Archive for August, 2016
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“The power of choosing good and evil is within the reach of all.” Origen
My strict Lutheran upbringing causes me to wince at Origen’s bald statement, as well as Moses’ call to “choose life” and the Psalmist’s insistence that one must choose between the life of righteousness or wickedness. I grew up confessing each Sunday that I was a “poor miserable sinner” and that I was incapable of performing any truly good work. I still believe that to be true in this sense: I am convinced that my most noble acts are tinged with self-interest and always motivated to some degree by greed, need for approval or some other unworthy impulse. Knowing that helps to keep me humble and self-critical in a healthy way. That is particularly important for clergy types like me for whom messianic delusions are an occupational hazard. I need to be reminded that my view of God’s will in every situation is myopic. My judgment is fallible and my good intentions are often misguided. Of course, no good work on my part can be employed to win God’s favor. God’s grace, mercy and goodness are gifts freely given apart from however good or evil my actions might be.
That said, there is a dark side to this doctrine of original sin. Belief in the pervasiveness of sin and its tendency to infect our motives and cloud our judgment can easily become an excuse for inactivity, evasiveness and a tacit acceptance of the status quo. We have seen how much damage has been done by religious fanatics whose moral crusades leave behind a trail of blood and ruin. We know all too well the dangers of pride, self-righteousness and spiritual snobbery that can grow out of movements aimed at living the Sermon on the Mount. Far better, therefore, to forsake these religious pretensions, accept one’s limits and live a flawed, but forgiven life at peace with the secular world. Grace, then, becomes mere permission to settle for good citizenship rather than pursuing holiness. Discipleship, like politics, becomes the art of the possible. Christians are not better people; they are just forgiven-which means that their lives are no different from those of anyone else.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously unmasked this misconstruction for what it truly is: “cheap grace.” There is a difference between the student, on the one hand, who studies diligently, receives a less than satisfactory mark but is nevertheless given a pass to the next grade; and the student on the other who never bothers to attend class or complete any assignments yet shows up for the first time on the last day of school seeking the same favor. However poorly the Corinthian church of the New Testament may have embodied Christ, it understood nonetheless that its calling was to be the Body of Christ. At the very least, we can see in the contours of its failure what it was trying to become. By contrast, I often wonder whether anyone can tell by looking at the typical American protestant church exactly what it is trying to be. Is it a fund raising unit for disaster and famine relief? Is it a civic organization providing social services for the surrounding community? Is it a social club of like minded individuals who share the same religious/philosophical/cultural outlooks and artistic tastes? Is any of this even mildly interesting for a culture saturated with opportunities for charitable work, volunteer experiences, socialization and youth educational and entertainment programs-to say nothing of a cornucopia of quasi-religious options? Whatever the church might have to offer, you can get it better and cheaper somewhere else. So why join the church? Is it worth sacrificing a leisurely Sunday morning out on the porch with a bagel & cream cheese, a good cup of coffee and the Sunday edition of the New York Times?
The early church was hardly perfect, but it understood that it was called to an existence radically different from the surrounding culture. It understood that Jesus was offering it a better life than the dominant society could provide. It also understood that this new life inevitably took the shape of the cross in a world dominated by greed, injustice and violence. Moral choices had to be made on a daily basis and these choices were a matter of life or death. They were often costly. Joseph H. Hellerman tells the story of a small congregation in Northern Africa during the third century facing just such a costly life or death decision. (Full article published in Called to Community, edited by Charles F. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House, c. 2016) pp. 26-30. A young actor expressed a desire to be baptized and join the church. Acting in the third century was not the craft of pure entertainment we know today. It was employed exclusively for the celebration of pagan festivals featuring plays depicting overt violence and explicit sexual immorality. Accordingly, the young man was required to renounce his profession and he did so. Subsequently, after his baptism, the young man started his own school to train actors for the very profession he had given up. When confronted by his pastor, he pointed out that he needed still to make a living to support himself and that, because he was no longer involved with the actual plays, he didn’t feel that he was violating his baptismal vow to follow Jesus.
At a loss for how to handle this unique situation, the pastor sought advice from his bishop, Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian’s response was clear and uncompromising. Participation in pagan religious productions, whether as an actor or as an acting instructor, is inconsistent with the church’s faith and witness. The young acting instructor must again be called upon to abandon his profession. That might sound harsh and it is. But there is more. Cyprian went on to say that the congregation should provide support and sustenance for the young man for as long as he needed it to make his transition to another trade. Furthermore, Cyprian offered the support of his own church in the event this responsibility proved too great for the little congregation. Thus, Cyprian was not a puritanical judge determined to cleanse the church of sinners. Rather, he was the caring pastor of a church community whose members were dedicated to helping one another turn from sin to the better life Jesus offers. This is a classic example of what Saint Paul calls “bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.
