Archive for June, 2015
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of the covenant, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I am not a progressive. It’s not that I don’t believe in progress. My problem is that I am not capable of recognizing it. For that reason, I don’t share the confident 19th Century faith in the inevitable improvement of humanity through the workings of democratic government that still animates so much of American Protestantism-at least the mainline variety. Democracy gave us the Nazis as well as Lincoln. Those who follow me will not be surprised to learn that I am thrilled with last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. But is that progress? From my perspective, yes. It makes the United States of America a more just and humane society. But I am not convinced that God’s agenda is tied into the evolution of American society. For all I know, in the grand scheme of things, America might be an obstacle to God’s ultimate redemptive purpose for the earth. God might very well be fixing to remove the United States from the arena of history through conquest or imperial implosion. That would likely render moot all of the great social achievements of which we are so proud.
If that sounds a bit harsh, it is surely no more drastic than God’s employing the Babylonian Empire to bring an end to the house of David and the kingdom of Judah. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile that followed did not look much like progress to most of the people of Israel. From their perspective, it was hard to see these events as anything other than the end. Existence as God’s people was unimaginable for Israel apart from the land God had given her, the temple guaranteeing God’s presence in her midst and the Davidic line that was supposed to last forever. Only the prophetic imagination of folks like Ezekiel could see in this disaster the seeds of a new beginning.
I am not a prophet. Thus, I have no idea whether the development of American society in any particular direction (or at all) represents progress or not. I don’t know what time it is in the grand scheme of things or what God is up to in the geopolitical realm. That does not mean that I am resigned to ethical paralysis, however. Jeremiah counseled the Babylonian exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they had been taken, for in its welfare they would find their own. Jeremiah 29:7. I believe that counsel is sound for the church in the United States as well. There is much in this country that is good, life giving and worthy of preservation. There is, I believe, a “common good” toward which all Americans, including disciples of Jesus, should strive, however much we might argue over the shape of that good and the means of achieving it. But the reign of God is not the same as the common good and might very well be adverse to it. The parables of Jesus, Mary’s Magnificat and the visions of the prophets foretell not reform, but revolution. While our good works might well bring about a measure of social improvement, they cannot deliver a new heaven and a new earth. That will require a radical dissolution of the status quo and the restructuring of human/divine/ecological relationships.
Furthermore, I am wary of trusting progress, even when I think I recognize it, because I know that it is neither inevitable nor permanent. Today we see dramatic growth in the acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. We have seen the election and re-election of an African American president-something I did not expect to see in my lifetime. Yet the numerous shootings of young black men in recent years and the horrific murder of black worshipers at Mother Emanuel in Charleston remind us how often the demon we think we’ve exercised comes back with seven others more evil than itself. History is filled with stories of great civilizations that have descended into barbarism. The gains we think we have made are fragile. We dare not assume that decisions of the Supreme Court, enactment of legislative reforms or changes in public opinion are permanent hedges against hatred and bigotry. Ours would not be the first society to allow its gains and achievements to be swept away in pursuit of nationalistic goals or by the false promises of some tyrannical demagogue. At the turn of the last century, Germany was among the most accepting of Jewish people among European nations-until the day it wasn’t.
So while I do believe in human progress, I don’t trust it. The only reliable anchor for faith is the “yes” to all of God’s promises, our Lord Jesus Christ. “Fear not little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32. Confidence in those words makes it possible to continue the good work of mercy, compassion and justice, even when we aren’t making any progress.
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 Book of Ezekiel opens with a tough assignment for the prophet. He is sent to speak a word to people that don’t want to hear it, won’t listen to it and might even resist it violently. Vss. 3-4. He has got to tell the people that there will be no divine deliverance for Jerusalem this time as there was in the days of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 36-37; II Kings 18:13-19:37; II Chronicles 32:1-23. The Babylonian invasion is God’s judgment on a rebellious and recalcitrant people. Resistance is futile. In repentance alone lies Judah’s last hope. Neither king nor people are having any of that. They are determined to hold out for a miracle.
If you have ever had the experience of having to say “no” to your teenager or, as a teenager, you have tried to move mom or dad from “don’t even start with me” to “yes,” then you know how hard Ezekiel’s job was. Once people get dug into a position, they are not inclined to move. The harder you try to push them off of it, the more tenaciously they cling. It seems as though God the irresistible force is pressing against Judah the immovable object and poor Ezekiel is caught in the middle. God does not seem to have much confidence that the word spoken to Judah will be received. Nevertheless, as a result of Ezekiel’s ministry, Judah will know that God’s prophet has been among them.
Perhaps the good news here comes from the mere fact that we have these words from Ezekiel at all. Obviously, the people of Judah finally did recognize that there had been a true prophet among them during those last dark days of Jerusalem. Clearly, the words of Ezekiel declaring God’s judgment helped the Jewish exiles begin to make sense of the terrible thing that had happened to them. In all probability, this recognition did not come until long after the destruction of Jerusalem and very likely after Ezekiel’s death. The prophet may never have seen the fruit of his ministry.
This should bring some comfort to those of us who have preached, taught Sunday School, led youth ministry or spearheaded stewardship for congregations with dwindling membership and resources. Like everyone else, I like to be assured that what I do is making a difference. I tend to look for that confirmation in measurable results-something I can express with positive numbers on my annual parish parochial report. But the results I am looking for might not have anything to do with what God is working to achieve. If God needs to destroy the existing infrastructure of the church I serve-just as God needed to destroy the monarchy, priesthood and land occupation of Israel-in order to make something altogether new, then my lust for “measurable results” shoring up the old order constitutes rebellion. It is not about results. It is about faithfulness. God will see to the results.
I understand that this argument can be invoked to rationalize failure and provide cover for laziness and incompetence on the part of clergy and lay leaders alike. I am not suggesting that the church should be resigned to failure, only that it should not be driven by fear of failure. I do not mean to say that the faithfulness, competence and diligence of ministers cannot or should not be evaluated, but only that the evaluation should not be made on the basis of “measurable results.” The principal standard governing ministry is faithfulness to the Word. Such faithfulness calls for devotion, sacrifice and ceaseless striving. Results of such ministry may or may not be measurable, but will surely further the redemptive purposes of God.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a group of psalms of which it is a part (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of this title has not been established beyond doubt. The title is thought by a number of scholars to mean that the group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. E.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 114. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the post-exilic pilgrimage tradition. E.g., Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 100.
The psalm begins as a personal individual lament. The psalmist makes a humble affirmation of faith in God. In verses 3-4 the psalm continues as a communal plea for deliverance from oppression. This could be a plea on behalf of Israel as a whole or an oppressed group within Israel. Either way, it is clear that the psalmist/s are subject to oppression and contempt by “those who are at ease” and the “proud.”
It is difficult for me to pray this psalm. I have never been held in contempt (though I came close a few times while practicing law). On the whole, I have been relatively at ease in the land, despite the so called “war on Christianity.” See my post of Sunday, May 31, 2015. Nobody has ever detained me, asked for my citizenship papers or inhibited my ability to speak my mind or worship freely. So this psalm seems not to apply to me personally. But then again, being a disciple of Jesus is never just a personal thing, is it? There are other parts of the Body of Christ that live under grinding poverty. There are places in the world where simply being a follower of Jesus places one in jeopardy. There are disciples living in war zones, refugee camps and prisons whose lives are in constant danger. They are no doubt praying this prayer or one like it. So too, I think, the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in South Carolina might well pray this prayer with conviction. What is more peaceful than prayer, or more violent and warlike than shooting those who engage in it?
