Archive for May, 2016

Sunday, June 5th

Third Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11–24
Luke 7:11–17

Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Deliver us from the death of sin, and raise us to new life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I lost both my parents during the last decade. Their deaths grieved me deeply, especially my mother’s passing. Yet there is something natural about such grief. I always knew that I would one day bury my parents-just as they buried theirs. We are not gods, but creatures. Our days are not without limit and we can only pray for grace to live them wisely and well. Both of my parents went to their graves full of days and with a legacy of love and faithfulness to each other and to their children. What more can one ask from a creaturely life? Death is surely grievous, but not evil-at least not to the degree that the dying creature lets go of life and enters a trusting free fall into the merciful hands of its Creator. I buried my parents with deep sadness, but also in hope.

Burying one’s child, however, is another thing altogether. I fear the deaths of my children and grandchildren far more than I fear my own. They carry a part of me that would surely die were I to be so unfortunate as to outlive them. Their very existence makes me vulnerable in the way that God became vulnerable in sending the only begotten Son. Something of that vulnerability is expressed below in this week’s poem by Brenda Atri. My children force me to pray, work and hope for a better future. Because they live, I cannot allow myself the luxury of despair. For that reason, death inflicts irreparable destruction when it comes before its time. The bullet that takes the life of a school child leaves a hole far bigger than the one in the corpse. It leaves parents with inconsolable grief; it inflicts on siblings both incomprehensible loss and survivor guilt; it destroys a community’s trust; it scars the narratives of so many young lives. An untimely death is an evil death.

This Sunday’s gospel tells the story of a funeral for a young man from the town of Nain. We don’t know the circumstances of his death, but we know that he died leaving behind a mother and a grieving community. That is enough to make clear to us that his death was a great evil-an evil Jesus simply will not tolerate. That is why he stops the funeral train in its tracks, raises the young man from death and returns him to his mother. No dead kids on Jesus’ watch!

By contrast, our culture has become appallingly tolerant of untimely deaths. As a people, we here in the United States are becoming increasingly comfortable with extremist anti-immigrant proposals barring even children fleeing for their lives from finding sanctuary within our borders. Worldwide, millions of children die each year of entirely preventable causes such as hunger, abuse, neglect, gun violence, bullying, exploitation, malaria, tuberculosis, war and lack of adequate health care. We see the statistics, but not the deep craters of human agony behind the raw numbers. For each such death, there is a sad funeral procession made up of irreparably damaged souls.

Jesus has come to put an end to these funeral processions for children and young people needlessly sacrificed to death. Jesus would have his disciples know that it’s time to stop tolerating the toxic environments in our neighborhoods, schools and homes that put children at risk. It is time to stop tolerating politicians who tell us that we cannot afford adequate health care, proper nutrition and educational opportunities for our children. Over and over again, Jesus made children his priority, teaching his disciples that the kingdom of heaven was made for them. Our prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven therefore includes an implicit plea that no parent should ever again have to bury a child.

Daughter

Your face mirrors mine,
As mine does my mother’s.

Your smile is a smirk
That  quickly explodes
Into sublime lightness.

Your skin has a blush
As does plums true wine,
When young men turn their heads
And whisper your name to each other.

Your hair casts a curtain
Over your face. It acts as a veil to
Guard your thoughts and hide your moods.
It falls long and silky to your waist,
and parts in a sliver, to allow one eye to spy.

If I could love you more
It would surely be like a violent death,
For I would faint, become breathless,
And my heart would burst forth from my breast

My life has been in free fall since your birth.
A never ending plunge into bottomless depths,
Fearing for your wellness and happiness.

I live only to hear you call my name
Hopefully with joy, and not with tears.

On that face that mirrors mine.

C. 2011 by Brenda Atry & published on Poetry Soup. You can sample more of this Atry’s poetry at the above website.

1 Kings 17:17–24

This story follows immediately upon the text from Sunday, November 8th of last year. Elijah is staying with an impoverished widow of Zarephath, a coastal town in the pagan country of Phoenicia.  He had been driven out of Israel by King Ahab who blamed Elijah for the three year drought that was devastating the whole region. This fugitive prophet had taken up residence with the widow and her son. All three of them were living off one jar of meal and a single jug of oil that had miraculously been sustaining them throughout the long years of drought. Then, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes deathly ill. The widow lashes out at Elijah and, by extension, at God for bringing this evil upon her. That is not unusual. In the face of unbearable suffering and loss, people often question God’s mercy, wonder whether they are not somehow at fault for what has occurred or become angry at God. What is truly remarkable is the prophet’s response. Elijah does not scold the woman for her impiety or remind her of how good God has been to her thus far or explain to her that the death of her son is really a blessing in disguise that she will someday come to recognize. Elijah takes the woman’s complaint directly to God without any censorship, editing or pious window dressing. He turns and says, “Yea God! What did you have to go and kill this poor kid for? This lady saved my life! Can’t you give her a break?”

There is a lesson in this for all of us who deal with people in times of grief. It is not our place to defend God’s reputation or make explanations for God’s actions or seeming lack of action. After all, God would be a shabby excuse for a deity if he had to depend on us to cover for him. Our responsibility is to show compassion to the sufferer. That sometimes means entering into his or her anger and despair. There are precious few devotional aids that teach us how to pray when we are heartbroken, doubtful or just plain mad at God. That is where the Psalms come in. The psalmists know how to pray on good days and bad. They know how to praise God for every source of joy and beauty, but they also know how to let God know when they feel that God has let them down. That is exactly how Elijah prays over the widow’s son.

The son’s recovery demonstrates to the reader that Elijah’s prayer is heard and that God’s mercy extends beyond the confines of Israel to all nations where people of faith are found. But it is important not to lay too much stress on the healing. The message here is not that God grants whatever request a person makes-even such persons as Elijah. Rather, the point is that God hears and God acts. Such actions may not come as dramatically as in this story and they may not comport with our wishes. In the end, God means to take all of our lives. So the healing of the widow’s son amounts only to a brief reprieve. Death will eventually part the widow and her son. That the boy has been given back to his mother for an indefinitely longer period of time is sheer grace. As such, this miracle has the larger purpose of evoking the faith expressed in the widow’s response: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Vs. 24.

Psalm 30

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. S/he acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” Vs. 6.  It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it matters not how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.

