Archive for February, 2016
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day: God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Probably from the time I first gave Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” more than a superficial glance, my sympathies lay with the elder son. I know this kid who grew up under the storm clouds of conflict between his parents and his rebellious sibling. I know the compulsion he felt to ease his parents’ heartbreak by being good enough to make up for the pain his brother’s selfish conduct was causing. I understand his deep desire to smooth things over and make peace in the family. I know the burden of guilt he carried for having failed at this hopeless task. I know well the nights he cried himself to sleep and, if he could have articulated his pain, might have said, “Daddy, I know my problems are not as great as my brother’s, I know my sins are not as weighty as his. But I hurt too. I am also afraid and insecure. I need your understanding and forgiveness. Forgive me, but I sometimes wish your heart would break for me too. You yearn for the son you have lost-but this son is still with you and needs you too.” The prodigal son learned some hard lessons in the far country. But the elder son’s journey on the home front wasn’t a cake walk either.
If we resist the temptation to place this familiar parable of Jesus into the straight jacket of a simplistic morality play or reduce it to mere illustrative scaffolding for some abstract theology of grace, the story can lead us into a deeper understanding of family, faith and salvation. Now that I have become a father myself, it’s easier for me to understand the anguish of the father in Jesus’ parable. We love our children, to be sure. Yet their needs exceed everything we have to give them. We yearn to save them from the mistakes we have made in life and arm them with the hard won knowledge we have gained through life experience. But the wisdom we have to share comes across as irrelevant, pedantic and judgmental. We want desperately to support our children with our love, but a growing child is a moving target. Just when it seems we have this parenting thing down pat, the kids enter into another stage of their development and all bets are off. We can never love our children enough in the right way at the right time.
Consequently, the results of our parenting are always mixed. Under the best of circumstances, our relationship with our parents is nuanced, conflicted and ambiguous. Love and admiration mix with resentment and disappointment. Thankfulness is laced with blame. Perhaps we can never do more than love our children the best we can, keep our doors ever open to them and continue urging them “to come home,” whether that means actually returning to the homestead or being reconciled with each other through repentance and forgiveness. That, in any event, is where Jesus’ parable leaves us.
There is a reason why the scriptures employ parenthood (not fatherhood exclusively!) as the strongest metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with Israel and with the church. That relationship, too, is laden with ambiguity and unreconciled conflict. Nowhere is the ambivalence in our relationship to God more evident than in the Psalms, that treasury of prayer found at the heart of the Bible. There, as in the parable, we find the whole spectrum of parent/child sentiment from profound love, pride and thankfulness to rage, blame and resentment. Yet the very fact that the covenantal dialogue continues throughout the darkest of times testifies to God’s dogged determination to keep that covenant alive and bring its promises to fruition. The father’s pleading prefigures Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem. The cross is finally the price God willingly pays to keep the covenantal line from going dead and hold together the fraying bonds of God’s covenant family.
At the end of the parable, we find the father pleading with his elder son to join the festive celebration for prodigal’s return. He offers the boy his very self and all he has. Still, it is not enough. Nor is it clear that his lavish welcome for the returning prodigal succeeded in turning that boy’s heart to obedience and humility. For all we know, the prodigal son might have been off the very next day to another far country for more riotous living. Like last Sunday’s parable of the fig tree, this story leaves a lot of loose ends for us to ponder. But that, after all, is the purpose of parables.
Here is a poem about parenthood by Langston Hughes. Perhaps you too can hear in this an echo of the God who urges us never to despair of his covenant love.
Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Source: The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
Sunday’s reading from the book of Joshua marks a significant transition in the story of Israel. Moses, the man who led Israel through the wilderness for forty years is dead. Israel’s nomadic existence is ended. No longer will she eat bread from the hand of God and water from miraculous springs. She will now get her bread from the good earth God has given to her-and therein lurks the next temptation. Israel has no experience with agriculture. Though the God of Israel is clearly competent when it comes to leading nomads through the wilderness, what does he know about farming? Can Israel manage to transform herself from a nomadic society into an agricultural society without losing her soul to the Canaanite gods of fertility?
Israel’s new Canaanite neighbors’ entire culture is founded on farming and fertility. Where religion permeates all of life, it is nearly impossible to separate the mechanics of planting, growing and harvesting from the mythical underpinnings and cultic practices that accompany these tasks. It was hard for Israel to download this new agricultural app from the surrounding culture without importing the designer’s malware into her spiritual hard drive. The tales recounted in the much older book of Judges suggest that Israel’s transition was a rocky one. The conquest narrative in the book of Joshua reflects the gravity of the issues involved and the stark choices Israel must face every time she finds herself in a new cultural context-whether that be Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian, Roman or American.
I sometimes wonder whether the internet and the cornucopia of communication options it makes available does not pose some of the same threats for the church that Israel faced in the land of Canaan. I have heard terms like “virtual church” and “liquid church” tossed around in some circles. Online discussion groups consisting of faceless monikers and online IDs can sometimes approach a sort of closeness that resembles intimacy. Yet how, I wonder, can intimacy exist in such a medium where you cannot even be sure that the people you are communicating with really exist? More to the point, how can a church professing to be the Body of Christ, claiming that the Word of God became flesh and asserting that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in bread and wine exist in a virtual universe? How do you share the peace of God in a chat room?
Of course, I recognize the irony involved in posing these questions on an internet blog. Obviously, I am not a Luddite rejecting all things digital. The internet brings together people and perspectives that might not otherwise meet. Online discussions may lack the warmth and humanity of a face to face discussion. Still, they enable persons who might otherwise lack time or mobility to engage in conversation with others about things that matter. Moreover, I tend to think online discussions give introverted persons who usually get shouted down and talked over in face to face meetings a better shot at being heard. This blog, Trinity’s Facebook presence and our webpage provide valuable links to folks we might not otherwise reach. Still, I am fully aware that whatever else I might be doing here, it is not church. The folks who regularly interact with me on these posts might arguably be classified in some sense as a community, but they are not the Body of Christ. For that you need to be physically present at 167 Palisade Avenue on Sunday at 9:00 a.m.
