Archive for July, 2015
TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
John’s gospel doesn’t spoon feed us the good news. Instead, we are given signs, metaphors, images and symbols that don’t always fit neatly together into a coherent whole. Reading this gospel is hard work. This week’s lesson tells us that Jesus is the “bread come down from heaven.” Unlike ordinary bread, it is not obtained by human labor. It is a free gift. The “work” God requires of us is to believe in Jesus. But is that really “work”? The language Jesus is using here does not set well with my Lutheran upbringing. From Sunday School through seminary I have been taught never to mention “faith” and “works” in the same breath. Yet Jesus seems to be doing just that. He is telling us that the bread which comes down from heaven is more than a simple handout. Receiving it gratefully is the work God requires of us.
Perhaps it is best to think of the bread from heaven as a precious gift that nevertheless demands much. It is not simply a cash gift that can be spent in any way the recipient pleases. Receiving the bread from heaven is more like being given a very fine violin. As a gift, it is obviously free. Yet such a gift clearly demands much of the recipient. If a violin is going to be of any use to me, I must learn to play it. Unless I happen to be one of those rare musical prodigies capable of picking up an instrument cold and making music, I will probably need years of instruction and hours upon hours of practice before I am merely proficient. If I want to become more than proficient, if I want to become a performance level violinist, I am looking at a lifetime commitment that will require much sacrifice and dedication to the instrument.
It is not surprising to me that relatively few people become accomplished musicians. Though I am not a musician myself, I have them in my family and among my friends. They know how much time goes into learning scales, practicing arpeggios and learning to read music-all of which comes before you can begin making music. They know the frustration of being stuck at a plateau in development beyond which it seems impossible to advance. They also know that every advance must be maintained by relentless practice. There is no such thing as a vacation from the instrument. Nevertheless, they tell me that making music is their greatest joy.
I believe the gift that is Jesus is a little like that. God offers us through him a restored relationship, friendship with God’s self. Friendship is not built over night. It takes time. Friendship requires a lot of energy, forgiveness, growth and patience. Friendship changes you in ways you cannot predict. Friendship is risky. You can never know the price you might have to pay for loyalty, faithfulness and love for your friend. Jesus called his disciples friends. John 15:14-15. That is a marvelous gift that demands much of us. Perhaps that is what Paul means when he urges us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Ephesians 4:1. Maybe that is just another way of telling us to live fully and completely out of our friendship with Jesus. There is no other way to receive such a free, precious and wildly extravagant gift.
Less than two months into their new found freedom brought about by God’s marvelous, liberating miracle at the Red Sea, Israel is in a deep funk. The people are learning that freedom is in many respects more difficult than slavery. The slave knows that the master will feed him/her for no other reason than that a slave must eat to live and live to work. A slave has few weighty decisions to make. The master makes all the decisions. A slave does not have to wonder about what tomorrow will bring. The following day brings more of the same. Cruel, burdensome and oppressive, to be sure, but at least it is predictable. By contrast, the wilderness (and freedom) is highly unpredictable. You can’t assume that you are going to find enough water to sustain your community ten miles down the road. No master will be there to give you your rations. In the wilderness, you have no choice but to place your trust in the God who brought you there.
The people of Israel were hungry. As we all know, hunger can bring out the worst in us. Such was the case for Israel. It seems the people caught a bad case of “good old days” disease. They began reminiscing about the days back in Egypt where at least they had food. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full,” they complain. Vs. 3. I doubt that, as slaves, they really were that well fed. But that is how it is when you look back at the past through rose colored glasses. Everything was better back then. The church was so full we had to set up chairs in the aisles to accommodate everyone. The Sunday School was filled with kids-and they behaved themselves better and had more respect than kids these days. Neighborhoods were friendlier. City streets were safer. Food tasted better. On and on it goes. Was the past really all that wonderful? Of course not! The Israelites were slaves. Had they forgotten so soon what it was like to be treated like cattle? Evidently, they had forgotten and that should not surprise us overly much. Good old days disease is as much a part of our age as it was in Biblical times. As Barbra Streisand sang in the movie, The Way We Were,
Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
That is the problem with the “good old days.” Our selective memories make the past seem a lot rosier than it really was. We fall into the trap of measuring the present against a past that is no more real than the Emerald City of Oz.
Furthermore, “good old days” disease represents more than just delusional thinking. It constitutes rebellion against our God. “This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24. Who are we to throw the gift of today back in God’s face and tell God it isn’t good enough? Who are we to reject the time and place where God now places us and sit pouting because our memories of some other time and place seem better? God calls us to a new day. Our stubborn insistence on remaining in the old one needs to be named for what it is: sin.
That said, the journey from slavery into freedom is long and difficult. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. The way was slow and fraught with dangers. Sometimes it seemed as though they were not making any progress. Sometimes they appeared to be going nowhere. Often it seemed that they were losing ground. The life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us is no different. Perhaps that is why Paul and other New Testament writers employed the stories of Israel’s wilderness wandering as metaphors for that life. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading us into a new creation when our bodies increasingly show their age, our energy level isn’t what it used to be and it seems as though the best years of our lives are behind us. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading his church for the sake of the world when that church looks increasingly fractured, divided and marginalized. It is precisely when the going gets rough, when we see no evidence of progress and there seems to be no end in sight that the temptation to look back is strongest. But the scriptures warn repeatedly that there is nothing for us in the past and that the only way given to us is forward.
Of course, the good news here is that God can be trusted to provide for our needs along the way. Our needs may not be the same as our wants. Perhaps quail is not what Israel would have chosen from a more varied menu. The manna may have been sweet as honey, but even the bread of angels can become tiresome after forty years. Yet it was enough to sustain Israel throughout her journey and that is what Jesus promises as well. As the gospel for this Sunday points out, Jesus is our “bread from heaven” that sustains us.
Our psalm for this Sunday is but a snippet from a much longer saga reciting Israel’s history from the Exodus to the rise of King David. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 78 in its entirety.
This is one of the historical psalms in the psalter. It is similar in form and structure to Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 of the same genre. Historical psalms were employed by Israel chiefly in her commemorative celebrations, i.e., Passover, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, etc. They celebrate the acts pivotal to Israel’s self-understanding. Accordingly, the historical psalms also serve a didactic (teaching) purpose. In learning these psalms, each new generation internalized the great acts through which God displayed salvation to Israel and made her the unique nation she was.
The faith of Israel was unique in the ancient near east. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians and Israel’s Canaanite neighbors saw the power of the divine chiefly in the realm of nature. Thus, their religion was built around the natural cycles of birth and death, seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. Their worship revolved around mythical themes of creation, the interaction of the gods behind the cosmic forces of death and life at work in the change of seasons. By contrast, Israel experienced the salvation of her God through God’s mighty acts in her history. Though Israel also recognized the cyclical processes of nature critical to agricultural existence, her worship gave meaning to these cycles through recitation of historical events taking place not in some distant mythical past, but in the realm of human events. Israel celebrated her deliverance from Egypt, the conquest of the land of Canaan, the establishment of the royal house of David and the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Her worship and world view were anchored in these historical watersheds rather than in cosmic battles between the gods at the dawn of time.
