Archive for September, 2015
NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
This Sunday we recognize Francis. No, not the Pope, but the Saint of Assisi from whom the Pope took his name. What we know of Francis has been preserved for us by Friar Thomas of Celano who, at the commission of Pope Gregory IX, composed the First Life of Francis of Assisi. We know from this source that Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant. In his younger years, Francis lived a dissolute life. In his late teens he became a soldier and, on his way to fight for his home city of Assisi, he had a vision that directed him back home. Francis soon became disenchanted with the high life and began devoting himself to prayer. Sent by his father to sell off some of his inventory in a neighboring city, Francis tried to donate the proceeds of the sale to a poor priest at a ruined sanctuary. The priest, suspicious of Francis’ motives, refused to accept the gift. Thereupon, Francis simply disposed of the money. Needless to say, his father was displeased. When he threatened to disinherit his son, Francis beat him to the punch. He returned all that his father had given him including the cloths he was wearing and set out “to preach repentance to all, edifying his hearers with simple words but largeness of heart.” Celano, Thomas of, Frist Life of Francis of Assisi, published in Readings in World Christian History, Vol. 1, (c. 2004 by John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk; pub. by Obis Books) p. 355.
In accord with Catholic teaching, Francis preached that the world was created good and beautiful by God but stands in need of redemption because of human sin. He preached to human beings and animals the duty of all creatures to praise God and the duty of human beings to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures themselves. To Francis, all animals as well as the forces of nature were fellow creatures that he frequently personified. His sense of kinship with all creation is best illustrated in the Canticle of the Sun attributed to him. The Canticle bears a striking similarity to our psalm for this Sunday.
Saint Francis was a man of peace. He bravely travelled across enemy lines to meet with the Sultan of Egypt in an effort to bring an end to the bloodshed between Christians and Muslims stretching over five church sanctioned crusades. Though Francis was unsuccessful both in converting the Sultan to Christianity and in bringing hostilities to an end, the Sultan was favorably impressed with his courage, humility and sincere faith. He is said to have remarked that he might consider becoming a Christian if all Christians were like Francis.
Poverty was a way of life for Saint Francis. While he certainly did not glorify poverty resulting from greed and injustice, Francis believed that contentment came from getting along with as little as possible and on what is strictly necessary. He believed that people should live as producers contributing to the welfare of creation rather than consumers exploiting the earth. Francis and his followers took literally Jesus’ admonition that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. They sheltered where they could, accepted such hospitality as was offered and slept under the open sky when no other options were available. They begged unashamedly and shared without reservation. Throughout his life Francis founded three orders: the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order for men and women not able to live the lives of itinerant preachers
There is much about Francis that is legendary. It is almost certain that he did not compose the “Prayer of Saint Francis” popularly attributed to him. His association with animals, though real, has been greatly exaggerated and sentimentalized. Biographical details about his life are intertwined with tales of the miraculous and fantastic. Yet these legends serve only to demonstrate the power of Francis’ teaching and example that have endured for eight centuries.
Into this violent culture of ours that knows no solution to evil other than brute force, no good other than consumption, and no world other than a soulless ball of resources waiting for the strongest and most ruthless to possess it; the gentle witness of Saint Francis drifts across our ruined landscape like a breath of fresh air.
This familiar story comes to us at the conclusion of the second creation narrative in Genesis (the first being Genesis 1:1-2:3). It is part of the biblical overture constituting the first eleven chapters of the book and setting the stage for the opening curtain that will occur in Genesis 12 where God calls Abram to leave his homeland of Haran and journey to the promised land of Canaan. Genesis 12:1-3. These chapters tell the story of a God who creates a good world filled with all that is required for human beings to live well and flourish. The goodness and well-being of creation is constantly threatened by human rebellion and violence. In each episode the judgment and grace of God intervene to counteract the destructive conduct of God’s human creatures. At the conclusion of the eleventh chapter, we find an earth cursed by human sin, divided by language and immersed in idolatry. Yet just as creation seems to be caught in the death spiral of curse, God calls Abram to become a nation of blessing. That nation, of course, is Israel. “It is imperative,” says one commentator, “to begin reading Exodus, indeed the entire Old Testament, with Genesis as the point of departure.” Fretheim, Terence E., “Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 2, (October 1991). Of course, the converse is also true: we cannot read Genesis without understanding it as the prelude to Israel’s story. It is important, therefore, to keep in mind this biblical context as we consider today’s lesson about the formation of man and woman. We are being prepared for the saga of Israel.
The biggest difficulty we have with texts like this is the baggage they have picked up from having been dragged through the culture wars. Creationists have insisted that this story must be taken as the literal and sole explanation for the origin of human life on earth. Clearly, the cosmological, geological, historical and biological evidence do not support the formation of human beings separately from the rest of the animal world or their sexual differentiation at a later state of human development. Nor does the harmonious, non-predatory nature of life in the Garden of Eden appear to be sustainable in the world as we know it. Consequently, insistence on a literal interpretation of the biblical creation stories requires wholesale rejection of scientific knowledge and theory that is growing stronger by the day. Creationists are up for that fight and more than ready to re-litigate the Scopes Monkey Trial. A good example of their determination to re-write the geological, biological, cosmological record is the multi-million dollar Creation Science Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
This story has also been cited frequently as a proof text for the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” Vs. 24. This, it is argued, constitutes the normative pattern established from the beginning. But that interpretation seems to place the cart before the horse. In fact, God says nothing about the institution of marriage or anything else. Rather, the story teller reflects on the experience of human beings and their relationships in light of the creation of man and woman. The point seems to be that the attraction drawing a woman and man together finally proves stronger than the parental and sibling ties in which they were raised. This yearning for intimacy, of which sexual expression is one but by no means the only aspect, is naturally disruptive to existing family structures. Yet it is woven into the fabric of God’s good creation and therefore good in itself.
It seems to me, then, that we need to read the text from the beginning rather than the end. The lesson begins with God’s declaration that it is not good for Adam to be alone. God does not proceed with divine dispatch to the obvious (to us) conclusion, but experiments with the creation of other life forms to meet Adam’s need. But Adam’s loneliness is not merely “aloneness.” His longing is for an intimate relationship with one of his own kind. This longing cannot be satisfied by the companionship animals bring or even by his unique relationship to the Creator. The creation of male and female, then, was designed to alleviate that emptiness Adam experiences.
There is an element of humor in this passage that is very much underappreciated. I think that is probably because we have a deeply ingrained sense that religion, faith and the Bible are serious matters. To laugh at something in the Bible seems almost sacrilegious. Often, though, the biblical authors are intending to be funny. They see humor as part and parcel of every relationship worth having, including our relationship with God. Here God observes the earth creature just formed from dust and concludes that “it is not good for this creature to be alone.” So God creates the animals to be companions for this creature. The creature finds the animals interesting and perhaps endearing-so much so that it gives them names. Still, none of them proves a suitable companion. It appears that God is unsure of what is needed here; that God is fumbling around, turning out ever new and exotic animals that somehow fail to meet the creature’s deepest need. Then, in a flash of insight, God suddenly “gets it.” The creature needs a companion of its own kind. “Finally!” says Adam as Eve appears on the scene. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Note well that the name, “Adam” is not really a proper name. It means simply “taken from the ground,” or “earth creature.” We cannot call Adam a “man” in terms of gender because at this point there is no gender. Without the male/female polarity, the concept of gender is simply unintelligible. As Phyllis Trible, a prominent biblical scholar, has pointed out, the Hebrew word for “man” in the sense of a male human (“ish”) is not used in the Adam and Eve creation story until after the creation of Eve. Only then is Adam referred to as “ish” which means “male person” over against Eve who is “ishah” or “female person.” Consequently, the notion that the male human was created first and the female afterwards is erroneous. Both male and female came into existence when Eve was drawn from Adam.
It should be clear that the primary concern from God’s standpoint is not the establishment of an institution, but rather the alleviation of Adam’s loneliness. If we begin reading this text from the standpoint of God’s concern for human companionship rather than our own concerns about how marriage ought to be defined, I believe that we are lead to some very different ways of looking at issues like same sex relationships, transgendered persons and our treatment of human sexuality generally. God would save his creatures from loneliness. God desires companionship and intimacy for his creatures. Marriage (which is not mentioned at all in the text) is designed to protect such intimacy within a covenant of mutual faithfulness. Any definition of marriage that is used to deny this good aspect of human existence to others cannot be harmonized with our lesson.
Finally, a word or two about marriage. Marriage is obviously not the cure all for loneliness. It is only as good as the creatures entering into it. Because we are all flawed and broken creatures, our marriages are also flawed and broken. There are cold and loveless marriages in which one or both spouses find themselves desperately lonely. Conversely, there are unmarried, single individuals whose friendships, family and professional lives afford them a wealth of deep and lasting relationships where they find comfort, support and much joy. This is yet one more reason why we should avoid getting hung up on the definition of marriage and hear what this scripture says about what makes us human: the deep and lasting relationships that meet our longing for intimacy and help define us as persons.
The superscription to this psalm reads: “To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.” Introductions like these which preface many of the psalms are routinely ignored in our liturgical usage and barely acknowledged by commentators. This is due in large part to the fact that their meanings are obscure. The meaning of the term “Gittith” is lost to us, though most commentators agree that it is most likely a reference to the musical score accompanying the psalm. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) associates the term Gittith with the Hebrew term “gat” meaning “winepress.” Accordingly, it interprets the title as “song of the winepress.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 140. Most of us would be tempted to dismiss all of this as another textual prejinkerty of interest only to textual scholars. But Saint Augustine took this title extremely seriously and made it the touchstone for his exposition of the whole psalm. Exposition on the Book of Psalms, The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8 (c. 1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 27-32. Interpreting the “winepress” as a metaphor for the Church, he plumbs the depths of the psalm for deeper understanding of sanctification, discipleship and martyrdom. We might quibble with Augustine’s allegorical method, but his instincts were correct. In the final analysis, disciples of Jesus read the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, through their faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord.