The psalmist aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Vs. 9. Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God. Whatever remains of the psalmist’s life, much or little, will be spent in such praise.

Galatians 1:11–24

As we are going to be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the rest of this month and into the beginning of July, you might want to read the overview by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org. You may recall that Paul is writing to the Galatian believers out of concern that they are forsaking the good news about Jesus that he has preached and are listening instead to the message of certain Jewish Christian evangelists. These folks were arguing that Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to Jewish law. Paul insists in reply that people are justified by faith in Christ rather than by keeping the requirements of Torah.

Last week’s lesson opened with Paul’s surprise and outrage that, so soon after hearing the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, the Galatian church is now turning to “another gospel.” This week Paul launches into an account of his upbringing within Judaism and his former hatred of the church. In part, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers that his own Jewish credentials are as good as or better than those of his opponents, but his objective is not to establish his superiority to them on that basis. He wishes rather to make it clear to the Galatians that, although he has as good a claim as anyone to Jewish ancestry and upbringing, he does base his preaching and teaching on these credentials. Instead, he basis his preaching and teaching on his encounter with the risen Christ and Christ’s commission for him to preach the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also wishes to make the point that he is in fellowship with the Church at Jerusalem and has received the blessing of the rest of the apostles for his ministry.

It is important to note this twofold claim of authority. Paul is emphatic that his apostleship is grounded in his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1-30 for Luke’s version of this encounter.) But he is also careful to point out that he had gone up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter and James to receive their blessing. He also points out that the church in Judea recognized his preaching and glorified God on that account. Thus, apostolic authority, understood as the authorization to preach, teach and administer the sacraments publically, is grounded in the apostle’s conviction that s/he has been called to this work. But that alone is not sufficient to make an apostle. Apostolic authority must be recognized and conferred by the church as well. I believe that this twofold call process exists in some way, shape or form in most expressions of the church. Throughout its history, the church as striven to exercise apostolic authority in ways that encourage and stimulate creative ministry and preaching while also holding preachers and ministers accountable to the biblical witness, the ecumenical creeds and our respective confessional/teaching traditions. We have not always gotten that balance quite right, but we keep trying. Perhaps that is what it means to be a church of the Reformation?

Luke 7:11–17

This account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son is found only in Luke. It is naturally paired with the Elijah story in I Kings, also involving the death of a widow’s only son. Indeed, the Elijah narrative might well have been on the peoples’ (Luke’s?) mind as they exclaimed, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Vs. 16. The other comment made by the crowd to the effect that “God has [visited] his people” reflects the Benedictus in which Zechariah declares: “for [God] has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68. The NRSV translates the verb for “visit” as “look favorably upon.” While not inaccurate, this rendering does not reflect the sense that God is coming to or making a saving visit to Israel. I prefer the old RSV’s use of “visit.”

Nain is a tiny Galilean village approximately twenty-five miles south of Capernaum. See map. Luke reports that Jesus raised the young man near the town gate, but no evidence of a gate or wall has ever been found at the site. Either the gate was only part of a simple enclosure or the word was used figuratively, referring to the place where the road entered the houses. In either case, it would have been necessary for the funeral procession to pass out of the town as burial of the dead would not have been permitted within the town proper.

Jesus’ compassion here is not for the dead man, but for his mother. As indicated in my opening remarks, the life of a woman without a husband or children to support her would have been a bitter lot in first century Palestine. This is yet another passage in which Luke’s particular concern for the lives of women and their participation in the gospel narrative is illustrated.

Jesus touched the bier to stop the poll bearers from proceeding further. Such an act might well have been considered rude and disrespectful. It also rendered Jesus legally unclean for the balance of the day. But this brash act makes clear Jesus’ intent to put a stop to this sad procession and turn it around.

Jesus raises the young man by commanding him to arise. He uses similar means in raising the daughter of Jairus. Luke 8:54-56See also the raising of Lazarus at John 11:43. This harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis where God speaks the world and all of its creatures into existence. Genesis 1:1-2:3.

Luke tells us that word of this event spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding hill country-strange given that the miracle took place at a small town in Galilee. Some scholars attribute this discrepancy to Luke’s general lack of knowledge about Palestinian geography.

 

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Sunday, May 29th

Second Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-9
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

Prayer of the Day: Merciful Lord God, we do not presume to come before you trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great and abundant mercies. Revive our faith, we pray; heal our bodies, and mend our communities, that we may evermore dwell in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The story of the Temple’s dedication under Solomon seems out of sync with where we are today as mainline American Christians. For the most part, we are no longer in the business of erecting temples with spires disappearing into the heavens. We don’t build sanctuaries with towering stain glass murals or high altars bearing brass candle sticks at the top of marble staircases. Most of our temples from prior years are in a sad state of disrepair. Standing as they often do at the center of metropolitan life, they are melancholy reminders of bygone days when church councils were dominated by powerful political leaders and captains of industry. Though the names of wealthy donors’ still adorn heavy oak pews, sterling silver communion ware and ornately designed baptismal fonts within the walls of these aging sanctuaries, the peeling paint, faded linens and worn carpets illuminate their current financial distress. Most of these churches house a fraction of the worshipers that once filled their pews several times each Sunday in the heyday of protestant cultural dominance. More and more of these fine old houses of worship are being taken over by museums, acting companies and orchestral groups. In the present age, our church is desperately seeking gracefully to divest itself of these capital draining structures to feed its ailing and equally antiquated institutions with the proceeds.

Though we may not be erecting temples anymore, I am not sure we have gotten over our fixation on the ones we still have. I have observed that congregations finding themselves in financial difficulty will reduce their pastoral ministry to part time, let their musicians go and cut back on their programing to remain viable. But they will not fold until they reach the point at which they can no longer maintain their building. As goes the building, so goes the church. The remarkable thing about Israel is that, unlike so many of our protestant congregations, it survived the destruction of its temple. During their exile in Babylon, the people of Israel learned that they could still be God’s faithful covenant community without the line of Davidic kings, without the promised land and without the temple. Ironically, it was during this very period of exile that Israel finally began to understand herself as a people elected, not for special privilege, but as a servant people whose faithful life under covenant with her God brings light to the nations “in order that all the peoples of the earth my know [God’s] name and fear [God] as do [God’s] people Israel.” I Kings 8:43.