The section of this lengthy psalm constituting our reading echoes in poetic form the lesson from Exodus. The story is not all sweetness and light as one might suppose from reading only the verses given us by the lectionary. Verses 17-22 point out that the gracious outpouring of mana and quail comes in spite of some serious provocation:
Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?’
Furthermore, God’s carrot is accompanied by a stick:
But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them
and he killed the strongest of them,
and laid low the flower of Israel.
Vss. 30-31. Once again, the lectionary folks are doing their best to spare our left leaning, mainline protestant, upper middle class, ever white and ever polite sensibilities by excising all references suggesting that God might be something other than the gray-bearded slightly senile, over-indulgent grandfather that can be inoffensively slipped into our cultural landscape without disrupting the architectural skyline. Obviously, there is a serious disconnect between the God of the scriptures and the inoffensive god we would like to believe in who, like elevator music, fills in the uncomfortable silences but otherwise remains in the background. No wonder church attendance in mainline denominations is in decline. In fact, it is a wonder that anyone still comes! Just as nobody would waste time and money for a concert performance of background music pipped in over a third rate sound system, it is hard to imagine how anyone could become the least bit interested in such a boring god.
The psalm makes the point that God’s love for Israel (and the church, too, for that matter) is not a philosophical disposition shorn of all passion and feeling. The God of Israel’s love is passionate, jealous and intense. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how close anger lies at hand. Nobody can hurt us as deeply as those we love. God’s anger against us is the measure of God’s love for us. The sad reality is that God’s acts of mercy and kindness are too quickly forgotten. Too often we approach God with a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude and trust. Our demands take precedence over God’s commands. Our prayers resemble letters to Santa Clause, filled with our own self-centered demands. Yet God’s passionate love for us never grows cold. Even God’s judgment is designed to melt our cold hearts and re-ignite our trust. This psalm “makes evident how closely God’s grace and his judgment are related to each other.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Commentary (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 541.
The historical recitation in Psalm 78 culminates with God’s selection of David as Israel’s king.
[God] chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes
he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand.
The rise of the monarchy in Israel was surrounded by controversy. The prophet and judge, Samuel, was appalled when the people demanded appointment of a king to rule over them so that they might “be like the other nations.” I Samuel 8:4-5. After all, God called Israel to be unlike the other nations. In a culture that regarded kings as equal to gods, only the Lord was worthy of the title “king.” Much of the prophetic tradition in Israel remained critical of the monarchy and saw it as a betrayal of all that Israel was called to be. Nevertheless, there is also in the Hebrew Scriptures an express belief that God’s covenant with David and the rise of his Kingdom was a saving event to be celebrated with thanksgiving. Psalm 78 is an example of this pro-monarchy sentiment.
We saw an echo of this pro-monarchy enthusiasm in last Sunday’s gospel when the crowd of five thousand, having eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes Jesus blessed, sought to take him and make him king by force. Clearly, Jesus must be the one sent by God to shepherd his people Israel. Had he not, as the psalm says, “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven”? Vs. 24. Yet Jesus seems intent on not becoming a king like David-or at least the kind of king the people were seeking. That becomes clear as Jesus speaks in this Sunday’s gospel about the true bread from heaven he has come to offer.
For my general comments on the Letter to the Ephesians, see my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015. At this point in the letter, Paul turns to a description of what life in Christ looks like. The remarkable thing about this text describing life in the church is the total lack of hierarchy. In virtually every other organization, be it social, political or religious, the key question always comes down to “Who is in charge?” In the Body of Christ, however, the key issue is “What is your gift?” “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of us all.” Vs. 5. Though the church is made up of individual members, each has his or her own “gift.” The gifts, however they may differ from one another, have one purpose: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Vs. 3.
Much scholarly debate has swirled around the enumeration of these gifts in verse 11. Some interpreters maintain that the apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors represent offices in the church. Others maintain that these reflect natural gifts recognized by the community and exercised by individuals in non-structured communities. Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (c. 1990 by Word Incorporated) p. 233; Fischer, K.M., Tendenz und Absicht des Ephersbriefs, (c. 1973 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) pp. 21-39. Whichever the case may be, it is clear that the gifts are not intended to enhance the recipient, but to strengthen the unity of the church. Vss. 15-16. So what matters is not who has which gift, but how the gift is used. A pastor that pushes through an educational program that interests him or her, but does not meet the needs of the church is not rightly exercising the gift of ministry. A council officer that manages to get a new addition to the church building erected, but in doing so causes dissent and division throughout the congregation might be improving upon the structure of a building, but he or she is not “building up the Body of Christ.” Vs. 12. That does not mean, of course, that we all walk on egg shells and do nothing for fear of offending anyone. Sometimes uncomfortable truths need to be spoken. Often the mission of the church must take precedent over deeply valued traditions in the congregation. Correction and reproof is part and parcel of living together in love. The church will necessarily deal with divisive and controversial topics. But unlike the rest of the world where the most powerful personality prevails and issues are often settled by a simple up or down vote, we are a community determined to take whatever time is needed to arrive at a resolution and course of action that everyone can live with-even if it means sacrificing “progress.” Getting together is more important than getting ahead. For that sort of living, we need a lot of lowliness, forbearance, patience and meekness. Vs. 2.
More than any other epistle in the Pauline corpus, Ephesians highlights the cosmic purpose of the church as a sign of God’s intent to unite not merely Jews and Gentiles, but “to fill all things” with Christ. Vs. 10. “God gives Christ as head over all to the Church and it becomes his instrument in carrying out his purpose for the cosmos. The readers are to see themselves as part of this Church which has a universal role and which is to be a pledge of the universe’s ultimate unity in Christ.” Lincoln, supra at 248. In a religious landscape increasingly dominated by “personal salvation,” individual pseudo-psychological “self-help” and individual “spirituality,” Ephesians sounds a countercultural call to lose the self in a corporate life of discipleship that isn’t all about “me.” The church’s calling is to continue corporately the life Jesus lives in the world, embracing all of the hostility such life invariably provokes.
As you may recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd of five thousand he had just fed as they were seeking to take him by force and make him king. The disciples set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee that same evening. Jesus later rejoined them in their boat on the Sea and they arrived in Capernaum. Some of the five thousand pursued Jesus and found him there on the other side of the Sea. Now they are curious as to how Jesus was able to get himself across the sea without a boat, but Jesus cuts right to the chase. “You are here because you ate your fill. Not because you saw signs.” Vs. 26. Of course, the people had, in fact, seen a remarkable sign. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they witnessed a miracle only. They do not understand that the feeding was a sign; that the drama unfolding in the wilderness of Galilee was intended to reflect the wilderness of Sinai where the children of Israel wandered for forty years depending on the Lord for each day’s sustenance. The fact that they demand from Jesus a sign as proof of his claims demonstrates how thoroughly they have missed the meaning of what they experienced in the wilderness. They were looking for a way out of the wilderness to restored national power and prosperity. Jesus offers them a restored relationship with the Lord who promises to give them abundant life in the midst of the wilderness. That is the true bread that comes down from heaven.