This beautiful hymn glorifying God is bracketed by a refrain at its beginning and end that says it all: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” Vss. 1 and 9. This psalm recognizes the glory of God under which all created things pal in significance. Yet it is this very glory that dignifies and gives meaning to creation generally and to human beings in particular. Vss. 1-2. Small as we are, God does take note of us. Vs. 4. More than that, God has given to us human beings the unique task of ruling over creation and having “dominion” over every living thing. 6.
It is important to understand what is meant by “dominion.” God is still the rightful owner of all things over which we have dominion. We are stewards, not owners. To get an idea of what that means we need to return to Genesis 2:15 which regrettably was not included in our reading for Sunday. The verse reads: “The Lord God took the man (“Adam,” not “ish”) and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” From the dawn of creation it has been the role of human beings to “till and to keep” God’s garden. This means, of course, that we are not free to make whatever use we will of everything under our dominion. Being made in God’s image means that we human beings have a unique capacity to create. We have the ability to alter the face of the earth in ways that no other creature can. This ability enables us both to enhance the beauty, habitability and productivity of our planet and to wreak catastrophic destruction on it.
Proper human dominion is a pressing issue for us today as the earth’s human population grows and consumes the earth’s resources at an alarming rate. A recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report says that if the world continues using its resources at current rates, humanity will be using up some 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass annually by the year 2050. The report described this as “three times its current appetite,” and an “unsustainable” rate of extraction. This sorry state has evolved from our viewing the earth as a ball of resources owned by nation states, each claiming sovereign control over resources within its borders and/or owned throughout the world. As Pope Francis warned us during his visit to our country last week, “A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” See WSJ Market Watch, September 25, 2015.
Faithful dominion requires a different vision beginning with the acknowledgement that the earth belongs first and foremost to God. Our use of its resources cannot be guided by a desire to perpetuate a way of life that ruthlessly exploits and carelessly consumes with no thought for the health of the world’s ecosystems, the suffering inflicted on our fellow human beings throughout the planet or the welfare of generations to come. Proper dominion over the earth means learning to stop being consumers and to begin living as contributors. That, of course, will affect the homes we live in, the cars we drive (if any) and the way we eat. It will change a host of other daily habits that injure the environment, foster inequality and threaten peace. The psalm does not give us any concrete guidance in implementing these changes, but it does suggest to us that the potential for a better world is within our reach-when we finally learn to let God be God, let go of our desire to possess our planet and recognize it as God’s garden to be tended and cared for.
Let’s begin with a word about Hebrews. This is an anonymous letter written in the latter half of the first century, probably between 80-90 C.E. It was not fully acknowledged as part of the New Testament cannon until 405 C.E. In the past, and to some extent today also, Hebrews has been viewed by biblical scholars as a comparison of Christianity to Judaism. The intent, they maintain, is to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. Mauch, T.M., “Letter to the Hebrews,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol.2 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 573.
I don’t buy that. It seems to me that both Judaism and the church were facing a common catastrophe at the end of the First Century, namely, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Obviously, the Temple was central to Judaism. There are indications that it was likewise important for the New Testament church. Jesus cleansed the Temple and taught in the Temple. According to the Book of Acts, the post resurrection church gathered in the courts of the Temple. The early church, being primarily Jewish, continued to worship in the Temple with fellow Jews. It was widely believed, in both Christian and Jewish circles, that the destruction of that Temple signaled the end of the age and the coming of God’s kingdom. That obviously did not happen. So both Judaism and the church were left with the task of interpreting their respective existences without the Temple. For Judaism, the fulcrum of faith and life became the Torah and the worship of God it inspired in the Synagogue. For the church, Jesus Christ was the Temple of God, the locus of God’s presence. In my view, Hebrews is not an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. It is instead a theological argument demonstrating that the messianic mission of Jesus is not refuted by the failure of certain eschatological expectations following the destruction of the Temple. To the contrary, Jesus’ redemptive mission continues and is embodied in the church.
The passage for this Sunday from the opening of the book consists of rhetorical artistry surpassing “any other portion of the New Testament” according to one commentator. Norden, Eduard Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religioser Rede (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1913; reprinted Darmstadt: Vissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971) p. 386 cited in Attridge, Harold W., The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 36. The implicit christological pattern of pre-existence, incarnation, death and exultation are reminiscent of the incarnational hymn at the beginning of John’s gospel. (John 1:1-18).
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2. This passage reminds us that we are not a people of the book. We are disciples of Jesus Christ whose ministry of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation continue in his resurrected Body, the church. Of course, the Bible is critical to us because it constitutes the normative witness to God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not an end in itself. We read it seeking Jesus. We interpret it through Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We can call the Bible God’s word because it points us to Jesus.
As can be seen, the lectionary folk have again taken their scalpels to our reading, omitting Hebrews 1:5-2:4. These verses cite Psalm 2:7; II Samuel 7:14; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 97:7; Psalm 104:4; Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 102:25-27 in further support of the author’s assertion in vs. 1:4 that Jesus has become “as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.” More than any other New Testament book, Hebrews weaves the Hebrew Scriptures into every line of its argument. These references are not “proof texts” in the sense that they demonstrate and substantiate Jesus’ status as God’s Son. Jesus’ Sonship is grasped by faith and assumed from the get go. The author of Hebrews employs these scriptural citations not to prove, but to illustrate, deepen and explicate the meaning of Jesus as God’s Son and our true high priest with a rich variety of biblical images.
Our reading picks up again in chapter 2 at verse 5 with a quotation from our psalm. As you recall, the psalmist wonders at the status of the human creature: mortal and perishable unlike angels, yet in intellect and power unlike any other animal. The author of Hebrews uses this paradoxical position of the human creature to speak of Jesus’ status as God’s son. As a human person, Jesus shares fully in our own creaturely nature. Yet at the same time, he is exalted as God’s Son who “tastes death” for everyone. Vs. 2:9.
The reading ends with a citation from Psalm 22: “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” Psalm 22:22. It should not be lost on us that this is the psalm beginning with Jesus’ words from the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Psalm 22:1. This psalm which begins with a cry of dereliction and concludes with a hymn of praise not only draws the reader’s attention to Jesus’ crucifixion, but also provides the perfect scriptural paradigm for Jesus’ journey from suffering to exaltation. If we are going to understand fully the testimony of this wonderful epistle, we must pay careful attention to its use of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“We do not yet see everything in subjection to [Christ].” Vs. 2:8. That is true today as then. It does not appear that Jesus reigns. Yet contrary to all appearances, we confess that he does. More than that, we live under the belief that he does. For if Christ is not Lord of heaven and earth, the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense. It is not practical to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression. It is not practical to give to people who beg from you. It is not practical to love an enemy that is trying to kill you. At least none of this is practical in a world run by the principalities, the rulers and the assumptions of this age. But disciples of Jesus maintain that Caesar is not Lord. Nor is the invisible hand of the market nor is dialectical materialism nor is any nation state. Jesus is Lord and the day will come when every knee will bow and tongue so confess. Therefore, we throw in our lot with the one we know to be victorious even if that means we will have to take some lumps from those who have not yet figured that out. We take the long view. The Kingdom of God is coming and so we gather as Christ’s Body animated by the Spirit of God so that we can be transformed into the kind of people capable of living in such a kingdom.
This passage and the way the church has interpreted it in the past is responsible for a lot of pain inflicted on a lot of people. I can still recall the days when our churches would not perform second marriages on the basis of this passage. I have heard a number of heartbreaking stories from woman who have been counseled to remain with their abusive husbands so as not to “put asunder” what “God has joined together.” So if we are to continue reading this scripture in our worship services and preaching on it, it is critical that we get it right.
To begin with, we need to acknowledge that what we call marriage has undergone significant changes throughout the ages. Marriage in the time of Jesus is not what it was in the days of the Patriarchs or during the reign of David over Israel. Marriage today is different from what it was in the time of Jesus and, for that matter, different from what it was only a century ago when women in our country could not vote, enter into contracts or, in many instances, own land. Women in Jesus’ day were regarded as the property of men. Adultery was not a crime committed between a man and a woman. It was a crime committed by one man against another man. It was a crime committed by a woman against her husband. Notice how the question is put to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” vs. 2. A woman could no more divorce her husband than a cow could rescind her owner’s bill of sale.
So this is not an issue of sexual morality. It is a question of justice and compassion for women. A divorced woman loses her home, her source of sustenance and her livelihood. She can only hope that her father will take her back into his home or that someone needs a servant or a day laborer. Divorce as it was practiced in Jesus’ day laid a disproportionately heavy burden on women. This was, in every sense of the word, a man’s world-but not according to Jesus. For Jesus, women were as much children of God and called as much to discipleship as men. Jesus will not have them treated as cattle that can be disposed of arbitrarily.
Jesus does not dispute the law of Moses in this regard. Divorce is permitted under the terms of the law. Jesus goes on to point out, however, that Moses wrote this commandment “for your hardness of heart.” Vs. 5. Marriage was designed to be a life-long commitment. Because “it is not good” for a person to be alone, dissolution of a marriage is contrary to its purpose. Yet because our hearts are hard, many of God’s good gifts to us are ruined. Marriage is one of them. It is important to emphasize here that the “hardness of heart” necessitating divorce is not found solely or even primarily within the divorcing couple. Due to our ever increasingly mobile society, many young married couples begin their lives together and raise their families in neighborhoods far from where they grew up and where their families reside. They lack the family support and encouragement that is often so helpful in building up and strengthening a marriage. Demand upon professionals to work long hours takes a toll on marriage. Loss of employment, financial stress and illness of a spouse can test even the strongest marriages. I am thankful for a vibrant community of faith that stood by me during times of illness, economic instability and stress in my family. I am likewise indebted to a supportive employer who was flexible enough to give me the time I needed to care for my family in periods of crisis. This week I will celebrate 32 years of marriage-but not with any sense of pride or accomplishment. I know only too well that I owe my successful marriage to a host of partners who stood by me and my wife in time of need. I also know that there are better people than me whose marriages have broken under the strain of the factors discussed above.
