Sunday, September 6th

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

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.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

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.

Psalm 146

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.

James 2:1-17

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.

Mark 7:24-37

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.

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  1. #1 by Michael Linderman on September 3, 2015 - 5:07 pm

    Peter, this is a rich reflection on the texts, and I’ve benefited from your interpretations. Equally impressive is your passion in articulating why you won’t vote. I sense a hint of contradiction, however, in your comments on Isaiah, when you say: “It took the eye of a prophet to spot God’s hand at work in what most would cynically characterize as ‘geopolitics as usual.'” Couldn’t you apply the same insight to your perception of our national political crisis? Be well,
    Michael Linderman

  2. #2 by revolsen on September 3, 2015 - 6:28 pm

    Thanks! And yes, there is a contradiction of sorts. That probably reflects my own ambivalence about the position I am taking. While I despair of ever getting the issues I care about considered or even discussed in the political arena as it exists, I am far from abandoning the hope of raising them somehow. At this moment, though, I lack Isaiah’s keen prophetic eye. Peace and be well.

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