In my own Lutheran tradition we tend to identify a person’s calling or vocation with his or her profession, trade or job. We call this the “priesthood of all believers.” After all, the work that we do in society for the sake of our neighbors is no less holy than the work of ministry within the church. That sounds good, and it works well enough when your employment fits your temperament and contributes to the well-being of society. But more and more I am finding young people employed by companies demanding more time, more energy and more tangible results while offering less security and compensation. Through the cellphone and the internet, the office seems to be worming its way into evenings at home and family vacations demanding availability 24/7. Unskilled heads of families find it necessary to hold down two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for family, church and community. Attorneys find that, so far from advancing the rule of law and justice, their hours are consumed with assisting insurers in denying the claims of sick and injured people. Doctors find their care of patients increasingly dominated by the cost cutting measures of insurers and HMOs. Many folks I know have deeply ambivalent feelings about their jobs-such as a young woman who works for a manufacturer of automatic fire arms sold to civilians. Work that exploits, overreaches, enslaves and compromises is anything but holy. It is hard to view it as a calling to serve God. I think that many folks caught up in these dehumanizing roles would welcome an opportunity to free themselves from this way of death and embrace Jesus’ life-giving alternative. But that is a lot to expect from an individual.
Maybe this is where the church comes in. Perhaps we need to become a community that does more than call upon people to choose life. We need to be the kind of community that helps people choose life by supporting them every step of the way-as did Cyprian. We are similar in this respect to a twelve step community of addicts trying to help one another achieve and maintain sobriety. We are all struggling to break away from ways of death that threaten to destroy us and embrace Jesus’ way that leads to life. To be sure, Christians are not better people, but we are people who believe in a better way of being human. We are sinful people, but people who are nevertheless capable of making good, faithful and life-giving choices-especially when we support, strengthen and encourage one another. We are a people in which the Holy Spirit is at work forming the mind of Christ. When that happens, the Body follows suit.
Here’s a poem by Louise Gluck about choosing life.
The great man turns his back on the island.
Now he will not die in paradise
nor hear again
the lutes of paradise among the olive trees,
by the clear pools under the cypresses. Time
begins now, in which he hears again
that pulse which is the narrative
sea, at dawn when its pull is strongest.
What has brought us here
will lead us away; our ship
sways in the tinted harbor water.
Now the spell is ended.
Give him back his life,
sea that can only move forward.
Louise Glück is an American poet. She was born in 1943 in New York City and grew up on Long Island. She attended both Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. She is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Academy of American Poet’s Prize. You can read more about Louise Gluck and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”
That injunction to “choose life” has picked up a lot of distorting overtones from the so-called culture wars in recent years. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. It is, of course, hard to disagree with this statement as a general proposition. But then again, general moral propositions are usually quite palatable. It is their specific application that often catches in our throats. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I can’t say I entirely disagree. Few things strike me as more violent than the removal of a fetal human life from the womb with the purpose of terminating it. (Whether a fetus ought to be considered a “person” in contemplation of law and thus entitled to the consequent legal protections is, of course, an entirely different question.) I cannot help but notice, however, the roaring silence of these same conservatives when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor, brought into even sharper focus by his successor, Pope Francis. I guess that for them, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.
But I digress. Such discussion risks leading us dangerously off the mark. In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. “Deuteronomy is not general moral law…but instruction for a specific covenant people, with a particular history that reaches back to the time of Abraham.” Achtemeier, Elizabeth, “Plumbing the Riches of Deuteronomy for the Preacher,” published in Interpretation, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1987, p. 270. As another commentator has noted, “every act of Torah-obedience finds its motivation, its purpose, and its criterion of appropriateness in Israel’s love for Yahweh.” Janzen, Gerald J., “The Yoke That Gives Rest,” published in Interpretation, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1987, p. 256. The covenant gives concrete shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. Israel is to worship only the Lord who “give[s] justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain[s] the right of the afflicted and the destitute…rescu[ing] the weak and the needy.” Psalm 82 3-4. They are not to worship the gods of the nations who typically champion the cause of their imperial patrons and “judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked.” Psalm 82:2. Unlike the hierarchical regimes of the empires that are indifferent to the plight of the poor in the land and are built on the backs of slaves, Israel is ruled by the God who commands that there be no poor in her midst. Deuteronomy 15:7-11. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.
Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life” and that choice involves not subscription to a moral template or party platform, but to live as God’s covenant people Israel, and as church, to live as faithful members of the Body of Christ where the mind of Christ is formed in us individually and communally.
The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” is for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.
Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. Pro see Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 16; contra see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 102. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and, as such, makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning of the Psalter “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.
Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Vs. 3. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.
By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. Vs. 4. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Vs. 5. Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.
This brief letter from Saint Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus or Caesarea. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.
In the pre-Civil War south this letter was frequently invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this, they argued, we must conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.
First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.
Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.
This is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I.,Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?
I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.
The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.
Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.
Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.
So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c 1972 William B. Eerdmans Co.). Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.
“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“There is nothing stronger than these two, patience and time, they will do it all.” Leo Tolstoy
These words seem strangely out of place among a people increasingly impatient with the institutions of government, with persistent economic inequality and with the intransigent reality of racism running through it all. Time, it seems, is more enemy than ally. Each new day brings another act of violence widening the fault lines in our polarized society. Every year that passes brings us further down the path of ecological ruin. At the end of each year when I fill out the annual parish parochial report for my denomination, I am forced to confront the fact that my congregation is top-heavy agewise and I wonder whether there is enough time left for us to turn around our decades’ long march toward decline. Time seems to be running out for us in so many ways. It is only natural for us to become impatient. It is only natural that we feel compelled to do something-anything.
In every age, the church has faced the temptation to wrest from God the reigns of history, to grasp at the levers of worldly political power in order to facilitate the reign of God and make history turn out right. I think that is why we are forever being drawn into our nation’s partisan disputes and why the church is too often merely a pale reflection, a microcosm of our fractured culture rather than Jesus’ alternative humanity. We fear that events are taking us in the wrong direction. We worry that we are running out of time. We want the kingdom now and we find it hard to resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands and start building that kingdom with whatever tools are at hand.
That is precisely the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness when the devil offered him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Let’s face it. Reconciliation is long, hard and dangerous work. It requires making yourself vulnerable to rejection, hostility and violence. It means dying without ever seeing the fruits of your labor. The hearts of people change course more like aircraft carriers than speed boats. It takes thousands of incremental pushes and thousands of miles traveled before you even notice a slight alteration in course. Most of us don’t have the patience for that kind of work, nor do we believe that there is time sufficient to waste on strategies that don’t bring immediate results. That’s where the devil’s appeal comes in. He has a faster and easier way. With enough fire power behind you, you can make people behave themselves whether they want to or not. Threats, coercion and violence can get you a kingdom more quickly and efficiently than winning hearts through relentless acts of love. Persuading your enemy can take a life time. Killing him takes but one squeeze of the trigger. Power gets instant results. No doubt about it, the kingdoms of the world have a lot of power.
Of course, there was just one catch-there always is with the devil. In order to receive all this power and glory, Jesus must worship Satan. That is the price you pay when you get impatient, cut corners and seek ways to peace, justice and redemption bypassing the slow and patient way of the cross. What you get in the end from bargaining with the devil, using his methods and following his short cuts is something less than God’s reign of love. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, God’s reign cannot be imposed-not by force of arms, not by rule of law and not by the will of the majority. Jesus is not interested in becoming yet another conquering hero riding into town on his warhorse. He isn’t interested in winning an election or vanquishing his opposition. Jesus will conquer the world by winning its trust and devotion to his way of reconciliation-or not at all.
Disciples of Jesus understand that time and patience are not abstract notions. They are embodied in the God who took six full days to create the heavens and the earth. (Even if you are inclined to take that literally, you have to admit that six days is far more time than should have been necessary for a God who is able to create simply by uttering a command.) This is the God who waited until Abraham and Sarah were in their 70s to promise them an heir-and only got around to keeping the promise when they were well into their 90s. This is the God who promised to make of Abraham and Sarah a nation of blessing and did so, but not before their descendants lived as resident aliens in the land that was supposed to be theirs for three more generations and four hundred years after that as slaves in Egypt. This is the Lord Jesus whose parting words from the Book of Revelation are “Lo, I am coming soon!” Revelation 22:20. Two millennia later his church still confesses that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” As the Apostle Peter puts it, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” II Peter 3:8. While it might seem to us that the present crisis (whatever that might be) calls for God’s immediate and decisive intervention, God might take an entirely different view. Peter goes on to say that it is not God’s will for any to perish, “but that all should reach repentance.” II Peter 3:9. That might take another millennium or two or three. But God knows what God wants and God will take whatever time is required to get it. God will not be rushed.
