justify the means, but the means frequently determine the shape of the ends.

Fifth, humble people are peaceful people. They do not employ violence or coercion to solve their problems. They understand that anger is nothing more than masked fear; violence is only fear that doesn’t know what else to do with itself. They entrust their safety and the safety of their loved ones to their heavenly Father. Humble people are under no illusions about the dangers they face. Violent people may hurt or kill them. They are prepared for that. They remember well how Jesus warned his disciples that where he is, they must also be. Just as he endured the cross, so his disciples must be prepared to suffer nothing less. Like Jesus, humble people commend themselves into the hands of their heavenly Father, trusting in him to keep them even in death.

Finally, humble people are joyful people. They know that the most valuable treasure on earth is theirs and that no one can take it away from them. They know that the earth belongs to the Lord and that all things are theirs in Christ. So they can enjoy the beauty of a magnificent garden without having to own it. They take delight in the simple joys of gardening, playing with children, sharing a beer with friends and walking in the cool of the evening. They grow old gracefully and hopefully, knowing that God never takes anything away from us unless he has got something better to give. Humble people are those in whom the mind of Christ is perfected. They are people who have learned to be at home under the gentle reign of God.

Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32

For my general comments on Ezekiel, see the post from September 7th.

The prophet’s dialogical oracle is incited by what appears to have become a popular proverb among the Babylonian exiles: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Vs. 2. By this saying, the exiles are placing the blame for their predicament upon the sins of their ancestors. They are not altogether mistaken about that. There is no question that the economic exploitation, nationalistic policies and foolish decisions of Judah and her leaders put the nation on the trajectory of her disastrous clash with Babylon. Much of this pre-dated the births of people living in the present community. In the same way, exploitation of the African continent, the slave trade and legislatively imposed segregation pre-dates the lifetimes of most people now living in Ferguson, Missouri. Nevertheless, the sad legacy of that history still haunts us and racism continues to infect the very structures of our society. We are all born into a world we did not make.

But that is not the end of it. The problem with the exiles’ proverb is that it purports to place full blame for their predicament on the shoulders of their ancestors, thus making the exiles themselves innocent victims. That, according to Ezekiel, amounts to self-deception. It allows the exiles the luxury of despair and inaction. The prophet would have his people know that they are still in the game. Though they may have been dealt a bad hand, they are not excused from playing it. That is where the proverb breaks down. While we cannot change the historical realities that made Ferguson and other American cities flash points of racial violence, we can, if we have the courage and determination, shape what that history will mean for us today and how that understanding will, in turn, shape the future. We can refuse to be shackled by the chains of our past and open ourselves up to God’s future. In biblical terms, we can repent.

Ezekiel’s message is an important one for an increasingly cynical culture obsessed with movies of apocalyptic doom and dystopian scenarios for the future. This prophet is no shallow optimist. I have no doubt he would agree that global warming, militarization and nationalism are genuine threats placing our planet in dire peril. A lot of damage has been done that our best efforts will not be able to repair anytime soon. Nevertheless, the God of Israel is the one who breathes life into dead bones. Ezekiel 37:1-14. For that reason, despair, inertia and inaction are not options. God has not given up on the world, but is still very much at work redeeming it. Neither has God given up on his people. Though acts of mercy, compassion and healing so often seem ineffective in a world so torn by violence, cruelty and death, God assures us that the future is God’s new heaven and new earth. God’s people are privileged to take part in its birthing.

Psalm 25:1–9

This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-9, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It strikes me that the psalmist’s understanding of forgiveness is in some respects complementary to Ezekiel’s message. Both the prophet and the psalmist insist that sin and punishment are not the last words spoken. Even when one stands amidst the ashes of a ruined past, one nevertheless stands. Because the future is God’s future, it has power to redeem the past.

Philippians 2:1–13

Once again, to reprise what I said last week, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

As was the case last week, Sunday’s lesson is from Paul’s Letter of Friendship. Paul encourages the Philippian church to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Vs. 2. There is something repugnant about a group of people having “the same mind” or “one mind.” Our culture treasures the right of every individual to his or her own opinion. But the church is not made up of individuals endowed with a bundle of rights. It is the living Body of the Resurrected Christ of which all disciples of Jesus are members. Clearly, a body cannot function where each member has its own self-interested mind and will. As I have often said, the language of rights is not one that can articulate well the polity of the church.

It seems to me that in spite of our fierce dedication to preserving our individual rights, our preference for personal “spirituality” (whatever that is) over “organized religion,” and the value we place on making up our own mind, we are a good deal less independent than we think we are when it comes to thinking. “Movements” often tend to break out without any prior organization or structure. Groups of people are seized by images on the internet to take action of one kind or another. Crowds are whipped into a frenzy by news of some injustice, real or imagined. Celebs, political leaders and talk radio hosts collect followings of people who are infatuated with them or their views. Perhaps Paul understood better than we do the inevitability of some mind greater than our own dominating or at least influencing us powerfully. That being the case, says Paul, let it be the mind of Christ. Let your outlook, your words and your actions be shaped by your relationship to Jesus.

There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 53. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.

In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Vs. 12. That phrase taken alone is troubling-as well it should be. Salvation, to be sure, is God’s free gift. Yet, like the gift of a fine musical instrument, much time, hard work and dedication are required to make proper use of it. If the recipient simply thanks the giver and packs the gift away on a closet shelf, it loses its transformative power. It becomes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “cheap grace.” Nonetheless, lest anyone should conclude that salvation is less than sheer gift, Paul goes on to remind us that “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Vs. 13. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish.