For some good background information on the book of Joshua, see the Summary Article by Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (The others being Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicine and Post Nicine Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
This advice is good as far as it goes, but the psalmist’s experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” As last week’s gospel makes clear, sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
A few introductory words about the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians are in order. The church in Corinth, you may recall from previous weeks, was a congregation only Paul could love. See post for Sunday, January 17th Paul’s first letter makes clear just how divided, conflicted and scandal ridden this church was. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing his first letter. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. II Corinthians 2:1-13; II Corinthians 7: 5-16. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote his second letter to express his gratitude to the Corinthians and to encourage them in their faith.
For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul. To further complicate matters, there is a fragment at II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 that seems to have no bearing on what precedes or follows suggesting that we might have part of a third letter in the mix. Some scholars believe that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. Enslin, Morton Scott, Christian Beginnings, (c. 1938 by Westminster Press) pp. 254-261; Filson, Floyd V., “Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible, 10th Ed. (c. 1953 by Abingdon Press). If that is in fact the case, the reading for this Sunday comes from Paul’s letter of thanksgiving. As appealing as this hypothesis might seem at first blush, there are substantial grounds for dating the material found in chapters 10-13 after rather than before the composition of chapters 1-9. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 32A, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 38-41. Accordingly, chapters 10-13 most likely are not Paul’s tearful letter.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” To fully understand the import of this sentence, you need to back up and read verses II Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” To regard no one from a human point of view is to regard everyone from God’s viewpoint-as people for whom Christ died. Consequently, I believe when we read that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” or, as some translators put it, “when anyone is in Christ-new creation,” Paul is not talking only about some inward individual spiritual renewal. We are talking about a radical reorientation in terms of how we see the world and the people in it. Because Christ has died, all have died. Because all have died, all are reconciled. It is the task of the church to live as an embassy of God modeling and proclaiming the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus.
From a human point of view, our enemies are defined for us by the U.S. Department of State. Our interests are defined by national borders and international treaties. Our neighbors are defined by accidents of geography, demography and history. But from the perspective of God in Christ, these are distinctions without a substantive difference. The starting point for viewing every individual is the conviction that such individual is reconciled to God in Christ. Whether he or she knows it is entirely beside the point. We know it and that knowledge shapes our thoughts and actions. The implications of this text are subversive to say the least. Reconciliation is a fine objective-as long as it applies only to neighbors with nothing between them but white picket fences. Take it into the arena of geopolitics and you could get yourself crucified.
I have expressed my reflections on the gospel lesson above. Here are some interesting points that may or may not influence your understanding of the story.
A father could dispose of his property in one of two ways: 1) by a will that is probated after his death; or 2) by a gift made during his lifetime. Though there is no specific provision for disposition of an estate prior to the testator’s death in the Old Testament, there is some evidence that the practice existed even if discouraged. The book of Sirach written in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. contains the following admonition:
“To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let anyone take your place. For it is better that your children should ask from you than that you should look to the hand of your children. Excel in all that you do; bring no stain upon your honor. At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.” Sirach 33:19-23.
In any event, it would be highly irregular, to say nothing of presumptuous, for a younger son to initiate the settlement of his father’s estate with his living father. The parable tells us nothing of the son’s motives in making such an unusual request or those of the father in acquiescing. At first blush, it might appear as though in “dividing his living between them” the father had made a complete disposition of his estate between his two sons. But it is obvious from the balance of the story that, at the very least, he maintained control over his property. His gifts to the returning prodigal, slaughter of the “fatted calf” and preparation of the lavish celebration all indicate that the balance of the estate remained under the father’s control.
The degree of the younger son’s reinstatement is a matter of dispute. Some commentators see in the provision of the robe and the ring an echo of Pharaoh’s elevation of Joseph, the implication being that the younger son was being included once again in the father’s inheritance. Jeremias, Joachim, The Parables of Jesus, (c. 1971 by SCM Press) p. 130; Marshall, I. Howard., The Gospel according to Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 610-611. I think that is something of a stretch. The father assures his older son at the end of the parable that “all that is mine is yours.” Vs. 31. In view of this assurance, the only conceivable complaint the older son might have is that the lavish party for his brother was diminishing his future inheritance. I am not convinced that the legal framework of the transactions in the parable can be reconstructed or that doing so would give us any clearer picture of what is going on. Like the ungrateful guests who refused the lavish wedding invitation (Luke 14:16-24), the circumstances of this parable appear to be exaggerated for literary effect. No one could imagine a son so blatantly disrespectful and imprudent. Nor could anyone imagine a father forgiving and receiving back such a son, much less with so lavish a reception. Against this seeming madness, the elder son’s protests come across as the single voice of sanity.
The one constant in this parable is the father whose love pursues in unrestrained measure both of his wayward sons. The lavish party is given not because the younger son deserves it, but because he needs it. The elder son must learn that his father’s love for him cannot be earned but only received as the free gift genuine love always is. We cannot know how these two sons will respond to their father’s love, but it is clear that their father is determination to continue loving both his sons, come what may.
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Luke 13:35.