So should I not be joined in this prayer with them? In fact, is not more than prayer required here? Recall how, in last week’s lesson from II Corinthians, Paul reminded the Corinthian Church that where one church has a surplus, it should be applied to any other having a deficit. So the psalm poses the question: How can disciples like us, who are “at ease in the land,” use our wealth, position and influence to meet the needs of those “who have seen more than enough of contempt” and “scorn?”
This is without doubt one of the most fascinating and difficult Pauline passages in the New Testament. Again, we are a little embarrassed by Paul here. That, I think, is why the folks who prepare the readings have clipped off verse 1 of chapter 12 which reads: “I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Paul has already delivered a laundry list of his many accomplishments, his many sacrifices for the work of the Gospel and the suffering he has endured. II Corinthians 11:21-29. If you have been reading the last couple of chapters, you are by now probably a little sick of Paul. I think there is no getting around the fact that Paul had some serious personality deficits. He was arrogant and prone to boasting. He also comes off as a little hypersensitive, tending to take a lot of things far too personally. I have noticed that these two personality defects often come together. Yet it is precisely this-and the fact that Paul is very self-aware-that makes the man so endearing. At the end of his unabashed boasting that climaxes in an account of a profound mystical experience, he goes on to say that God afflicted him with “a thorn in the flesh.” Vs. 7. There has been no end of speculation as to what that thorn was. Some of that makes for fascinating reading. See Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) pp. 548-550. Yet for all of the erudite speculation put forward by eminent scholars, speculation is still just speculation. We don’t know whether Paul suffered from a physical ailment, a moral weakness or some spiritual/emotional struggle. Whatever the case may be, it was of sufficient severity that it kept Paul’s inflated ego in check. Paul recognizes that it is this very weakness that has made him realize how he must rely solely on God’s grace and mercy. The power of God, Paul knows, is made perfect in weakness, in vulnerability and in the recognition that we have nothing but what is given to us. Without that thorn, whatever it was, could Paul have reached such a profound understanding and acceptance of God’s grace?
Like Paul, I struggle with my own thorns and limitations. I often wish the quality of my voice were richer, more powerful-more like James Earl Jones and less like Woody Allen. I wish I had a more impressive physical presence-which is another way of saying I wish I were less of a geek. I wish I could stop blinking. Life and ministry would be easier if I were not such an introvert. I could name perhaps a dozen other changes I long to make to myself that, in my opinion, would make me a more effective minister. But highly effective ministers typically face highly charged temptations. How many powerful and charismatic preachers can you name that have been brought down by scandal of one kind or another? Maybe pride is a vocational liability for preachers. As Mac Davis says (or sings): “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” Neither Paul nor I come close to perfection and it is still hard to be humble. Since humility is essential to faithful ministry, perhaps it is a good thing that we are so far from perfect. Maybe it is better to have a few thorns keeping the helium from inflating your head than to experience a spectacular explosion and fall from high altitude. I cannot imagine how insufferable we would be if, God forbid, either Paul or I ever achieved perfection. Perhaps flawed, imperfect and broken people make better ministers than would the perfect people we would like to make of ourselves.
The Gospel lesson appears to be paired with the lesson from Ezekiel. Here, too, the prophet (Jesus) is met with hostility and skepticism. I must confess that I don’t understand the opposition Jesus faces in his home town of Nazareth. Jesus has attained rock star popularity throughout Galilee. He cannot go into a town without collecting mobs of people. You would think that Nazareth would welcome its famous son with a parade down Main Street. After all, Jesus put Nazareth on the map. Even today, would anyone know about Nazareth if it were not for Jesus of Nazareth? Yet so far from welcoming him, the people of Nazareth treat him with contempt. “Who do you think you are? What is so special about you? We know your people and they aren’t anything special. So where do you get off teaching in our synagogue as though you were some sort of celebrity?”
Perhaps this coolness toward Jesus in Nazareth goes back to chapter 3 where his family, assuming him to be insane, came out to take charge of him. Mark 3:20-35. When they send word that they have arrived and would like to see Jesus, Jesus responds by asking: “Who are my mother and brothers?” He then goes on to explain that his true family consists of all who obey the Word of God. Mark 3:31-35. So in effect, Jesus has repudiated family ties for the new loyalties created by the reign of God. Family ties run deep in small agricultural towns. Each family has long tentacles that penetrate other families and embrace the entire community. These ties are the stuff that binds a town together. When you cut them, you sever the blood vessels of the whole community. It may well be that Jesus is now experiencing the fallout from the encounter with his family back in chapter 3. If loyalty to the Kingdom of God requires one to renounce or at least subjugate family and clan loyalties, then a prophet who preaches the Kingdom in his own back yard is likely to earn a good deal of hostility.
In the next part of the lesson, Jesus sends the Twelve Disciples he selected back in chapter 3 (Mark 3:13-19) out in twos. He does not give them specific instructions, but he does give them authority over unclean spirits. They are charged to bring with them no provisions whatsoever, but to depend upon the hospitality of the towns to which they are sent. We are told in crisp, succinct Markan fashion that they “preached that men should repent and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.” Vss. 12-13.
What I find striking here is that the disciples are dependent upon the hospitality of strangers. The sharing of hospitality and meal fellowship is an intimate act-usually restricted to family and clan. One does not go into the home of sinners to eat with them. But Jesus’ disciples are sent out to question that proposition, as indeed Jesus himself already has. Repentance means breaking away from learned patterns of behavior and acculturation to embrace the openness and generosity of God’s table which is open to all. In return, the disciples are commanded to make available to all people the blessings of God’s reign in the form of casting out unclean spirits and healing. The gospel lesson thus provides a necessary counterpoint to the warnings about rejection and persecution. Disciples are also to anticipate hospitality and welcome.
Note well that it appears there was no formal education to prepare these disciples for their ministry. They were not authorized by any ecclesiastical authority other than Jesus. There was no “mission feasibility” study done in advance; no demographic research done to ascertain the racial, ethnic and cultural makeup of the target populations. Needless to say, if we in the church had been in charge of this mission, it would never have happened. Thanks be to God we were not in charge. And very great thanks be to God that we still are not in charge!
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and merciful God, we implore you to hear the prayers of your people. Be our strong defense against all harm and danger, that we may live and grow in faith and hope, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Mourning and lament are part and parcel of our lessons for Sunday. Our first lesson comes to us from a book bearing the very name of lament. Our psalm speaks of joyous deliverance from mourning and sorrow. In the gospel lesson Jesus enters into the sorrow of a bereaved family. Not until you are immersed in anguish of this kind is it possible to appreciate the comfort and salvation Jesus brings. But mourning and lamentation are not a part of our national DNA. In reflecting on the mindset of the church in North America and its tendency to neglect in its worship the biblical Psalms of lament, Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann observes, “It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 51. In his view, “the reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture.” Ibid. Our relentless cheerfulness is, in fact, an exercise in denial.
Nowhere is such denial more evident than in our society’s failure to acknowledge and come to grips with the reality of racism. One would think that after Walter Scott had been shot eight times in the back while fleeing a police officer in Charleston; after seventeen year old Justus Howell had similarly been shot in the back by police in Chicago just three hours later; after Freddy Gray of Baltimore had been beaten to death in police custody; after Eric Garner had been killed in a police chokehold; after Trayvon Martin had been shot to death by a vigilante; and after unarmed Michael Brown was shot multiple times by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; after all of that we should all be connecting the dots. But there continues to be a significant sector of society in stark denial. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh addressing the Brown shooting blamed not racism, but the media for “perpetuat[ing] myths in Ferguson because what happened is not common, it does not happen all the time, and yet this story is being covered and treated by everybody involved as though it goes on so much that we’ve had our fill of it… the only problem is it isn’t happening; it is irregular when this happens. It does not happen.” In much the same vein, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani insists that black men are killed by white police officers not because they are black, but because they are inherently more violent. Really folks, this is not about race. We’re over all that.