Maybe we American mainliners are finally in a position to discover that we can be the church faithfully without the support of the dominant culture, without powerful people in high places and without the support of wealthy donors. Maybe we are about to learn that our buildings, institutions and traditions are not as essential as we always assumed. Perhaps we will learn once again that the only material things a church ever needs are a Bible, a little water, a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. A community so constituted would provide a salutary witness to this nation whose economy runs on unsustainable consumer greed and whose moral, social and economic infrastructure is itself in decline. God does not need temples to house God’s name, but only two or three gathered in Jesus’ name. It may just be that a chastened, humbled and broken church will once again become God’s lamp shining through the darkness of a dying empire to a better hope.

Here’s a poem by Richard Hugo about life in a declining city. If you listen carefully, you will discover that the church remains a part-and, let us pray, a hopeful part-of this landscape of decay.

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Source: Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo (c. 1984 by W. W. Norton and Company Inc.) Richard Hugo, 1923-1982, was born Richard Hogan in Seattle, Washington. He was raised by his mother’s parents after his father left the family. In 1942 he changed his name to Richard Hugo, taking his stepfather’s surname. He served in World War II as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. He left the service in 1945 after flying 35 combat missions and reaching the rank of first lieutenant. Hugo received his B.A. in 1948 and his M.A. in 1952 in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. His poems evoke a powerful sense of place, addressing universal existential themes he finds inherent in the minute details of particular locals. You can read more about Richard Hugo and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

First, an introductory note on the Book of I Kings (which originally was joined with II Kings in a single volume). This book is the product of several sources that are now lost to us. These include the Book of the Chronicles of King Solomon (I Kings 11:41); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (I Kings 14:19); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (I Kings 14:29); stories of kings and prophets; and Temple archives. Material from these sources has been woven into a narrative framework by two authors/editors. The first author takes the story to the death of King Josiah in 609 B.C.E. The second author wrote about 550 B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. S/he continues the story up to the final defeat and destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, adding his or her own editorial amendments to the earlier sections of the book.

This reading for this Sunday contains segments from the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. Verses 41-43 were probably editorial touches added by the second author who wrote during the Exile. Solomon’s reference to persons from far countries coming to worship in Jerusalem because “they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm…” reflects the influence of exilic prophets like Second Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55. It is perhaps the inspiration for the post exilic Third Isaiah’s (Isaiah 56-66) declaration that God will bring faithful foreigners into Zion to minister in what will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.”  Isaiah 56:7. This, in turn, was likely the basis for Jesus’ rebuke at the cleansing of the Temple in the Gospel of Mark: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’” Mark 11:17.

These biblical strains represent a remarkable openness to inclusion of the nations within the blessings of covenantal life enjoyed by Israel. They stand in contrast to and in creative tension with those texts calling upon Israel to separate and distinguish herself from the surrounding cultures. Both biblical admonitions are essential. Israel is called to be a different and distinct sort of people precisely because she is to represent God’s alternative to the destructive and violent ways of the other nations. For that reason, Israel must retain her essential character shaped by her covenantal relationship with her God. She is to embody God’s invitation to a better way. This challenge is echoed in St. Paul’s admonition to the church at Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

Psalm 96:1-9

This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. (See I Chronicles 16:23-33) Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.

The psalm calls for a “new song,” reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.

“The gods of the nations are idols.” If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.

Galatians 1:1-12

Paul is madder than a hornet. Someone in his congregation is hocking a gospel other than the good news about Jesus. Jesus might be part of it. His name and even his teachings might figure into it. But according to Paul, the good news is Jesus alone-never Jesus plus something else. In this case, the “something else” was circumcision. These rival teachers were insisting that baptism into Jesus Christ and faith in his promises was not enough. To be a true member of the church, one had to be circumcised and become observant of certain Jewish traditions. Now there is nothing wrong with Jewish disciples observing Jewish traditions. Paul did as much himself. The problem arises when these traditions are elevated to the level of requirements for inclusion in the Body of Christ. This is poison.

I don’t believe that many of our churches explicitly teach “other gospels,” but I suspect that we sometimes practice them without realizing what we are doing. For example, although the pressure to dress in your “Sunday best” for church is on the wane, we still look askance at particularly shabby clothing. Parents of small children too often discover that their welcome in congregations of predominantly elderly people is less than enthusiastic and implicitly conditioned on the good behavior of their offspring. Most of our congregations are not consciously racist, but it is painfully evident from the statistics that people of color frequently do not feel welcome in our midst. Of course, we are just arriving at the point of welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. From Paul’s perspective, these are all matters requiring us to ask whether we are witnessing in word and deed to the good news about Jesus.

Author and consultant Stephen Richards Covey reminds us that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Paul recognized that, for the church, the main thing is Jesus. As much as Paul valued the unity of the church, he was willing to risk division when the good news about Jesus was in danger of being obscured by lesser concerns. Like Martin Luther fifteen centuries later, Paul would rather have a church divided over the gospel than united under anything less. Anything less than Jesus is too little and anything more than Jesus is too much. To be a church of the reformation is to be forever asking ourselves whether we are successfully keeping “the main thing the main thing.” The critical question always boils down to this: “Are we keeping Jesus at the center?”

Luke 7:1-10

This story comes immediately upon the heels of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” at Luke 6:17-44, the counterpart to Jesus’  “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. Jesus’ teaching about God’s love for the poor, hungry and sorrowful, his words about love and forgiveness of enemies and his admonitions against judging others are soon to be illustrated in a series of miracles and acts of compassion. Jesus’ healing of the military officer’s slave is the first such illustration of his teaching. It is noteworthy that the officer, upon hearing that Jesus has agreed to come to his home, now sends messengers to dissuade him from actually appearing. Perhaps he knew that Jesus’ entry into his home and acceptance of his hospitality would amount to a scandal. Maybe he wanted to spare Jesus the social and religious condemnation that would surely follow. In any event, this gentile’s faithful appeal to Jesus for help and Jesus’ willingness to visit him foreshadows the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Luke is already preparing his readers for the mission of the church to the gentiles, the story that will be told in the Book of Acts.