It is obvious that the crowed has misunderstood the story related in our first lesson from the Book of Exodus. The people credit Moses with providing their ancestors with bread in the wilderness and they hope that Jesus will do the same. But Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but the Lord who provided for the children of Israel. Faith in Moses or any other human leader is misplaced. Furthermore, fixation on things like bread that ensure mere survival is insufficient. One does not live by bread alone. Life that is abundant and eternal flows from a vital relationship of trust in the God who alone can give us such life.
So what is this “bread” that comes down from heaven? It is Jesus, plain and simple. There is no “work” demanded by God as a price for this bread. It has already been freely given and now stands in the questioners’ very presence. The “work,” such that it is, amounts simply to “believing in the one God sent.” Vs. 29. Belief, of course, is not mere ascent to a theological proposition. To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus; to live out of a relationship of faith in his promises. But this is God’s work, not our own. God wins our trust and strengthens our faith by consistently demonstrating his own faithfulness to us.
This is one of many instances throughout John’s gospel in which Jesus uses the “I am” construction (in Greek, “Ego eimie”). This “I am” of Jesus echoes the “I am” spoken to Moses in response to his inquiry about God’s name. God replies “I am that I am” or, as some translators put it, “I will be who I will be.” Exodus 3:13-15. This statement is less an ontological assertion about God than it is a declaration that God demonstrates who God is by God’s acts of faithfulness to the covenant with Israel as shown by what follows immediately thereafter. God instructs Moses: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” Exodus 3:16-17. So too, the full significance of the “I am” Jesus pronounces will become clear only when he completes the work his Father has sent him to do. Not until he is “lifted up” will Jesus’ glory as the only Son of the Father be made known. John 12:27-36.
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand differs from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke in several respects. Perhaps the most significant detail we learn from John is that the people Jesus fed in such a remarkable way responded by trying to seize him by force and make him king. And why not? Jesus would likely make a great king, wouldn’t he?
Yes and no. Jesus understood only too well the nature and pitfalls of empire. He was well aware of the criticism leveled by the prophet Jeremiah against the kings of Judah reflected in our lesson for this Sunday. But he was not about to identify with the “righteous Branch” from the line of David for which Jeremiah longed. Jesus understood that the flaw lay not merely in the character of Judah’s kings, but in the monarchical system itself. A king’s integrity cannot transform the imperial machinery of injustice into the gentle reign of God. A government that rules through coercion backed by violence cannot bring forth justice and peace-even in the hands of a good ruler. That is why Jesus would not be king, would not permit his disciples to raise the sword in his defense, would not invoke angelic power to deliver him from arrest and execution. In so doing, he would only have become another tyrant. Under the reign of Jesus, we might have seen, relatively speaking, a “kinder, gentler” empire. But it would nevertheless still have been the same oppressive and dehumanizing governmental machinery that runs on war, exploitation and blood.
Yet in the proper sense, Jesus is a king. When Jesus informed Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world,” he did not mean to say that his was a kingdom of the afterlife or of inward spiritual perfection. He said rather that his kingdom does not operate under the same violent ideology of empire that props up the nations of the world. If it were such a kingdom, then of course, Jesus’ disciples would be expected to take up the sword in his defense. Pilate simply cannot comprehend how Jesus can be so indifferent to his power. “Don’t you know,” he fumes, “that I have power to release you, and to crucify you?” John 19:10. The threat of violence is the only weapon in Pilate’s quiver. When it fails to intimidate Jesus, Pilate suddenly finds himself powerless and he knows it. Rome is face to face with the ruler of a kingdom it cannot defeat. The empire crumbles when nobody takes its threats seriously anymore.
It is hardly the case that Jesus is indifferent to actual, physical hunger. He recognizes, however, that the machinery of empire cannot finally redress injustice, oppression and violence that cause hunger among the greater part of humanity. The systemically evil empire cannot be reformed. Nor will it do to sweep it away with violence, thereby sowing seeds for the rise of a similar imperial regime. The allure of empire can only be dismantled by the creation of a new regime in its midst unmasking it with truthful speech and refuting its claim to allegiance by its existence as a peaceful and just community allied solely with God’s just reign. Empire is undone when the church begins to live as though Jesus really did rise from death and that his resurrection makes a difference.
This story, as John tells it, has radical implications for a consumer culture with an economy driven by greed, where economic growth is measured in terms of corporate profitability while the availability of good jobs with benefits evaporates, wages decline and working hours increase. “Food insecurity,” which is a euphemism for malnutrition and hunger, is increasingly prevalent in our country even as the market indicators reach historically high levels. Stimulating this perverse economy will do nothing to bring about bread for all. It is time we all stop pretending that it will and recognize that a radical reversal must take place in order for all to eat. The Bible has a term for such a reversal: repentance.
Repentance is, to be sure, a change of heart. But a genuine change of heart cannot help but have societal ramifications. The call here is for a church that identifies with the hungry, not merely to solicit their votes in a campaign to reform the empire, but to enlist them as partners in dismantling the machinery of oppression. While it is hard to imagine a church such as mine, that is so far removed from the realities of hunger, engaging the hungry in such a way, imagination is precisely what we need. Faithful, prophetic imagination is to the church what the sword is to the empire-the weapon of choice.
This short story is one of many about Elisha and his miraculous works found in Chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha, you may recall, was the prophetic successor to Elijah who was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire. He was a member and perhaps the leader of an obscure group identified in Second Kings only as “the sons of the prophets.” According to Professor Gerhard Von Rad, these groups constituted separate communities within the framework of Israelite society closely associated with local sanctuaries. Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, (c. 1960 by Oliver & Boyd) p. 26. Members of these groups were likely drawn from a very low economic and social stratum in the population lacking both power and status. Ibid. They seem to have lived together in communities. Von Rad further states that “[w]e are probably right in thinking that these bands of prophets were almost the last representatives of pure Jahwism and its divine law” in a society increasingly dominated by Canaanite religion and culture. Ibid 26-27. They were married, had children and apparently held property and so should not be understood as a monastic order of any kind. Over time, as kings in Israel and Judah favoring the traditional faith of Israel came to power, the sons of the prophets evolved into a professional guild of persons with the unique ability to speak on God’s behalf. By the time of the prophet Amos, the guild appears to have become little more than the mouthpiece of the monarchy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Hence, Amos specifically denies being the son of a prophet. See Amos 7:14-15.