Matthew 21:23–32

By this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph (Matthew 21:1-11) and cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He has now re-entered the temple on this, the following day, to take up teaching the people. It would seem quite natural for the chief priests and elders of the people to question Jesus about his credentials. What is your authorization to do these things, Jesus, and where did you get it? Vs. 23. At first blush, it would seem a little unfair for Jesus to demand from his opponents an answer to a subsequent question of his own without first answering theirs. But in reality, Jesus’ question is his answer. The source of Jesus’ authority is also the source of John’s authority. It is obvious, though, that the chief priests and the elders have been dodging the issue of John’s authority. As John was put to death by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, these leaders whose seat of authority was in the jurisdiction of Judah might well have managed publically to dissociate themselves from John’s execution. But in Matthew’s gospel, the ministry of John is intimately linked to that of the Messiah. John is the figure of Elijah who heralds the coming of the Lord. Matthew 11:7-15 cf. Malachi 4:5-6. The leaders are thus caught in a double bind. They cannot acknowledge John without acknowledging Jesus. Neither will they denounce John in the presence of the people. By confronting the chief priests and the elders with the ministry of John, Jesus has answered their question, though not in the way they had hoped. Rather than gaining an admission they could have used to prosecute Jesus before Pilate, the religious leaders receive a question they cannot answer but which leaves little doubt as to the source Jesus’ claims for his authority.

By this time, the chief priests and the elders are no doubt beating a hasty retreat. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “What do you think?” He calls to them as they seek to disappear into the crowd. “A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today,’ And he answered, ‘I will not;’ but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered ‘I go sir,’ but did not go. Which of these two did the will of his father?” Vss. 28-31. It is significant here that Jesus asks specifically which of the two children did what the father asked rather than which of the two was properly obedient or respectful. There could be only one response and that is the one the leaders were compelled to give, namely, that the first child who showed profound disrespect and disobedience to his father was nevertheless the one who did as he was commanded. Jesus then returns to the uncomfortable issue of John the Baptist. The tax collectors and prostitutes, people clearly outside any definition of righteousness, nevertheless did what righteousness required by heeding John’s call to repentance. By contrast, the chief priests and the elders, with all of their righteous credentials, refused to recognize the one who came to them in the way of righteousness. Vs. 32. Now the religious authorities are clearly on the defensive, where they will remain until the end of chapter 23.

Once again, Matthew redefines righteousness for us. Righteousness is not, as the chief priests and elders maintain, adherence to any written code, even the Torah. Right conduct grows out of a faithful response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. It is neither definitional nor behavioral, but relational. As observed by Professor Stanley Hauerwas,

“The chief priests’ and elders’ question has been repeated through the centuries of Christian history. Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry. If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus. There is no place one might go to know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is. To know that Jesus is the Son of God requires that we take up his cross and follow him. Having taken up the cross, Christians discover they have no fear of the truth, no matter from where it might come.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 185.

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Sunday, September 21st

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jonah 3:10—4:11
Psalm 145:1–8
Philippians 1:21–30
Matthew 20:1–16

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This confession is a common refrain throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is prominent in our Lenten liturgies. It is good news-the good news-that God is gracious, merciful and loving. Comforting it is to know that God’s love is steadfast; that God’s mercy is infinite; and that God is slow to anger. Even God’s anger arises out of God’s passionate love for us.

But it seems as though some folks wish that God were not quite so loving. I remember well a dear woman, I will call her Marcia, from a church I served years ago saying to me, “Yes, pastor, God is loving.” But she was quick to point out that “God hates sin! You’re not saying that we can do whatever we want and God will just ignore it, are you? There comes a point where God will not tolerate sin anymore if we just keep doing it.” Marcia had a couple of good points. True enough, God does hate sin and God does punish it. But why is God so opposed to sin? According to Marcia, it is because God is righteous, because God cannot tolerate a violation of his holy law, because justice requires that every sin be punished. That, according to Marcia, was the reason for the cross. God punished our sin in Jesus. Through faith in Jesus, we escape the punishment we deserve. Of course, if we reject Jesus and refuse the pardon he offers, then God has no choice other than to punish us fully and fairly for our sin.

Marcia’s god was fair and presided over a universe that was fair as well. People get what they deserve, if not in this life then surely in the next. On the surface, that is very appealing. Why shouldn’t life be fair? Why shouldn’t we be rewarded for righteous behavior and punished for wickedness? How can God rule justly if he forgives willy-nilly and punishes only sporadically? Who will take sin seriously or try to be righteous if there are no rewards or punishments?

Marcia was not altogether wrong. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament speak of God’s wrath and God’s judgment. While that might offend our middle class protestant, slightly left of center, ever polite and ever white notions about properly progressive religion, it’s biblical. Marcia was altogether right about God hating sin. She was dead wrong, however, about God’s reason for hating it. God hates sin not because it violates his precious rules or upsets the moral balance of the universe, but because sin injures God’s creatures and ruins God’s creation. God punishes sin not to satisfy some abstract notion of perfect justice, but to curb our most self-destructive impulses. God’s judgment is gracious in that it saves us from ourselves. It is but another expression of God’s love, albeit tough love.