The irony here is that a Roman operative commanding occupation troops and who has never met Jesus respects his authority, whereas the Jewish leadership will be forever questioning and challenging that authority throughout the rest of the gospel. Once again, Luke is foreshadowing the conflict between some in the Jewish leadership and the Apostle Paul as he preaches the good news of Jesus to the gentiles. The receptiveness of the gentile outsiders will be juxtaposed to the unbelief and rejection of the Jewish leadership. Still, throughout both the gospel and in the Book of Acts, the Jewish populous is generally well disposed toward Jesus and his disciples. Moreover, the leadership is not altogether united in opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees in particular often seem sympathetic or at least open to Jesus’ message throughout his ministry. They show him hospitality on a number of occasions (Luke 7:36Luke 11:37Luke 14:1) and warn him of impending danger. Luke 13:31. The Pharisees also take Paul’s side when he is on trial before the Jerusalem council after his arrest in the Temple. Acts 23:6-10. We also read that “a great many of the priests” in Jerusalem “were obedient to the faith.”Acts 6:7. Thus, although Luke focuses his gospel on the mission to the gentiles more than any of the other three gospels, he wishes also to emphasize the receptiveness of the Jewish people to the good news of Jesus Christ. One never knows where faith will be found.

Since Galilee did not become a Roman province until 44 A.C.E., it is probable that this officer served under Herod Antipas rather than within the command structure of the Roman army. As such, he would be in a better position to gain an understanding and appreciation of Jewish religion and customs. Nevertheless, as Capernaum was a border town, custom guards under direct Roman command were also present. Thus, the commander in this story might have been among them. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, (c. 1983, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 117. The existence of gentile admirers of Jewish religion has been noted by other literary sources demonstrating the plausibility of this encounter.

The Spirit of God creates readiness for the good news of Jesus. This story challenges the church to look beyond its walls and beyond the “likely prospects for evangelism” to places and people where faith might already be brewing. Strategizing for mission is not necessarily a bad thing. Still and all, the best strategy is one that is open to the surprising appearance of faith in the last place you would expect to find it.

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Sunday, May 22nd

The Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day:  Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Does any of this stuff matter anymore?” That question was raised by a lay theology student in a class I was teaching on basic Christian Doctrine during a discussion of the Holy Trinity. This individual was not alone in her sentiments. More than a few of my congregants and even some of my colleagues question whether the assertions hammered out in the church councils and given expression in the Ecumenical Creeds still matter. “All that matters is that we follow Jesus.” This student went on to say.

In a way, I agree with her. Following Jesus is everything. Preaching, Bible Study and catechesis are not worth spit if they don’t lead us deeper into worship and discipleship. In a world threatened by war, famine, ecological destruction and gross injustice, how can we justify time spent obsessing over abstract doctrines of God? One colleague of mine jokes that you can question the Nicene Creed with impunity in my denomination, but God forbid you should be caught serving bottled water at a church event or using the wrong pronoun for the deity. We mainliners are not alone in this indifference to doctrinal precision. Christians who characterize themselves as “conservative evangelicals” seem far more interested these days in defining marriage, regulating sexuality, policing public lavatories and keeping “god” in the Pledge of Allegiance than defending central tenants of the faith set forth in the creeds. If John Shelby Spong and Franklin Graham seem to agree on anything, it is that doctrines like the Trinity are not particularly important to Christian faith and life.

Saint Augustine would take issue with us on that score. Augustine was no ivory tower theologian. He was about as immersed in his own contemporary culture as a person can be. He had lived his life under numerous doctrines about the nature of God and learned from bitter experience that it makes a huge difference what we say and believe about God. This is so precisely because the heart of the creator determines the shape of creation and dictates how we treat the earth and our fellow creatures both human and non-human. Christians confess that God created the world “ex nihilo,” that is, out of nothing. Strictly speaking, that is true, but in a larger sense we must say that God created the world out of love. The world exists not to meet some divine need. God was not lonely. It is because God is not a monad having only God’s single self to love that the world is not simply God’s ant farm. Because the love of God the Father has always had an object distinct yet within God’s self, namely, the Son, and because the love between Father and Son is a spiritual projection of God’s self, “the universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but the Three in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 412.

Augustine’s Trinitarian arguments have often been criticized as mere word games. Yet I believe that there is a substantive basis for his insistence on the necessity of God’s being Triune. If God were merely one, could it still be said that God’s nature and character is love? Without an object, love can only be self directed-which is not genuine love at all. Consequently, if God were one and not Triune, love could not have preexisted creation as it would have had no object. The essence of God would then have to have been something other than love. Rather than God’s very being, love would be only an acquired divine attribute, a creature of God’s making rather than the essence of who God is.

Because God is Triune, love, faithfulness, obedience, friendship and community are eternal. They pre-existed creation in the being of the Triune God. That is why they require our witness, but never our defense. God’s will must be done and God’s kingdom must come because the forces resisting it are not within God and thus not eternal. Sin has no staying power. Evil cannot go the distance. Violence cannot silence the Word. Death cannot keep Jesus in the grave. Our hope for a new heaven and a new earth, says Augustine, is based on the conviction that the essence of the Triune God is love between the persons of the Trinity, love that God desires to share with all humankind. If God were less than Triune, God would be other than love and love would be less than eternal. If love matters to you, the Trinity should matter too.

Here’s a poem by Ariana Reines that speaks of love as a disruptive force that just “is.” I think Augustine would agree.

[Love]

Is an interruption or an aberration, a force in opposition to the ultimate inertia
of the universe,
 
Wrote Marguerite Duras.
 
Whether or not it is worth it it occurs. Whether or not it is to be believed it is.
 
The wind moves us without a frond being needed to be held by a slave girl.
 
The rudiments of sentences are ancient without a mouth needing to remember
what it is losing as it lets those words out, something eviller than what they
even mean right now, something too evil to be known right now
 
Or ever.
 
I feel sure that even the most culpable people have other qualities secreted
away
 
Adjusting their garments in light of fate
 
He turned his head upward, he looked up the white wall. The light from the
lamp could be light coming from a great distance, it could be a great distance
away, and the wall could be snow it is so beautiful, he said. His head looking
up the wall, his eyes looking up it, he said, that nail in the wall could also be
beautiful, for so far away.