In sum, there are many guilty parties in every divorce, such as uncaring and unflexible employers, unsupportive faith communities, distant and disinterested neighbors and corporate business entities that put profits before the stability of communities and the welfare of their workers. So also, behind every successful marriage there usually are a host of supporting angels that have been present at critical times to encourage faithfulness and endurance. Most significantly, the sins involved with the breakup of a marriage are no different from any other sin. They are covered by God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just as God raised Jesus from death, so also God can bring new life and love out of the ruins of a failed marriage.
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Our lessons have a lot to say about leadership and how it is exercised by the people of God. That is a timely concern as our country awaits the visit of Pope Francis while trying to make sense out of that reality show we call the presidential primaries. What do we look for in a leader? How does one lead effectively? What is this thing we call “authority”? Who has it?
Judging by the polling data, we seem to respect a leader who is decisive, knows what s/he believes and is not afraid to express it-as long as we like what we hear. So a candidate running for elected office needs to walk a fine line avoiding a kind of soft-spokenness that might suggest weakness or indecision on the one hand and an outspokenness that is perceived as rude and offensive on the other. The trouble with the electoral process is that it often gives us leaders shaped by us into what we want rather than leaders capable of taking us where we need to be. How effective can one be as a leader after obtaining his/her office through following the very ones s/he is supposed to lead?
A key constituent of leadership is authority-not to be confused with power. The former makes a great leader, the latter, standing alone, makes only a dictator. Authority is frequently found among the powerless. Though Jesus had no official teaching status (as far as we know) and held no political office, his hearers recognized that he taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:29. What was it, then, about Jesus that made his word authoritative? I believe it boils down to one word: integrity. Jesus’ actions were so thoroughly in harmony with his words that, as Saint John would say, Jesus was his Word. John 1:1.
Being a leader sometimes means you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear-and not just the people you know will never vote for you anyway. Truth has to be spoken to your strongest supporters, your most committed followers, your most trusted friends. You have to keep reminding the people of your vision and what is required of them to achieve it long after its novelty and freshness has worn thin. As Moses is beginning to learn in our first lesson, it is hard to lead when the Promised Land is forty years away and your constituents want results yesterday. In our gospel lesson Jesus is finding that leading his fractious, power hungry and self-centered disciples is a little like herding cats. James urges us to lead those who are wandering from the community of faith back home again. Leadership is not an easy task. It calls for more than sound judgment, careful discernment and prudent action. People will finally be lead only by those they trust. That is why leadership begins with “followership.” Unless and until we are prepared to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, it is unlikely anyone will heed our call to take that difficult road.
Pope Francis offers a welcome contrast to the noisy clamor for votes we have been forced to endure the last several months. Here is a man who has consistently refused the luxuries that typically come with his office. Francis’ determination to be among the people (much to the consternation of our security forces) demonstrates the same willingness to be vulnerable that he calls upon the nations of the world to exercise in receiving refugees fleeing war and starvation in the Middle East. His frank talk about our country’s consumerism, inequality and violence will no doubt make us uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. But the Pope does not need or seek our votes. He seeks instead our hearts for Jesus. Now that’s what I call authority!
The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses commonly referred to as the Pentateuch. Modern biblical research has reached a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a thorough discussion of this theory, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis. The title, “Numbers” comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. It was no doubt inspired by the census of the Hebrew tribes narrated in the early part of the book. The Hebrew Bible uses the title “bemidar” which means “In the wilderness.” In fact, the book as a whole narrates the journey of Israel through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan. For a more thorough outline of Numbers, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
This lesson brings back family memories-not of a good sort. Make no mistake about it, I love the family in which I grew up. I think my parents did a wonderful job raising me and my siblings. I enjoyed doing things with my family for the most part. Family vacations constitute one of the few exceptions to that rule. We never went to Disneyland or any comparable place when we took the two weeks of vacation to which my father was entitled each year. Instead, we drove out from Bremerton, Washington to Iowa to visit my aunt and uncle, stopping in Montana along the way to see another uncle and aunt. This was before air conditioning was standard equipment for cars and long before digital technology transformed the back seat into rolling entertainment center. We traveled in a Chevy station wagon, my younger sister and me sitting all the way in the back on a seat facing the rear. There were no seat belts and they probably would not have been much help anyway if we had been rear ended. Before we had gotten halfway through Washington State my sister and I were already whining: “When will we get there? We have to go to the bathroom! We’re hungry! How much longer do we have to drive? Why do we have to go on this stupid trip? Why can’t we just stay home?” Multiply that by several thousand voices and forty years and perhaps you can begin to appreciate Moses’ dilemma.
The people are angry. They have been travelling for a long time eating food that is unfamiliar to them. They don’t know where they are going or when they will get there. They have to rely upon Moses to give them that information and it appears that Moses is not altogether clear on the future either. So they complain. “Come on Moses! You told us that you were leading us to a good land! You told us we would live as a free people in our own country. But so far, all we can see is this wilderness that can’t support us. We have to survive by scrapping our bread off the desert floor. When are you going to deliver on your promises Moses? How long do we have to wait?”
Moses is angry too-at God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Vss. 11-13.
I think everyone who has ever served as a church leader knows how Moses feels. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory? Why does everyone always call me for every little thing that goes wrong down at the church? Do I have to do it all?” Now I think we need to stop here and reflect on Moses’ complaint. In fact, God did not lay the burden of all the people on Moses. Moses assumed that burden himself. Has Moses forgotten that it was God whose mighty works brought Pharaoh to his knees? Does Moses really believe that God expects him to “carry the people in his bosom?” Was it not God who has been carrying the people thus far? Moses should know that this liberation project is God’s, not his own. God is the one responsible for getting Israel to the Promised Land. Moses’ job is simply to lead the people in taking the next step.
Part of Moses’ problem, too, is that he has come to believe he is indispensable. He has convinced himself that no one is capable of leadership except him. Of course, when you assume responsibility for everything, you wind up taking the heat for everything. No human being can remain sane for long under that kind of pressure. God knows that. That is why God does not expect any of us to shoulder the load when it comes to mission and ministry.
Moses discovers that the people, who he has been seeing as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensable, that there are other persons with prophetic gifts capable of sharing his responsibility of embodying God’s vision for Israel. Of course, that means Moses has to let go of some of his authority. That is not always an easy thing for leaders. Most of us leaders are convinced that nobody can do things as well as we can. Most of us leaders are convinced that our way is “the” right way. The notion that God might be leading through the insight and knowledge of someone else is threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take the risk of sharing his authority. He is secure enough in his leadership role to recognize the prophetic voice of God even when it is spoken outside of “official channels.” When Joshua reports to Moses that there are two men prophesying that were not among the seventy that he “properly ordained,” Moses tells him not to fret about it. Instead, rejoice that the generosity of the Spirit is bigger than our imagination and more expansive than our organizational structures. Vss. 26-29.
This lesson serves to remind us that the church is not made up of leaders and followers. It is made up of a communion of saints each having his or her own unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ. So leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.
The first six verses of Psalm 19 praise God for God’s self-revelation in the wonders of the natural world, the heavens, the forests and fields. The second half of the Psalm, which is our text for Sunday, focuses on God’s self-revelation in Torah, the teachings of the scriptures. “By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.” Vs. 11. This is not to say, of course, that God rewards people who are obedient to the law with approval or that people who keep the law are somehow immune from suffering or bad fortune. Meditation on the scriptures is its own reward. By so doing, we are drawn closer to God and deeper into the heart of God. By internalizing the scriptures, we give the Holy Spirit a powerful tool for transforming us into the image of Christ. That is why I continue to recommend reading two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.
The psalm concludes with a prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” Vs. 14. These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongues and the responsibility of being teachers in all that we do and say. This would be a good prayer to repeat each morning before we have had a chance to speak to anyone. It is a reminder that wherever we are, we are always in the presence of Jesus.
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Vs. 16. Over the years, there have been several studies done in the medical community to measure the “effectiveness” of prayer for people who are sick. The results have been inconclusive. At best, some data suggests that where people are supported by a praying community, they tend to experience a faster and more thorough recovery. Other test results suggest that people who are the object of prayer feel a sort of “obligation” to recover. Because setbacks in recovery might be interpreted as a lack of faith or divine support, knowing that one is being prayed for might actually hinder recovery.
Obviously, the problem here is our understanding of effectiveness. If the measure is simply recovery of the sick person we are praying for from his or her disease, that measure is flawed. Eventually, all of us will suffer an illness or accident from which we will not recover. No amount of prayer will save us from our mortality. Consequently, I don’t believe we can take James to mean that prayer always results in healing the sick. Moreover, James tells us that when we pray for the sick person, the Lord will raise him or her up and forgive his or her sins. Vs. 15. Is “raising up” synonymous with healing? It may be so in some circumstances, but not all. Recall that Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the side” that he felt was hindering his ministry. We do not know whether that was a physical ailment, but the point is that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, Paul was left to work around it and, in so doing, he discovered that God’s strength was sufficient for his weakness. Indeed, God was able to use Paul’s infirmity to strengthen his faith and deepen his ministry.
Prayer is more than making requests and seeing them answered. One of my predecessors here at Trinity, Rev. Stephen Bouman, recently said that “lament” is that space between what should be and what is. I like that. I believe that prayer often has a dimension of lament where we struggle with a reality that seems to cast doubt on God’s love for us and commitment to our wellbeing. It is in that struggle that we finally arrive at the place where God would have us be. It is perhaps not the place we hoped to arrive at. It is probably much different than what we expected salvation to look like. But it turns out to be a good place nonetheless because it is the place where Jesus brings us.
The first part of this Gospel lesson is strikingly similar to the interchange between Joshua and Moses in our first lesson. James and John come upon a man who is doing the work of exorcism in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve or any of the disciples commissioned by Jesus. So James and John put a stop to his ministry because, “he was not following us.” Notice the pronoun “us.” The disciples do not say that this man was not following Jesus, but only that he was not with them. In modern parlance, we might say that this man was not “properly ordained” or “approved by the credentialing committee” or “on the clergy roster of any Synod of this church.” Now we need to be careful here. As I said before, the church is not a community of leaders and followers. It is a communion of saints each of whom is given gifts for building up the Body of Christ. As one who has experienced firsthand the destructive power of ecclesiastical regulations and guidelines that operate to crush opportunities for ministry that don’t fit into narrowly defined understandings of how ministry is to be done, I resonate to Jesus’ admonition here. Do not stop someone from exercising his or her gifts for ministry just because they don’t fit into any predetermined pattern. Rather, examine the pattern to see what must be transformed so that this gift of ministry might be gratefully accepted and integrated into the full Body of Christ.