Our lessons for this week introduce us to a prophet and some day laborers whose belief in God and God’s justice are very much like Marcia’s. They believe that both God and life should be fair. Jonah is miffed at God for failing to punish the wicked city of Nineveh. The laborers in Jesus’ parable are angry at their boss for paying a full day’s wage to their co-workers who labored for only an hour. What they and we must learn is that God is far more concerned about mercy than fairness. So, too, divine justice is more about reconciliation than adjudicating disputes.

Jonah 3:10—4:11

The book of Jonah differs from all the other prophetic books. Rather than containing the oracles of a prophet, this book tells the story of a prophet. It reads very much like a short story. It is also different in that the prophetic focus is not upon Israel, but upon Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s archenemy, Assyria. That is where the problem lies as far as the prophet is concerned. Jonah would far rather be declaring gleefully Assyria’s doom to his fellow Israelites than bringing a warning to the doomed nation. Assyria, after all, was responsible for the downfall and destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah only narrowly escaped the same fate. Jonah, like the rest of Israel, wanted nothing more than to see God’s judgment fall with full force on this cruel empire. So Jonah does everything in his power to ensure the failure of his mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

First, Jonah tries to run away from his commission. Rather than traveling to Nineveh, he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction. God catches up with Jonah, however and sends a storm that threatens to swamp the ship. Everyone on the boat begins praying frantically to his god, except Jonah who is fast asleep in the hold. Jonah is not on speaking terms with his God. The sailors wake Jonah and implore him to pray to his God for rescue, but instead Jonah suggests that they throw him overboard. He would rather drown than prophesy to Nineveh. But Jonah’s attempt at suicide fails. God is not letting him off the hook that easily. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah and there he remains, in the belly of the fish, for three days. After giving Jonah adequate time to reflect, the fish vomits Jonah up on shore. God repeats the original command: Go at once to Nineveh.

Knowing that he can never escape from God, Jonah goes reluctantly to Nineveh and preaches the shortest and most uninformative sermon ever given by a prophet. The message? “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4. That’s it. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are being overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can do to prevent the overthrow. Yet this half-hearted and incomplete sermon brings about a remarkable effect. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth.” Jonah 3:5. Not only that, but “when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah 3:6. Even the animals repented with fasting! Jonah 3:7-8. “Who knows?” remarked the king. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” Jonah 3:9. God does indeed hear the penitent cries from the people of Nineveh and God changes his mind. God spares the city from destruction.

This is just what Jonah had feared and what he had done everything possible to prevent. “I knew it!” cries the exasperated prophet. “Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2. Jonah knows his Torah well. This confession of God as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 145:8 and Psalm 103:8. Indeed, it is with these very words that God reveals to Moses his innermost being. Exodus 34:6-7. But Jonah does not seem to want a God who is merciful and slow to anger. He wants a God that is fair. Assyria is guilty of unspeakable acts of war, oppression and cruelty. It is only fair that God visit upon Assyria what the empire has inflicted on Israel. An eleventh hour show of repentance should not be enough to win Nineveh a reprieve from justice.

God proves to be as patient and forgiving toward his stubborn prophet as he is toward the wicked city of Nineveh. God employs an object lesson. He causes a plant to grow up giving the sulking prophet shade. Then, a day later, God sends a worm causing the plant to wither and die. Now Jonah is livid. Bad enough that God should make a fool of him by calling off the judgment he had predicted. Now it appears that God means to give him sunstroke as well. Then God makes his point: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11. That is how the book ends-with God’s question. We never hear Jonah’s answer and perhaps that is intentional. The question is really directed at us. What sort of God do we worship? Is God chiefly concerned with abstract notions of justice, with punishing sin and rewarding good behavior? Or is God more concerned with the well-being of people? Does God hate sin because it offends against his precious laws? Or does God hate sin because it harms his creatures?

For numerous reasons, most scholars date this book in the post exilic period following 539 B.C.E. While the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria was a more distant memory, Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians was a fresh and painful recollection. To be sure, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had explained these catastrophes as consequences of Israel’s breach of covenant faithfulness to God. But even so, Israel’s less than perfect obedience was surely light years closer to righteousness than the brutal and oppressive ways of Assyria and Babylonia. If Israel was justly punished for her sin, is it too much to expect that these empires also should face judgment?

The Book of Jonah shifts the focus of this discussion from fairness to mercy. God does not inflict judgment merely settle scores or maintain some sort of moral balance. God punishes in order to heal. Thus, whether God punishes sin or decides to refrain from punishment has nothing to do with fairness. It is finally a question of what will bring about a change of heart, healing and ways that are life giving. If repentance can be achieved without punishment, God abstains from exercising the rod-even if that seems unfair. Likewise, God will inflict whatever hardships are necessary to bring his people to the point of recognizing their self-destructive ways and their need for him-whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime or not. But God’s concern is always for the well-being of his people both within and outside of his covenant with Israel.

“All of this points in the direction of the fact that God’s will for his world is salvation and not destruction. He will do all within his power to see that salvation comes rather than destruction. God’s love and mercy always have priority over his anger (see Psalm 30:3). He wishes life for his creatures rather than death (see Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Fretheim, Terence E., The Message of Jonah, (c. 1977 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 130.

Psalm 145:1–8

This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.