Source: Mercury, (c. 2011 by Ariana Reines, pub. by Fence Books). Ariana Reines was born in Salem, Massachusetts. She is a poet, playwright and translator. She has taught at Columbia University and the European Graduate School. In 2009 Reines was the Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry at the University of California-Berkeley, the youngest poet to ever to have held that distinctive position. She is deeply committed to humanitarian causes and has often traveled to Haiti to take part in relief efforts there. You can read more about Ariana Reines and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

I am not at all sure why this reading is included among the Holy Trinity lessons. It just happens to be one of the texts that the Arian heretics cited in support of their claim that the Son was a creature (albeit an exalted one) and in no sense true God. In this particular text, wisdom is not a pre-existent divine being distinct from God, but an aspect or characteristic of God who is poetically endowed with speech. Thus, it is largely irrelevant to the dispute between the Arians and the Orthodox Trinitarian believers. Still, it is a wonderful text testifying to the beauty and order of creation and the glory of its Creator.

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of poems and short sayings dating from as early as the tenth century B.C.E. to as late as the fourth century B.C.E. Unlike the Psalms which are for the most part expressions of prayer, praise, and lament within the context of worship, Proverbs is concerned with universal and pragmatic “wisdom” and the means by which it is acquired. Though clearly influenced by Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature, Israel’s understanding of wisdom has its own unique flavor. Though it shares with these foreign sources a humanistic focus on reasoned inquiry into the natural world, Israelite wisdom identifies the divine will and purpose as the ultimate human good wisdom reveals. Truth acquired through reason is open to the whole of humanity. Still, for Israel wisdom is subordinate to Israel’s God. It functions within the context of Israel’s covenants and the Torah.

In view of all this, it is not surprising that the particular poem in this week’s lesson affirms that wisdom, as wonderful as she is and though accessible to all willing to submit to her instruction, is nevertheless God’s creation. The human mind can do no more than appropriate what already exists by virtue of God’s creative activity at the dawn of time. Wisdom therefore necessarily takes the shape of Torah. It is not that Israel forsakes reasoned inquiry for blind adherence to law. Nor can it be said that Israel’s keen spirit of inquiry runs contrary to Torah obedience. Rather, Torah both shaped Israel’s questions of the natural world and informed her conclusions. Perhaps the clearest case of incorporation of wisdom into Torah is found in the very lengthy Psalm 119. Though the psalmist praises Torah as the source of all wisdom, it is obvious his/her own wisdom has been forged in the furnace of experience where Torah meets the challenges of everyday life.

Psalm 8

This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.

The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.

It is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth]look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!

Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.

Romans 5:1-5

For Paul, the Holy Spirit is the animating force for the church which he regards as the Body of the resurrected Christ. As such, the Spirit’s primary concern is the health of that Body. Gifts of the Spirit given individually to members of the church are intended to “build up” the Body of Christ. Thus, it matters not at all which particular gift one has, but how one uses his or her gift. Whether one speaks in other tongues, prophesies, works miracles or exercises leadership, the net result must be that the church is strengthened. If leadership divides and alienates rather than unites or if miracles draw attention to the miracle worker rather than to the mercy of God in Christ, then these gifts become tools of Satan to break down the Body. Paul lays out all of this very succinctly inI Corinthians 12. Put differently, spiritual gifts must be exercised under the gentle reign of love. Of all the manifestations of the Spirit within the church, “the greatest of these is love” I Corinthians 13:13. That should help us understand what Paul is saying here in Romans.

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Vs. 5. Recall Augustine’s assertion that the Trinitarian character of God is revealed in the love between the Father and the Son which is the Holy Spirit. Genuine love, however, is not exclusive. It “overflows” the bounds of the relationships that give rise to it. Perhaps that is what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Love is ever seeking new objects. It is precisely because the one God is also three and because the relationship between the three is characterized by their mutual love and because love by its very nature makes room for the other, the Spirit of God, which is love, broods over the waters at the dawn of time seeking that other. The Word beckons the other into being and the Father blesses what comes to be. Again, this is not to say that the universe was the work of a committee. Rather, creation is a singular act of the Triune God which bears the stamp of that God’s innermost Trinitarian being.

It is perhaps clearer now why Jesus could say that the two greatest commandments are first to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Such love is grounded in the innermost being of God.

John 16:12-15

In this tightly packed paragraph from John, Jesus speaks of the interaction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and will lead them into “all the truth.” Yet the Spirit speaks not on its own authority, but on the authority of the Father. However, the Spirit imparts “truth” to the disciples by “taking what is mine [Jesus’) and declaring it to you.” The disciples are recipients of the Spirit who comes from the Father and whose sole job is to impart Jesus to them. Once again, the sending of the Spirit is a unitary act of the one Triune God by which the disciples are drawn into the heart of God’s Trinitarian life of mutual love. Not surprisingly, this section of John was a favorite of our friend Augustine (on whom I have perhaps gone a little heavier than I should have!).

 

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Sunday, May 15th

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1–21
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
Romans 8:14–17
John 14:8–17

Prayer of the DayGod our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“The peace of God it is not peace, but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing—the marvelous peace of God.”

Final verse of the hymn, They Cast their Nets in Galilee, by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942).

Jesus promised his disciples peace-but not peace such as the world gives. The peace of God is not an uneasy co-existence; a tacit agreement to avoid discussion of volatile issues; a light healing of deep wounds festering under the surface. If it is possible to disturb the peace by speaking the truth, then it isn’t true peace. It is not the peace of God.

This last weekend I attended the assembly of my Lutheran church’s New Jersey Synod where we attempted to engage in conversation about race and the continuing scourge of racism. That this conversation is necessary is evidenced by my church’s unenviable status as one of the most thoroughly segregated denominations in the United States. Yet having such a conversation is difficult, painful and frustrating in large part because so many of us who identify as white are simply blind to the reality of systemic racism and its insidious influence on every aspect of life. After all, we ended segregation in the 60s. We have both elected and re-elected an African American president by substantial electoral and popular majorities. The era of Jim Crow is over. How bad can things be?

Pretty bad. We still find state and municipal police departments in which blatantly racist e-mails are regularly exchanged. The disproportional rate of incarceration for black males remains high and a distinguished fraternity fosters a culture encouraging derisive songs about excluding black Americans complete with racial epitaphs and allusions to lynching. No doubt, we have made progress toward racial equality since the 1960s, but we have still got a long way to go. The continuing presence of racism understandably makes people of color angry and impatient. We white folk react with fear and defensiveness. Though I think we had some good dialogue, things sometimes got a little ugly.

