Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The makers of the common lectionary try to make the Bible easy for us by blunting its sharp edges, silencing its discordant voices and omitting its embarrassingly frank talk of vengeance, wrath and eternal punishment. Nowhere is the heavy hand of modernist editorial butchery more evident than in this Sunday’s gospel lesson where Jesus’ warning about the consequences of ignoring the good news of the kingdom is excised in its entirety. If you read only the lectionary’s edited version of this text, you might imagine that there are no such consequences, that it is a matter of indifference whether you believe the kingdom has drawn near or not, that Jesus’ preaching is but one of many interesting side dishes on the buffet table we call life. Take as much or little as you like-or none at all.
Not so, says Jesus. “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town [which will not receive the disciples and their preaching of the kingdom].” Of those towns that have already rejected him, Jesus says: “ Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.” So read the omitted verses 12-15.
In some respects, I sympathize with the lectionary makers and, like most preachers these days, secretly wish I could thank them for steering me away from having to talk about “hell.” That term carries so much faulty metaphysical baggage. For many of my parishioners, it denotes a place created by God for the punishment of people who break his rules. In truth, God cares far less about rules than about the people rules are intended to protect. Furthermore, to the extent hell can even be deemed a work of God, it is a place for the imprisonment of the devil and all the forces of evil that destroy humanity. It was never designed for human habitation. It is the will of God that all people be redeemed-if we are to take St. Peter seriously. Nevertheless, God’s saving will notwithstanding, Jesus warns us that there are eternal consequences for turning away from God’s good and gracious will. He warns of the day when the Lord will no longer recognize his own image in the work of his hands and remark, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”
So how can we speak of this reality in a meaningful way? What exactly is “hell?” If I had to choose one word to sum it up, it would probably be the word “regret.” Nothing is quite so painful as having to live with a past you can’t change. Things I have said and done inflict pain on those I love. As much as I would like to take them all back, I cannot. Some of my sins have ended friendships, alienated family members and destroyed opportunities. Even in those many cases in which I have been forgiven by the ones I have wronged, the scar tissue remains-as does my guilt. Things are never quite what they were before and perhaps never will be. That is one way I have experienced hell.
How much more hellish does life become when one turns away the one and only person with power to re-write our stories, bring our hurtful histories into his own healing narrative and give even our sins a redemptive meaning and significance? Where would we be without the God of the second chance who seeks out the very disciples who denied, betrayed and deserted him to his death and calls them to a new beginning? Who but the one who has all eternity to work with can heal the wounds we have inflicted upon each other in the universe of time? No torment I can imagine could be worse than staring back for eternity at a fixed past of irreparable wrongs, missed opportunities and wasted living. That is the fate from which Jesus came to save us-the hell of regret.
Here’s a brief poem about regret by Paul Laurence Dunbar
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.
Pay it I will to the end-
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release-
Gives me the clasp of peace.
Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!
Source: Johnson, James Weldon, The Book of American Negro Poetry (c. 1922 by Harcourt Brace & Company). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was one of America’s first influential African American poets. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio where he lived with his widowed mother. His poetic skill became evident already in high school. The only black student in his class, he was elected class president and class poet. Though he was never able to obtain a college education, he read voraciously. His early poetry gained the admiration and respect of influential poets such as James Whitcomb Riley. With the support of Orville Wright, then in the publishing business, Dunbar was able to publish his first book of poetry. His popularity continued to grow and in 1896 he was invited for a six month reading tour in England to present his poetry. He returned in 1897, married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore and took a clerkship position in the U.S. Library of Congress, a job that left him time to continue his writing career. In 1902, Dunbar’s physical and psychological health began to deteriorate, leading to his eventual divorce. He became fatally ill in 1905 and died in February of the following year.
You can find out more about Paul Laurence Dunbar and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The 66th chapter of Isaiah is a complicated section of scripture possibly constructed from several sources including passages from psalms, utterances from prior prophets and material original to the prophet him/herself. The prophet of which I am speaking is Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile, but before the second temple was completed. (Isaiah 56-66) The temple project was very much on the peoples’ mind at this point. The prophet Haggai was a contemporary of Third Isaiah. In his preaching Haggai urged prompt rebuilding of the temple suggesting that its completion was essential to initiating the messianic age. Haggai 2:18-23. It is but a small step from here to the false conclusion that completion of the temple by the work of Israel’s own hands could bring about this age of blessing. Against this notion, Third Isaiah makes the following remarks:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting-place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine, says the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look,
to the humble and contrite in spirit,
who trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:1-2.