Jesus takes no delight in pronouncing Jerusalem’s doom. He does not speak here as an angry firebrand, a zealot for justice burning with contempt for oppression and tyranny. Jesus does not speak as one throwing his life defiantly against the Roman military machine. His mood is sad more than it is angry; heartbroken more than outraged; tired more than inspired. He is a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of his own people for the sake of a new age he will not live to see. Nevertheless, he takes the next step in his journey to Jerusalem toward which he “set his face” back in Chapter 9. Luke 9:51. Jesus displays a grim determination to complete this race in which he is hopelessly behind and cannot hope to win. Compassion is the driving force for Jesus. Jesus loves the city of Jerusalem and all that it symbolizes throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. His compassion survives where his vision has grown dim and the kingdom he longs for seems further away than ever.
I have often wondered how it is that some people are able to work in conditions of human suffering that defy description-such as refugee camps throughout northern Africa and the Middle East-for years on end without burning out. I wonder too why some pastors burn out of parish ministry within their first five years while others continue to grow in their faith and thrive in their work, even when the work itself is less than successful. I suspect that the common denominator for those with staying power is compassion. When someone you love deeply becomes ill, you keep on caring for them no matter how hard it gets, no matter sick they get and regardless whether there is any likelihood they will ever recover. In just that way Jesus loved the city of Jerusalem and its people ground under the heels of poverty, sickness and injustice.
I am afraid that much of what we do in the church grows out of a commitment to abstract principles of justice, equality and social progress that find expression in programmatic activity. Though well-intentioned, much of this work can result in distancing ourselves from the people we seek to assist. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need to be fixed rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers). Whereas Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts, calling them to be his disciples, our programs tend rather to remain a safe distance from these folks, handing them care packages and sending them on their way. While there are some very notable exceptions to these antiseptic procedures, they are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.
Instead of trying to raise people up to a standard of success and social acceptability where it becomes possible to include them in our community, we need to enter into their world with an openness to being transformed. That is the only way to become transformative. Transformation is a slow and tedious process. It is not for impatient people who crave results. It is not for problem solvers who are bent on finding a “fix.” The only people that can survive discipleship burnout are those whose love for the people they serve simply won’t let them quit.
Here’s a heart break a poem that I think expresses something of the compassion Jesus felt for the people of Jerusalem and the compassion to which he calls his disciples.
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
By Claude McKay
Source: Harlem Shadows, Poems by Claude McKay (c. 1992 by Harcourt, Brace and Company). Claude McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, in 1889. He was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movememt of the 1920s. His work ranges from verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica to poems challenging white dominance in the United States. You can find out more about the life and literature of Claude McKay on the Poetry Foundation Website.
Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time to the Bronze Age. Society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that in time will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances are not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what the agreements were. These lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance, promise tribute and pledge military support to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. It was supposed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”
In Sunday’s lesson from Genesis, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”
This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, became vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by the sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from dawn of history.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 121. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14.
Two things are noteworthy. First, this psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” Vs. 12. The psalmist’s response to these enemies is prayer. He or she does not strap on a six shooter with the intent of “taking care of business.” Instead, s/he calls upon the Lord to deal with the enemy. This is the characteristic approach of the psalms. Even when the psalmist expresses a distinct desire to see the enemy punished in very violent and graphic terms, the psalmist leaves the business of retribution to God. That, of course, is precisely in line with what Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Second, the last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14. The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” Biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6 of chapter 3, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to stomach Paul’s call to imitate him. Paul is not just being a pompoms ass here (though I suspect that he could be just that at times). It isn’t his moral example or his sterling character that Paul calls us to imitate. Rather, he calls us to imitate his indifference to racial identity, cultural status and religious achievement. You don’t come into the church through your success in living as an observant Jew anymore than you win God’s love by living as an observant Lutheran. You come into the church by Jesus’ invitation. Everything else you bring with you is just excess baggage.
This encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees needs to be placed in the larger context of Luke’s story about Jesus. Recall how two Sundays ago Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah discussing the “Exodus” he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that something big was about to occur in the Holy City. So when we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it is clear that the time is at hand. From here on out, everything that occurs is leading up to the final confrontation that we know is approaching with every step Jesus takes toward his goal.
The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking his life and urge him to flee. We do not know their motivation. Though the Pharisees were often hostile toward Jesus, this was not always the case in Luke’s gospel. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a very prominent Pharisee. Moreover, the Pharisees had no great love for Herod. However much they might have disagreed with Jesus over any number of issues, Jesus was still a Jew that cared deeply about the Torah. Herod was a thug and a bully appointed by Rome who cared little about anything beyond his own comfort. As between the two, it is likely that the Pharisees would have sympathized with Jesus.
Of course, it is also possible that the Pharisees were trying to intimidate Jesus. Perhaps they felt that raising the specter of Herod might frighten him away from Judea and back into the more remote parts of Galilee where he would be someone else’s problem. In either case, Jesus will not be deterred from the course he set out in chapter 9. So far from fleeing, Jesus sends the Pharisees back to Herod with his travel itinerary.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is one of the most moving passages in the gospels. We seldom get a glance into the head of Jesus. It seems to me that all four gospel writers are intent on preventing us from doing that. We are almost never told how Jesus felt or what his thoughts were about the things taking place around him. This passage marks one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Unlike the account in Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus wept over the city. Nevertheless, his lament is filled with compassion. Jesus is resigned, it seems, to failure. The city that kills the prophets and stones the messengers sent to it will deal likewise with Jesus. Its people will not be gathered together by Jesus. Jesus is going to die without seeing the consummation of the reign of God to which he has given his life.