Frankly, I thought that argument was put to rest once and for all last week when white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into an historic black church with links to African Americans’ struggle for freedom predating the Civil War and shot dead nine African American worshipers making clear his intent to ignite a race war. Racism does not get any more explicit than that. Yet incredibly, Fox News expressed doubts about the racial motives of the shooter as well as the characterization of the shooting as a hate crime, suggesting instead that the killing was more properly understood as another battle in the so called “war on Christianity.” See my post of Sunday, May 31, 2015. The Wall Street Journal ran an article confidently stating that “the U.S., notably the South, has moved forward to replace the system that enabled racist killings like those in the Birmingham church [of 1963].” Finally, in what can only be described as a bizarre article and subsequent interview, Fox contributor Erick Erickson blamed Caitlyn Jenner for the violence in Charleston. “A society that looks at a 65 year old male Olympian and, with a straight face, declares him a her and ‘a new normal’ cannot have a conversation about mental health or evil because that society no longer distinguishes normal from crazy and evil from good,” he wrote. Don’t bother trying to re-read it. It won’t make any more sense the second time through. It will just make your head hurt.
If there is any value to repeating the above denials, it lies only in exposing their emptiness. Clearly, for anyone willing to acknowledge the facts, it is evident that our nation is mired in systemic racism of epic proportions. While the Charleston shooter was admittedly a fringe character, he was enabled, encouraged and incited by cultural enclaves in which racist epitaphs, stereotypes and jokes permeate routine conversation. Revelations from the recent investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri police force in the wake of the Brown shooting demonstrate that these enclaves are not limited to isolated bars, gangs or extremist political groups. They are ensconced in state, local and federal government as well as business and civic organizations. Racism is very much alive and well in the United States this Twenty-First Century.
To be fair, Fox News was not entirely wrong in calling the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston an attack on Christianity. It was just that. As disciples of Jesus, we confess that through baptism into Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God and enlisted in Christ’s mission of reconciliation. The good news of Jesus Christ destroys all divisive barriers between “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female” and of course black and white. Racism is nothing less than a sinful attempt to maintain and fortify those divisive walls that Jesus died to abolish. As such, it is a direct assault on the Gospel.
A word or two about the book of Lamentations is in order. It is not a book we hear from very often in the ordinary course of our Sunday readings. Because it does not contain any stories, it does not often find its way into our Sunday School curriculum. It is a short book that you can easily overlook when casually paging though the Bible. So it is entirely possible that you have never heard of the Book of Lamentations. For a brief but thorough overview of this book, see the Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
As the name suggests, this book is a collection of laments, that is, prayers in which the Jewish people pour out their sorrow and pain to God. There are many such prayers found in the Psalms as well. Generally speaking, they follow a common format:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vs. 1.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 2
- Expression of confidence, vss. 3.
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 4-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. Sometimes, however, laments do not progress beyond the second point, namely, the prayer expressing inward distress. See, e.g., Psalm39, which concludes with a mournful plea for God to “turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” The journey from despair to hope is a long one, often involving a lengthy trek through the darkness before one encounters any signs of light.
The laments in Lamentations express the grief of the Jewish people over the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 587 B.C.E. which resulted in the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of a substantial number of Jews to Babylon. It is hard for us to get our heads around the scope of that catastrophe and what it meant to Israel. I suspect that the Somali refugees struggling to survive in refugee camps throughout the Horn of Africa could probably relate better to the following:
My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite,
until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees.
My eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the young women in my city.
Those who were my enemies without cause have hunted me like a bird;
they flung me alive into a pit and hurled stones on me;
water closed over my head; I said, ‘I am lost.’
Lamenting or giving expression to grief is not part of my northern European constitution. I came from a community in which grief was met with stoic aplomb. My childhood memories of funerals I attended with my folks include hearing remarks such as “She is so brave!” or “He is holding up so well” spoken in hushed tones of admiration and respect. Of course, we were understanding when a widower got a little choked up at the wake and we were forgiving when a widow got a little teary at the last closing of the casket. But bursting into tears, whaling and lamenting would definitely have been considered in poor taste. Worse, it would have been interpreted as a lack of faith in the promise of the resurrection. I don’t suggest for a minute that this is a healthy way to approach grief. But healthy or not, it is the way in which I was acculturated.
By contrast, biblical psalms and prayers of lament acknowledge the reality of what Professor Walter Brueggemann calls “disorientation.” These laments insist “that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” They also insist that all “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52.
Again, it is hard for typical white, middle American protestants like me to imagine living through a catastrophe such as the Babylonian conquest of Judah. Yet there are plenty of personal tragedies so deep, so painful and so life altering that it seems there is no way back. Dissolution of a marriage comes to mind as a good example of disorientating trauma. When all the hopes and expectations you had for a life together go up in smoke, you know there is no going back. You know things will never be the same again, nor will the future you anticipated materialize. You don’t know when the raw pain will end or when life will get back to normal or even what normal will look like should you ever get there. Indeed, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family, friendship and support that allow you to heal, grow and find new opportunities for love.
People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
It is out of such confidence in God’s abiding presence and faithfulness that Israel found the courage to hope when there seemed to be no rational basis for hope. I get the feeling that the author of this text is asserting just such confidence, reciting a tried and true confession of God’s faithfulness even though s/he is not entirely convinced by it. But the question is not whether one believes or not. The question is whether one wants to believe. And if you want to believe God’s promises, then the best thing you can do is “go through the motions,” act as though you actually do believe. Pull yourself out of bed and drag yourself to church even though you don’t feel like singing, praying, making conversation with anyone or, worst of all, listening to another sermon. When church is the last place you want to be, that is probably when you need it most.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. Vs. 1. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. Vs. 2. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. Vs. 5.
The psalmist acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” Vs. 6. It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it does not matter how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.
The psalmist describes how s/he cried out to God for deliverance. Vs. 8. Then s/he aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Vs. 9. Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God.
Verses 11-12 conclude the psalm with thanksgiving to God for reversing the psalmist’s fortunes. Having turned the psalmist’s “mourning into dancing” and having “loosed” the psalmist’s “sackcloth and girded [him/her] with gladness,” God has liberated the psalmist to do that for which s/he was created: giving thanks to God forever. Vs. 12.
This psalm is a striking contrast to the lament in Lamentations. Here we have a person who has come up from the depths, out of the quagmire of despair and back into the light. Whether the psalmist’s problem was sickness, enemies or a combination of both, it is now behind him/her. Still, verses 4-5 of the psalm are remarkably similar to Lamentations 3:31-33. Both psalms emphasize that, in the long run, God can be trusted; that however dark the situation may be, God’s salvation ultimately will see one through. The circumstances, however, are wildly different. The author of the Lamentations psalm prays these words of affirmation in hope while surrounded by impenetrable darkness. The psalmist here prays in the confidence of having seen the faithfulness of God proven in his/her own life experience. The people of God are at all times in both places and everywhere in between. That is why the psalms form such a large part of my devotional life. They speak from so many different levels of human experience that there is bound to be one that fits.