Formally, this is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. Professor Walter Brueggemann classifies this psalm as a “song of creation,” a subcategory of his “psalms of orientation,” namely, psalms that “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 25. Psalm 145 expresses Israel’s “joyous and grateful confidence in the Creator.” Id. at 28. There is no thematic development in this psalm. It is, as Brueggeman points out, “static in form, articulating what is enduringly true of the world.” Id. at 28-29. The range of praise stretches from the first person to the intergenerational “we” of the worshiping community.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8.This refrain is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as pointed out in my observations concerning our first lesson, where we encounter it in the context of irony. Jonah 4:2 It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations. Placed as it is in contrast to Jonah’s citation of this ancient confession, the psalm invites us to ponder what it means to have a God whose principle attributes are graciousness, mercy, and steadfast love. Such a divine disposition is comforting when applied to ourselves but, as the lesson from Jonah illustrates, not quite so palatable when applied to our enemies. Are we prepared to accept God’s graciousness and mercy extended toward Al Qaeda or to ISIS? Or does the very idea throw us into a Jonah snit?

Philippians 1:21–30

To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

This Sunday’s reading comes from the Letter of Friendship Paul wrote while imprisoned. Paul is mindful that his imprisonment might well end with his being sentenced to death. Though hopeful that he will finally be released and allowed to continue his ministry, Paul does not fear death. For whether through his future ministry or through his faithful acceptance of death for the sake of the gospel, whether short or long, Paul’s life will bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:19-20. Paul prefers deliverance from prison to martyrdom, but this is not because he fears death. Indeed, he views death in Christ as “gain.” Vs. 21. Paul wishes to live that he may continue his ministry to the church in Philippi and to his other congregations. Vs. 25-26.

Paul urges the Philippian believers to let their manner of life “be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Vs. 27. To give content to this admonition, we need to read further both in Philippians and in the other letters of Paul. The church, as the Body of Christ, is to live a counter-cultural existence in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. In the midst of the hierarchical and stratified culture of Rome, such a community constituted a subversive challenge. The church was, as Paul aptly pointed out, an “omen to them of their destruction.” Vs. 28. The church can therefore expect opposition. Faith in Jesus naturally entails “suffering” for his sake and participation with Paul in his own conflict with the empire. Vss. 29-30.

Paul’s sentiments and the struggles of his Philippian congregation are hard to grasp in a culture where the church fits neatly into the Americana landscape. Even as Christianity fades from popular culture and the church’s influence recedes, we do not face anything like persecution. Yes, I know about Fox’s reporting on the so-called “war on Christianity.” But if you really think that barring a crèche from the town square during the holiday season amounts to persecution, you need to talk to Christians in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. They will tell you what real persecution looks like. What we actually are experiencing is the beginning of marginalization. Given our substantial loss of membership, participation and support, we mainliners no longer represent a significant demographic group. We are fast becoming a minority. But then again, perhaps we always were a minority. Maybe the cultural support churches received in the past and the social expectation for church membership and participation characteristic of earlier times falsely inflated our numbers. It could be that, despite the loss of members, the church has more disciples today than ever before. I have no idea whether that is so or how one would go about finding out one way or the other. But I digress.

I believe that a careful reading of Paul’s letters in our present context compels a change of subject. Rather than trying to reverse membership loss to save our institutions, we need to be talking about becoming and making disciples. Rather than wracking our brains trying to figure out how to get people to go to church, we need to start talking about how we can better be the church. It’s high time that we become an “omen” once again.

Matthew 20:1–16

The parable reflects the gritty realities of life in Palestine and, sadly, many places in our own country. Labor is cheap and it’s a buyer’s market. Men and women stand in groups at the market place in Galilean towns or in front of the Shoprite in Union City hoping to get work for the day. The work day in Palestine lasted from sunrise to sunset. The daily wage, a denarius, was set by rabbinic custom and tradition. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) P. 392. The requirement that payment be made at the end of the day is rooted in Torah. Deuteronomy 24:15. “Vineyard” is a frequent metaphor for Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-9.

It is important to understand that this parable follows Jesus’ teaching concerning lifelong fidelity in marriage (Matthew 19:1-9); the call of some to forego marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:10-12); Jesus’ declaration that children, who the disciples found to be a distraction, are the proper heirs of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13-15); the story about the man whose riches prevented him from following Jesus in the way of the kingdom (Matthew 19:16-22); and Jesus’ words on the cost and rewards of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-30). Matthew’s use of the vineyard here suggests that he is giving us a snapshot of what life in the kingdom looks like-if only we have eyes to see it.

The hiring of the first laborers at dawn for a day’s wage is hardly unusual. It would not be unusual either to hire additional laborers later in the day if, for example, the rainy season were drawing near with its potential for cooler weather and even frost. Hiring workers an hour before sunset simply is not credible. Yet that appears to be the point. The owner of the vineyard is not looking at this venture from a purely business like, self-interested perspective. He is looking to the needs of the laborers. At an hour from quitting time, he discovers that there are still laborers standing idle in the marketplace. It seems odd that the owner of the vineyard would ask these unemployed laborers why they are idle. Isn’t that like asking an unemployed factory worker why he isn’t at work? The answer seems obvious, yet the owner seeks an answer from these unfortunate individuals just the same. When the would-be laborers tell him that they are idle because they have not been hired, the owner promptly hires them and sends them out.

While it might seem strange that the owner of the vineyard should pay the last workers before the first, this order of events is critical to the parable. Had the first hired been the first paid, they would each have taken their denarius and gone home contented. As the owner later points out, they received the benefit of their bargain. They are taking home a living wage for a day’s work. Their wages seem disagreeable to them only because they have witnessed payment of the same amount made to those hired last. For this reason only their wages look small and miserly. In reality, the first hired are offended not so much by their own pay as by the owner’s generous treatment of those workers that, in their view, had not earned it. This is the “Jonah” complaint in an economic context.