Based on what proceeds in II Kings 4:38, we know that this story takes place during a famine. A man comes to Elisha with a “first fruits offering.” Exodus 23:14-19. We do not know precisely why this offering was made under these circumstances. There is no statutory requirement in the Pentateuch for first fruits offerings to be presented to prophetic communities. As the sons of the prophets were frequently associated with shrines, however, it would not be unusual for them to take on priestly duties as well. Elisha orders his servant to share the offering (twenty loaves of bread and a sack of grain) with the rest of the sons of the prophets numbering about one hundred. The servant, quite understandably, balks at the notion. After all, the offering is not large enough to feed the whole community. It is better that the community’s leader, Elisha, be spared than that he perish from starvation along with the entire community. Elisha is confident, however, that there will be enough for the community and to spare. This confidence is based on a word he has received from the Lord to that effect. Vs. 43. Like Jesus, Elisha focuses not on the magnitude of the hunger or the scarcity of his resources, but on the promise of the Lord to provide. Once again, this story challenges us to join the psalmist’s affirmation that God can indeed be trusted to provide for every living thing.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 25. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.
And so on down to letter Z. This kind of composition assists in memorization which, in a pre-literate society, is the primary means of passing down music and literature.
The psalm as a whole extols the character of God as both compassionate and mighty. It is both an expression of praise to God as well as a confessional statement made to the people of God declaring God’s goodness to all of Creation. Prayer is fluid in the Psalms. Often the same psalm will address God, the worshiping community, the whole of creation and the psalmist himself/herself within the same prayer. Note that although the people of the covenant are in the best position to recognize and witness to this God, they are not the only beneficiaries of God’s compassion. God is receptive to all who call upon him. vs. 18. The entire earth is God’s concern.
We can see in vs 15 an echo of the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day or daily bread.” “The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145: 15-16. It is just because sustenance comes from the hand of God that we can be content with this day’s bread without worrying about tomorrow. The assurance and confidence in God’s willingness and promise to meet our needs ties in very nicely with the feeding of the five thousand and the discourse that follows throughout John Chapter 6.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Vss. 14-15. There is a play on words here that gets lost in the translation. The Greek word for “father,” “pater” is the root for “patria” which means “country” or “father land.” The significance of this claim would not have been lost to folks living under the yoke of Rome which claimed to be the father of all peoples. This is a question of “Who’s your daddy?” aimed directly at Caesar. Disciples of Jesus owe their ultimate allegiance only to their Master. Nationalistic loyalties cannot be permitted to fracture the unity of Christ’s Body in which there are no national, racial, tribal or cultural divisions.
When Paul speaks here of “power,” it is always the power of the Spirit that is grounded in love. Urging his listeners to “put on the whole armor of God,” Paul turns this militaristic image on its head by identifying the church’s weaponry as truth, righteousness, peace, faith and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20. He prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Vs. 17. It is through being “in Christ,” that one becomes grounded in love; for Christ Jesus is God’s concrete expression of love.
Perhaps more than any of the other Pauline letters, Ephesians pictures the church as a counter-cultural community whose worship and practices place it on a collision course with the priorities of the Roman Empire. Though it takes different forms, empire is very much alive and well today. Multi-national corporate interests that manipulate governments with their vast resources, educational institutions that promote a violent sports culture, the glamour industry that denigrates the bodies of young girls and the banking industry that holds our economy hostage to its interests are all examples of imperial power. Because we owe our jobs, financial security and education to these entities, we find it hard to resist having our lifestyles dictated by them. Nonetheless, as I have previously noted, there are a growing number of intentional communities seeking to give expression to such radical discipleship. See my post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles always trigger questions/dialogue/confrontation spinning out lengthy discourses by Jesus. This story about Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people serves as an opener for a lengthy discourse he is about to have with his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. The dialogue is rich with sacramental imagery. Just as Jesus drew a distinction in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman between regular water and living water (John 4:7-15), so in the chapters to come Jesus will distinguish between bread that is merely “food which perishes” and “food that endures to eternal life.” John 6:27. Jesus finally discloses to his conversation partners that he himself is “the bread which came down from heaven” and that whoever “eats of this bread…will live forever.” John 6:51. At the end of this discourse, many of Jesus’ disciples desert him.
Unique to John’s telling of the story is an unnamed youth. He appears on the scene just as the disciples are facing what they view as a crisis. Five thousand people have been with Jesus for a long time out in the wilderness. They are hungry and we all know that hungry masses can easily turn violent. Buying food for all these people is not an option. Even if the disciples could have scared up two hundred denaii and there had been a deli nearby, the likelihood that it would have food on hand to serve five thousand is slim.
At this point, Andrew brings the young boy’s tendered lunch to the attention of Jesus. We don’t actually know whether the boy offered his lunch or whether Andrew commandeered it. The lesson does not tell us one way or the other, but it would be just like a kid to do something like putting up his lunch under these circumstances. A kid doesn’t understand that what little he has in his lunch box cannot possibly make a dent in the hunger of five thousand people. When he becomes a man, he will understand that there is only so much to go around; that if people are hungry it’s their problem, not his; that the best chance you have of survival is to hang on to what you have got and defend it with all means necessary. But at this point, he is just a kid. He doesn’t understand “the real world.” The only thing he does understand is that Jesus wants to feed this hungry crowd. He believes Jesus can do it and that he has something to offer that Jesus can use. Small wonder, then, that Jesus tells us “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3. The first step to becoming a disciple of Jesus is unlearning all the lessons of adulthood.
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus must beat a hasty retreat to avoid being taken by force and made king. Vs. 15. At the end of the chapter, Jesus will be deserted not only by this crowd who would have made him king, but also by most of his own disciples. This discourse is therefore a microcosm of the gospel narrative set forth at the outset: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God…” John 1:11-12.
For reasons that are not clear from the text, the disciples got into their boat and embarked without Jesus. Was this because they had become separated from Jesus in the hubbub ensuing as the crowd tried to acclaim him king? Or, sensing the danger that might result from the crowd’s coronation of Jesus, did the disciples simply flee and abandon him? In either case, they were relieved to discover that the approaching figure was none other than Jesus. On their own, the disciples appear to have been struggling against the sea. But on taking Jesus into the boat, they discover that they have arrived at their destination. This is, I believe, one of the many instances in which John wishes to make clear that “apart from me [Jesus], you can do nothing.” John 15:5. As I have often pointed out before, John’s gospel ends not with Jesus ascending to the right had of the Father or with Jesus sending the disciples out, but with Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. John 21:15-23. John cannot imagine the church without the presence of Jesus in its midst leading it forward.
EIGHTH SUNDY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, powerful and compassionate, you shepherd your people, faithfully feeding and protecting us. Heal each of us, and make us a whole people, that we may embody the justice and peace of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“…they were like sheep without a shepherd…” Mark 6:34.
The greatest difficulty with this metaphor is our inability and/or unwillingness to see ourselves as sheep. I would prefer to think of myself less as a heard animal and more like a common house cat. I go where I choose, hang around as long as I get fed and leave for better digs when the opportunity presents itself. My own life story, as I frequently narrate it, contains more than a few first person singular pronouns. This is “my” story of the choices “I” made that make “me” who “I” am.