Still and all, a call to ministry is never merely a matter of individual choice. It is the Body of Christ, the communion of saints that must help each person discern, develop and exercise his or her gifts for ministry. I might be entirely wrong about what my gifts and abilities are. I may be immature and inexperienced in my exercise of those gifts. I am always in need of the church’s guidance, encouragement and discipline in the exercise of ministry. That goes not only for pastoral ministry but for all ministries in the church-music, education, stewardship, administration, etc. Nobody’s office in the church is above the discipline and admonition of the church.
What follows is one of the few instances in which Jesus preaches hellfire. Whoever causes one of these “little ones” who believe in Jesus to fall will have hell to pay. Vss. 42-48. Is this a continuation of Jesus’ teaching last week to the effect that there is nothing greater in the kingdom of God than to receive a child? Or is it a further response to James and John for their suppression of the exorcist? I think it might be a little of both. The lectionary readings from last week began with the question: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus first tells the disciples that to be great in the kingdom of God, there is no nobler task than receiving a child. Under this standard, moms, babysitters and nursery school teachers will be elevated over presidents, generals, captains of industry, bishops, pastors and seminary professors. How does one lead with greatness in the kingdom of God? Well, certainly not by suppressing the work of other people who are exercising the power of that kingdom under the poor excuse that they don’t have the proper credentials. Rather, greatness requires keeping the borders of the church porous, hazy and in flux so that it will be capable of receiving the gifts of the Spirit wherever they are manifest.
Exercising the worldly greatness of hierarchy in the church is a crime against the Body of Christ. It ignores Jesus’ dictum that the last are first and the first last. It imports methods, values and structures into the life of the church that are antithetical to the ways of the Spirit. In the name of exercising authority for the sake of the church, people acting under such a false understanding of greatness actually stifle the work of the church, hinder the Spirit of God and undermine the church’s witness to Jesus.
The term “salted with fire” is obscure and the subject of debate by many commentators. Vs. 49. Though it is possible that purification by persecution is intended, that hardly fits the context. To have salt is to be at peace. Vs. 50. It would therefore seem that the countercultural existence to which the disciples are called works like salt-an agent of seasoning and preservation. It is so very basic that, if it loses its essence, nothing exists that can restore it. The little group of disciples, preoccupied as it is with greatness and preserving its position of privilege to the neglect of the “little ones” for whom Jesus is chiefly concerned, is sorely in need of “salting with fire.” Only to the extent that there is among the disciples peace born of mutual service to the least can the nature of God’s reign be made known.
SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Sometimes it seems to me that our society is waging a relentless war on childhood. It seems as though we view childhood with contempt. The sooner our children can get over that wretched and unprofitable stage in their little lives and start getting serious, the better. A decade ago I would never have associated the term “SAT” with “kindergarten.” Now such standardized testing is normal procedure and five year olds are under intense pressure to perform well for the sake of their futures. (I suspect, however, that the push for their success has more to do with retaining school funding than with any learning advantage for the children.) In some parts of the country, the quest for the Ivy League begins with pre-school. What must it be like for a four year old to know that her destiny rides on how quickly she can get Mr. Potato Head put together correctly?
As if pushing preschoolers into the rat race were not bad enough, our children are immersed into a world of sexualized violence at increasingly earlier ages. Girls as young as ten are absorbing through entertainment media and advertising the message that their value as persons is tied to their sexual desirability by men. They are being encouraged to dress and act like sex objects by commercial interests whose definition of female beauty is based on airbrushed models lacking acne, braces and body fat. In short, the beauty to which our girls are told to aspire does not exist in the real world. Any wonder they are starving, cutting and otherwise punishing their bodies for failing to meet this other-worldly standard? Equally disturbing are the narrow models of masculinity imposed on our boys that glorify aggressiveness, male dominance over women and ruthless competitiveness. Though I do believe many teachers and school programs are working hard to address these damaging trends, given the commercial incentives for keeping them alive, their efforts often amount to little more than whispers in a hurricane.
And these are the children we love; the ones who have parents that care about them; the ones we view as having the “good life.” Their situation is perhaps enviable to the discarded kids floating around in overcrowded group homes, juvenile detention facilities and on the streets. If you compare the benefits afforded us seniors to those available to children through Medicaid, the differences are striking. I suspect this is in large part due to the fact that children don’t vote. Outside of our borders children are frequently tapped as a cheap source of labor and put to work in dangerous factories producing, among other things, the toys we buy for our own children. Then, of course, there are the refugee children found everywhere and wanted nowhere. Children, it seems, are flooding the market. In a late stage capitalist economy, that means they have no value.
According to Jesus, the valuation of children is the measure of one’s receptiveness to the reign of God. It is in the child, the most vulnerable member of our species, that the face of God is recognized. Our culture views children as little more than adults in progress, future laborers or commercial units of which we currently have more than we need. Consequently, we are blinded by our market driven society and so find ourselves incapable of recognizing God’s kingdom.
As disciples of Jesus, we are challenged to do the counter-cultural: put children first. In order to do that, however, we are required to challenge the foundational values of our economy, our political assumptions and our consumerist lifestyle. We are compelled to confront the sexist stereotypes and homophobic mindsets that put so many of our children at risk. Receiving children and valuing them above all others is perhaps the most radical challenge Jesus ever made. If there is any remaining doubt that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically last week when he called us to take up the cross and follow him, this Sunday’s gospel erases it once and for all.
The time is somewhere between 609 and 587 B.C.E. Jeremiah had spoken forcefully against the leadership of Judah accusing the royal establishment of idolatry, injustice and oppression. Moreover, as war loomed on the horizon for Judah against Babylon, Jeremiah prophesied the victory of Babylon. Such preaching, especially during a time when the nation faced imminent attack, was thought to be subversive and perhaps even treasonous. Jeremiah was seen as undermining the morale of the people, failing to support the troops and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Jeremiah was a national security risk. That explains the assassination plot against him. We are not told whether the assassins are agents of the royal establishment or some ultra patriotic group of rival prophets. In either case, it is clear that Jeremiah is in danger and that this danger will only increase if he continues his preaching. So Jeremiah lets loose with a prayer lambasting God for leading him into this fix and crying out for vengeance against his persecutors.
Commentator Thomas Raitt says of this reading that it “is not up to the level of Christian faith, where at least the model is suffering in silence and with acceptance, and not a lot of complaining and invoking divine wrath on perceived enemies.” Raitt, Thomas M., “Jeremiah in the Lectionary,” Interpretation, Vol. 37, #2 (April 1983) p. 170. I am not convinced that suffering in silence and without complaint is the way of the one who cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” To be sure, this notion is firmly embedded in Protestant piety, but that does not mean it comports with biblical faith, Christian or Jewish. The psalms, which formed the language of prayer for Jesus, are rich in prayers of lament. These prayers are, according to Professor Walter Brueggemann, sadly underrepresented in Christian worship. Our preference for more upbeat (and therefore more “Christian psalms”) is, in Brueggemann’s view, “less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 51.
Unlike gay and lesbian couples seeking only a government permit from a clerk obligated to supply it, Jeremiah’s enemies are not merely “perceived” (to use Raitt’s term). They are very real and seem intent on taking the prophet’s life. I have never received a credible threat to my life. The only attacks I have ever had to endure were verbal. Make no mistake, some of those were pretty brutal, but I was never in any fear of death or bodily injury. I am not sure how I would react under those circumstances, but I am quite sure I would not “suffer in silence.” Fortunately, the psalms of lament, such as Jeremiah’s words in our lesson, give us some pointers on how to deal with pain inflicted by hostile attacks.
First, Jeremiah owns his emotional response. He feels betrayed by God. God gave Jeremiah a message to proclaim and he proclaimed it to the people. It was not a pleasant message. Despite his claim that he was but a gentle lamb led to slaughter (vs. 19), I am sure Jeremiah knew full well that his words would not endear him to his people. He was told as much from the start. Jeremiah 1:8. But it is one thing to understand in the abstract that standing by one’s principles sometimes requires sacrifice. It is quite another actually to experience the loss of friendship, rejection by family and social ostracizing. Loneliness, anger and fear can twist your mind in all kinds of directions. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah would love to “see [God’s] vengeance upon [his enemies].” Vs. 20. Jeremiah brings his sense of betrayal and hatred of his enemies right to the thrown of God. Jeremiah understood, as we often do not, that God is perfectly OK with this.
Second, it is critical to realize that, however angry at his enemies Jeremiah might be and however much he might like to see them get their just desserts, he leaves the matter of retributive justice in God’s hands. While the prophet feels free to let God know what he thinks justice demands, he is aware that judgment finally rests with God alone. Human judgment is far too clouded by loyalty to nation, family and clan (to say nothing of self) to decide impartially matters of retribution. We are too blind to our own faults, too clouded by past injuries and rivalries that color our judgment and too limited in our knowledge too discern what justice requires in terms of punishment.
Third, like all prophets, Jeremiah stands squarely under the withering judgment he proclaims upon his people. He does not preach from the lofty heights of the moral high ground. He speaks rather as a member of the people. The only difference between Jeremiah and his fellows is that he, through the illumination of God’s word, can see the meaning in the gathering storm clouds that eludes the rest of his people. Jeremiah feels in his gut the terrible future that awaits his people:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’ (‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’) ‘
The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
there no balm in Gilead?
there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
*O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. It is hard to distinguish in this passage the voice of Jeremiah from the voice of the Lord. A prophet bears within his/her soul the anguish of God’s heart over the ruin of creation. Prayer is therefore also testimonial, bearing witness as much to God’s aching for reconciliation as the prophet’s agony in giving voice to that divine pain. That, I think, is what we mean when we sing, “I will hold your people in my heart.” “Here I am, Lord,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 574.