The owner’s strange management of labor in his vineyard is in fact how the kingdom of heaven operates. Fruitful labor for a living wage is available for all who seek it. To put it into the language of the Lord’s Prayer, daily bread is provided for all. The problem is that people want more than daily bread. That is why it is so hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:23-26. They want and expect more than daily bread. For the rich, a heavenly kingdom where all have enough to see them through each day-and no more-would be a hellish existence. So who is included among these “rich”? Who are the laborers who feel cheated? All of us, I suppose, who have more than what we need to live on today and remain unsatisfied. I believe one reason that the specter of socialism is bandied about to such great effect by political leaders has to do with our deep sense of entitlement to the fruits of our labor. I am entitled to the value of my labor (which always seems undervalued by my employer!) and nobody is entitled to anything that has not been earned. Though public assistance is hardly a significant piece of our tax burden, we still seem hell bent on cutting it because there is something deep inside us that cannot abide a person getting what they have not “earned.”

We are also uncomfortable with this parable because it challenges the gospel of wealth that permeates our culture. America is the land of opportunity, we believe, where anyone with enough determination and grit can get rich. In fact, the gap between rich and poor is growing in our land as it is globally. Those folks who are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet would find it hard to believe that they are not working hard enough. But the problem is not merely that the American dream isn’t working. The larger problem is that, even if it did work, our lives would still be running amuck. Pursuit of wealth is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It selfishly demands more than God promises and winds up settling for much less. It rests on the false assumption that the world is a shrinking pie and my well-being depends on grabbing the biggest piece and guarding it jealously.

The parable of the vineyard, in addition to exposing our selfish, thankless and proud imaginings, also points to an alternative economics. It testifies to the possibility of an economy that maximizes human well-being rather than financial gain; gives priority to the needs of all rather than the luxuries of the few; harvests the fruits of the earth rather than exploiting and poisoning them.

Before leaving this parable, I want to share an additional take on it from Professor Stanley Hauerwas: “It is particularly important for Gentile Christians to remember that as heirs of the promise to Israel we are the last hired. The decisive commentary on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness to Israel developed in Romans 9-11. Paul writes to the Gentile Christians to insist that God’s promise to Israel remains in effect. Israel has stumbled on the stumbling block that is Jesus, but it has done so that salvation may come to the Gentiles (11:11-12). Accordingly, no account of the church, of those last hired, can ever be intelligible without the story of Israel, and those who are the inheritors of that story, the Jews.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brozos Press) p. 176.

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Sunday, September 14th

HOLY CROSS DAY

Numbers 21:4b–9
Psalm 98:1–4
Romans 14:1–12
John 3:13–17

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross so that he might draw the whole world to himself. To those who look upon the cross, grant your wisdom, healing, and eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Holy Cross Day originated with the dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem in 335 C.E. This church was built by the Emperor Constantine on the site of what he believed to be the tomb of Jesus. Constantine’s rise and eventual domination of the Roman Empire marked a turning point for the church. Whereas before the church had been an illegal sect surviving on the margins of the empire, now under Constantine’s patronage the church was being placed on a trajectory that would ultimately lead to its becoming the official imperial religion. Given my ambivalence over this development and its consequences for the church’s theology and practice, I am more inclined to mark this day with sackcloth and ashes than with the “spirit of celebration” called for in the annual worship guide published by my denomination. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to ignore the day altogether and observe the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost instead. Obviously, I have opted to observe Holy Cross Day and preach on the lessons appointed for that occasion. I have made one exception, however. I will retain the reading from Romans appointed for Pentecost 14 rather than the Holy Cross reading at I Corinthians 1:18-24.

It is remarkable how within the space of half a century the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror employed against its enemies, became the honored symbol of its official faith. Even the staunchest critic of “Christendom” cannot fail to acknowledge the rich cultural, social and political contributions of the church to the development of what we have come to call “Western Civilization.” But equally as well, the champions of Christendom can hardly ignore the price of imperial cooption. Whatever potential for dialogue and reconciliation between the church and the synagogue remained at the dawn of the 4th Century died when Christianity became the faith of the realm. In its infancy, the church had only its witness and proclamation with which to battle its opponents. Yet even so, it experienced remarkable success in persuading them. By the time Islam came on the scene, the church’s interests were so thoroughly aligned with those of the empire that it had nothing more than the sword with which to do battle. Sadly, that mode of hostile confrontation has dominated the church’s relationship with Islam ever since. It became increasingly difficult for the church to identify with the marginalized who were of special concern to Jesus while occupying center stage in the drama of world domination. Gradually, the church’s mission drifted further away from being a radical alternative to empire and began to understand its role as constituting the moral underpinning for imperial society. That is why most European countries still have the cross somewhere in their flags.

This Constantinian understanding of the church is still dominant even in our own nation whose constitution draws a distinct line between church and state. A substantial percentage (perhaps a majority) of Americans would probably answer affirmatively if asked whether the United States is a Christian country. What this means to any one individual is anybody’s guess. But I suspect it means that our country is founded and held together by Christian morals. It follows, then, that the church is somehow responsible for ensuring that these morals are upheld for the good of society.