The truth is, I am a product of a mother who was reading Bible stories and praying with me from as far back as I can remember. I was shaped by the elder siblings I sought to emulate. I was indoctrinated by the hymns I sang in my home church year after year and, though probably in a subliminal way, by hundreds of sermons preached in my hearing. Though the church of my childhood was less than prophetic in naming the sin of racism, it was nevertheless a community in which racial slurs and demeaning stereotypes were not tolerated. It was a place where a kid my age who in those days was labeled “retarded” could find full acceptance and a refuge from the merciless teasing and bulling he faced every day at school. Though far from perfect, my church was enough like the Body of Christ to form in my heart a belief in Christ and a vision the reign of God he proclaims. It was a flock of the Good Shepherd.
Of course, there were other forces shaping me as well. I had peers whose influence drew me in ways contrary to the reign of Christ. I listened to music that glorified drug abuse, promiscuous sex and violence. I attended schools where athletic achievement was celebrated more than learning, popularity more than character and physical beauty more than virtue. Nationalism/Patriotism elevated the flag over the cross, often confusing and conflating faithful discipleship with good citizenship. Furthermore, for all the talk about how political discourse has become so angry, polarized and uncivil in our day, I can’t say that it’s any worse than in my own youth back in the sixties when politicians called each other communists and the generations mutually excoriated each other with dehumanizing caricatures. There were plenty of shepherds out there besides the Good Shepherd seeking to direct me, promising to lead me to the good pastures and quiet waters along easier paths eschewing the cross. That I have remained within the flock of the Good Shepherd is more a testimony to the might of the Spirit of that Good Shepherd working through the means of grace and the care of a faithful community than any decision I have ever made in my life.
I try to keep that in mind when I preach to a people whose televisions and radios broadcast hate speech almost 24/7 into their homes. I try to remember that when I confront a confirmation class that finds Katy Perry infinitely more interesting and inspiring than a 60 year old bald guy with a seminary education. I try remember how the Spirit continues to work through the church with all its faults as I critically examine my own life and realize that, if Christianity ever became an outlawed religion, the prosecutor might have a difficult time amassing evidence sufficient to convict me. I will also work too keep before me the testimonies of faith I heard last week by children, teenagers and young adults at the Ekklesia Project Gathering discussed further below. They are proof enough that the Good Shepherd knows his own and calls, gathers and enlightens them. The Church is in Jesus’ care and it’s going to be just fine.
The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry took place during the last dark days of the Kingdom of Judah-as did that of Ezekiel (see my post for Sunday, July 5, 2015). The little kingdom emerged from Assyrian domination around 640 B.C.E. under the able leadership of King Josiah, who gained a large measure of power and independence for his country. Under his reign Judah’s territorial control spread beyond even the borders of the united Kingdom of David and Solomon. See Bright, John, A History of Israel, Second Edition (c. 1972 by Westminster Press) pp. 321-322. But that good fortune was not to last. Egypt and Babylonia soon rose up to fill the power vacuum left after Assyria’s fall. Josiah was slain in a fruitless battle with Egyptian forces on their way to join the remnant of the Assyrian army in a last desperate stand against Babylon. The victorious Pharaoh Neco placed one of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim, on the throne as his vassal. Ibid 324-325. Shortly thereafter, in 605 B.C.E., the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzer soundly defeated Egypt in the battle of Carchemish and began advancing into Palestine. Ibid. Seeing the impressive string of victories won by the Babylonian army against Judah’s neighbbors, Jehoiakim reluctantly switched his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzer.
Jehoiakim’s allegiance to Babylon was not to last. A victory of sorts by the retreating Egypt army against the Babylonian forces late in 601 B.C.E. led Jehoiakim to believe that the Babylonian invasion had reached its high water mark and would soon run out of steam. The future, he felt, lay with Egypt. So Jehoiakim switched sides once again, rebelling against Babylon. Ibid 326. This rash decision sealed Judah’s fate. Babylon was far from out of steam. Nebuchadnezzer advanced against Judah in 597. Jehoiakim had the good sense to die before Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem. His eighteen year old son, Jehoiachin ascended to the throne and ruled all of three months before the Babylonians forced Judah’s surrender and placed an uncle of the king, Zedekiah, on the throne. Ibid.
Zedekiah, was a weak and indecisive ruler easily swayed by his advisors who were intent on restoring Judah to its former glory under King David. Under their influence, the king engaged in a diplomatic strategy of playing his Babylonian master off against Egypt. This was a dangerous game that Zedekiah ultimately lost. In reliance upon a promise of support from Egypt, Zedekiah led his nation in revolt against Babylonian domination. Egyptian support never came and Jerusalem was surrounded and subjected to a brutal siege that ended with its destruction in 587 B.C.E. Ibid 328-321.
This is the context in which we read Jeremiah’s criticism of the “shepherds” of Israel, that is, her rulers. Jeremiah’s critique rests upon a tradition that saw the Davidic monarchy as the champion of justice, the protector of the poor and oppressed. E.g. Psalm 72. Yet in a hopeless effort to achieve national glory, the king and his minions disregarded the covenant at the heart of Judah’s existence. Judah’s kings took to worshiping the gods of other nations and relying upon international military alliances rather than on the Lord their God. The people of Judah suffered the horrific consequences of Judah’s misguided and self-serving political agendas. They were killed in the crossfire of war, driven into exile and impoverished as a result of the Babylonian reprisals. Rather than protecting and caring for the sheep, the leaders disregarded their welfare, exploited and scattered them among the nations. Yet the prophecy ends with a word of promise. God finally will raise up from the line of David a “righteous branch.” Vs. 5. Jeremiah continues to hope for a faithful descendent of David who, like David himself, will rule Judah with an eye toward caring for the sheep.
This lesson comes to us at the dawn of yet another a presidential contest promising to be contentious and divisive. It is appropriate to ask what our would be “shepherds” are doing to unite and care for the flock. Does winning the election trump leadership? Is purely selfish political ambition driving those who would be our shepherds? Judah’s rulers were intent on restoring the former glory of Judah under David and Solomon. That vision was entirely unrealistic under the current political circumstances. Moreover, Jeremiah would have his people know that what they regarded as the “good old days,” were in God’s view a dismal failure in terms of covenant faithfulness. Therefore, Jeremiah had the task of telling his people that God would not support the nationalistic aspirations of its faithless rulers and their diplomatic duplicity. God sought faithfulness, trust and obedience-qualities for which Judah’s rulers with their realpolitik had little use.
Ultimately, Judah’s shepherds were responsible for misleading the people with a false hope. They promised glory without obedience; greatness without faithfulness; prosperity without sacrifice. I might be on dangerous ground here, but I am convinced that all the presidential hopefuls thus far are guilty of the same sin. I also feel compelled to add that we, the people, share responsibility for their propagation of false hope. What we need are leaders that tell us the truth: that we face a crisis of malnutrition, poor schools and declining public infrastructure; that the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate; that more and more of our citizens are falling below the poverty line; that our disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources is not sustainable. Further we need leaders who tell us that all of these problems are difficult and complex. Addressing them effectively will require sacrifice, hard work and profound changes in our lifestyles.
