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.