The church, however, was simply not designed to be an organ of the Roman Empire or any nation state. Its ethics were not created for ordering society, but for forming the mind of Christ among communities of disciples. The absurdity of making the cross a symbol of imperial faith becomes clear when you try to imagine an American congregation suspending a hangman’s noose over the altar in place of the cross. I can only imagine the shock, horror and outrage a stunt like that would inspire. Yet that is precisely the reaction the cross should inspire and would-if it had not been robbed of its symbolic content by years of imperial honor and adoration. This week I was reading an article on a blog maintained by one of a growing number of angry young atheists. After reciting a litany of abuses she had suffered at the hands of Christians, this atheist concluded with dripping sarcasm, “but what can you expect of a religion that has an instrument of torture as its chief symbol.” I think this young atheist unwittingly handed us a complement, albeit one that we have not rightly earned. She seems to assume that we fully understand what the cross is; that we remember what it was used for; and that we knowingly worship a man who received the death sentence upon it. Sadly, we don’t deserve credit for such presumed awareness. The cross has become a benign ornament suitable for use in jewelry, graphic design and road markers for traffic fatalities in some states. I could wish more Christians were as clear about the scandal of the cross as this atheist!

I am observing Holy Cross Sunday because it affords me an opportunity to talk about the cross. Now that the age of Christendom is drawing to a close and the church is finding itself at the margins once again, perhaps we are finally in a position to re-discover the power of the cross and the return to proclaiming the reign of God rather than frantically trying to prop up the reign of Caesar.

Numbers 21:4b–9

Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.

Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.

After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.

More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.

What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.

Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon worship and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.

That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.

Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.

Psalm 98:1–4

Like Psalm 96 and Psalm 97 before it, this psalm calls upon all peoples and nations to join with the rest of the created world in giving praise to the God of Israel. The command to “sing a new song” echoes Isaiah 42:10 where the prophet joyfully proclaims a way of return from exile in Babylon requiring fresh songs of praise. “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” Isaiah 42:9. Newness is a recurring theme in the New Testament as well: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5.

Notice the refrain of “victory” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The Hebrew word translated as “victory” is actually from the root “Yeshua” or “salvation,” the root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vs. 3. Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480. Still, Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory. Her song is an overture to the symphony of the new creation.

The victory or salvation of God is, according to the New Testament witness, accomplished through the cross of Jesus Christ. Victory is therefore demilitarized and shown to be, not retributive justice over the enemy, but suffering love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. It is through the “folly” of love which endures even the cross in order to embrace the world that the world is finally saved.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 98 in its entirety.

Romans 14:1–12

Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.

It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”

We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.

John 3:13–17

For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, see my post from Sunday, March 16th. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.

The reference to Moses is our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents in the wilderness found healing through looking toward the bronze snake fashioned by Moses and set up on a pole. In the same way, the Son of Man lifted up on the cross will be the One to whom all look for salvation from sin and for the gift of eternal life. The cross, it should be remembered, was the most shameful and humiliating form of execution practiced in the Roman Empire (to say nothing of painful!). That crucifixion could be equated with exaltation must have seemed no less incredible to Nicodemus than rebirth. Yet that is the theme of John’s gospel which speaks repeatedly about Jesus’ crucifixion as his glorification. The cross of Christ is the Glory of Christ precisely because it demonstrates concretely what the well-known John 3:16 means by telling us that God to gave “his only begotten Son.” God’s love for the world costs God dearly.

I also want to put in a good word for the lesser known John 3:17: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Too much religion, much of it going under the Christian label, does indeed give the impression, if it does not say outright, that God is in the business of condemnation. I wish I could say that such notions were limited to fringe groups which, thankfully, are a small minority if also a noisy one. Too often this year I have had members of my own church ask me whether, through the extreme weather we have seen this year, “God is trying to tell us something.” Where do they get such ideas? Not from me I hope! The cross is the final hermeneutic for discerning God’s will. Do you really think that the God who refused to take revenge for the murder of his own Son would send a hurricane and take the lives of hundreds of people because of the way some of them have sex? Would the God who would not send in the heavenly Marines to save his own Son from an unjust death lose his temper and smite a nation for broadcasting four letter words? If God were going to inflict a catastrophic judgment of retribution on the world for sin, he surely would have done it on Good Friday. But God did not retaliate then. God won’t retaliate at all. That is not God’s way.

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Sunday, September 7th

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 33:7–11
Psalm 119:33–40
Romans 13:8–14
Matthew 18:15–20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I can’t remember witnessing or even hearing about an excommunication taking place in any of the churches in which I grew up-unless you include under that rubric periodic removal from the membership rolls folks who moved out of town without bothering to transfer their membership. We knew there was sin in our midst. My mother used to talk about a small, quiet and anxious woman I will call Molly. She frequently came to church with bruises on her face and neck. When asked about her injuries Molly would blush, look down and try to joke about how clumsy she was. Of course, everyone strongly suspected abuse. But back in the late fifties and early sixties, that was considered a private family matter. So too with a garrulous doctor who belonged to our church. It was clear to everyone on any given Sunday that he had come to church on the strength of a hearty liquid breakfast. Nevertheless, because he was retired from practice, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with the effect his drinking might have on his patients. The doctor’s drinking was his own personal business. We knew that he had recently lost his wife and had experienced many other difficulties throughout his life. Who were we to judge?

To be fair, the extent and severity of problems like domestic violence and substance abuse were not as fully appreciated back in the 50s and 60s. Pastors and lay leaders were not well trained to spot such problems and the resources available today for dealing with them did not exist back then. Still, it seems to me that Matthew’s declaration of God’s concern that none of his “little ones” be lost and Paul’s insistence that disciples of Jesus owe one another a debt of love ought to have moved us to intervene.