Again, I find myself wondering “what were they thinking?” as I try to figure out how the folks who put together our readings decided to begin and end where they do. What is this “gracious work” Paul is referring too in vs. 7? Read the previous verses and it will become clear that Paul is taking up a collection from the Corinthian church. Most likely, this refers to an offering for the churches in Judea that were experiencing economic difficulties. (Galatians 2:1-10; I Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:25-27). This passage reflects the catholicity of the early church-a community that transcends cultural, regional and national borders. It is this catholicity that made the church such a fearful enemy of the Roman Empire. Nation states typically feel threatened by groups within their borders holding a loyalty higher than national allegiance. Such groups are deemed inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. That the protestant churches in America typically do not feel such cultural distrust and national persecution is not, as many suggest, a tribute to American tolerance. Rather, it is an indication of how deeply complicit we have become in protecting the interests of the nation state. A disciple of Jesus cannot be on board with an “America First” policy. A disciple must always “seek first the Kingdom of God” and the well-being of its citizens in whatever nation state they may be living.
In the same manner, congregations, such as the church in Corinth, cannot adopt a parochial view of ministry. The whole church is one body and all parts either flourish or fail together. Thus, the Corinthian church, which is evidently a wealthier congregation, must, for its own well-being and that of the whole church, use its surplus to meet the needs of the churches experiencing privation. For Paul, though, the issue is more than a matter of simple fairness. This tangible expression of service to and support of the Jerusalem church by Paul’s gentile congregations illustrates concretely Paul’s understanding of the church as a community of the baptized in which there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Galatians 3:28. The offering signals a new era in which God in Christ has come to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” Ephesians 2:16.
To get the full gist of what St. Paul is saying, you really need to read the full section at II Corinthians 8-9 in its entirety.
This is an aggravating story. Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death. This is a 911 call and Jesus is treating it as though it were an invitation to an open house. There is no need for him to terry on the way. The woman with a discharge of blood had already been healed and was on her merry way. Why waste precious time stopping to call her out, publically embarrass her and so further endanger the life of Jarius’ daughter? I suppose that raising a dead child is more impressive than healing a sick one. But since Jesus ultimately kept the whole affair a secret, that motivation does not seem likely. Even in Mark’s fast paced gospel narrative, Jesus will not be rushed. He does not permit events to dictate what he says, what he does or where he goes. What happened to this woman was important. The crowd, the disciples and Jarius need to know about her healing and to hear Jesus’ word to her.
Jarius, it should be noted, was a ruler of the synagogue. As such, he may have supervised worship services. Clearly, however, he held a position of honor and leadership in the Jewish community. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 157; Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House) p. 287; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 183. He would have been responsible for upholding religious standards in the community, including those governing ritual purity.
The woman with the perpetual menstrual bleeding would have been unclean by definition-and perpetually so. Leviticus 15:25-28. She would have been forbidden to touch anyone or anything that might come into contact with someone else, as this would render them unclean. Leviticus 15: 26-27. Clearly, she should not have been about in a tightly packed crowd like the one following Jesus. Furthermore, a woman’s intentionally touching the clothing of a strange man was at best a breach of propriety and etiquette. To do so while ritually unclean was an egregious breach of Mosaic Law. As a ruler of the synagogue, Jairus could hardly have been expected to approve of the woman’s conduct. For her part, the woman appears to harbor a superstitious belief common in the ancient near east (and evident in the scriptures as well) that holy men generate impersonal healing power. She hoped to be healed by Jesus without ever being noticed by him.
Jesus will not have this woman believe that she has escaped his notice. She is important and she needs to know that. Moreover, Jairus needs to know that she is important as well. It is no accident that Jesus calls this woman “daughter.” Vs. 34. It is as though Jesus were saying, “Look, Jairus. I am about to exercise compassion for your little daughter. I expect you to do the same for mine.” Just as Jesus will touch the unclean body of Jairus’ daughter, so Jairus must be open to the touch of others regarded as “unclean.”
“Talitha cumi” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” Vs. 41. This is one of the very few words of Jesus we have in the New Testament. It is a transliteration of the Aramaic tongue in which Jesus spoke. Recall that the gospels are all written in Greek and thus represent a translation of Jesus into a language he did not speak. Thus, even when we read directly the original gospel texts, we are dealing with a translation and thus an interpretation.
There is a symmetrical contrast in these two healings. The woman who sought healing in secrecy is brought out into the open. The synagogue ruler, who has Jesus coming to his home accompanied by the crowd to a house filled with mourners, receives his miracle in secret-and is enjoined to keep it that way. The interplay between secrecy and revelation running through the gospel of Mark is very much in evidence here. So, too, this contrast between what is clean and what is deemed unclean will be developed further throughout the following chapters of Mark. Whereas Jesus’ opponents shun the “unclean” fearing contamination, Jesus touches the unclean and renders it clean.
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Perhaps it is because my reflections this week happen to have been influenced by the works of two very profound poetic works. Or maybe I am impressed with how deeply the scriptural narratives this week are rooted in the poetry of the psalms and prophets. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking a great deal about poetry, its influence on us and the value (or lack thereof) that our contemporary culture places on it.
I was introduced to poetry in the same way that I suspect most of you were: through music. The choruses I learned in Sunday School, the hymns shaping worship in my church and the songs I sang in school and at civic ceremonies gave me an appreciation for the power of words wrapped in music. It is difficult for the most hardened cynic to remain unmoved while standing among a crowd of people singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
My introduction to the naked word of poetry came largely through my sophomore high school honors English class with Mrs. Boyer. She began our unit on poetry by pointing out that poetic works are looked upon with suspicion and suppressed in many countries throughout the world. “But of course,” she added, “that is not true of our own country. Poets here are free to write and publish as they wish.” Then she added with a wry smile, “The state department knows very well that nobody in this country reads poetry anyway.” Turns out she was right. Even poets are not necessarily readers of poetry. It is my understanding that the Poetry Foundation’s publication, Poetry, has more contributors than subscribers! Mrs. Boyer was determined to do everything in her power to change our cultural disinterest in poetry. To her credit, I can still recite The Road not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost as well as Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
To be honest, my relationship with poetry over the years has been an on and off sort of thing. I was glad to be done with the poetry unit in Mrs. Boyer’s class. I figured that I had probably had about as much exposure to poetry as a normal person needs. But in my senior year I discovered the Psalms-quite by accident as it happened. Being in study hall with no desire to study, I happened to notice a paperback book containing the Psalms someone had left in the rack under my desk. I picked it up and began reading. There began a practice that I maintain to this day: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. Just like vitamins. I discovered T.S. Elliot in college and got re-acquainted with Robert Frost in seminary. As a classics major, I could hardly avoid Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Juvenile and all the other usual suspects.
After graduation from seminary, I lost contact with these and other poets just as I did with most of my classmates. There was no animosity involved. It is just that our lives wound up going in different directions. My life did not intersect again in any significant way with poetry until the end of the 1990s. At that point, I began writing my own poems. I cannot say what drove me to it. There was a great deal of uncertainty during that period of my life. I was struggling professionally in my law practice, dealing with the chronic illness of my wife and wondering how (if at all) I would ever get my children through college. Poetry gave me back my imagination, enabling me to see beyond the dead end I had made for myself. I found that writing poetry allowed me to enter into and view my life from a different perspective. It also made me sensitive to the rich texture of existence that can so easily be overlooked when you are working twelve hours per day at a job that requires intense focus on detail. Nothing I wrote was worth publishing nor was it so intended. Its value lay chiefly in the spiritual support it gave me at a low time in my life and the appreciation I developed for the difficulty of the poetic task.