God does not need a temple in order to save Israel. At most, the temple is a symbol of God’s presence given as a reminder to Israel that the Lord is always in her midst. Moreover, as the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures point out repeatedly, properly performed worship is an abomination when practiced without an obedient and faithful heart. E.g., Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 6:20.
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain-offering, like one who offers swine’s blood;*
whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
The prophet is making the point that neither the rebuilding of the temple nor proper temple worship will move God to save Israel. But then the prophet changes his/her tone and addresses those who “tremble at [God’s] word.” Isaiah 66:5. It is possible that the people to whom the prophet is speaking are a persecuted minority among the exiles, perhaps a sect of believers within the post-exilic community similar to the Rechabites who lived in Judah prior to the exile (See Jeremiah 35). It is also possible that the prophet is speaking more generally to the faithful core of believers among the exiles who hold a proper understanding of faithfulness and obedience. In either case, the prophet goes on to deliver a startling oracle of salvation:
Listen, an uproar from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
dealing retribution to his enemies!
Before she was in labour
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.
Isaiah 66:6-9. The voice sounds “from the temple,” leading some scholars to conclude that this section of the oracle refers to a later time when the temple had already been completed and worship resumed. But that is not necessarily the case. It would be quite in character with the prophecy for God to speak from an as yet unfinished temple to make the point that its completion is not necessary to enable God to speak, act or save. God works independently of the temple. If we assume that the prophet is speaking to a group within the larger exilic community, then the birth analogy suggests that this community is the “womb” from which God will deliver his new and redeemed people. That sets the context for Sunday’s lesson, an exclamation of praise calling upon the hearers to “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her.”
Remarkable here is the feminine imagery used to describe God’s care for Israel, which is likened to infants sucking at God’s breast. “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Vs. 13. Such a word of comfort was no doubt very much needed by this community within a community sharing not only the brunt of persecution from hostile inhabitants of the land against the Jewish population generally, but persecution from their fellow Jews as well. The hope sustaining them, though ridiculed now, will ultimately be vindicated when God acts to restore Jerusalem. Be patient, Oh people. Hang onto your hope. It will not be disappointed.
This is a psalm of praise containing two distinct parts. Verses 1-12 constitute a liturgy of praise offered by the worshiping assembly extolling the majesty of God made manifest in his “terrible deeds” and his “great…power.” Among these deeds is the Exodus from Egypt and God’s salvation of his people from the armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea. The worshipers affirm God’s faithfulness by testifying that God “has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.” The reading for Sunday comes from this section of the psalm.
It is important to be aware of the second section in order to appreciate what may be going on here. Verses 13 to 20 constitute a hymn of thanksgiving offered up by an individual who has experienced God’s salvation in his or her own life. It is possible that verses 1-12 served as a liturgical invocation offered up by the assembly as a preface to individual prayers of thanksgiving for specific saving acts toward particular worshipers accompanied by a sacrifice in the temple. So says at least one commentator. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p.468. Other commentators maintain that it is just as likely that the psalm is a unitary prayer offered by a single individual who prefaces his own thanksgiving with a more general hymn of praise for God’s saving works on behalf of all Israel. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977, Cambridge University Press), p. 76-77. Either interpretation would be consistent with Israel’s understanding of prayer as grounded in God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. Indeed, God can be relied upon even in the absence of any saving act on the personal level because God has proven faithful to Israel throughout her history. See, e.g, Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 77:11-15. For this reason, the petitioner can be confident that his/her prayers have been heard by a God who is both willing and able to save.
This hymn is a reminder that we live in the narrative of God’s mighty acts of salvation. The believer is strengthened by the conviction that his or her individual life is a microcosm of the greater story of God’s saving work in biblical history that ends with liberation from sin, death and the devil. That, too, is why I recommend without fail: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.
This lesson constitutes Paul’s final summation of his argument against his opponents. For more background on them, see my post from Sunday, June 2nd. Paul suggests here that the motives of his opponents in seeking to compel the Galatian believers, who were gentiles, to be circumcised was to avoid criticism and escape “persecution for the cross of Christ.” This may well be so, but there might have been more to it than that. Perhaps Paul is not giving his opponents a fair break. Maybe they were not merely trying to avoid persecution but also were genuinely concerned about keeping the bridge between the Jesus movement and the rest of Judaism open. It may be that they saw their work in terms of preserving the unity of the church and its vital connection to its Jewish roots. I suspect something like that was Peter’s motivation in the conflict with Paul at Antioch. See Galatians 2:11-21. Is that so very wrong?