In all my thirty plus years of ministry I have never been involved in the excommunication of anyone, but I have witnessed any number of self-excommunications from the churches to which I have belonged. Or perhaps I should say that my churches have been excommunicated by their members on numerous occasions. These excommunications have been triggered by matters as weighty as doctrinal disagreements and as petty as changes to the arrangement of furniture in narthex. But it always involves individuals getting upset with the church and leaving or, in ecclesiological terminology, breaking communion with the Body of Christ.

I doubt that most people who leave the church in this way view their action as self-excommunication. The church in our culture is only one more provider of services to a consumer society. If you don’t like the variety of goods or the prices at Walmart, there is always K-Mart. Churches are viewed in much the same way. There is one on every corner and they are all competing for a shrinking supply of members. It’s a buyer’s market. It makes sense to go where you get the biggest bang for your buck.

I can’t help wondering whether the church’s reluctance to exercise church discipline and the readiness of its members to self-excommunicate are not rooted in the same malady. Because we do not understand our churches as the Body of Christ, we are not sufficiently concerned with the brokenness of our individual members. For that same reason, we see no adverse implications in separating ourselves from the Body of which we are a part. We view it all as a matter of individual choice based on personal preferences. I think that both Paul and Matthew would be horrified by this state of numbness at which we have arrived. As the Body of Christ, the church should feel pain when its individual members are hurting. Similarly, it ought to hurt a member of that church like hell when s/he severs him/herself from the rest of the Body-unless, of course, we are simply dealing with a corpse.

The lessons for this week paint a portrait of the people of God as a living Body. It is an imperfect Body, yet it is always in the process of growing up into the image of its Head. It is a wounded Body, yet always in the process of reconciliation and healing. This Body often fails to live up to its identity. It struggles with sin, selfishness and failure. This Body is often afflicted with suffering, pain and sadness. But this Body is nevertheless alive. It is never numb or indifferent. May the Spirit of God continue to breathe life into that Body of him whom God the Father raised from death!

Ezekiel 33:7–11

Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

The image of the prophet as “watchman” or “sentinel” is a common one. Vs. 7. Cf. Isaiah 21:6; Jeremiah 6:17. For a walled city located near a hostile frontier, the sentinel served as an early warning system. The fate of the city might well depend on the sentinel’s ability to detect and warn the city’s defenders of an approaching enemy. His failure to sound the alarm might seal the city’s doom. So also the prophet bears a heavy responsibility for warning the people about the consequences of their sinful and self-destructive behavior. As grave as the people’s sin would be the prophet’s failure to denounce it in their hearing.

Verses 10-11 indicate that the people have gotten the message loud and clear. “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” vs. 10. This is no vain question. We all know there are sins that leave lasting scars upon us and others. Sometimes a relationship is so deeply wounded by unfaithfulness and betrayal that it can never be healed. Yet that is not the case for Israel and her covenant relationship with her God. The door is open for Israel’s return. This section of Ezekiel, then, prepares the way for the promises and visions that will be the burden of the last part of the book. Jenson, Robert, W., Ezekiel, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert W. Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 254.

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Vs. 11. Yet so much of our cinematic entertainment is grounded in just such pleasure. That is so, I believe, because cinematic art is capable of flattening and simplifying our universe in such a way as to eliminate moral ambiguity. On the screen, evil people are so thoroughly evil and devoid of humanity that their destruction hardly counts even as justifiable homicide. Conflicts lack the historical baggage, cultural subtleties and ethical conundrums plaguing non-virtual, flesh and blood confrontations between individuals, groups and nations. One might argue that, while this is all true, we are dealing here with entertainment. Of course the real world is too varied and complex to fit into a two hour movie. The stage can never replicate life, but only show us a glimmer of it. Yet, be that as it may, when a popular genre generates repeatedly and consistently stories of conflict that admit of no other solution than violence, it can easily start to color the way we process the real world. Worse still, it can distort our view of the scriptures and the character of our God.

John Correia, preacher at an Arizona church, said in a recent article: “What fuels my passion for guns and self defense? First and foremost my Christian faith.” Read the entire article if you wish. Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up. He goes on to say, “I wish everyone got along, I wish that everybody was nice, but they’re not. And until we get into that perfect world where Jesus comes again, we need to be able to protect ourselves and in Luke 22:36 I believe Jesus said ‘let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.’” Though Jesus did say that, he went on to rebuke his disciples when they took him literally as did Pastor Correia. Luke 22:38. Moreover, rather than allow his disciples to use their swords in self defense or in his own defense, Jesus told them to cease fighting immediately and even healed the man they had injured. Luke 22:49-51. If that passage is the best defense the good pastor can put up in support of righteous gun violence, he is firing blanks. It would appear that his Bible is missing a few key chapters-such as the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor Correia is said to have remarked that the only way he would ever willingly give up his firearms was if Jesus personally told him to do so. Well, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52. Seems clear enough to me.

But I digress. The point here is that, once we adopt a world view in which good and evil are neatly divided and the only possible resolution to conflict is violence, we are likely to ignore or simply lose our ability to hear the voice of Jesus in the scriptures. Instead of conforming our lives to the scriptures as interpreted by the cross, we trivialize the cross, treat it as a special case that applied only once and only to Jesus and order our lives by the lights of John Wayne, Chuck Norris or some more moderate philosophy of “realism.” The God of Israel would have us know that this is not how he does business, nor is it the way he would have his people behave. God would have us deal as patiently and forgivingly with our enemies as God dealt with us “while we were enemies” of God. See Romans 5:10.