I don’t write poetry anymore and (apart from the Psalms) I read it only infrequently. Reading poetry is hard work. The disciplined concentration it demands does not develop naturally in our tweety, texty, brief memo, “get to the point already” culture. I think, however, that such disciplined and imaginative concentration is precisely what we need. The lessons for this week invite us to engage in poetic imagination. The poetry of Job challenges us to look past our simplistic assumptions about God, morality and the universe. The Psalm gives poetic expression to God’s acts of salvation experienced by seafaring merchants caught in a violent storm. Paul cites the bold poetry of Isaiah to encourage the church at Corinth in its common mission with him. Finally, Mark suggests that a hint to Jesus’ true identity might be wrapped up in the poetic testimony of our Psalm. Each of these poetic threads is leading us down the path of discovery. Let us follow them with awe, reverence and openness to the power of imagination.
“Stay away from the Book of Job,” my preaching professor told me in seminary, “unless you are prepared to go the distance.” What he meant, I think, is that preaching Job honestly requires us to deal with the whole messy, troublesome story. And this story is plenty messy and troublesome.
Job, you may recall, was a righteous man. So righteous was he that he not only took care to avoid sin himself, but offered sacrifices on behalf of his children to atone for any sins they might have committed. Job 1:1-5. God rewarded Job’s righteousness with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and fabulous wealth. “Now there was a day,” we read,” when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also was among them.” Job 1:6. The NRSV translates “sons of God” as “heavenly beings” which, though making the text properly inclusive, says more than we actually know. It is presumed that we know who Satan is, though we might wonder at how he manages to slip in and out of God’s court with such freedom. Though clearly adversarial, Satan’s relationship with God seems almost collegial. Their rivalry resembles more the philosophical jousting typical among professors within the same university faculty than cosmic conflict between mortal enemies.
God, it seems, is a humanist convinced that human nature is capable of righteousness and moral progress. Satan, by contrast, is a hardened cynic. To him, human beings are a bundle of nerve endings. They do whatever they do to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. The specimen Job seems to prove God’s position and God cannot help but rub this in a little. “How ‘bout that Job, Heh? Blameless, upright, not an evil bone in his body! Now tell me Satan, doesn’t the existence of a man like that put the lie to your pessimistic outlook on the human race?”
“Righteous, yes. I’ll give you that.” Says Satan. “Of course, he’s got good reason to be righteous, doesn’t he? You reward him well enough for it. Pay me like you pay him and I’ll be righteous too!”
“What are you suggesting?” God inquires, a little uncertainly.
“Oh, just this,” says Satan. Job is righteous because he knows it pays to be righteous. But take away all the goodies, rob him of his wealth, introduce a little tragedy into his life and he will turn on you in a New York minute.” This, by the way is strikingly similar to the tactic the serpent used on Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Can God really be trusted to do right by you? Are the commands he gives you really for your own good? Or is God holding something back? Is there something God wants to keep all to God’s self?” Just as the serpent undermined humanity’s trust in its Creator, so now Satan seeks to undermine God’s confidence in God’s creature. Like Eve, God takes the bait-hook, line and sinker. God gives Satan leave to take everything from Job but his life and health.
If Satan thought he would score an easy philosophical victory here, he was wrong. Job lost his wealth and his children in one fell swoop. Though urged by his wife to curse God and die, Job replies: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Now God can hardly contain himself: “Have you considered my servant Job…he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3. In what God thinks is a victory speech, God has unwittingly conceded defeat. God admits that Satan has “moved” God against his faithful creature. That has been Satan’s game plan all along.
Satan has more dirty work to do, however. “Well,” says Satan, “I must admit that your Job held up much better than I expected. But every man has his price. Job still has his health. Break his body, render him incontinent, deform his appearance and afflict him with chronic pain and he will crack. A human being is but a bundle of nerve endings. Let’s see how well he pronounces blessings when those nerve endings start to hurt.” Once again, God takes the bait and Job is afflicted with bodily sores that disfigure him. At this point, Satan drops out of the story and is heard from no more. God is also off stage until the very end of the drama. In the meantime, Job receives a visit from three friends who come to comfort and advise him.
Job can see no reason for his suffering or the failure of God to respond to his cries for vindication. His friends, however, know full well what the problem is. Job is being punished for his sin. That is the only explanation there can be if we accept as true the theology of Psalm 1, which teaches us that the righteous one “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,” who prospers in all that he does; whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” If Job is perishing, it can only be because of some evil he has done. Any other conclusion ascribes injustice to God-which is blasphemy. Naturally, the friends’ theology of God constricts their ability to speak a life giving and comforting word to Job. Job’s insistence upon his innocence only threatens the friends’ deeply held beliefs about how God’s justice works to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Their lengthy poetic argument with Job on this point proceeds for thirty-four dreary chapters, becoming more vitriolic with every verse. The friends seem to be more concerned with defending God’s honor than comforting poor Job. Job increasingly ignores his friends’ arguments and directs his speech to the God who does not answer. Finally, just as the argument seems mercifully to have ground to a halt, one more friend steps out of the shadows to put in his two cents worth. In fact, he puts in more than two cents worth of pedantic blather, lecturing poor Job for six more chapters on his pride and impiety.
Then God speaks, and that is where our lesson for Sunday comes in. God bypasses the friends and speaks directly to Job, peppering him with rhetorical questions that Job cannot possibly be expected to answer. The point seems to be that creation is such a terrible, fearful, beautiful and awesome mystery that no mortal can comprehend it. Human life in all of its complexities cannot be boiled down to simplistic rules of moral cause and effect. The reasons for beauty, terror, joy and despair defy rational explanation. It should be enough to know that the creation is a wondrous place filled with potential for human joy and fulfilment as well as human tragedy. It is not for Job to complain that God did not make the world differently or that God could have made it better.
All of that might fly well enough if only Job’s suffering really were inexplicable. But it’s not. We already know that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with mysteries too deep for human understanding. The reader understands only too well why Job has been so cruelly afflicted. God was induced by Satan to brutalize Job in order to make a point. Worse than that, it is obvious that God is not coming clean with Job. God has Job believing that his suffering lies hidden in mysteries too great for his understanding. In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. The inadequacy of such a remedy is clear enough to every parent who has lost a child and been told by some well-meaning friend, “Well, thank God you’re young enough to have more children.” Children are not fungible goods. So the Book of Job ends as it began-with a lot of very troubling issues.
I have a feeling some folks might be taking offense at my treatment of this great book. In my own defense I can only say that I have chased commentators, preachers and linguists from hell to breakfast looking for a way to derive a positive message from Job. But the only way I have found to make peace with the book is to interpret it as satire from beginning to end. It is, I believe, a cautionary tale about religion run amok. “This,” says the anonymous author(s) of Job, “is what you get from a religion of moral causation, a religion that interprets all events as rewards or punishments for human behavior. (Are you listening Pat Robertson, Frank Graham and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove?) You wind up with people like Job who can find no comfort in their faith. You wind up with people like Job’s friends whose religion can provide no healing or life giving word to those who suffer. You wind up with a god who is unworthy of Job’s worship and trust.
The latter observation is aptly expressed in Robert Frost’s play Mask of Reason, which is based on the Book of Job. The drama takes place years after the events related in the Bible have transpired. God pays a visit to Job and his wife and Job poses the question: “Now after all these years You might indulge me. Why did You hurt me so? I am reduced to asking flatly for the reason-outright.”
God responds: “I was showing off to the Devil, Job, as set forth in Chapters One and Two. Do you mind?”
“No, No. I musn’t,” Job Replies. “Twas human of You. I expected more than I could understand and what I get is almost less than I can understand.”
Mask of Reason, lines 207-269; lines 327-233 printed in Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston) pp. 473-390.