It is tempting to avoid difficult discussions about race, human sexuality, immigration and poverty. That would yield for us “peace such as the world gives.” But again, that is not true peace. It does not comport with Paul’s insistence that through baptism we are all united as one people through Christ. Such peace as the world gives runs contrary to John of Patmos’ vision of a multitude “from all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” For that reason, the church must reject the false peace offered by the powers and principalities that would maintain the status  quo. We cannot settle for a church that imports into its assemblies and polity the sinful pretenses that divide humanity. Racism is an attack upon the very core of the gospel. It is sin. The church of Christ does not ignore sin or turn a blind eye to it. It confesses sin, repents and opens itself to newness of life.

The peace of God does not come cheap. It inevitably upsets our settled existence and disturbs the peace imposed by the worldly powers that be.  In a recent book Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains how the Hebrew scriptures narrate ancient Israel’s ongoing encounter with a profound and uncontrollable reality experienced through her relationship with her surprising and ever innovative God. Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) pp. 3-4. Much the same thing can be said about the Book of Acts in which the Holy Spirit always seems to be a few steps ahead of a church that is frantically trying to keep up. I doubt the small group praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit the night before Pentecost had any idea that they would be deluged by three thousand new believers of different cultural backgrounds, different languages and different worship traditions. Even so, these new believers were at least united by their common Judaism. But while the church was still reeling from its Pentecost growth spurt, Philip began speaking the good news to the hated Samaritans and Peter took the unthinkable step of baptizing a family of gentiles. I expect that for many in the church, this was all just too much change too fast.

We see in the Book of Acts indications of how the church’s unity was strained with conflict as a result of its inclusiveness. Almost from the beginning it appears that there was some rivalry and tension between the Greek and Palestinian Jews over the distribution of food among their respective dependent widows. Acts 6:1-6. We have seen how Peter got himself into hot water by baptizing a family of gentiles without proper authorization. Paul’s ministry, though formally approved by the Jerusalem council, seems to have remained controversial among a number of traditionalists. You don’t get growth without growing pains.

The peace of God is won not through avoiding conflict, but by taking it head on. There is no way to a new heaven and a new earth except through the hard work of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That is why the Spirit of God comes, not to smooth things over, but to stir things up. Pentecost is, among other things, a reminder that God never intended for the church to be static and changeless. To follow Jesus is to be transformed into a people capable of living in the peace of God. Here’s a poem by Loretta Roche on the severe mercy of the Spirit that drives us toward repentance, faith and renewal.

Spirit

I have no comforting to bring you;
Mine is no cool sweet balm to lend
For a wound that aches, or a mind that darkens.
I am not one to be called a friend.

For when your hands are scarred and broken
From shaping stony words to a song,
Cutting a meaning from glossy marble,
My voice will bite like an iron prong.

And I will sting you when you falter
With a word bitter as driving snow;
I have not lost the way of twisting
That whip I used to have—you know?

No one can silence me with weeping;
You cannot hush my voice with prayers.
When you would seek out a room of refuge
I shall be waiting on the stairs.

You shall not rest while I am near you-
Mine is a will that does not bend.
I have no comforting to bring you,
And you will hate me to the end.

Source: Poetry Magazine (April 1925) published by Poetry Foundation. For other poems by  Loretta Roche See the Virginia Spring Quarterly (Fall 1926).

Acts 2:1–21

In the Book of Acts, Luke continues the story begun in his gospel. Recall from our discussion of the Transfiguration that Luke likens Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem to another “Exodus,” that is, a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. See Post for February 7, 2016. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning. The empire takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke means to show us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed.  Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.

The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciple’s preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.

Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses.  Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of  Pentecost,”  Beginnings of Christianity,5:114-16.

Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”

One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the places in which they live, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, it can be said that the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.

Psalm 104:24–34, 35b

This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as the sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4.  The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.

This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.

While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of economic currents, military struggles and social expectations exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them.  This psalm still testifies to the holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation, not the battlefield for warring national, commercial and tribal interests. Unlike the Babylonian vision, the world is not a house haunted by warring demons. Neither is it a dead and soulless planet governed by political, social and economic determinism or the currents of random historical accidents.

Romans 8:14–17

For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post of Sunday, February 14, 2016. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.

In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.

John 14:8–17

There is a lot going on in these verses obscured by the fact that we are getting only a snippet of a much longer discourse. To highlight the essentials, Jesus responds to Philip’s request that Jesus “show us the Father” by telling him that he has already seen as much of the Father as ever will be seen. God is Jesus. But take care that while we can say that God is Jesus, we cannot use that statement interchangeably with the false statement, “Jesus is God.” The reason this latter statement is untrue follows from John’s declaration in the first chapter of his gospel: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. To say that Jesus is God is to imply that we already know who God is and that we recognize the Godly characteristics we spot in Jesus. This makes of Jesus nothing more than a mask of God or a clever disguise. Jesus obscures rather than reveals God.

John would have us know that we know nothing of the Father apart from the Son. It is only because God becomes flesh (not disguises himself as flesh or pretends to be flesh) that people otherwise incapable of seeing God actually do see God. It is for that reason that the bulk of our creeds is devoted to articulating our faith in Jesus. We know nothing of the Father other than as the Father of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we know nothing of the Spirit apart from that which proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to glorify Jesus and take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to the church. John 16:14-15.

It is not entirely clear what Philip’s expectations were when he asked that Jesus “show” him the Father. He might have had in mind the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder and fire. Or perhaps he was expecting some prophetic vision as experienced by Isaiah or Ezekiel. In either case, Jesus gives him more than he has requested. For truly seeing and knowing God involves more than witnessing marvels and seeing visions. Knowing God involves the sort of intimacy Jesus experiences with his disciples and the love he has consistently shown them-even “to the end.” John 13:1-17.  Because God is Jesus and the Spirit of God proceeds from Jesus and the Father, Jesus’ “going away” does not constitute “abandonment.”  Indeed, Jesus will henceforth be more intimately present to his disciples and their understanding of him clearer precisely because they will soon be indwelt by his Spirit. Jesus will be “in” them just as the Father is “in” him. John 17:20-21.

I will have more to say about the Holy Trinity next week. Suffice it to say, though, that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a Trinitarian event that makes sense only as an act of the Triune God.

 

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Sunday, May 8th

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Last week a powerful prophetic and poetic voice went silent. Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan died Saturday, April 30th of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old. Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957.

Daniel Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release.