But that is a message nobody wants to hear and we are not likely to elect a leader who brings us such unwelcome tidings. Instead, we elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear: that the solutions are simple and require nothing from us. We vote for people who tell us that we can have prosperity, security and peace without paying a penny more in taxes, without enduring any risk and without sacrificing an ounce of comfort. Of course, soon after putting these people in office it becomes clear to us that we have not elected the messiah, but another human being who cannot possibly keep the promises that had to be made to win the election. So when the next election rolls around, we angrily kick the false god we have made off the pedestal on which we placed it and set up another one in its place. I don’t see this deadly cycle ending until we finally face up to the truth. Our problems cannot be regulated out of existence nor will they miraculously disappear if only we let the free hand of the market economy do its magic. As long as we continue to believe in lies, we will continue to elect liars.
I don’t have any suggestions for fixing the political system in Washington (or Bergen County either, for that matter). All I can do is point to the righteous branch Jeremiah spoke of. He does not come to us with promises of easy fixes and miraculous cures. Rather, he calls us to the slow work of witnessing to God’s Kingdom and following him in a common life of service to one another. I have always been convinced that the one and only thing the church has to offer the world is a vision of God’s alternative for living together. Jesus did not preach easy solutions. To the contrary, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25. “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” Luke 13:24. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34. I doubt Jesus could ever get himself elected to public office, but that is not a thing to which Jesus aspired. The reign of God is made known not in the seats of empire or the halls of congress, but in communities that spring from the righteous branch where “the least” of all people are valued the most, where the truth is spoken in love, where daily bread is enough and where the offer of hospitality is made to all people all the time. That is where the truth that sets us free is enacted. That is where the light from God’s future breaks into the darkness of the present age.
Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. That has not stopped me from trying, however. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything I have to say at my posts for Sunday, April 26, 2015, Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, both on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.
I will say that my thinking about this psalm has been influenced by my participation last week in the Ekklesia Project Gathering in Chicago at which believers of all Christian traditions came together to reflect on faith formation for young people in our respective communities. We heard some very moving testimony from young people whose lives have been meaningfully shaped by learning the art of discipleship in their churches. We were also made painfully aware of how our church is, to a very large degree, failing in that crucial task. What I took away from this gathering is the conviction that we seem to have a problem reaching younger people because Jesus has so much difficulty reaching us. We are called to a life of radical discipleship reflecting the countercultural claims of God’s reign of justice and peace in a violent and oppressive world. But young people (all people for that matter) have a difficult time seeing among us anything different from the rest of the world. To a large degree, we are still operating as though the nation depended upon us to provide religious grounding and ideological support for the American way of life. We have yet to digest the fact that the Empire no longer needs or wants our services. Once we get that new reality into our heads, we will be free to do what Jesus has always urged us to do: become and make disciples shaped by a desire for God’s reign.
This text is a poignant reminder that we in the church are, as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, “wild olive shoots” that were grafted into the cultivated olive garden of Israel. Romans 11:17-24. This reminder is important because historically there has been a lot of bad theology out there suggesting that somehow the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. This understanding is further exacerbated by our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as the “Old Testament.” This might suggest that the covenant with Israel is obsolete, that Old Testament history is a story of failure that had to be corrected and replaced by the New Testament. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The God who raised Jesus from death is the same God that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land. The covenant, it must be emphasized, was with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. We gentiles come into the picture for one reason and one reason only: Jesus, the messiah of Israel, invites us in. As Paul makes very clear in his letter to the Romans, God has not revoked the covenant promises made to Israel. Israel still is God’s people and no less so merely because in God’s mercy the benefits of those promises have been extended to us gentiles through Jesus.
Of course, this passage also emphasizes once again that the flesh and blood church, the communion of saints, is the place where God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is made manifest. It is in the church that the mystery of God’s intent for all creation is revealed. Paul places great significance upon the church in this letter. As one very profound observation has it, “Paul’s revolutionary idea in Ephesians is the central idea not just of Ephesians but of the whole New Testament-in fact, of the whole of the Bible. The idea is that God is gathering together groups of people to love God, to love one another, to die to self, to become one. When you think about it, the Bible is about little more than God’s gathering a loving, united people to himself.” Alexander, John F., Being Church, (c. 2012 by John Alexander, pub. by Cascade Books) pp. 19-20. But it is also important to add that “These groups don’t exist for themselves, so they can feel warm and fuzzy. They have a purpose. And that purpose is to gather the whole world into groups that are in unity with God and therefore one another.” Ibid 20. And the purpose of that is to “make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:9-10.
Nothing infuriates me more than when the lectionary people take their unholy pruning shears to the scriptures and begin cutting and pasting together a reading made up of selective verses. That is exactly what has been done here. Between verses 34 and 53 we have Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and his appearing to the disciples in the midst of the Sea of Galilee walking on the water. I suppose this was done because we will be hearing John’s account of the feeding in next week’s gospel. I can understand why one would not want to place these two parallel stories back to back. Still, it seems to me that it would have been better to select another Markan reading that would not have required such brutal surgery. That said, the lesson is what it is. So I will take it as it comes, though I cannot ignore the feeding of the five thousand or the encounter on the Sea of Galilee as they both have an impact on the meaning of the text.
It is highly significant that the sixth chapter of Mark begins with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth and is followed by his sending out the Twelve to preach and heal. This mission activity appears to have alerted Herod Antipas to the Jesus movement and he is convinced that his old nemesis, John the Baptizer, has been raised. Our text for Sunday begins with the disciples returning from their mission and what appears to be a retreat for debriefing. Jesus and his disciples go out to a “lonely place” only to find that the crowds have gotten there ahead of them. Jesus finds the people much the way Jeremiah found them six centuries earlier-like sheep without a shepherd. It is significant that, just as the disciples relied upon the hospitality of the towns they visited in their mission, so now the crowd is hungry and in need of hospitality. The disciples suggest sending the people away to fend for themselves, but Jesus insists that they be shown the same hospitality the disciples were shown on their mission trip. Five loaves and two fish seem inadequate for such an undertaking but, when placed in Jesus’ hands, they turn out to be more than enough. The reading ends as it began-with crowds of people seeking Jesus.
More than anything else, these verses illustrate for us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the very center of discipleship is hospitality-the willingness to make space, share necessities and take time for the neighbor. That is not so difficult when it comes to welcoming neighbors I know and love. I always enjoy having people from my congregation drop in and see me when I am in the office. I look forward to visiting the people to whom I am pastor. I am less sanguine about the fellow in the ragged, stinking clothes who shows up ten minutes before Easter Sunday Eucharist is about to begin with a problem that needs my immediate attention and, of course, it is a problem that only cold, hard cash can solve. So, too, there are times when I am just not up to hospitality. Spending weeks on the road meeting, greeting, healing, exorcising demons from, caring for and lodging with people all over Galilee has got to take its toll. After all that, having to confront a hungry, needy crowd of thousands pushes the envelope to the limit. This is a poor introvert’s nightmare. Left to themselves, the disciples would have been overwhelmed. But they were not left to themselves. Just as a few loaves and fish in the hands of Jesus feeds over five thousand, so Jesus enables his disciples to stand with him as shepherd to this crowd of lost and directionless people.