If there is a positive word in this book, it finds expression in the character of Job. Though Satan succeeded well in turning God against God’s creature, he failed to turn Job from his faith in his Creator. So the question posed by the Book of Job is this: “Is there a God out there worthy of Job’s steadfast trust and confidence?” The book does a fine job of telling us what such a god is not. We must look beyond that book for a portrait of who that God is.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our lesson begins at verse 23 and relates the adventures of sea going merchants (who might also have been pilgrims). In addition to being a powerful metaphor for the primordial chaos that reigned prior to creation (Genesis 1:2), the sea was also a very tangible source of terror for the Israelite people. How many Jewish sea captains do you read about in the Hebrew Scriptures? Jonah is the only Hebrew scriptural character known to have gone to sea-and it did not turn out well for him. Yet even the terrifying power of the sea is subject to the voice of Israel’s God.
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Vss. 27-28. These words parallel the cries of the terrified disciples in our gospel lesson and the Psalm as a whole implies the answer to their question: “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4:41. Of course, for the pilgrims in the Psalm standing safely within the confines of the temple courts, escape from the dangers of the sea seemed no less miraculous and God driven.
These are the testimonies of persons who have experienced in a graphic way God’s saving intervention. That God does not always so act and that there are also ships full of people that go down does not dull the effect of their faithful witness. Rather, it underscores the gracious nature of God’s salvation which is neither earned, deserved, nor can it be expected as a matter of course. People who have experienced God’s salvation from death understand that each morning is a gift of one more day in a finite lifetime. Such humble thankfulness is well expressed in a poem by the late Jane Kenyon:
I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Jane Kenyon from Constance (1993)
Moreover, such salvation experiences are not to be understood as special favors reflecting God’s preference for one person over another. Instead, they are occasions for God’s mercy and steadfast love to be manifested to the world. Hence, the command: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” Vs. 22.
Paul has just finished a very fine articulation of his apostolic mission set forth in II Corinthians 5:16-21. He describes himself as an “ambassador” for Christ; God making God’s appeal for reconciliation through Paul’s ministry. In the name of Christ, then, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” That is, let not the grace of God be without effect. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 341. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul urges his readers to respond faithfully now, for time is of the essence. Vs. 2.
Verse 3 seems to be an abrupt transition. Paul has been speaking of his apostolic mission to the world, but now seems fixated once again upon his detractors’ rejection of his apostleship. Some commentators suggest that the material in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 belongs immediately after vs. 2 rather than after verse 13. Ibid. 353. There is no question that this material seems wildly out of place where it now is and that II Corinthians 7:2 follows naturally after verse 13 in our lesson. But the transposed section does not seem to fit any more naturally between verses 2 and 3 than it does after verse 13. Accord, Furnish, supra. For my part, I am doubtful that II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is even genuinely Pauline. It seems to contradict entirely the advice given in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If, however, one enlarges the focus to include the whole of Chapter 5, it becomes evident that Paul is simply circling back to the defense of his apostleship begun at II Corinthians 5:11-15. He points out that his credentials are the hardships he has embraced and the sacrifices he has gladly made for the sake of Christ’s reconciling mission. Vss. 4-10. Paul argues that he has done everything possible to earn the trust of the Corinthian church and asks that, as he has opened his heart to them, they similarly open their heart to him.
This passage illustrates how the greatest asset any church leader has is his/her integrity. A pastor that tithes need not apologize for asking the same from his/her congregation. A trustee that takes up the rake need not be bashful in calling upon the rest of the congregation to pitch in with the spring cleaning to avoid the expense of landscaping bills. Nothing takes the wind out of criticism quite as effectively as honesty, transparency and reliability.
In this gospel lesson Mark continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Mark 1:11. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. Mark 1:23-25. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.
Mark’s telling of this story is rich in allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Jesus is something more than a mere teacher. Indeed, as will later be demonstrated on the Mountain of Transfiguration, he is more even than Israel’s Messiah. The ability to control the sea and subdue storms was regarded as divine. Psalm 89:8-9; Psalm 93:1-4; Psalm 106:8-9; Psalm 107:28-29; and Isaiah 51:9-10. Additionally, the image of “the waters” was a common metaphor for the powers of evil and the trials of the righteous. Psalm 69:1-2; Psalm 18:16. Finally, in the mist of such tribulation, the faithful are called upon to express confidence in God’s power to save and deliver. Isaiah 43:2; Psalm 46:1-3; and Psalm 65:5. It should also be noted that the ability to sleep peacefully, as Jesus is evidently doing, is a sign of trust in the protective power of God. Proverbs 3:23-24; Psalm 4:8; Psalm 3:5; and Job 11:8-19. Jesus’ posture of trust evidenced by his sleeping is therefore a potent contrast to the agitation of the disciples. For a fuller discussion of these Hebrew scriptural echoes, see Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 146-148.
It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” vs. 41. Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s Psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” vs. 40.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I know that parents are not supposed to live vicariously through their children, but I have to confess that I do just that. I enjoy the achievements of my daughters in their mastery of biblical and classical languages that far outstrips my own just as if they were, in fact, my own. In a different way, I live vicariously through my son, an evolutionary biologist who took the road I abandoned to enter the ministry. Like him, I spent a good part of my youth schlepping through swamps and tide pools, turning over rocks and logs to find sea cucumbers, salamanders and snakes. Living things fascinated me then and they still do. I can’t look at a body of water without wondering how deep it is, what fish and other aquatic animals inhabit its depths. A part of me has always regretted not having taken the alternative road at the fork. Now I feel that, in some measure, I am privileged to travel both roads.
It was my son who first made me aware of the profound ecological consequences flowing from the introduction of an invasive species into an established ecosystem. For example, at least 25 non-native species of fish have entered the Great Lakes since the 1800s. These newcomers alter the environment, preying on native fish that have no defenses against them, driving them close to extinction. This, in turn, creates a vacuum in the food chain allowing other native fishes and plants to multiply to unsustainable levels. This all sounds like pretty bad news and it is-from the standpoint of the existing ecosystem. But nature has a way of balancing things out. In time, a new ecosystem will evolve. To be sure, it will be different from what now is, but as my son points out, this has been going on for millions of years. Animal species, our own race in particular, tend to migrate given the opportunity. They invade new territory changing it for better or for worse wherever they go.
Jesus uses the example of an invasive species in one of his parables from Sunday’s gospel lesson. Mustard, though it has some practical uses, is not a plant you would want growing in your cultivated field. Once it takes root, it comes to occupy and stay. Like any weed, it is tougher than anything else growing around it, especially the plants you are trying hard to cultivate. Yet Jesus speaks of the coming of God’s kingdom as resembling the sowing of a mustard seed. The kingdom, says Jesus, is like a tenacious weed. Its seeds are so small you cannot even see them. Yet it gives rise to an invasive plant that digs in, takes over and grows big enough give shelter to the birds.
What does it mean to compare God’s kingdom to an invasive plant? How does the coming of God’s reign disrupt the ecology of our predatory economic system? Our power structures infected with racism? The maintenance of privilege for a relative few at the expense of the world’s poor? If this parable doesn’t scare the socks off us, then I think we must not yet have ears to hear it. Make no mistake about it, the parable of the mustard seed is good news. God has broken into the world through the ministry of Jesus to alter radically the human ecosystem. As the prophet Ezekiel tells us, a lot of big trees must fall in order for the languishing trees to thrive. Or, to put it into Jesus’ words, the last will be first and the first will be last. The end result will be a new heaven and a new earth. But the transition for some of us on the higher end of the food chain will not be easy. In fact, Jesus tells us that those of us who are rich will find entering the kingdom downright hard. Yet we are also told that hard is not impossible. Being last in the kingdom is still being in the kingdom. That is what I hold onto as this parable disrupts my orderly little ecosystem.