Psalm 119:33–40

Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.

I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40.

Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”

This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.

Romans 13:8–14

The term “owe no one anything” is a conventional expression for freedom from both monetary and social obligation. Jewett, Robert, Romans, a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 Fortress Press) p. 805. This admonition, deeply rooted as it is in Paul’s concept of the Church as Christ’s Body, is more than mere practical advice. As noted in my post for Sunday August 31st, the Roman Empire was a hierarchical society held together by networks of patronage and social obligation with the emperor seated at the apex. Caesar was Lord. The church, however, recognized not Caesar but Jesus as Lord. The social order dictating the terms under which the disciple lived was not that of the empire, but that of the church. Discipleship, then, was radically counter-cultural and deeply subversive.

Again, some commentators have criticized Paul for being too parochial here in focusing the love command upon the church community rather than all humankind. Such criticism, however, presupposes a Constantinian ecclesiology in which an institutional church serves as the moral conscience of a largely Christian society. That same outlook still serves as the unquestioned underpinning both for liberal Protestantism’s social advocacy and right wing Evangelical social conservative initiatives. Each in their own way are attempting to “Christianize” America. Only their platforms differ. Paul, by contrast, understood the church not as an instrument to bring about a kinder, gentler empire, but as a radical alternative to Rome.

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog with any consistently that I favor serious rethinking of our ecclesiology and mission as we find ourselves in the post-modern, post-Constantinian context. The conversations we need to be having revolve not over which legislative initiatives to support, but how we live together as church in a way that mirrors the kingdom of heaven. Religion that does no more than help people cope with the dehumanizing conditions of life under late stage capitalism is not worth spit. A church richly deserves extinction if does no more than issue preachy-screechy social statements, mobilize its membership to support legislative tweaks to a brutally oppressive and unsustainable economic system while asking/offering no more to its members than an hour on Sunday with a tithe.

Will churches modeling the counter-cultural example of Paul’s congregations or the community described in the Book of Acts “change the world?” Well, they will not bring in the kingdom of heaven. At best, they can only witness to it. But if we can simply plant the idea in peoples’ heads that there is an alternative to a life of wage slavery so soul numbing and stressful that you need four weeks of vacation just to cope with it, if we demonstrate that medical care need not be controlled by profit driven corporations and administered by strangers in an alien environment, if we can build communities where security is not dependent upon the dubious integrity of insurers and investment bankers, but grounded in networks of caring relationships, who knows? The church might once again turn the world upside down.

Love fulfills the law. Vs. 10. As indicated in the previous paragraph, “love” is not an abstract principle for Paul. “No, the appropriate social context of the love ethic in this section is the small Christian congregations in Rome, and, more concretely, the love feasts and sacramental celebrations in which members shared their resources. Pervo, Richard I, “Panta Koina: the Feeding Stories in the Light of Economic Data and Social Practice” published in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament Word: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (c. 1994 Nov/TSup 74 Leiden: Brill) p. 192, cited in Jewett, supra, at 807. It is with this understanding in mind that we interpret Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth concerning its failure to “discern the Body” in its Eucharistic celebrations. Where each person “goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another drunk” (I Corinthians 11:21), the community is not living as a Body in which the needs of each part are honored and provided for. See I Corinthians 12:12-31. There is no distinction between Eucharistic sharing and “social ministry.” Sharing of resources to ensure the well-being of all is no more an act of “charity” than is the heart’s pumping of blood to the rest of the body. Love is the concrete act of having all things in common. That does not necessarily imply communal living or “common purse” communities. Conventions governing property ownership vary from age to age and culture to culture. At a bare minimum, however, the church must see to it that the basic needs for food, shelter and healing are met for all its members. To do less than this is to fail to discern the Body.

Matthew 18:15–20

This passage is cited in just about every congregational constitution I have ever read, usually under the rubrics of “church discipline.” A similar procedure is alluded to by Paul in II Corinthians 13:1. Unfortunately, the passage has frequently been interpreted as a provision to protect the purity of the church. Nothing could be further from Matthew’s intent. In fact, the concern here is for the erring sister or brother. Precisely because Jesus declares “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14) that every effort must be made to prevent conduct rupturing the community and alienating its members. For this reason, sin must first be addressed individually by the one perceiving it with an eye toward reconciliation/repentance. Only when this step fails is it permissible to bring other individuals into the matter. Where reconciliation cannot be achieved with the assistance of two or three additional persons, the matter must then be brought before the church for resolution. Severance of ties between the sinner and the community is a measure of last resort. Moreover, even this drastic step of treating the sinner as a tax collector has in view the objective of winning the estranged member back to the community. Outcasts and tax collectors are not lost causes, but special objects of Jesus’ mercy and compassion. See also, I Corinthians 5:5; II Corinthians 2:5-7.

A further practical caution is in order here. Not every annoying habit, inconsiderate act or careless utterance by someone in the congregation merits this disciplinary procedure. Unless sin rises to the level at which it threatens to rupture the unity of the church or alienate one of its members, it should be borne with patience, understanding and forgiveness. The church was never intended to be a community of the perfect, but rather a congregation of sinners being perfected by the faithful practice of living together under a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7.

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