This is one of several psalms attributed to King David and one of a few in which we are given the historical context of the psalm. According to its introduction, the psalm was uttered by David when he was a fugitive fleeing King Saul and was betrayed by the Ziphites among whom he was hiding. David narrowly escaped capture and certain death only because Saul was required to give up the chase to deal with an attack by the Philistines. The story is related at I Samuel 23:19-29. Most commentators doubt the accuracy of this and the other introductory notes to the Psalms. It is undisputed that they were attached very late in the formation of the Psalter. While the psalm does seem to fit the circumstances in which David found himself, the prayer is admittedly non-specific in detail such that it could also fit any number of other contexts. Still, it seems to me that one should not automatically discount the accuracy of the historical preface merely because it was a late addition to the Psalter. It could well be that such a preface was unnecessary in prior years because the origin of the psalm was generally known. That it was only recently attached to the psalm might reflect no more than that the memory of this connection was beginning to grow dim in the editor’s own time and s/he wanted to assure that it would be preserved for subsequent generations. However we might resolve the question of authorship and context, this psalm clearly speaks to our own age as much as to its own-whichever that might have been. For my general thoughts on Davidic authorship and the psalms, see my post of Sunday, April 14, 2013.
Stylistically, this psalm is a lament; a cry for help to God. As such, it contains certain characteristic elements:
- Initial Appeal to God, vss. 1-3.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 1
- Expression of confidence, vss. 4-5
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 6-7.
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. Like Jeremiah in our previous lesson, the psalmist is threatened by enemies. We don’t know who these enemies are or why they are attacking the psalmist, but they are described as “ruthless” and they are seeking the psalmist’s life. Vs. 3. These enemies are not merely political rivals in a hotly contested election or contenders for professional advancement in the ruthless world of office politics. These enemies are threatening actual violence. They mean business. Small wonder the psalmist wants to see them punished with evil and put to an end.
At first blush, this psalm might seem not to reflect the attitude toward enemies we learn from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Matthew 5:44. Yet while this is surely Jesus’ command (and the most important one at that), it often takes us human beings time to get there. When we have been hurt, we need to cry. We need to express that hurt and anger in language that sometimes isn’t very nice. Nothing is gained by putting on a false front, suppressing anger and pretending it isn’t there. The issue is not whether to express anger and hurt, but how and to whom. Like Jeremiah’s lament, the psalm illustrates that God is always open to hearing prayer-not only when it is filled with praise and thanksgiving, but also when it is heavy with anger, hurt and hatred.
I don’t know about you, but my religious upbringing did not make that very clear to me. Consequently, there were times when I felt too angry to pray, too hurt to worship and too filled with unworthy emotions to approach God. Of course, one is never too unclean, too mean, too petty or too sinful to come before God in prayer. The psalms give us language to expose the worst of all that we are in prayer. Only through such exposure is healing made possible. Being honest about anger is the first step toward seeing the enemy in a different light and learning eventually to love him or her.
James begins by asking the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” vs. 3:13. Perhaps we need to pause here and ask ourselves what wisdom and understanding is. If wisdom is nothing more than the accumulation of knowledge, then our generation is surely the wisest yet. Never in the history of the world has so much knowledge been available to so many people. But knowledge does not equate with wisdom. As knowledgeable as we are, nations still cannot seem to settle their disputes without resort to warfare. Our agricultural ability has grown exponentially over the last several decades-yet so has starvation and the growing gap between the few very rich and the many poor. I think James is onto something here when he warns us that all the knowledge, understanding and technological expertise in the world is useless where hearts are driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. Vs. 3:14. Such wisdom, James points out, is actually demonic. Vs. 3:15.
James goes on to point out that wisdom is shaped not so much by what you know as by what you desire. “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” Vs. 4:1. If your desires are selfish, knowledge will only make your selfish ambitions more deadly and destructive. If your desires are for God and for God’s kingdom, your knowledge will be placed in the service of peacemaking, mercy and reasonableness. Vs. 3:17. So James urges us to “draw near to God” because you are shaped by what you love. Vs. 4:8
Once again, I find inscrutable the minds of the lectionary police who feel a need to censor the biblical writers. I am not convinced that these few verses, James 4:4-6, and the second half of verse 8 were omitted merely to save space. I suspect that, being children of the 1960s, the makers of the lectionary fear James’ declaration that friendship with the world amounts to adultery against our baptismal covenant might lead us astray into an other-worldly piety and render us unable to recognize how very important it is to hold candlelight vigils, march with signs around the post office and attend rallies supporting or opposing one thing or another. I do not believe, however, that James’ call here is for withdrawal from the world. It is rather a question of who one will befriend. Friendship, James realizes, is perhaps the most formative force in our lives. In John’s gospel, Jesus insisted on referring to his disciples as friends. John 15:14-15. Their characters are to be formed by their friendship with Jesus. The world, though loved by God and the object of God’s redemptive purpose, is nonetheless in rebellion against God. It is dominated by “principalities and powers” that exercise imperial domination. Friendship with the world is therefore resistance to God.
“The term ‘world’ always has a negative meaning in James. It never has the neutral sense of the arena of human activity or positive sense of God’s creation. In 3:6, James describes the tongue as the ‘world of wickedness’ among the body’s members. In 2:5 James contrasts those who are ‘poor with reference to the world’ to those who are ‘rich in faith.’ This text is important for signaling the meaning of ‘world’ as a system of value or measurement: those who in the value system of the world are poor are, within the value system of faith, rich. In 1:27, James again speaks of ‘pure religion in the eyes of God’ (para to theo) as one that ‘keeps oneself unstained from the world.’ We find, therefore, that ‘world’ stands allied with wickedness and impurity and wealth, but opposed to true religion, faith, and purity. These contrasts are summarized in 4:4 as the opposition between ‘world’ and ‘God.’” Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Letter of James, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 37A (c. 1995 by Yale University) p. 84.
The contrast between friendship with God and friendship with the world is therefore at the heart of James’ preaching. James is not attempting to set forth an ethic or articulate moral principles for general consumption. Rather, he is painting a portrait of countercultural existence for the covenant community gathered around Jesus Christ. In the “world,” “human existence is a zero sum game in a universe of limited resources, a closed system.” Ibid. p. 85. Humans are in perpetual competition leading to violence, domination and exploitation. Faith, however, views everything from the standpoint of “friendship with God.” Like Abraham, faith trusts God’s determination to fulfill God’s covenant promises rather than accepting the seeming limitations on what is possible. Faith knows that the universe is not a closed system, but remains ever open to the generosity of “the Father of lights,” the giver of “every good endowment” and “every perfect gift.” James 1:17.
You cannot possibly miss the irony here. Jesus has been teaching the disciples that he must soon be handed over to the powers of Rome that will kill him. And this is not just a passing remark. It is clear from the context that Jesus has been making this point with his disciples throughout his journey through Galilee. In fact, that was the point of the journey: to avoid public attention and the distraction it brings so that Jesus could focus with his disciples on the meaning of his mission. At the end of this day of heavy instruction, Jesus asks his disciples what they had been discussing among themselves along the way. If I had been in Jesus’ place, I might have expected the disciples to respond that they had been discussing all that they had heard him say that day. I would have expected the disciples to ask Jesus why he was going to Jerusalem, what he expected to accomplish by getting himself arrested, what purpose his death would serve and what did he mean by “rising again.” But the disciples have been reflecting on something else altogether. They have been arguing over who is to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is rather like the teacher who spends a morning painstakingly explaining long division to her class, asks them for their questions and receives only one response: “Is it time for recess yet?”
Jesus responds with far more patience than I think I would have had under the circumstances. He takes a child in his arms and says, “You want to be great? I will show you great.” Now it is critical not to confuse this passage with others where Jesus uses the child as an example of faithfulness and urges his disciples to become as children. That is not the point here. Greatness is demonstrated by receiving the child. Understand that child care was considered women’s work then much as it is today in most quarters, despite the trend toward greater shared responsibility between spouses. Even today, greatness is seldom demonstrated through babysitting. Yet Jesus seems to place a high priority on children. In one of the very few instances where Jesus threatens hell fire, he directs his admonition against persons who cause one of his “little ones” to stumble. Despite his handlers’ efforts to keep Jesus on message with the crowds, Jesus insists on taking time to bless infants. Children are a priority for Jesus. There is no greater task than to care for a child.
As I point out above, our culture’s attitude toward children is ambivalent to say the least. On the one hand we love them, dote over them and find them irresistibly adorable. Parents spoil and frequently shower children with money or spend money for them endlessly. Not surprisingly, then, billions of dollars are spent by commercial interests on marketing to children. At the other end of the extreme, there are 1.6 million homeless children in the United States according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Their share of the so-called safety net is always the most likely candidate for the cutting floor when it comes time to balance the budget. Unlike other demographic groups in our society, kids don’t vote and they don’t have super pacs to lobby for them.
The welfare of children has always been a high priority of the church. The first orphanages were established by the church in the first century. Before that time, orphaned children without responsible relatives were doomed to a life of begging, thievery or prostitution. This work of caring for children continues to be a priority for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which recently provided nearly $400,000 in humanitarian assistance to help support ELCA partners serving the thousands of unaccompanied minors coming to the United States from countries in Central America.
One beneficiary of these funds is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). LIRS works with the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement to help place unaccompanied children in foster care. The ELCA funds provide for planning among Lutheran partners in the United States and Central America, training materials for potential foster families, the development of welcome centers offering hospitality and support to families and others released from immigration detention centers, advocacy and strategic communications and national coordination.
While relief efforts like these are vitally important, they do not address the root causes of child oppression such as wealth inequality, unrestrained corporate greed, racism, militarism and nationalism. As long as these forces continue to undermine the stability of families and communities essential to the wellbeing of children, we cannot hope to end the scourge of global, systemic child abuse.
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“…at a more subtle yet also more deadly level, the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes the single most insidious cause of global peril. It can in fact be argued (and is) that the current bellicosity of the militant forms of Islam represents a reaction of the Muslim world to its humiliation by the powerful technocratic West, especially as the latter is embodied in the one remaining planetary superpower-which just happens to be the most avowedly Christian of all the nations of the world.”
Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context, (c. 2003 by Augsburg Fortress), p. 4.
Since the publication of Hall’s book we have witnessed the U.S. invasion of two middle eastern countries with the avowed intent of bringing western style democracy to the region and a virulent backlash against the waves of refugees fleeing into Europe in order to escape the unlivable environment of violence, poverty and economic chaos resulting from that failed crusade. Rising hostility against non-white immigrants in our own land has reached a fever pitch, with the rhetoric becoming particularly ugly in this primary season as politicians vie for the angry white vote. The relationship between these developments and the Christian faith is not incidental or tangential. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were overwhelmingly supported by white evangelical protestants. Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist who systematically gunned down more than 70 children at a sleep away camp in Norway in July of 2011, acted in accord with an ideology of hatred against non-white European immigrants he felt were threatening Europe’s Christian identity. Christian identity was again invoked by the Hungarian government last week in denying passage through the country to thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of them children, fleeing from war, genocide and starvation. Not surprisingly, then, we find that 63% of white evangelical protestants see non-white immigrants as a threat to traditional American customs and values. White mainline protestants are not far behind at 51%. Attitudes Toward Immigration: in the Pulpit and the Pew. It appears that, at the very least, we must acknowledge a strand within Christianity that provides ideological support for white privilege as well as the economic, cultural and military machinery maintaining it. Moreover, this strand is not a mere fringe phenomenon.
Given the scriptural narratives and the high importance we Christians attribute to the Bible, it is hard to imagine how we got to this point. Our spiritual parents, Abraham and Sarah, were immigrants who had no legal status in the land of their sojourning. Like so many immigrants today, they were forced to flee their homeland to escape starvation and went as far as to trade sexual favors to get across the border. The children of Israel were descendants of Jacob whose family fled starvation in Canaan only to end up as a hated minority within the borders of a superpower that enslaved and oppressed them. When finally Israel did take possession of the promised land, she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to replicate the ways of the empire from which she had been liberated: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34. We worship as Lord a child whose family was forced to flee their homeland in order to escape the genocidal madness of Herod the Great. We are disciples of the one who “had nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20. Our spiritual ancestors understood their status as resident aliens and remind us that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. So how did we get to the point where our hearts bleed for hypothetical bakers that might hypothetically be asked to bake a cake that might hypothetically be used in the wedding reception for a same sex couple, while turning a deaf ear and a cold heart to children fleeing across our borders from war, starvation and abuse?
Yes, that question is rhetorical. I understand the historical currents that created Christendom and shaped the church’s roll as ideological defender of western civilization and culture. I understand, too, the role of racism and how we have come to internalize and institutionalize it, even and perhaps especially in the church. The real question is, how do we get back to our biblical roots? I am wondering whether that can even happen with a church so thoroughly integrated into the Americana landscape. Perhaps we need to deconstruct the American church as we know it. Maybe that job is being done for us. It may be that mainline decline about which we do so much fretting and fussing is the wrecking ball of God.
To be honest, I don’t relish the idea that God is bringing us to the end of an era. There is much about the church in this country that I love: the majestic sanctuaries at the heart of our cities, the schools, colleges and seminaries preserving the richness of our theological, historical and liturgical traditions, the social ministries providing, food, housing, comfort and advocacy for the most vulnerable among us. My gut tells me we need to do everything possible to preserve as much as we can. Like Saint Peter, I would rather talk Jesus out of the cross. Surely there is a better way. If we just tweak the old ecclesiastical machinery a bit, pump a little more money into it and get the right consultants on board, we can turn this decline around. But that might not be the most faithful course to follow. If I am hearing Jesus correctly, you sometimes need to die before you can even think properly about living.
The way of the cross in our culture, as Douglas John Hall sees it, is to embrace our demise instead of trying to run away from it. Hall would have us accept the end of church as we know it as God’s judgment on what we have been. But it is not only that. To accept our end is also to make room for a new beginning. Without death, there can be no resurrection.
So what if our worst fears materialize? It may well be that the trends toward mainline protestant decline are not reversible, that they will continue for the foreseeable future no matter what we do. We might well find that, in a few decades, we will be but a shadow of our former self-at least institutionally. But perhaps a smaller, poorer, humbler church living and speaking from the margins of society is precisely the sort of church Jesus needs. It may just be that in losing our institutional lives, we will rediscover our true ecclesiastical self. We might find ourselves once again among the refugees on the outside looking in. But it is precisely there that we will most certainly find Jesus and the life he freely offers us.
As was the case last week, our lesson comes to us from the Book of Isaiah. Scholars attribute this text to “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), a collection of oracles authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
This particular reading is taken from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet himself/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet and his/her preaching that enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the early prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative foreshadowed in the gospel. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of hostile opposition. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a prayer of thanksgiving offered along with a cultic sacrifice as evidenced by verses 17-19 (not in the reading) by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. We might call this new disposition a “new orientation.” Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of new orientation. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 18-23. I believe this to be a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are in most human lives “seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the consistency of blessing.” Ibid. at 19. All seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is blessed with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, a song of sheer praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness, a prayer that asks for nothing is appropriate. There are many such in the Psalter, e.g., Psalm 111; Psalm 113; Psalm 134; Psalm 150.
Then there are psalms of disorientation arising from “seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death.” Ibid. They reflect “rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred.” Ibid. Unlike much of our protestant piety that holds such emotions at arms-length, these prayers are brutally honest about the psalmists’ hatred of his/her persecutors, anger at God and despair over life in general. I must confess that I share the discomfort experienced by many with the raw negative emotion expressed in many of these psalms. It seems rather “primitive” to be cursing enemies and praying for vengeance. But perhaps that reflects more on my sheltered and privileged existence than upon any more evolved and progressive stage of my religion. Survivors of sexual abuse, refugees forced to flee their homeland to avoid genocide and victims of racial discrimination know levels of disorientation that many of us find difficult to comprehend. These psalms testify to the readiness of God to hear their tortured cries without judgment.
Psalms of new orientation, such as our Psalm for this Sunday, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. “Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair.” Ibid. Such was the case for the psalmist. His/her journey has not been easy, nor does it bring the psalmist back to where s/he was before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow.
This psalm does not tell us precisely what troubles the psalmist has experienced. Neither does it explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. That is precisely what makes it so wonderfully applicable to nearly all situations of deliverance. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult course of cancer therapy and has received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce ending a relationship that was supposed to last until death-and found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship. It is important to understand that this journey did not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a new future that God promises.
As with all psalms, this one has a testimonial aspect. What God has done for the psalmist is an attribute of God’s character: readiness to help the weak and defenseless. This is part of what is implied by verse 5 in the preservation of the “simple.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. The psalmist would have the rest of the worshipping community know that their liturgically expressed beliefs about God are indeed true and have found expression in his/her own experience.
Early one Sunday morning a few years ago I stopped at a little convenience store near the church to pick up some milk and cream cheese for the family education hour that would follow our Eucharist. I met a very young woman with a little girl that could not have been more than four years old. The woman greeted me with the words, “Good morning, Father.” Then she said to her little girl, “You see that man? He is a priest. Do you know who a priest is?” The little girl said nothing. “A priest is someone who works for God,” the woman continued. The little girl looked up at me, wide eyed. I have no idea how much or little she understood about God or whether the word “God” had any meaning for her at all. But if she remembers anything from this interchange, it will be that people who wear black shirts and collars like mine represent God.
That is a scary notion! Now I think I understand why James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers.” Like it or not, “We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” Vs. 1. That might not seem fair, but it’s true. It does not matter that the instances of pedophilia are actually much lower among priests than in the male population generally. When a clergy person molests a child it is always more devastating. In addition to the permanent emotional scars always left by such abuse, the abused child’s perception of God is horribly corrupted. The public’s perception of the church-which is called to be Christ’s resurrected presence in the world-is irreparably damaged. It does not matter either that clergy are statistically among the least susceptible to crimes of embezzlement and fraud. When a pastor abuses the trust of his or her church in matters of money, the damage to the congregation far exceeds whatever the financial loss may be. Again, the church’s credibility with the public is undermined and so is its witness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. So I read James’ warning with a degree of fear and trembling.
Of course, we are all teachers in some measure. Our children learn from us more than they will ever learn in Sunday School about faith, worship and discipleship. We parents are teaching our children by example every waking moment about love, forgiveness, faithfulness and the importance of worship-or not. They learn from us how to treat people with compassion and respect-or not. They learn from us the habits of prayer, promise keeping and honesty-or not. They see Jesus formed in the families we raise-or not. We cannot avoid being teachers. The question is, how well and faithfully are we teaching? What lessons do our children come away with? What are they learning from our examples about what really matters?
James draws our attention to our use of speech as the chief source of potential destructiveness. It takes only one disparaging word to undo the sense of confidence, self-worth and courage that parents, teachers and mentors work so hard to instill in a child. Once a false rumor gets started, it continues to live on, projecting itself over the internet, through mouths of talk show hosts and in idle conversation-even after it has conclusively been refuted. But the most insidious abuse of speech, as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, is its effect on our witness. Like every other gift, speech is intended to give glory to God and to serve our neighbor. Yet when speech is used to injure, insult and destroy, it becomes “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Vs. 9
The Eighth Commandment is clearly implicated here: “You shall not bear false witness.” In his Small Catechism, Luther writes concerning this commandment that “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It is the second part of Luther’s admonition that needs our attention. It is easy enough for me to stand by and remain silent when I am part of a conversation in which someone is being attacked. Much harder it is to come to their defense, to speak well of them and try to convince everyone else to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly so in cases where I tend to think that the victim might deserve some criticism or when I have my own reasons for feeling angry at him or her. But whether the absent person is guilty or not, the point is that he or she is absent. That person is the one who needs to hear whatever just criticism any individual may have. Speaking it in his or her absence only conveys a one sided account to other people who may not even have any part in the dispute. Such speech, rather than bringing about healing, reconciliation and understanding, instead broadens the conflict and contributes to distortion and misunderstanding.