Berrigan was not an ideological leftist. He opposed abortion as adamantly as he resisted the Vietnam War. In 1992 he was arrested in Rochester, New York while protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood facility. Needless to say, he received no little criticism from the left for taking this position. For Berrigan, however, opposition to abortion followed as naturally as opposition to war from his over-all commitment to peace and resistance to violence. He was a longtime endorser of the “consistent life ethic,” and he served on the advisory board of Consistent Life, an organization that describes itself as “committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia.” See “Daniel Berrigan, priest, prisoner, anti-war crusader, dies” National Catholic Reporter May 2, 2016.

I remember Daniel Berrigan chiefly as a poet and a prophet of peace and reconciliation. Berrigan published more than fifty books of poetry, essays, journals and commentaries on the scriptures. He had a gift for recognizing the sacred in what most of us would view as profane-perhaps even obscene. He was able to see the face of Jesus in all people and especially in those we often fear to look upon. Here is a poem by Daniel Berrigan. May he rest in peace and may eternal light shine upon him. 

The Face of Christ  

The tragic beauty of the face of Christ
Shines in the face of man;

The abandoned old live on
in shabby rooms, far from comfort.
Outside,
din and purpose, the world, a fiery animal
reined in by youth. Within
a pallid tiring heart
shuffles about its dwelling.

Nothing, so little, comes of life’s promise.
0f broken men, despised minds
what does one make-
a roadside show, a graveyard of the heart?

Christ, fowler of street and hedgerow
cripples, the distempered old
-eyes blind as woodknots,
tongues tight as immigrants’-all
taken in His gospel net,
the hue and cry of existence.

Heaven, of such imperfection,
wary, ravaged, wild?

Yes. Compel them in.

Source: Berrigan, Daniel, Selected & New Poems (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 80. You can read more about Daniel Berrigan and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

A discussion of the appointed texts for the  Seventh Sunday of Easter follows. For those of you who might, like Trinity, be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord, I invite you to re-visit my Post of Sunday, May 12, 2013 where the appropriate lessons are discussed.

Acts 16:16-34

This marvelous story from Acts poses numerous problems for us moderns. Demons and demon possession don’t fit seamlessly into our 19th Century world view. Then again, our 19th Century world view is coming under increasing strain in this 21st Century that is calling into question the mind’s capacity to conduct the sort of objective inquiry capable of yielding the scientific certainty we all thought the empirical method could give us. So instead of falling all over ourselves to find “rational” explanations for seemingly miraculous events narrated in the Bible, perhaps we should allow the scriptures to school us on the limits of human understanding and open to us portholes into a universe far too marvelous to fit into our constrictive rational constructs. I am not suggesting, of course, that we can or should return to the 1st Century way of looking at things. What I do suggest is that, contrary to our progressive prejudices, chronological progression does not equate with growth in wisdom, understanding and insight. I maintain that the past contains as many important insights that we are prone to forget as it does errors we have properly rejected.

Rather than seeking to reconcile the biblical narrative with 19th Century rationalism, we should be challenging this failing conceptual model with deeper understandings of reality. Walter Wink seeks to do just that in his book, The Powers that Be (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress). Referencing the Hebrew Scriptures, Wink points out how nations, cities and individuals were believed to have had angels representing them. The same concept appears in the Book of Revelation in which each of the seven churches in Asia Minor is said to have its own angel. Revelation 2-3. Just as at the heart of every individual there are motivating values, goals and priorities, so also at the heart of every church, corporation, government and social organization there is an ethos, a personality of sorts that guides the decision making process and conduct of their members. This “angel” falls and becomes “demonic” when an institution, such as a government, turns away from its divine vocation to provide for the wellbeing of its citizens and becomes merely self-serving and self-perpetuating.

John Dominic Crossan addresses the phenomenon of demon possession in his book, The Historical Jesus (c. 1991 by John Dominic Crossan, pub. by Harper Collins). Crossan describes individual demonic possession in Jesus’ day as a microcosm of Rome’s occupation and domination of the Holy Land:

“Think, now, of demonic possession. George Nickelsburg, speaking of the Book of the Similitudes/Parables of Enoch in I Enoch 37-71, a work that dates ‘around the turn of the eara,’ he says that ‘on the one side are God, the heavenly entourage, the agents of judgment…and God’s people…On the other are the chief demon Azazel, his angels, and the kings and the mighty…[who] would have their counterparts among the Roman generals, governors, triumvirs, and monarchs whose activities in Judea are well documented sources. The author might also have had in mind the late Hasmoneans and the Herods’…. For this representation…Roman imperialism meant that God’s people were possessed by demons on the social level. Notice, by the way, the somewhat schizophrenic implications of demonic control: it indicates a power admittedly greater than oneself, admittedly ‘inside’ oneself, but that one declares to be evil and therefore beyond any collusion or cooperation.” Ibid. at 313-314 (citations omitted).

In order to survive, the occupied peoples must to some degree internalize the practices, values and ethos of their occupiers. But in so doing, they bring into their very psyches the oppressive conditions that threaten them externally. Is it any wonder that individuals in these circumstances crack under the strain? Is it any wonder that they experience the occupier of their homeland as an occupier of their minds and hearts as well? And should it come as any surprise that this hostile occupier so internalized takes on a life of its own and becomes a separate entity within?

Let’s apply these insights to our lesson from Acts. The woman in the story is first introduced to us as a slave. That is enough to tell us that her life is not her own. She is the property of her masters who view her as a source of revenue. It is not clear why she was following Paul about. Was she doing that of her own accord? Were her masters encouraging her to do so in hopes that Paul would compensate them for giving credibility to his preaching? We can only speculate on that score. It is clear, however, that once the demon’s grip on the woman was broken, her value to her masters was gone. What is broken here is a relationship governed by economic exploitation and oppression. The woman is no longer a mere “revenue producer,” as the corporate world often terms and values its employees. Therefore, in their eyes, she is worthless.

The slave relationship as described in this narrative is uncomfortably close to those governing our own social and economic realities. I have described in previous posts the tendency of our educational system to produce units of value for the labor market rather than well rounded citizens capable of full participation in public life. Our nomenclature is littered with language suggesting that one’s “net worth” is the sum of his/her assets less liabilities. What one is worth is often equated with one’s earning capacity. What cannot be measured in dollars is, like the nameless woman in our lesson, without value.