New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement that the Gospel of Luke was composed anywhere from fifteen to thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Many of them are also inclined to view this saying less as a reflection of Jesus’ sentiments upon his arrival in the city toward the close of his ministry and more as the early church’s effort to provide a theological explanation for the Temple’s destruction. No doubt Luke’s telling of the story is colored by the church’s experience of historical events that followed the ministry of Jesus. That said, I don’t think it is possible to divorce Jesus from his dire judgment upon the Holy City. All four gospels contain Jesus’ words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt leadership. One of the more serious charges leveled against Jesus at his trial was his alleged claim that he would “destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days…build another temple not made with hands.” Mark 14:58. Furthermore, Jesus was not the first prophet to pronounce a judgment of destruction against Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Micah similarly warned that, however much God might treasure the Temple and the city of David, neither could be used as a shield against God’s punishment for injustice and unrighteousness. Jeremiah 12:7; Jeremiah 22:5; Micah 3:9-12. The judgment against the Holy city brought about in Jeremiah’s time by the Babylonian invasion served as a solemn warning for all subsequent generations. It is hardly surprising that Jesus should draw upon this prophetic tradition in speaking to the Jerusalem of his day.
Jesus’ statement, “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood,” calls to mind a host of images from the Hebrew Scriptures. See e.g., Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7;Psalm 57:1; Psalm 91:4; Ruth 2:12. The shelter Jesus promises affords the kind of protection proclaimed in Psalm 27, our Psalm for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear to us that he knows he is walking into a conflict that will claim his life. He does so with the confidence that God will see to the completion of what his “Exodus” in Jerusalem will begin and that the people will one day cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
For most of my life I never really understood the first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Aside from the fact that the suggestion came from the mouth of the devil, why would it be inappropriate for Jesus to turn stones into bread? If Jesus can turn water into wine in order to rescue a wedding feast, surely there can be nothing wrong with his turning a few stones into bread, especially where, as here, he finds himself in the middle of nowhere on the verge of starvation. The solution to this quandary is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how I managed to miss it all these years. Jesus was in the midst of a fast. For that reason alone his use of miraculous power to produce bread and so satisfy his hunger would have been a faithless act of disobedience.
Fasting is unintelligible in our fast food culture. We know only one solution for our cravings, namely, to satisfy them as soon as possible. Our economy grows by feeding insatiable consumer appetites created by artful advertising. The engine of late stage capitalism is driven by our hunger for new products and the conviction that our happiness depends on satisfying it. Fasting is therefore a dangerously subversive act. If all who identify as Christian began practicing this Lenten discipline, they would pose a far greater threat to the American way of life than a hand full of Muslim extremists. If Christians began en masse saying “no” to consumerism and insisting that we live instead by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, they would bring our economic growth to a screeching halt. While that might not be a welcome development for Wall Street, for the rest of us it could pave the way for the emergence of a new economy based on human need rather than corporate greed.
But fasting requires patience-a virtue that is not in the American DNA. There is nothing we Americans hate more than being told we have to wait. There is nothing that enrages us more than to be told that our problems are difficult and complex, that they will require years of hard work and sacrifice to address. Our blood boils over into road rage when traffic grinds to a halt. We don’t take well to being told we can’t get to where we are going or can’t have what we want right now. Violence is only the end stage manifestation of chronic impatience.
Nobody is more skilled at exploiting our impatience than the devil. For that reason, I suspect that the devil’s first temptation was his deadliest. At first blush, it would seem a small thing for Jesus to end his fast a tad early. Who will it hurt? Besides, forty days is plenty long enough. Would Jesus have changed the course of history by ending his fast a day or two earlier than planned? Though a day or two one way or the other might seem small in the grand scheme of things, there may be more at stake here than meets the eye. After all, if Jesus can be induced to end his fast prematurely, he almost certainly can be induced to abandon the long road to the cross and embrace the quicker and easier methods of kingdom building employed by the nations of the world. Military actions get measureable results a whole lot faster than the painstaking work of reconciliation and peacemaking. If Jesus cannot put off a meal, he most likely lacks the patience to wait for God’s vindication of his humble life of service and his shameful death. If Jesus cannot wait for God to provide his daily bread, he will surely lose patience with God’s slow pace of redeeming creation. Maybe Jesus will run out of patience altogether and try forcing God’s hand through some foolish, suicidal act of desperation-like throwing himself from the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. The devil is betting that Jesus will prove to be as impatient as the rest of us. He is hoping that, like us, Jesus will be willing to cut corners, take short cuts and focus on the ends to the exclusion of the means.
Impatience is at the heart of my own struggles in pastoral leadership. It is tempting to marshal influential members of the congregation in support of my initiatives. That way I can steam roll them through the council and present them to the congregation in a neat little package. With little time to consider them, discuss them and evaluate them, it is more than likely my proposals will sail through without objection. Why is this temptation so strong? Why am I afraid of taking the slow, clunky and time consuming way of consensus building? Is it because I lust after evidence of progress my eyes can see? Is it because I fear that my plans will be shot down if I open them up to full discussion? Why do I fear having my ideas rejected? Is it because I fear appearing to be a weak and ineffective leader? Is it because I don’t believe that the Spirit of God is at work in the midst of the church accomplishing God’s purpose? Or is it because I am just too impatient to wait for the mind of Christ to be formed in the church?
Lent is time for cultivating the virtue of patience. It is a time for learning to distinguish the genuine hunger of our souls from the appetites of the flesh urging us to buy the latest digital gadget, raid the refrigerator just because it is there and drive our cars as though they were weapons. Lent is a time for remembering that peacemaking and reconciliation, like mastering a language or learning to play a musical instrument or doing anything else worthwhile, is slow, difficult and sometimes painful work. The devil would have us believe that it is too slow, too difficult and ultimately ineffective. There is a faster, easier and more efficient way to get what you need. Our impatient hearts would like very much to believe that. But like everything else the devil tells us, it’s a lie. The devil’s promised short cuts only lead us into a wilderness of cravings for things that appeal to our appetites but cannot feed our souls. Only the words that come from the mouth of the Lord can give us life.