This episode is a watershed event for the Gospel of Mark. Throughout the gospel the disciples have been struggling with the identity of Jesus. Of course, we as readers know that Jesus is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah because we were told that in Mark 1:1. Jesus knows who he is because the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism by John in the Jordan, telling him that he is God’s Son, the beloved. Mark 1:9-11. The demons know who Jesus is and are ready to proclaim it-except that Jesus will not let them. Mark 1:21-27. Jesus’ disciples, however, remain in the dark about who he is. After Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples ask in wonder, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Mark 4:35-41.
Jesus first asks the disciples who members of the public believe him to be. Vs. 27. They give him various responses: John the Baptist raised from death; Elijah returning from heaven as long foretold by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5-6); one of the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Vs. 28. It is, of course, conceivable that First Century Jews among the Galilean commoners might have formed any one of these opinions about Jesus. Yet it is curious that there is no mention by the disciples of anyone among the people entertaining the possibility that Jesus might be the messiah. Indeed, I would expect that to be the first guess of the anxious populace! Be that as it may, from a literary standpoint it is perfectly understandable that Mark reserves for the disciples the discovery and confession of his identity. For Mark’s gospel has been striving to make clear to us that Jesus can never be rightly understood apart from discipleship. Only as one follows Jesus in “the way” does one begin to know him.
Now Jesus pops the question directly, “So, who do you say that I am.” Vs. 29. The emphatic use of the Greek pronoun, “You” or “Umeis,” serves to reinforce the point that, as noted previously, what is said about Jesus by his disciples is critical because only followers of Jesus can confess Jesus. See Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers) p. 202. Peter, ever the impetuous spokesperson for the disciples, blurts out his answer. “You are the Messiah.” Vs. 29. That is half the answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah promised to Israel. But he is more than that. Peter’s answer is therefore incomplete. Just how far Peter is from understanding Jesus becomes clear in the next scene.
This is the first place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus speaks specifically about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Vss. 31-33. He will do so two more times. Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:33-34. Once again, Peter is the disciple who responds to Jesus’ words-and with a rebuke. Vs. 32. Mark does not tell us exactly what Peter said, but Peter seems to have taken Jesus aside to have his conversation in private. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable. It is what good friends do when they hear a friend talking about his imminent death. “Oh, don’t talk rubbish! Things will get better. You’ll see. Nothing of the kind will happen to you. I’ll see to that!” Jesus, however, turns and sees his disciples. Vs. 33. Why does Mark add this little observation? What does the sight of Jesus’ disciples do to evoke Jesus’ harsh response to Peter? I suspect that the sight of his disciples reminds Jesus why his suffering, death and resurrection are so important for this little community of followers, the embryonic church. Yes, the cross might be avoided. Jesus could remain in Galilee with his disciples, teaching in the wilderness, on the lake shore and outside of the towns and villages. That way, he might evade capture indefinitely. Indeed, if Jesus had been content to remain on the outskirts, it is possible that neither Rome nor the Jerusalem religious establishment would have considered him a threat worth pursuing. But Jesus came not merely to level criticism against the powers that be from a safe distance. He came to challenge the right of those powers to rule God’s creation. He came to establish the reign of God. The world needs to be told that Caesar is not Lord. The world needs to hear that God is not the property of any religious elite. There must be a confrontation between the power of empire that claims to rule God’s world and the Son of Man who actually does. Only so will the world know how different the gentle reign of God over creation is and that this reign of God finally will displace the imperial rulers who seek in every age to grasp the reins of power.
Of course, the reign of God will not be born without the pain, rending and blood that accompanies every birth. Just as Jesus will confront the violent reign of the powers that be with the gentleness of God’s reign on the cross, so the disciples will be called upon to live under God’s kingdom in a world that is hostile to it. The cross of Jesus will become their own. As Clarence Jordan would say, the church must become a demonstration plot for the reign of God, a reign that must finally extend to all creation. But the shape of life under God’s reign in a sinful world is the cross. Again, this is not to glorify suffering in and of itself. Suffering is unequivocally bad. Nevertheless, suffering that is incurred as a result of faithful discipleship can be redeemed. Just as God raised Jesus, the one who was faithful to God unto death, so God raises up his disciples whose witness to God’s peaceful kingdom in a violent world leads them into the heart of conflict, persecution and suffering.
Staying alive is not everything. “Survivalists” fail to understand that in making survival the number one priority, they are surrendering what is most precious. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is worth living for. And if living for the kingdom results in our dying, then the kingdom is also worth dying for. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “If there is nothing you are willing to die for, you have nothing to live for.” Or in the words of Jesus, “What does it profit one to gain the whole world, but lose one’s self?” Vss. 36-37.
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.
“Put not your trust in princes…” Psalm 146:3.
This renunciation did not come cheaply for Israel. From the dawn of the Iron Age when the people first demanded a king and the prophet Samuel reluctantly anointed one for them until the disastrous wars against Rome that ended once and for all her hopes for national restoration, Israel’s trust in human leaders invariably led to disappointment. The psalmist testifies to this hard won wisdom and warns his/her people against yielding again to the Siren song of messianic pretenders. Happy the people “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord [their] God,” s/he declares. Psalm 146:5. God alone can be trusted to “uphold those who are bowed down…” to watch over the resident alien, to “uphold the widow and the fatherless…” Psalm 146:8-9. Yet it seems we cannot do without some type of human governance. That is why for the last three decades I have faithfully made my sojourn to the polling station on the first Tuesday in November to cast my vote.
But not this time. I have finally decided that, for the time being at least, I am through voting in national elections. I can already hear the howls of protest. How irresponsible to lay down a potent weapon in the struggle for social justice! How cold and unfeeling to abandon the marginalized by forsaking the political process! How can I so heartlessly turn my back on the needs of the world to revel in my self-centered, other worldly piety? Do I really imagine that I can keep my soul pure by refusing to dirty my hands with the hard work of advocating justice, peace and equity in the public forum? I don’t take these charges lightly. Nor did I make this decision without giving the matter some thought. So let me explain myself before you decide my case.
My rationale for refusing to vote is simple. I don’t vote because none of the candidates for whom I am eligible to vote care for the issues about which I am passionate. Some will offer them lip service, given the right audience. But no one I know is campaigning for truly affordable health care for all people, full and adequate funding for Medicaid and the WIC program. No candidate is running on proposals to end hunger and poverty globally or to pursue complete military disarmament. Nobody I know is advocating housing, healthcare and nutrition as basic human rights rather than mere “programs” that can be defunded at the whim of a congressional committee. If at least some of these things are not at the top of the agenda and incorporated into a candidate’s concrete proposals for the nation’s immediate future, I don’t believe it’s worth my time to stop by the ballot box.
Let me also say that, as far as I am concerned, it’s not about the economy. I have no interest in the sterile debate over which of the two major parties can do a better job of revitalizing the economy. Frankly, I have no interest in reviving an economy built on the foundation of exploited labor and risky financial ventures that put the pensions, savings and homes of ordinary people at risk to produce huge profits for speculators while producing no product of social value. I see no benefit to resurrecting an economy driven by credit rather than real wealth. We got into a recession just ten years ago through an orgy of consumption. By falsely inflating the value of real estate, mortgaging it to the hilt and packaging it into fraudulent financial instruments we duped the public into spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need at prices we cannot afford. Thinking that we can find our way to a sustainable solution through more of the same is lunacy. The economy does not need to be revived. It needs to be remade. I want an economy that produces goods and services that meet human need rather than satisfying human greed. I want an economy that compensates workers for the social value of what they produce. I want an economy that re-distributes wealth rather than concentrating it in the hands of a few. Nobody on any party’s slate is promising to work for that. To put it as simply as I can, I am not voting because there is no one for whom to vote.
Oddly enough, I have been called both cynical and hopelessly idealistic in almost the same breath: cynical because I have supposedly given up on politics and left it to the devil and his angels; hopelessly idealistic because it should be obvious to me that no candidate can possibly win an election on the platform I am looking for. Politics is the art of the possible, I am told. We must make the choices that are presented to us, not hold out indefinitely for choices we would like to have. But I must say, I cannot think of anything more cynical than the view that what we have on the slate is the best we will ever get and so we should just hold our noses and pull the lever for whoever’s stench is least offensive. I refuse to accept the proposition that we will never have any leader that is not selected for us by kingpins with the money and influence to buy their nominations. I must also say that I cannot imagine any sillier, more naïve, more head-head-in-the-sand notion than believing continued participation in a wholly corrupt, morally bankrupt system of elections dominated by two parties whose well-heeled handlers determine the outcome will someday produce a government with integrity. That is not even idealistic. It’s delusional.
I maintain that my refusal to vote is a vote. It is a vote of no confidence in a government by the wealthy and powerful for the wealthy and powerful. If enough of the electorate joins me, perhaps that will open the way for a new generation of leaders who see an opportunity in winning back the disenfranchised. Perhaps then we will get candidates willing to talk to us about the issues that matter. Maybe we will finally see an election that is not dominated by ideological food fights and name calling matches. Perhaps we will finally have debates consisting of more than trading sound bites. It may be that the door will finally be opened for concerns like mine actually to be heard, discussed and considered rather than dismissed out of hand as “off message.” Perhaps no vote is the only vote that holds out any hope for genuine change.
This might all be wishful thinking. I cannot guarantee that abstention from voting will bring about a salutary change. But I am reasonably sure that doing the same thing over and over based on the same assumptions and using the same methods practically guarantees getting the same result. Thirty years of voting consistently in every election has gotten me nothing but an increasingly self-interested, dysfunctional and unrepresentative government. So now I am trying something new.
As I have noted previously, the Book of Isaiah constitutes a rich collection of prophetic oracles, prose and narrative that biblical commentators typically divide into three sections. The first section is largely attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39). Isaiah preached to Judah and counseled her kings during a tense period of the nation’s history as she lived uneasily in the shadow of the great Assyrian Empire. The second section, sometimes called “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), is the work of an anonymous prophet who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile between 587 B.C.E. and 539 B.C.E. The prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The identity of this prophet is likewise unknown.