In small churches like my own, radical hospitality is a challenge. We seem ill equipped to meet the very big challenges in our community. We fear that, if we were to take the steps we need to take in order to make all people feel welcome, we would be crushed under the weight of their need. Yet I think that behind this fear lies a dangerous misperception. We tend to think of ourselves as the helpers, saviors, givers. On the other side of the counter are the needy, the receivers, the “helped.” In fact, we are in as much need as those we invite and those we would “help” have gifts of their own to offer. Moreover, we are not hosts to a sea of demanding guests. Jesus is the host. Like the disciples, we are household servants as dependent upon Jesus as the guests. Our confidence arises from the conviction that Jesus always has matters well in hand, however chaotic they might seem.
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
While cleaning out one of the many closets in our sanctuary in anticipation of renovation work, I came across an old German Bible dated 1874. It was so very old and decrepit that it nearly came apart in my hands. Stuck in between the pages was the text of a sermon. Unlike the Bible, the sermon was written in English and was typed on yellowed paper with written interlineations, now barely legible. The text was the 10th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” dissertation. The preacher spoke about the love of a shepherd for his sheep, the shepherd’s intimate knowledge of the sheep and the shepherd’s commitment to protect the sheep even at the cost of his own life. That, said the preacher, is how Jesus leads, feeds, cherishes and protects his church. The preacher did not sign his work. He probably felt no need for that. Sermons, after all, are like news articles. They are timely and helpful the day they roll off the press. The next day somebody is wrapping fish in them. But the odd thing about this sermon was its timelessness. There was nothing in the sermon, no illustration, no example, nothing to give me a single clue about what was going on in the world at the time. This sermon could be preached as easily next Sunday as when it was originally delivered-however many years ago that might have been.
This anonymous sermon from the past lacked a prophetic dimension. Prophecy is not content simply to tell the “Old, Old Story of Jesus and his love.” Prophetic speech names the demons of our time that possess us, illuminates the shape sin takes within the power structures that enslave, impoverish and dehumanize us. Prophetic speech cracks open our imaginations so that our eyes can see the coming of God’s reign in the world around us. The objective of prophetic preaching is to introduce into our lives the crucified and resurrected Lord who calls us to follow him.
Prophetic speech is risky. John the Baptist lost his head over prophesy. Though our lesson tells us that King Herod heard John gladly, he was not prepared to risk his kingdom or the respect of his party guests to venture deeper into the mysteries John proclaimed. He had too much to lose. As theologian and teacher, Gerald O. West once said, “Sometimes the good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good.” For those of us deeply invested in the way things are and comfortable with the status quo, the announcement “behold, I make all things new” sounds threatening. I hear alarm bells going off causing me to wonder: what am I about to lose? As long as I cannot see beyond all that I might lose, I will remain blind to what God is trying to give me. It is the task of prophetic speech to tell the Old, Old Story in ways that both show up the shallowness of our ways of living and, more importantly, give us a vision of the better hope God has for us in Jesus.
Amos is a cranky prophet with several strikes against him. For one thing, it doesn’t help that he is a foreigner. Though a resident of Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Amos was called and sent to preach to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Furthermore, he was not connected with any recognized prophetic school or movement. He was, in his own words, “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” vs. 14. This is could be taken to mean that Amos was a laborer in the vineyards and herder of animals for a land owning farmer. It might also mean that Amos was a land owning farmer himself. But whether his origins were humble or privileged, Amos identified unequivocally with the poor in the land.
In the days of Amos, Israel was experiencing a period of military might, economic prosperity and religious revival under its powerful and successful King, Jeroboam II. II Kings 14:23-29. Happy days were here again and the people were convinced that the prosperity they enjoyed was proof of God’s favor. God was blessing Israel. The nation’s mood is aptly expressed by Professor John Bright:
“…one senses that Israel’s mood, rotten though she was, was one of optimism. This was evoked partly by pride in the nation’s strength and by the momentarily unclouded international horizon, but partly be confidence in the promises of Yahweh. The truth is that an inner perversion of Israel’s faith had taken place. The gracious acts of Yahweh toward Israel were doubtless assiduously recited in the cult, and her covenant with him periodically reaffirmed; but it appears (Amos 3:1 f; 9:7) that this was taken as earnest of Yahweh’s protection of the nation for all time to come, the obligation imposed by Yahewh’s favor (Amos 2:9-12), and by the covenant stipulations having been largely forgotten. Indeed, it seems that a perverted recollection of the patriarchal covenant, which consisted in Yahweh’s unconditional promises for the future, had virtually overlaied the Sinaitic covenant in the popular mind. Covenant obligation, in so far as it had not lost meaning altogether, was conceived as a purely cultic matter, the demands of which could be met-and in Israel’s view were met-by elaborate ritual and lavish support of the national shrines.” Bright, John, A History of Israel, (c. Westminster Press) p. 243.
Amos had a difficult message for Israel: God was not happy with Israel. Specifically, God was angry at Israel’s upper class.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practise deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Moreover, God was about to bring the reign of Jeroboam and Israel’s era of prosperity and success to a devastating end. Do you remember Rev. Jeremiah Wright? His sermons were publicized in connection with the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Particular attention was given to a sermon in which Wright said: “No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America.” If you can recall some of the rabid and vitriolic public response to these words, you can well imagine how Israel responded to Amos when he stood up in the national sanctuary at Bethel to announce that “the high places of Israel shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and [God] will raise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Amos 7:9. Small wonder that Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, removed Amos from the clergy roster. It is hardly surprising that Amos was banished to the much smaller “Judah Synod.” As Amaziah observed, “the land is not able to bear [Amos’] words.” Vs. 10.
Listen closely, to Amaziah’s words in reply to Amos: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom”. Vs. 13. Seriously? Is the sanctuary really the property of the Kingdom and is God nothing more than the king’s humble tenant? It seems that Amaziah’s only concern is with the honor of the King and respect for the kingdom. He is fiercely patriotic, but not one wit faithful. Amaziah is deeply concerned with the political ramifications of Amos’ preaching, but it never occurs to him to ask whether that preaching might actually be true. True or not, it is unpatriotic, dangerous, offensive and upsetting. That is reason enough for snuffing it out. As far as Amaziah is concerned, Amos is a national security risk and the best way to get rid of him is to strip him of his official clergy status and send him into exile. But Amos will not so easily fade away. He is not the least bit ruffled by his removal from the clergy roster. “I am no prophet,” he says. Vs. 14. He needs no official credentials. Unlike Amaziah, Amos is not the king’s patsy. He belongs to the God who sent him to preach-and preach he will!
I have thought about these words often as we at Trinity begin renovation of our own sanctuary. The first question we need to begin asking ourselves is whether it really is our sanctuary. I suppose that from Amaziah’s point of view, Trinity’s sanctuary belongs to Trinity’s members. We built it. Our offerings support it. We should have the final say in what it looks like, how it is used and what goes on there. From a worldly standpoint, it is hard to argue with this logic. But as Paul would remind us, we don’t view matters from a worldly perspective. We view all things from the standpoint of our call to follow Jesus. No, the sanctuary is not ours to do with as we please to meet our own personal needs. It is a tool given us to serve Jesus in this neighborhood in which we are placed. So the questions we always need to be asking are: 1) How can we transform our sanctuary in ways that will reflect to the rest of the neighborhood the welcome extended to all people in Christ Jesus? 2) How can we make our sanctuary a tool for reconciling conflict, overcoming injustice and building peace in our community? 3) What is God calling us to in this community and how can we use our sanctuary to answer that call? We cannot afford to forget who belongs to whom.