If we can sit still long enough to hear it, there is good news in all of this. God will see to the coming of God’s reign in God’s own good time. We are relieved of the anxiety, worry, anger and frustration that comes of thinking it somehow depends on us. To live patiently means recognizing that your life will always be somewhat out of step with the surrounding culture. It means embracing a hunger for righteousness and justice that likely will not be satisfied in your lifetime. It means choosing the slow, winding path of reconciliation and peacemaking over the smooth and seemly straightforward way of coercion, intimidation and violence to get things done. Patience is life under the cross anticipating the Easter sunrise.
Here’s a poem about living patiently by Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Patience, Though I Have Not
Patience, though I have not
The thing that I require,
I must of force, God wot,
Forbear my most desire;
For no ways can I find
To sail against the wind.
Patience, do what they will
To work me woe or spite,
I shall content me still
To think both day and night,
To think and hold my peace,
Since there is no redress.
Patience, withouten blame,
For I offended nought;
I know they know the same,
Though they have changed their thought.
Was ever thought so moved
To hate that it hath loved?
Patience of all my harm,
For fortune is my foe;
Patience must be the charm
To heal me of my woe:
Patience without offence
Is a painful patience.
This poem is in the public domain. Sir Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 at Allington Castle in Kent, England. He worked in the court of Henry VIII and served as ambassador to France and Italy. During his travels, he came to appreciate several forms of poetry that he later adapted and employed in the English language. He is credited with having introduced the sonnet into English literature. You can read more about Sir Thomas Wyatt at the Academy of American Poets website.
This is the passage that I love to refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Moses is addressing the children of Israel as they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. The refrain “remember” has been reverberating throughout the previous chapters and it will be heard in the succeeding ones as well. Forgetfulness is the greatest danger Israel faces as she begins to settle into the land of Canaan. There is a very real possibility that the lessons learned throughout the years of wilderness wandering will be lost once the people are in possession of productive land. “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 8:11. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” Deuteronomy 8:17. Moses knows that the most potent antidote to arrogance and greed is memory. Therefore, he outlines a liturgy for the Israelites to recite at each presentation of “first fruits” from the annual harvest. Vs. 2. You might call it a sort of “creed.”
The Israelites are to recite their history. They are to remember that they were sojourners, “few in number.” Vs. 5. They are to recall that “the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us; and laid upon us hard bondage.” Vs. 6. They are to remember how “we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” Vs. 7. This is significant because God would have Israel know that she was not delivered from bondage merely to become another Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Israel is to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 16:20. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
In the final verses of this reading, Israel is commanded to “rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house…” vs. 11. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ungratefulness. When you start thinking that everything you have is the fruit of your own toil, you start to resent having to help out a poor neighbor. “I worked for it. It’s mine to do with as I please.” You also start to worry about losing what you have. “After all, if everything I have has been achieved by my own efforts, what will happen when my efforts fail? Where will my daily bread come from when I can no longer extract it from the ground by the sweat of my own brow? Can I afford to offer up the first fruits when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring? Can I afford to lend a hand to my neighbor when I might not even have enough for my own needs?” This is the kind of worry, anxiety and fear that always comes of imagining that ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ That, by the way, is why Jesus would not take the devil’s challenge to prove that he is God’s Son by making bread for himself out of stones. It is precisely because one is a child of God that he or she need not resort to such measures. Faith knows that “The eyes of all look to thee and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:15-16. God did not create a world of scarcity filled with desperate creatures fighting for an ever smaller slice of a shrinking pie. This is how the devil would have us view the world. Jesus recognizes the devil’s world view for what it is-a lie.
We get the devil’s spin on this psalm from our gospel lesson (Luke 4:9-12). Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such a demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”
This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain for Mom. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez, but I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.
But I digress. The point here is that we should not let the devil snooker us the way he did Mr. Wilkinson. This psalm is not telling us that faith in God is a magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has been a soldier in combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. Vs. 15. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.
You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 203-204.
In this chapter Paul is dealing with what I believe is the foremost concern of his heart, namely, the relationship between Israel and the church. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to recognize that Paul’s letters were written long before Christianity existed as a religion separate from Judaism. Throughout Paul’s lifetime, the church was a movement within Judaism asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed for messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this letter to the church in Rome Paul is arguing on two fronts. Over against his Jewish critics, Paul asserts that Israel’s messiah is not for Israel alone. As Paul rightly points out, Israel is called to be a light to the nations pointing to the reign of Israel’s God over all creation. It follows, then, that the salvation offered through Israel’s messiah must be available to the gentiles as well. While Paul’s critics would probably agree with him to this extent, they parted company with Paul’s assertion that the gentiles could be received as covenant partners with Israel’s God without effectively becoming Jews. As a practical matter, to be included among God’s covenant people, gentiles would need to undergo circumcision and to observe all mandatory Jewish ritual and dietary laws. Paul maintains, however, that the gentiles come into the covenant as gentiles through baptism into Jesus Christ. This is so because the covenant stretching back to Abraham is based not on circumcision or ritual obedience, but on faith in God’s promises.
Over against the gentile members of the church in Rome, Paul is careful to remind them that they are “wild olive branches” that have been grafted into the vine that is Israel. Romans 11:13-24. They must therefore never look with contempt upon the people of Israel-even those who do not acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They are not to imagine that God has rejected Israel. Romans 11:1 To the contrary, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. You can reject God, but you cannot make God reject you. All of this is important for understanding the lesson for this Sunday. The emphasis is on the power of the “word [that] is very near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Vs. 8. This, in turn, is a citation from Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Free will has nothing to do with salvation. Belief in Jesus is the fruit of the Spirit working through the word of God. It is not a decision we make on our own. As Paul states earlier in chapter eight, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Romans 8:29. Consequently, one need not fret over whether and to what degree one “truly believes” or “sincerely confesses” Jesus as Lord. As we read a few verses later, “faith comes through what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Romans 10:17. If the word is there, it will take care of the rest.