This three part division of Isaiah, like life in general, is not as neat and tidy as we might hope. Our lesson for Sunday is a prime example. Although located within the collection of prophetic material usually attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th century, these verses are taken from a poetic composition that comes to us from the 6th century and is therefore attributed to Second Isaiah or a prophet of his or her circle. In order to get a clear picture of what is happening here, you need to read Isaiah 35 in its entirety.
The prophet’s principal concern was to encourage the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. Naturally, the exiles were hesitant. After all, most of these people were second generation exiles born in Babylon. For them, exile did not feel like exile. It felt like home. They had built their livelihoods in Babylon and set down roots there. How likely is it that they would want to leave all of that behind to make a dangerous trip through what is now the Iraqi desert to start all over again in a land that they knew only through stories, songs and tradition? The prophet announces that God will be with the exiles no less than with the Israelites in Egypt. God will cause a garden to bloom in the heart of the desert rich with pools of water, vegetation and shade. No dangerous animal will inhabit this Eden like paradise that will stretch from Babylon to Jerusalem. Moreover, the garden highway will remain forever as a memorial to God’s new saving act of deliverance for the exiles. As the exiles set out on their journey home, their illnesses will be healed. The blind will see. The lame will dance and the deaf will hear.
One might fault the prophet for over promising. After all, we know that no such miraculous garden ever sprang up from the desert floor. We know also that the exiles’ journey back to Palestine was difficult and dangerous. Moreover, when the exiles arrived back home they found their beloved city in ruins, the land occupied by hostile peoples and much political resistance to rebuilding the community. Yet in spite of all that, the exiles did in fact return. The prophet’s message inspired them to respond in faith to this new window of opportunity and so a new chapter in Israel’s history began.
I believe this reading is instructive for us on many levels. First, it teaches us to look for the doors of opportunity God is opening for us in the unremarkable occurrences of everyday life. The exiles might have looked at the conquest of Babylon by Persia as no more than a geopolitical event that meant nothing to them. One tyrannical empire conquers another. That is how it has always been. Now we have a new master. So what? It took a prophetic imagination to see in this event an opportunity for something truly new. It took the eye of a prophet to spot God’s hand at work in what most would cynically characterize as “geopolitics as usual.” So where are the opportunities God is making in our world today? What doors are being opened? Is God dangling a glorious future right under our nose, but we fail to see it because we are so fixated on the past we lost and to which we long to return? What will it take to reignite a prophetic imagination in our hearts and minds?
Another aspect of all this is that, in some respects, the prophecy failed. The miraculous signs did not occur. The eternal memorial highway from Babylon to Jerusalem never materialized. The rebuilt community did not become the glorious magnet of wisdom and teaching that would draw all nations to peaceful co-existence. Then again, maybe the prophecy has not failed. Perhaps it still awaits fulfillment. Maybe this word of the Lord is bigger and more profound than even the prophet realized. Does God still have plans for Jerusalem? I hesitate even to ask the question because there is so much bad theology out there about the restoration of Jerusalem. Some of that theology calls for uncritical and unquestioned support for the State of Israel based on the mistaken belief that the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple (highly unlikely to occur for many reasons) will trigger a bloody end to the present age and the dawn of a new one-for the survivors anyway. Naturally, we don’t want to encourage these misguided notions.
Still, we ought not to over spiritualize this text. Clearly, Jerusalem is central to God’s saving work in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and brought his ministry to conclusion there. The New Testament speaks of Jerusalem as a potent symbol of the fulfillment of God’s ultimate intent of living among human creatures. Revelation 21:3-4. Jerusalem has been throughout the scriptures a unifying symbol of peace. Yet throughout history, the city of Jerusalem has been anything but that. Like the prophecy in Isaiah, the symbol that is Jerusalem has yet to become an historical reality.
I have never been a fan of “interfaith” dialogue. I find that enterprise generally trite, superficial and unproductive. Nevertheless, I cannot overlook the fact that the city of Jerusalem is a potent symbol of salvation, justice and peace for the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps a good place to begin a truly fruitful discussion is around the city of Jerusalem that means so much to all of us. How do we understand the role of Jerusalem in each of our faith traditions? Are we content to let Jerusalem continue being a source and center of bloody conflict? How might Zion become the crossroads where nations come for instruction in the ways of peace and justice? See Isaiah 2:2-5.
This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the rest of the psalms that follow it to the end of the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150), this hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” It is likely that this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. We know, at any rate, that it was used in later Judaism as part of daily morning prayer. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 830. There is no mention of the line of David nor any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.
The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.
But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established through the defeat of Israel’s enemies. Everson, A. J., “Day of the Lord,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Vol. (c. 1976 by Abingdon) pp. 209-210. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms. When Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean princes, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.
For my general comments on the Letter of James, see my remarks at last week’s post for Sunday, August 30, 2015.
This Sunday’s lesson begins with an admonition against making judgmental distinctions among people within the church. Of course, there are legitimate distinctions among members of the Body of Christ as Paul points out. There are various gifts given to different members for use in building up the church. Some are called to preach, others to teach, still others to evangelize and so on. But there is no hierarchical distinction here. Rather, each person is to use his or her gift in building up the Body of Christ. It is not important which gift you have but rather how you are using it.
James is not talking about such distinctions here. Rather, he is coming down hard on the practice of importing into the church distinctions of rank, class and social status that deserve no recognition among disciples of Jesus. Distinction based on wealth noted by James is but one example of such improper discrimination. There are many others. Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated time of the week in our country. To our shame, I must point out that my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leads the pack on that score. See The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups. I don’t believe that most churches consciously decide to segregate. In fact, most protestants surveyed would agree with the statement, “Our church needs to become more racially/culturally diverse.” See “Research: Racial Diversity at Church More Dream Than Reality” at Lifeway Research. Diversity is widely lauded as an important principle. Everybody wants diversity. They just don’t want to be around people that are different. Our welcome extended to folks outside of our racial/cultural preserve grows cold when it becomes clear that “they” are not going to become like “us.” As James would point out, we never really do extend a genuine welcome to anyone we think of as “them.”
Some churches distinguish between charter members or “long time” members and more recent members, affording more respect and giving greater deference to the opinions of the former. It is also not uncommon for church leaders to yield to the demands of a high volume contributor or make concessions to individuals who provide valuable services to the church that might otherwise require expenditures of money. Nepotism is fairly common in churches, especially smaller congregations where a single family can exercise a substantial influence. All such favoritism tarnishes the church’s witness to God’s kingdom that makes no such distinctions among the baptized.
Often I believe churches practice an unintentional but deeply improper discrimination against children. I have never favored the practice of running “child care rooms” during the worship service or conducting Sunday School classes while the grownups are in church. Yes, I know how hard it is to be in church with small children. I raised three of my own. I know what it is like trying to keep them pacified, taking them in and out to the bathroom, enduring the annoyed and agitated stares of people in the surrounding pews. I’ve been there and done that. But I will add that I don’t regret a minute of it and I believe that there is no better place for a small child to be during the worship service than in the worship service. And let me go on record here to say that, as a pastor, I don’t care how loud, disruptive or hyperactive kids get during worship. From my perspective, there is only one thing worse than babies crying in church: no babies crying in church.
I don’t much care for the way Jesus treats this Syrophonician woman, but I can understand it. Jesus went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is gentile territory, territory where Jesus probably would not be generally known. Evidently, he wanted it that way. Jesus entered a home intending not to be seen or recognized. Vs. 24. Jesus had had enough. He had fed two crowds of people after teaching them for several days. He has had to endure constant sniping and criticism from his enemies. He has had to put up with the faithless and dimwitted antics of his disappointing disciples. Now Jesus is entitled to some down time. But even in this district where he should be anonymous, he cannot be hid. Vs. 24. A woman comes crying after him, begging him for help. Jesus snaps at her. “Let not the children’s bread be thrown to the dogs!” vs. 27. That sounds harsh and it is. But it is just a fact of life. Not even Jesus can heal everyone in the world. You have to draw the line somewhere, don’t you? Furthermore, dogs are dependent animals. They live from the hands of their masters, “the children.” If the children are not fed, the dogs will perish as well. Jesus needs his bread. If he doesn’t get it, nobody gets fed.
Yet the woman will not leave it there. Yes, she says, the children must be fed. But even so, there is enough left over to feed the dogs. Vs. 28. This remarkable woman is turning back on Jesus his own teachings that have been demonstrated not once, but twice in his feeding of the five thousand and four thousand respectively. God always provides enough for everyone’s need (if not for everyone’s greed). We cannot tell from the text, but it would not surprise me if Jesus smiled at this point as if to say, “Alright, you got me.”
If it is a little discomforting to see Jesus getting tired, irritated and losing his cool, perhaps that is because we forget that he was, after all, fully human. Jesus got tired and cranky like everyone else. Jesus was afraid of suffering and prayed to be delivered from the cross. When he was crucified, the pain, the suffering and despair was real. It was not just Superman playing dead. Living faithfully as God’s son did not make Jesus any less human. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the only one ever to have lived a genuinely human life. We say that he was without sin not because he lacked human limitations, but because he lived faithfully within those limitations trusting his Heavenly Father with all matters beyond those limits.
The second story in this Sunday’s reading is Jesus’ healing the deaf and speechless man. This healing is intensely personal. In contrast to the exorcism of the Syrophonician woman’s daughter, whose demon was cast out from a distance, Jesus gets physical here. He touches the man’s ears. He spits and touches his tongue. Vs. 33. He looks up to heaven and sighs. He shouts, “Be open!” vs. 34. Everything Jesus does here is reflected in the healing rituals of other wonder workers in legends current during the ministry of Jesus. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 203-204. The casting out of the demon in the prior story seemed almost effortless. This healing appears to require a great deal of exertion on Jesus’ part. I am not sure what is going on here. Is Jesus slowing down? Is the frantic pace of his ministry as related in Mark’s gospel finally starting to take its toll? In any event, Jesus once again enjoins to secrecy this man who has received the benefit of healing. As in prior instances, Jesus’ admonitions prove ineffective. The news of his good work spreads despite his efforts to keep it confidential. It appears that not even Jesus can hide himself or keep a lid on the good news of God’s coming reign.