You can’t grow a new cedar simply by planting a twig from another cedar. Vs. 22. That is just not biologically possible. Moreover, cedars do not bear edible fruit. Vs. 23. But that only makes more emphatic the work God is doing here. The allegory of the cedar is filled with messianic and eschatological (consummation of the age) imagery. The messiah is frequently spoken of in prophetic literature as a “branch” or “shoot.” See Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 3:8. The exaltation of Mount Zion is a common prophetic term for the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel and the world generally. See Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 87. From a mere twig cut from the tree out of which it draws sustenance, a twig that by all rights is as good as dead, God grows a tree on the highest mountain that will tower over all other trees. Vs. 23. It will give shelter to animals and a home to birds of every kind. Vs. 24. By this great act, “all the trees of the field,” that is, the nations “shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Vs. 24.
The phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” appears frequently throughout the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Ezekiel 6:7, 10, 14; Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; Ezekiel 12:15; Ezekiel 13:23; Ezekiel 14:8; Ezekiel 17:21. It is important that God and God’s works be made known to Israel. In this passage, however, God is to be made known to all the nations, not merely by name but by action. God is to be known as the one who brings mighty empires to nothing and raises up a people that, to all appearances, appears to be nothing. Echoes here can be heard of the Exodus-God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt to make of her a nation of promise. In a culture where the greatness of a god is measured by the political and military might of its patron nation, the God of a defeated and exiled people would seem hardly worthy of worship. But God does not belong to Israel only. God is God of all nations, raising them up and disposing of them as best serves God’s redemptive purposes. Moreover, God’s glory is not tied to Israel’s military might or geopolitical influence but to Israel’s faithfulness. This portrait of Israel’s exultation is therefore not comparable to the rise of great empires such as Assyria and Babylonia that dominate and exploit the lesser nations. Israel’s exaltation will be a life giving event for the nations of the world. This will be a different kind of kingdom ruling a different kind of world!
It is always worth asking how disciples of Jesus articulate and live out the prophetic confession of this God who raises and brings down empires for God’s own purposes in a nation that believes itself to have been uniquely selected by God to further God’s purpose through advancing its own national interests. The identification of God’s purpose with that of America, known as “American particularism,” is deeply imbedded in the American protestant psyche. Nowhere is this heretical notion better expressed than in our standard practice of placing the American flag in our sanctuaries, frequently on the same level as the altar and the cross. Sometimes I long for an encyclical from our ELCA presiding bishop condemning this idolatrous practice. I know full well, though, that no such directive will be forthcoming. First, American Lutheran bishops don’t issue encyclicals. Second, such a decree would generate more opposition than an order to shorten the worship service by omitting some of the appointed lessons. The latter is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church!
The superscription, “A Song for the Sabbath,” indicates that this psalm was used in connection with Sabbath observance in later Judaism. According to one commentator, the psalm most likely originated in public worship at a festival at some sanctuary lasting for several days. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 614. It is possible that the festival in question was the New Year celebration instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. Ibid. The strict injunction against work of any kind during this holiday would help to explain its later use for Sabbath worship. The sanctuary in which this liturgy was first used could have been the one at Shiloh referenced in I Samuel or the temple in Jerusalem.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Vs. 1. That is a simple yet important reminder. To live well is to live thankfully. Thankfulness does not come naturally for most of us. Many of us are stuck in the entitlement mentality, believing that God, the world, our families or our churches “owe us something” and never quite pay up in full. Or we are caught up in the deadly sin of envy that can never recognize God’s gifts to us as anything other than second best to what is given to others who seem to be better off. Of course, in a culture that values accomplishment and achievement, thankfulness is practically an admission that you received something you have not earned or deserved. Why thank God or anybody else for what I earned by the sweat of my own brow?
A thankful worshiper understands quite simply that s/he lives by grace. S/he lives life at a leisurely pace, refusing to be rushed. S/he savors the smell of fresh coffee each morning, the warmth of the sun, the refreshment a spring rain brings to thriving vegetation, the songs of birds and the shouts of children. A thankful worshiper understands that each day of health, strength and vigor is an undeserved gift and that there is no entitlement to the same tomorrow. S/he knows that on the worst day there is still always plenty for which to give thanks and praise.
It is not altogether clear what is meant by a “ten stringed lute” in verse 3. The lute was a medieval predecessor to the guitar, but whether it was anything like the instrument described in the psalm is unknown. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 161. That it had “strings” suggests that it was something like a lute, guitar or lyre.
Verses 12-14 are reminiscent of Psalm 1 which speaks of the prosperity that flows from choosing the way of righteousness over wickedness. The fate of those who lack the sense to recognize God’s works and ways is discussed in verses 5-9 which are not included in our reading. For my cautionary remarks on the interpretation of psalms such as these, see my commentary on Psalm 1 in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 92 in its entirety.
For my general comments on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, see my post of June 7, 2015.
The most puzzling piece of this passage is Paul’s remark that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Vs. 6. Shorn of its context, this sentence is rife with potential for misinterpretation. Paul is not suggesting that the body is the prison of the soul or that salvation is liberation of the spirit from bodily incarceration. Paul is merely stating a fact. As pointed out earlier in II Corinthians 5:1, “the earthly tent we live in is [being] destroyed.” We are dying as is the creation. Nonetheless, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16. So far from separating soul from body, salvation consists in resurrecting the body. Thus, “while we are still in this tent [body], we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” II Corinthians 5:3. There is no advantage to being a naked spirit even if such a thing could exist. To be human is to be a body. It is only through the body that we can know each other. We are dependent on speech, hearing and sight. Critical to communication are the subtle tones of voice telling the hearer that, whatever our bear words might convey, we are speaking in jest. Facial expressions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses and so much more can only be conveyed by creatures with bodies. That is precisely why God has always spoken to Israel and the church through the words of Moses, Elijah, the prophets and apostles. That is why in the fullness of time the word became embodied. Jesus’ resurrection was the resurrection of his Body. His ascension to the right hand of the Father did not dispense with that Body but extended its reach to every scrap of matter in the universe. God remains embodied in God’s holy people. It is for this reason only that we can say God is in some measure knowable.
That said, we are in a limited sense imprisoned by our bodies. However much we might think we know another person, there are depths we cannot reach even with our best communication skills. How much more so with our God! Our bodies are imperfect communicators, lacking the ability to “know as we are known.” We cannot know each other or our God perfectly. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” I Corinthians 13:12. Thus, our hope is not that we shall be liberated from our bodies to become naked spirits, but that “we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” II Corinthians 5:4. God is even now working the miracle of this transformation in our bodies giving us manifestations of God’s Spirit within the church as a guarantee of all that is to come. II Corinthians 5:5.
Knowing this, Paul is confident in his ministry. He is well aware that some in the Corinthian Church are critical of his personal appearance and what they judge to be his deficiencies as a public speaker. II Corinthians 10:10. There is also a suggestion that some in the congregation believe Paul to be mentally unstable. Vs. 13. Paul does not waste his breath disputing any of this. “I may stutter, I may be uglier than a baboon’s butt and mad as a hatter,” says Paul (highly paraphrased). “But it’s all for your sake that we do what we do.” Vs. 13. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ who died for all. Knowing that, it is impossible for Paul to view or judge anyone from a purely human perspective. Vs. 16. Paul once judged Jesus from just that perspective, but having encountered him as the one God raised from the dead, Paul cannot view him anymore as just another misguided teacher with some radical notions who came to a bad end. Vs. 16. Neither can Paul view women as subordinates, slaves as mere property or gentiles as unclean. Galatians 3:28. The resurrection is a game changer. Seen through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, creation is altogether new. Vs. 17.