This is a psalm of lament. For my general comments on psalms of this kind, see my post of April 19, 2015. If you read this prayer from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. This is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. See vss. 1-3. The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. Vss. 8-13. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
Remarkable about this prayer is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken out of a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him/her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one myself and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust in someone develops over years and many experiences of discovering that the someone you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also through the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
A word or two about Ephesians. According to the opening verses, the book is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus. Although the piece certainly contains many images and concepts that can be traced to Paul, it is the consensus of most New Testament Scholars that Paul did not author the letter. See, e.g., Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, (c. 1990 by Word, Incorporated) p. lx-lxxiii. It should be noted that some very prominent modern scholars are calling into question the majority opinion with solid arguments for Pauline authorship. Nevertheless, I remain persuaded that the Letter to the Ephesians is most likely the work of a disciple or associate of Paul composed decades after the apostle’s death. Still, I will continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” This is partly a matter of grammatical ease. It is much easier to say “Paul writes” than to say repeatedly “the author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes.” I also feel that, whether or not authored by Paul, the Letter to the Ephesians contains enough of Paul’s thought and influence to merit its attribution to him.
The book of Ephesians was most likely composed somewhere between 85 and 90 A.D. toward the end of the first Christian Century. The apostles had all died, but the world kept right on turning without missing a beat. The second generation of believers faced ever changing circumstances, increased opposition and challenges by religious claims and concepts from outside Judaism. How would this new generation deal with these matters without the guidance of the apostles? That is, in large part, what the letter to the Ephesians seeks to address. Using the “Body of Christ” image so central to Paul’s teaching, the author admonishes his audience to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Ephesians 4:1. Followers of Jesus are to live a life of love for one another in the unity of the Spirit. Ephesians 4:3. As they make their long journey through time, they must bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ by lives lived in striking contrast to the surrounding culture governed by rulers, authorities, “principalities and powers, hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12-13. They must support themselves with honest work, speak truthfully to one another and conduct themselves in a manner that glorifies the God by whom they have been called. Ephesians 4:17-32. The Church is a people called to “be imitators of God,” “to walk in love” as Christ loved them and gave Himself for them. Ephesians 5:1-2.
The opening verses of Ephesians that make up our lesson take the form of an extended Hebrew blessing typically beginning with the words, “Blessed are you, O Lord…” We can hear echoes of Solomon’s prayer in I Kings 8:14-61 and also of Zechariah’s prayer in Luke 1:67-79. The likeness of these verses to Hebrew prayers of blessing has led some scholars to believe that they were taken from an ancient liturgy employed in the early church’s worship. In the original Greek, our reading consists of one long sentence stretching itself out “by means of clauses, participial constructions, and the piling up of prepositional phrases and synonyms.” Lincoln, supra, at 11. This, too, suggests some liturgical connection. This language that requires several re-readings to grasp might well fly easily into the heart and mind on the wings of music. Numerous attempts have been made by New Testament scholars to isolate a particular hymn or liturgy within these verses. See Lincoln, supra, at 13-19. While fascinating, I find these efforts highly dependent on the speculative assumptions of their proponents. Whatever liturgical material may have been employed in crafting the Letter to the Ephesians and however the letter might have been employed liturgically in its present form, it is not likely a cut and paste collogue of separate liturgical pieces. It is, rather, a unified, hymn like tribute to the good news about Jesus that breaks down the dividing walls of national/cultural/racial loyalties uniting all people as one Body in Christ.
Paul articulates here an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Vss. 8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. Rather, the church is the first fruits and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” To be chosen is therefore not a position of special privilege, but a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people.
John got himself in trouble for criticizing Herod Antipas (not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Christ child). There were plenty of reasons for criticizing Herod whose ruthlessness matched that of his father. Perhaps John addressed these misdeeds also, but the issue that got him into hot water was a family matter. Herod divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea in favor of Herodias, who had formerly been married to his brother, Philip.
In this day and age, one might remark, “So who cares?” Granted, the Monica Lewinski affair reflected poorly on then President Bill Clinton. But when all is said and done, was it a matter that merited a congressional investigation, an impeachment vote and so much prime time TV? Evidently, most Americans think not. Clinton is still enormously popular with a broad section of the populous. But Herod is not the president of the United States. He has laid claim to the title of “king” over God’s chosen people, a claim based on the authority of Rome. The politics here is hard to miss. By giving Israel (or Galilee at any rate) her own king, Rome appears to be affording her a measure of independence and autonomy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Herod was neither a true Jew nor was he acclaimed king by the Jewish people. He was a stooge appointed by the Roman government to extract tax revenue and keep anti-Roman sentiment under control. The king of Israel, as David learned the hard way, is not only subject to the Torah but responsible for implementing Torah justice.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
Obviously, Herod’s marital infraction, similar in some respects to David’s, demonstrates a contempt for Torah. Though in our own minds it might not seem to rise to the level of importance we would place on justice for the poor and needy, a wanton violation of Torah in one point is a violation of the whole Torah. John’s condemnation therefore touches not merely the king’s character, but his lack of royal legitimacy. He is no king in the line of David and John has made that perfectly clear.
As it turns out, this illicit marriage played a huge role in the escalating conflict between Herod and his former father-in-law, Aretas. That dispute finally blew up into a military confrontation that went badly for Herod and the people he ruled. The sordid affair was not a strictly personal matter and, truth be told, no marriage is. While marriages today are typically not part and parcel of international treaties, they do involve families, friends, and frequently produce children. That is why who sleeps with whom is never a purely private matter, despite the insistence of many folks to the contrary. Marriage has ripple effects among large circles of people. So also does divorce. John understood that very well. There is no such thing as “purely individual and private.”
Note that when Herod hears about Jesus, his conclusion is that John the Baptist has been raised. Vs. 14. In a sense, he is right. The same God that spoke through John is now speaking again through God’s Son. Herod’s attempt to silence John’s voice, first through imprisonment and then through execution, has failed. With the advent of Jesus, John is back in spades. Herod is rightfully fearful. Herod was always fearful of John. Vs. 20. Having him in jail was like holding a hot potato. Herod knew John to be a righteous man and was afraid to kill him. Yet at the same time he was afraid to let him go, knowing that John’s words were as dangerous to his kingdom as those of Amos to the kingdom of Jeroboam II. Finally, the king’s pride trumps his fear and he has John executed to save face in front of his guests.
It is also interesting to note that John’s disciples came forward to give their master a proper burial. Vs. 29. Jesus’ twelve disciples will do no such thing. Only the women will visit Jesus’ tomb and then only after his burial.