We have touched on the first and last temptations of Jesus in our discussions of the prior lessons. So let’s focus on the middle one. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.’” Vss. 5-8. You have to wonder why, if the devil really possesses such authority, he is willing to give it up. Perhaps he is lying. Maybe the devil does not really have the goods he promises to deliver. That is possible. The devil’s proclivity for falsehood is well known. More likely, however, the devil realizes that the power he is offering Jesus doesn’t really amount to much. Raw power is useful for subduing the world, but it is not particularly effective in ruling it. There has never been an empire able to hang onto its vast holdings forever. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of their oppressive governmental machinery. In our own day we have seen the evaporation of the British Empire and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our own nation, the United States, has learned through blood shed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the limits of military power in trying to secure the peace and safety for which we yearn.
Still and all, the power of the sword entices us. It is easy to imagine that, in the right hands, such power can be used for good. Of course, just as you cannot make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t rule an empire without cracking a few heads. Collateral damage is the clinical word for the death and disfigurement of innocents that get caught in the crossfire from the shootout at the OK Corral. Tragic, to be sure, but it is a small price to pay for freedom, democracy, justice, peace, liberation or whatever noble objective you are trying to achieve. The ends justify the means. And even if they don’t, at the very least, by seizing the devil’s offer, Jesus would have prevented the power of the sword from falling into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus as emperor than Nero? Isn’t it better that nuclear weapons remain firmly in the hands of decent people than fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals? If you don’t take hold of the power Satan offers, there are plenty of scary people out there who will. It is all well and good to sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side,” but shouldn’t you be a little bit concerned about who might pick them up?
Of course, there is a price to be paid here. You can’t get the devil’s goods without paying the devil his due. The price of imperial power is the worship of Satan. That is where the power of the sword always leads us. Jesus knows that the ends never justify the means. How can they when we don’t even know what the ends are? We seldom, if ever, know what the outcome of our simplest actions will be. The be..Wfrequently frequentlydespite our best intentions. We often do not foresee the long term consequences of decisions that seemed right and sensible at the time are often far different from what we anticipated. We simply do not control nor can we foresee the ends of our actions. The means are all that we do understand and control. Jesus tells us that the means are all important and that they will shape the ends of everything we do.
Jesus is not interested in the power of the sword because he knows that it cannot deliver the reign of God he comes to initiate. Jesus is not interested in winning battles. He is interested in winning hearts. Jesus will die for the kingdom of God, but he will not kill for it. Jesus does not want “every knee to bend and every tongue confess” him as Lord only because they fear that they will get a rifle butt in the teeth if they don’t. Jesus will spend whatever time it takes to win every last heart to faith and obedience. Victory will be painfully slow in coming. Reconciliation takes a lot more work, patience, sacrifice and time than a blitzkrieg campaign of shock and awe. Reconciliation, however, is the way of Jesus. There are no shortcuts to the reign of God.
TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Just about the time I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover I don’t. That, more than anything else, gives me hope that I am still Jesus’ disciple. Anyone who thinks s/he has Jesus figured out surely has stopped listening to him. Everyone who pays attention to Jesus understands that the more you get to know Jesus, the more you realize you have to learn. Our gospel lesson for Transfiguration reminds us emphatically that God would have us listen to Jesus, because that is the only way we are ever going to know anything about God, about ourselves, where we are in the grand scheme of things and wither we are going.
Listening to Jesus is a lifelong assignment quite different from learning the rudimentary doctrines of the Christian Faith. Catechetical instruction does not end with our mastering a finite collection of doctrines, teachings and traditions. Though important, doctrine, theology and faith practices merely give us the language we need to grow into our living relationship with the Crucified and Resurrected Lord. They equip us with the language, images and conceptual tools we need to hear the voice of Jesus.
Jesus came to deconstruct all our humanly pre-conceived notions about God. As Mark Twain once remarked, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s so dangerous; it’s what they do know that ain’t so.” There is plenty said by preachers, politicians and pundits these days about who God is, what God wants and how God acts that isn’t so. I don’t have to name any names to make the point that what people are led to believe about God can lead to monstrous images of God. For the sake of gods masquerading as the God of the Bible we have conducted holy wars, executed people for witchcraft, practiced racial segregation, murdered and socially ostracized sexual minorities, subjugated women and abused children.
It is all too easy, I think, for those of us in the mainline protestant traditions, who claim to have moved beyond some of the more blatant manifestations of these sins, to point the finger at the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. who are still breathing words of hate and intolerance in the name of God. We had best be careful with our stone throwing, because our distance from them is more rhetorical than real. As much as we rail against racism, our churches are still the most segregated institutions in America today. Though we have been ordaining women as ministers for decades and can even boast a few women bishops, the glass ceiling is still alive and well throughout the church at large. We may have come a long way in recent years toward welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered people in theory, but in practice our churches still harbor more than a little fear, hostility and bigotry against them. At some level, it seems that we have yet to free ourselves from the angry, intolerant, moralistic monster we have created in our own image and made god.