Paul’s offense, then, was far more than a simple crime against property. It was an assault on the entire Imperial/Patriarchal hierarchy that defined who one was, how much one was worth and to whom one answered. “These men…” the woman’s owners told the local magistrates, “advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Vs. 20. Not surprisingly, the authorities react with outrage, beating both Paul and his companion Silas and throwing them into prison. We are left to wonder what ever happened to the woman set free from the spirit of divination that held her in bondage. How, if at all, did that change the nature of her legal bondage? How did the rest of her life unfold?

Paul and Silas find themselves in prison where, as they would otherwise, they worshiped and gave thanks to God. An earthquake breaks open the doors of the prison and the guard in charge naturally assumes that Paul and Silas, along with the rest of the prisoners have taken the opportunity to flee. His determination to slay himself with his own sword is understandable. His Roman superiors would not have taken his dereliction of duty lightly and would likely have designed a much more unpleasant demise for him. He is relieved to learn, however, that the prisoners have not fled and turns to Paul and Silas with the question: “What must I do to be saved?” Vs. 30. It is hard to say whether the guard was moved by his prisoners’ songs and praises or their refusal to flee when given the opportunity. Needless to say, something about Paul and Silas impressed him deeply so that he turned to them in this moment of anxiety.

The salvation of the guard and his household further illustrates Luke’s literary purpose of narrating the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ through everything that happens to the apostles, even their misfortunes. Just as I would like to know more about the woman liberated from demonic possession, so also I wish I knew more about the other prisoners incarcerated along with Paul and Silas. Why did they not flee when the earthquake afforded them the opportunity of escape? Were they moved in any significant way by what they heard and witnessed? Again, these loose ends are left for us to ponder.

Psalm 97

This is a psalm of praise which asks nothing of God. It begins with an acknowledgement that “The Lord reigns.” Vs. 1. This simple statement is a shot across the bow to all claims of national sovereignty. The earth belongs to the Lord and all other claims of ownership are relative and subordinate to God’s final authority. Even the Promised Land was given to Israel only in trust and subject to revocation.   Clouds, mist and thick darkness evoke memories of the cloud that led the people of Israel through the wilderness as well as God’s appearances on Mt. Sinai. Vs.2. Fire is also a purifying force that burns away Israel’s enemies, but might also be employed to purge Israel itself. Vs. 3. Lightning, thunder and earthquake are all images used throughout the psalms to symbolize the coming of God. See, e.g., Psalm 18:6-15; Psalm 68:7-10; Psalm 144:5-6.

There is some rich irony here. The heavens are said to proclaim God’s righteousness, whereas human worshipers of images made of these created glories have not the understanding to do the same. Vss. 6-7. Zion and all of Judah do hear in the terrifying phenomenon of nature the voice of the Lord and rejoice in his just reign over all the earth. Vs. 8. In her early history, Israel did not necessarily deny the existence of other gods. Nevertheless, if such gods there be, they must necessarily be subject to the God of Israel who reigns over all the earth. Vs. 9.

Verses 10-11 illustrate that this God who reigns over the earth is not indifferent to the conduct of his human creatures. God is not a neutral observer of history. This God takes sides and, specifically, God takes the side of the righteous against evildoers. Righteousness, of course, is measured in terms of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, the ones who give thanks to his holy name. vs. 12. Nevertheless, as the prophets and other psalms illustrate, Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant is a light to all the nations of the world and a revelation of God’s gracious will for all creation.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

This lesson represents perhaps the most egregious act of textual butchery, literary dishonesty and ecclesiastical deceit ever practiced by the lectionary goons. Before proceeding further, please read the unedited, unsanitized, uncut and unpolished version actually given to us in the text. Revelation 22:12-21. As you can see, the troublesome fact that the “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves falsehood” have been excluded from the new Jerusalem has been conveniently hidden away out of sight. Vs.15. It is also highly ironic that the lectionary makers have seen fit to omit the very verses warning against omitting anything from the Book of Revelation. Vss. 18-19. Is it possible to treat the scriptures with any more contempt?

Well, now that I have had a chance to vent my spleen, let me say that this section of Revelation is a fitting climax to the book as a whole. The drama began in the throne room of God and the Lamb where the Lamb alone was found worthy to open the sacred scroll revealing God’s redemptive purpose for creation. Now we see the Holy City in which God and the Lamb reign-no longer in heaven above, but on earth and among human beings. “I will be their God and they will be my people,” the refrain ringing throughout the prophets and amplified in John’s gospel, has now come to pass.

Yet, as the scurrilously omitted passages show us, the new heaven and the new earth do not come about without a cleansing. Not all that now is will be part of the new age to come. Perhaps not all people will be part of the new creation. Jesus leaves open the possibility that one can become so thoroughly disfigured by sin that the image of God is no longer visible. “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” Matthew 7:23. We ignore Jesus at our very great peril. Of course, we are not in a position to determine who is beyond redemption. Only Jesus can make that call. For our part, we must assume that all people are capable of salvation, all people are deserving of mercy, all people are worthy of an opportunity for repentance. Moreover, it is worth remembering that the line between good and evil runs not between nations, races, clans or individuals but through the middle of every human heart. For “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God,” St. Peter tells us. I Peter 4:17. So how much of our lives are being lived eternally, that is, in love for God and our neighbor? Are we accustoming our eyes to the light of the Lamb now so that it will not blind us when it breaks through in all its fullness? How much of who you have been and what you have done today is worth preserving for eternity?

John 17:20-26

What we have in this lesson is only a snippet of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into the passion narrative to follow. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will believe in him through their preaching. Vs. 20. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.

Jesus prays that his church may become “perfectly one.” Vs. 23. But this oneness is perfect only in a qualified sense. Truly perfect oneness will only be achieved when the world itself is drawn into the Trinitarian love that is God. It is for the world, broken and hostile to God as it is, that the Son has been sent. The Son’s love for the world is precisely what overcomes the hostility of the world. It is for this reason that Jesus concludes his prayer with a plea to his heavenly Father “that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Vs. 26.

Although this is not an Ascension Day text, it might fruitfully be used as such. The trouble with the feast of the Ascension is that we often turn it into Jesus’ going away party. It is anything but that! God’s right hand is not somewhere deep in space. It is at work in the heart of creation. To say that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father is to say that he is more intensely present to us than ever before. As the hymn tells us, “Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” ‘Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing,” Text Brian A. Wren, Music T. Williams published in Lutheran Evangelical Worship, # 389.

 

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