Sadly, the lectionary moves on next week to chapter 6 of II Corinthians passing over what I believe to be one of the most powerful articulations of the church’s mission to be found in the New Testament, namely, II Corinthians 5:16-21. I invite you to read it and reflect on it as it follows directly from what Paul has just told us in today’s lesson and explains what follows in next week’s reading.
The first of these two parables of God’s kingdom follows upon the Parable of the Sower told in Mark 4:3-9. This parable is not an allegory, though Jesus later resorts to allegory in order to explain it to his clueless disciples. Mark 4:10-20. The kingdom of God is to be seen in the totality of the circumstances: the sower who spreads his precious seed indiscriminately over soil both receptive and resistant; the varying degrees of response to that sowing and the resulting fruitfulness. Building on the same imagery, the parable of the planting, growth and harvest in verses 26-29 illuminate the kingdom from a different angle. The sower, though powerless to make the seed sprout, grow and mature nevertheless takes an active role in the process. The sower both plants and takes in the harvest. But that is the extent of the sower’s power to act. Growth comes of itself without the sower’s activity. For all that takes place between planting and harvest, the sower can only patiently wait.
So is Jesus intimating that the kingdom may be a long time in coming and that his disciples must sow the seeds of their ministry and wait patiently for growth? (Weiss, J., Das Markusevenelium (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, Vol. I, 3rd ed. Revised by W. Bousset, c. 1917) cited by Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark, Second ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor) p. 266)). Or is he saying in effect that the time of growth is over and the day of harvest has arrived? (Schweitzer, A., The Quest for the Historical Jesus (c. 1906 by W. Montgomery, English Translation) cited by Taylor, supra.); Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 167; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 142. That the reference to the harvest has strong eschatological overtones (e.g. Joel 3:1-13) suggests that the interpretation favored by the weight of scholarly authority is in fact the better view. The conviction that the time for harvest has already come comports with Jesus’ inaugural declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognize the parable’s emphasis on the growth and maturing of the crop as beyond the control of the planter. As Mark will make clear to us, the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims is laden with misconceptions and clouded by self-interest. Nevertheless, that kingdom is erupting into the world under their very noses and the opportunities for harvest are plentiful but as yet unseen.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32 should likewise be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Just as the parable of the planter concludes with an allusion to the final judgment pronounced by the Prophet Joel, so too this parable concludes by echoing the messianic proclamation in our lesson from Ezekiel. Yet there is a striking difference between the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle about the miraculous growth of the great cedar. Unlike the stately cedar, mustard is an invasive plant that can readily take over a field cultivated for more profitable crops. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weed. Whereas Matthew and Luke dignify the parable by characterizing the mustard plant as a tree (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19), Mark is content to call it what it is-a bush.
However one wishes to characterize the mustard plant, there is an obvious contrast between its seed which is proverbially small and the grown plant. Moreover, mustard is a fast growing plant that is highly disruptive. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 136. Thus, it is unlikely that the parable is stressing the need for patience as the disciples wait for the gradual, progressive evolution of God’s kingdom through the institutions of democratic societies. The seed carries in it the immanent incursion of God’s reign into the well-ordered imperial garden. Be afraid, Caesar. Be very afraid!
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
These are tough times for the Duggar family. For those of you who might not be in the know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, along with their nineteen children, are stars of the TLC network reality show, “Nineteen Kids and Counting.” The show focuses on the life of the Duggar family. Devout Independent Baptists, the Duggars have home schooled all of their children and limit their access to movies, television and gaming. They frequently discusses values of purity, modesty, and family. The Duggars reject all forms of birth control claiming that God alone should determine the number of children they have. They practice “chaperoned courtship,” monitoring the dating relationships of their children. The expectation is that physical expressions of affection, even hand holding, are to be avoided until engagement. Kissing and sexual conduct are to be foregone until marriage. The Duggars promote and practice family structure based on male hierarchy and female submission to male authority.
TLC portrayed the Duggars as the model of everything a wholesome Christian family ought to be. At its peak, Nineteen Kids and Counting averaged 2.3 million viewers. But this image began to crumble two weeks ago after a police report from 2006 surfaced showing that sexual molestation allegations had been made against the Duggars’ eldest son, Josh Duggar. According to the report, Josh, who was then fourteen or fifteen years old, molested five young girls, four of which were his own sisters. TLC promptly suspended the series.
I feel sorry for the Duggars. No parent should have to go through what they did with their son Josh. Certainly no little girl should have to endure molestation. Obviously, Josh has serious problems that need to be addressed, not only for his sake, but chiefly for the sake of all children with whom he might someday come into contact. This is a family deeply in need of prayer, care and support. That they happen to be celebrities does not make them any less human. I wish them only God’s comfort and healing presence.
That said, it sticks in my craw that for nearly a decade the Duggars, with the help of their TLC handlers, represented themselves as the paradigm of Christian family wholesomeness and virtue when they knew full well that incest and sexual abuse had been occurring under their own roof. I find it repulsive that Josh had the moxie to accept a leading position at the Family Research Council, a right wing parachurch organization that seems to conduct little research but lobbies and promotes extensively “family values” which, however defined, I am sure does not include incestuous predatory behavior by teenagers against their younger siblings. Be aware that Josh’s criminal conduct was brought to light in 2006, a good two years before the Duggar family took to the airwaves in order to help “others to see that the Bible is the owner’s manual for life.” Thus, for the better part of a decade the Duggars have been perpetrating a lie on the public. For that they ought to be ashamed.
Though I would not describe the Bible as a “manual for life,” it is (unlike the Duggars) brutally honest about the realities of family life. Our lesson from Genesis tells us that the first recorded marriage in the Bible is seeded with mutual blame, dishonesty and struggle for dominance. The next generation brought with it the first recorded murder-a fratricide. Biblical families are rife with incest, sexual abuse, violence and betrayal. According to our gospel lesson for this Sunday, even the “holy family” seems to have been a bit dysfunctional. Nevertheless, these same dysfunctional families are the arena for love, faithfulness, reconciliation and promise. Despite their brokenness, God finds ways to work redemptively through families to bring healing and peace.
Parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar write in their official response to the recent revelations about Josh, “We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family. We have challenges and struggles everyday.” Well Jim Bob and Michelle, though I wish you had said this eight years ago, I am glad to hear you say it now. I hope you mean it. I hope that the brokenness in your own family moves you to look with greater empathy, understanding and acceptance for all of the other broken families in our country, especially the ones that look different than your own. I hope you can now see single parent families, families of same sex couples, even white bread families like my own that don’t adhere to your standards of behavior as arenas for God’s redemptive work. I hope that you will come to see that all families, whatever their makeup, share common needs, yearnings and dreams. Perhaps one day we can both sit at the same table and discuss how together we can strengthen our families by ensuring a living minimum wage for all workers, stable communities based on an economy driven by human need rather than corporate greed, and access to affordable health care-especially for our children. Perhaps, too, we can share insights into how we read the scriptures for wisdom and guidance in our parenting. Your experience has demonstrated that you do not have all the answers for what ails our family life. There is no shame in that. None of the rest of us have answers either. But working together in humility, mutual acceptance and trust in our God, we can build a healthier environment in which some of those answers might emerge.
To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.
Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.
What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.
The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.
Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.
Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.
This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.
If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.
This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.
According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.
The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.
“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.
In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.
For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13.
Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.
Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.
For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”
This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.
What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.
As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.
That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.
Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.
Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence may show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.
To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.