Or perhaps our struggle is not so much to free ourselves from a false notion of God as it is to believe in the true vision Jesus opens up for us. At the end of our gospel reading, the disciples are left with no bright light, booming voice or all-encompassing cloud. Moses and Elijah have vanished. Jesus alone remains with them-and that is all the God there is. No wonder the disciples kept silent about this event. How can you comfort a frightened child with a God who is only human, who will not invoke protective angelic armies, who will not shield his disciples from the cross he must bear, who warns them that the only glory worth having is in siding with the hungry, the sinful, the outcast, the sick, the condemned criminal and the outsider-the last folks you’re likely to find sitting next to you in the pew on Sunday. How much comfort and security are you going to find with this God who calls you into a way of living that is likely to get you killed? How can you trust a God who is not in control? The god who sits in front of the instrument panel making everything happen on earth is a mirage. He does not exist. The only real God is the one whose heart breaks on the cross, but still keeps loving and forgiving; the God who came to win hearts by the power of his Word rather than to win wars by the might of his armies. This alone is God. Listen to him.
When we listen to Jesus, he helps us re-imagine God-not as the mere projection of our own prejudices and our need for security-but as the one who slowly, patiently and gently draws the universe into reconciliation and invites us to participate in that good work. When we listen to Jesus, we discover, not the god made in our own image, but the God who transforms us into God’s image.
Here’s a poem by Brook Emery about re-imagining God.
Monster [It’s possible I misconstrued you]
It’s possible I misconstrued you,
laid too much emphasis on the uniqueness of a birth,
failed to acknowledge circumstance could corrupt, sustain;
I indulged myself in accusations against an absolute.
I don’t believe what I then believed. You are not responsible
for Leibniz or the Lisbon quake, for the twenty-six-eyed
and sixty-arsed box jellyfish, that the cosmos
is shaped like a soccer ball; or for the dosido
of right and wrong around the garden bed.
You are not the monster I thought you were,
not by definition or necessity the one immutable.
You are a creator caught in a creator’s net, in fact
a creature. Every horror has its own pathology,
the disease infects the flock. Prey present as predators,
the malefactors replicate even as the angels
experiment with cures. Each encounter pulls against reductive story,
says I will not, I am just (an instant, an instance),
and reference skews on maps not drawn to scale.
I know saintliness exists. It’s all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always
helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I’m trying to shoo the gloomy birds away
but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost
when I was drawn from the womb?
By Brook Emery
Source: Uncommon Light, Five Islands Press, 2007 (c. 2007 by Brook Emery). Brook Emery is an Australian poet and high school teacher born in 1949. His poems integrate philosophy, science, and psychology. You can find out more about Emery and his many poetic works at the Poetry Foundation website.
Chapter 34 of Exodus forms the climax of a narrative section beginning with Exodus 32 relating the story of idolatry with the golden calf and Moses’ smashing of the original two tablets of the law. In Exodus 33, Moses intercedes with God and achieves a healing of the breach of covenant occasioned by Israel’s idolatrous conduct. Exodus 34 recounts the restoration of the covenant terms. Notably, Moses himself cuts these tablets and inscribes the law upon them whereas the first tablets were inscribed “by the finger of God.” Exodus 31:18. Professor Childs seems to think that this is simply a distinction without a difference. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) p 611. I am not so sure about that. I suspect that the narrator means to tell us that this episode of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, which later became a paradigm of prophetic preaching in the 8th and 9th Centuries B.C.E., has done some long term, if not permanent damage to the covenant relationship.
Moses has just come down from the top of Mt. Sinai. He has been up there for forty days fasting and writing the terms of the renewed covenant onto the two stone tablets. He is quite unaware that he has been noticeably changed, so much so that the children of Israel are afraid of him. This is a mystery, of course. I doubt we will ever understand exactly what happened to Moses at Sinai, but perhaps there are some analogies in our own experiences that give us a glimpse. I remember the return home of each one of my three children from their first semester at college. They were changed. They had been exposed to new ideas and values different from the ones with which they grew up. They had experienced a measure of independence that had given them a new sense of confidence. They thought about and responded to me in new and often critical ways that often made me just a little uncomfortable. They were still the same kids they were when I left them at the dormitory-but they were also different. I knew that if I was going to continue having a meaningful relationship with them, I had to start relating to them differently. Things between us would be different from now on. Good, but different.
How much more changed a man must be after a face to face encounter with the God of Israel! Moses was returning after having received the Torah, the commandments and ordinances that would assist Israel in living into nationhood as the chosen people of God. He had seen the shape of holiness. That is not the sort of experience you can share in a brief press release. Neither can you undergo such an experience and expect to come back the same person. It will take some time for Moses to unpack everything he brought with him from the top of Mt. Sinai and it will take some time for the people to digest it.
We all have life changing experiences that shape who we are. Some of them shape us for the better. Others can leave us wounded and scarred. Life is such that you cannot control the experiences you are going have. But you can put yourself in a place where you are assured that God’s Word will be a powerful and transformative experience in your life. You can make time with the scriptures a part of every day. You can make prayer a daily practice. You can worship with your sisters and brothers gathered around the preaching of God’s Word and the Eucharistic meal. I cannot promise that you will come away from church with your face glowing; but you can be sure that your heart is being transformed by the working of God’s Spirit.
It should also be noted that St. Paul cites this story in his Second Letter to the church at Corinth. II Corinthians 3:7-18. For Paul, the veil over Moses’ face symbolizes the obstruction to a correct understanding of Moses that can only be removed by faith in Jesus Christ.
This psalm appears to be constructed in three sections, each ending with the refrain “Holy is he [God].” See vss. 5, 7 & 9. Like psalms 93 and 97, this psalm acclaims God as king over all the earth. The fact that these psalms make no mention of the kings of Israel or Judah suggests that they were composed after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem ending the line of Davidic kings. To a vanquished people in a world filled with unjust and tyrannical kings, this psalm boldly proclaims that the only true King is the Lord. This King is a “lover of justice,” has “established equity” and has “executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” Vs. 4. Naturally, then, the peoples and their unjust rulers tremble when confronted with the reality of God’s kingship. Vs. 1.