There is no question that the church is called to express the unity of Jesus with the Father as John’s gospel teaches and to live as a single body as Paul maintained. Division within the church diminishes its witness to the world and undermines our belief in “One Lord, One Faith, One Spirit and One Baptism.” Ephesians 4:4-6. Yet although Paul was a strong proponent of unity within the Body of Christ, he understood that true unity in the Spirit cannot be built upon anything less than Jesus Christ. If the foundation is flawed, the building will not stand.
The question addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is very much alive in the church today. Our church’s decision to begin ordaining women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the 1970s clearly raised another barrier to reconciliation with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It has been argued that our more recent decision to welcome gay and lesbian people into that ministry has divided not only our own church body but may further complicate ecumenical relations with other churches. That may very well be so. But if the price of unity is shutting the door to people the Holy Spirit is calling to minister among us, then the price is too high. We cannot afford to sacrifice the good and liberating news Jesus brings to anyone on the altar of a false and ill founded unity.
Last week Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem where we know he will accomplish his saving “exodus” for his people through his suffering and death. That determination has already cost him the loyalty of the Samaritans and has sharpened the demands of discipleship. Now he sends out seventy of his disciples to go before him on his itinerary to Jerusalem proclaiming that “the reign of God has drawn near.” This reign of God is not a future promise/threat. It is a present reality. The number of seventy (seventy-two in some New Testament manuscripts) signifies completion. It might also be an allusion to Moses’ selecting seventy elders to share his burden of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. Numbers 11:16-30 (Again, seventy-two elders according to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint). Some scholars see an allusion to the list of nations in Genesis 10-11 numbering seventy, thereby foreshadowing the mission to the gentiles that will come to fruition in the Book of Acts.
The time of harvest has arrived. This is an image heavy with eschatological or “end times” significance. Nothing remains but to reap the fruits. There is a sense of urgency here echoing Moses’ injunction to the children of Israel to eat the first Passover meal with haste (Exodus 12:11) and Elisha’s command in sending his servant Gehazi to the home of his patron, the Shunammite woman whose son had just died: “If you meet anyone, do not salute him; and if anyone salutes you, do not reply.” II Kings 4:29.
Jesus is sending the disciples out as lambs among wolves. There is some irony here in that the reign of God is characterized as an age of peace in which the wolf and the lamb dwell together in harmony. Isaiah 65:17-25. The disciples are to share this peace with the towns to which they are sent. Yet although the peaceful reign of God is a present reality, because it is present in the midst of a sinful and violent world, that reign of God takes the shape of the cross. The disciples can anticipate hostility and rejection.
The disciples are sent out with no provisions for their journey. They are to depend solely upon the hospitality of the towns and villages to which they preach. It should be noted that the practice of hospitality toward traveling apostles and prophets was widely practiced in the early church-and was sometimes abused as noted in theDidache, an ancient teaching document from the second century.
“3 But concerning the apostles and prophets, so do ye according to the ordinance of the Gospel. 4 Let every apostle, when he cometh to you, be received as the Lord; 5 but he shall not abide more than a single day, or if there be need, a second likewise; but if he abide three days, he is a false prophet. 6 And when he departeth let the apostle receive nothing save bread, until he findeth shelter; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet.” Didache 11:3-6, Translated and edited by J. B. Lightfoot.
Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to remain in one house rather than going “from house to house” might be an injunction against exploiting hospitality.
That the mission of the seventy depends upon hospitality goes a long way toward explaining why Jesus warns that, for those refusing to show such hospitality to the disciples and rejecting their message, the result will be judgment more severe than Sodom’s. Vs. 12. The ancient city of Sodom was destroyed largely for its hostility to strangers and failure to show hospitality to God’s angels. How much more shall the towns and villages rejecting God’s messiah incur the wrath of God! This wrath of God is simply the flip side of God’s passionate love. Is it not the case that the people with the greatest capacity to hurt us, wound our hearts and incite us to anger are those we love most deeply? God’s love for his covenant people is not an emotionless philosophical abstraction void of all feeling. God’s love is fierce, passionate, jealous and relentless.
This lesson brings into sharp focus what is at stake here. For all who accept it, the reign of God is “peace.” For all who reject it, the dawn of this reign is judgment. But the message is the same for the receptive and the recalcitrant: “The reign of God has drawn near to you.” The “peace” the disciples are called to share is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the reconciliation of all things and all peoples with their God. It is well being for all of creation, the equivalent of the Hebrew word, “shalom.” The only alternative to such peace is enmity, hostility, division and finally self destruction. You are either with the reign of God or against it. There is no middle ground upon which to stand. The disciple’s mission is therefore a matter of life and death.