The “cherubim” (Vs. 1) were winged bull like creatures with lion heads. Dahlberg, B.T., “Angel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) pp. 131-132. Two of these fabulous beasts were carved at the top of the Ark of the Covenant over which the God of Israel was thought to be enthroned. Exodus 25: 18-20; Exodus 37:6-9; Numbers 7:89; I Samuel 4:4; I Kings 6:23-28; I Kings 8:6-7. If this reference is to the Ark, it is possible that the psalm is of much earlier origin than generally thought, dating back to the early period of the monarchy when the Ark was still in Israel’s possession. But the term “cherubim” is also used to personify storm clouds and thunder storms. Therefore, its use here is not inconsistent with a composition date for this psalm after the Babylonian conquest.
The mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel, prominent men of faith who lived and ministered before the rise of the monarchy in Israel, further suggests that this psalm is post-exilic. Vs. 6. Having seen generations of kings fall short of what righteousness and justice demand, Israel was now convinced that God alone deserved the title “king.” Though their actions had an undeniable political dimension, the chief role of the three figures named in this psalm was priestly and intercessory. Aaron was the founding figure of cultic practice in Israel. Moses’ intercessions frequently came between Israel and God’s wrath at her disobedience. So also Samuel interceded on Israel’s behalf on numerous occasions. Yet while the psalmist affirms the role and legitimacy of Israel’s priestly establishment and the sacrificial worship over which it presides, this worship is only effective because “thou wast a forgiving God to them.” Vs. 8. The sovereignty and power of God, though manifested in storms and earthquakes, is chiefly expressed in God’s zeal for justice and readiness to show mercy.
A few words about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthian church are in order. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing I Corinthians. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote II Corinthians expressing his gratitude to the congregation and to encourage it in its faith.
For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul, chapters 1-9 constituting the earlier letter and chapters 10-13 forming a later message. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentaries, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 41. Some scholars maintain, however, that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a subsequent letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. Ibid p. 37.
Paul is here interpreting the lesson from Exodus discussed above. You will recall that Moses’ face glowed following his descent from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law. This change in Moses frightened the people and so Moses wore a veil when addressing the people. When Moses spoke with God, he removed the veil. Paul compares this veil on Moses’ face to the veil he contends prevents some of his fellow Jews from recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah. The metaphor is difficult because Moses’ veil was not designed to hinder the people from seeing or hearing him, but rather to protect them from the radiance of God’s glory by which they felt threatened. Moses, not the people, takes cover under the veil. Consequently, we need to focus not so much on the people as on Moses. When Moses turns to speak with the Lord, the veil is removed. The glory of God is allowed to permeate Moses and he is transfigured with light. But when Moses turns away from the Lord, he must put on the veil.
According to Paul, Moses is rightly understood and seen only when he is face to face with God. He is no longer a mediator between God and Israel. Now God has shown directly into the hearts of his people “to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” II Corinthians 4:6. Thus, only in Jesus Christ are the Hebrew Scriptures fully understood. “And we all,” says Paul, “with unveiled face [like Moses], beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed [like Moses] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” II Corinthians 3:18. What could previously be seen only through the veiled face of Moses can now be seen directly in Jesus. The same transformative power that filled Moses with light now shines through Jesus in the church.
Luke tells the transfiguration story a little differently than do Mark and Matthew who also report this amazing event. In Luke, the disciples are “weighted down” with sleep, but may not have actually fallen asleep. Vs. 32. Luke tells us not only that Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah, but also what they were talking about. They were speaking of the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Vs. 31. It is highly significant that the Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is the same one the Greek Old Testament uses for the title of the second book of the Bible, “Exodus.” The Exodus, of course, is the foundational and most significant saving act of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, Luke wishes to make absolutely clear that God is about to accomplish through Jesus’ suffering and death a new Exodus, a new saving event. The presence of Moses, the giver of the law, along with Elijah, the greatest of all prophets, indicates that this new Exodus to occur in Jerusalem, the City of David, will fulfill the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. So when we arrive at verse 51 in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” we know that a critical turning point in the narrative has arrived. Jesus is now zeroing in on his primary objective.
The cloud enveloping the mountain top cannot help but bring to mind God’s appearance in the cloud over Mt. Sinai-the place from which Moses returned glowing with divine glory. Quite understandably, the disciples are afraid of the overshadowing cloud. So, too, the voice from the cloud is reminiscent of the voice thundering from Sinai so terrifying the people of Israel that they begged Moses to implore God no longer to speak directly to them. Exodus 20:18-20. Of course, it is also possible to see in this event a reflection of Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain in the 19th Chapter of 1 Kings. There, too, the prophet encountered a powerful wind storm, an earthquake and a terrifying fire. In this case, however, God’s word was not found in any of these impressive natural events. Instead, God was heard in a “still small voice” or, as some translators have rendered it, “a sound of sheer silence.” I Kings 19:12.
I am intrigued by the possible link to the Elijah story because it alters my Sunday School impression of that voice from the cloud as deep, commanding and terrifying. Although the disciples are frightened as they enter the cloud, there is no indication that the voice from the cloud had a similar effect. Luke does not have the disciples falling on their faces in fear as do Mark and Matthew. Thus, I wonder whether my image of this event has not been colored more by Cecil B. DeMille than careful reading of the text. How does the voice of God really sound? How did the disciples perceive it? Would we know the voice of God even if we heard it? How does this question shape our perception of Jesus as God’s Son?
The marvelous thing about this story is its incomprehensibility. It raises more questions than it answers and reminds us that however much we may think we know about Jesus, we are not close to knowing him fully yet.