A passage from the Letter to the Hebrews (inexplicably excised by the lectionary police from Sunday’s reading) reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. The Jesus who comes again in glory is not somehow different from the Jesus who spent his entire existence serving the poor, speaking truth to power and who finally died for the kingdom he proclaimed at the hands of his enemies. But through the miracle of repentance that happens among people shaped by faithful preaching, persistent sacramental practices and prayerful community, our hearts are being prepared to recognize his glory for what it is, to yearn for his coming and to live peaceably under his gentle reign. Through simple acts of hospitality, courage, faith and devotion to a kingdom yet unseen God is at work breaking the yolk of bondage, felling the walls of hostility and reconciling all things in Christ Jesus.
Here is a poem by Nikki Giovanni about small acts of faith, courage and compassion bearing much unanticipated fruit.
This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said
they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago
Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would
know they were not alone. This is for the Pullman Porters who
helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight
the fight that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education because
even though Kansas is west and even though Topeka is the birth-
place of Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote the powerful “The
Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” it was the
Pullman Porters who whispered to the traveling men both
the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would
know what was going on. This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled as if they were happy and laughed like they were tickled
when some folks were around and who silently rejoiced in 1954
when the Supreme Court announced its 9—0 decision that “sepa-
rate is inherently unequal.” This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled and welcomed a fourteen-year-old boy onto their train in
1955. They noticed his slight limp that he tried to disguise with a
doo-wop walk; they noticed his stutter and probably understood
why his mother wanted him out of Chicago during the summer
when school was out. Fourteen-year-old Black boys with limps
and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways
when mothers aren’t around to look after them. So this is for the
Pullman Porters who looked over that fourteen-year-old while
the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to
St. Louis to Memphis to Mississippi. This is for the men who kept
him safe; and if Emmett Till had been able to stay on a train all
summer he would have maybe grown a bit of a paunch, certainly
lost his hair, probably have worn bifocals and bounced his grand-
children on his knee telling them about his summer riding the
rails. But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money,
Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unac-
ceptably murdered. This is for the Pullman Porters who, when the
sheriff was trying to get the body secretly buried, got Emmett’s
body on the northbound train, got his body home to Chicago,
where his mother said: I want the world to see what they did
to my boy. And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is
for all the people who said Never Again. And this is about Rosa
Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi-
nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make
history. This is about Mrs. Rosa Parks from Tuskegee, Alabama,
who was also the field secretary of the NAACP. This is about the
moment Rosa Parks shouldered her cross, put her worldly goods
aside, was willing to sacrifice her life, so that that young man in
Money, Mississippi, who had been so well protected by the
Pullman Porters, would not have died in vain. When Mrs. Parks
said “NO” a passionate movement was begun. No longer would
there be a reliance on the law; there was a higher law. When Mrs.
Parks brought that light of hers to expose the evil of the system,
the sun came and rested on her shoulders bringing the heat and
the light of truth. Others would follow Mrs. Parks. Four young
men in Greensboro, North Carolina, would also say No. Great
voices would be raised singing the praises of God and exhorting
us “to forgive those who trespass against us.” But it was the
Pullman Porters who safely got Emmett to his granduncle and it
was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not
being able to stand it. She sat back down.
Source: Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, (c. 2002 by Nikki Giovanni, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers Inc.) Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, she moved with her parents from Knoxville to a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio when she was still a child. Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University, an all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee where she served as editor of the campus literary magazine. She went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Giovanni’s popularity as a speaker and lecturer increased. So also did her renown as poet and children’s author. She received honors from the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. You can find out more about Nikki Giovanni and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Proverbs is a compilation of poetic exhortations and pithy sayings couched in Hebrew parallelism. Though attributed in its entirety to King Solomon by tradition and by the opening verse (Proverbs 1:1), material within the text is attributed to at least two other authors. See Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1. Though it is certain that the book reached its final form in the period after the Babylonian Exile in the Sixth Century, the material upon which the author/editors drew might well be ancient indeed. I have previously expressed the view that some of these sayings might indeed date back to the time of Solomon. Nevertheless, as one would expect, they also speak to the realities of Jewish life under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule. Though life under foreign domination was no doubt difficult on the whole, there were always opportunities in the imperial bureaucracy for bright young Jewish boys like Daniel and attractive Jewish women like Esther. These opportunities were fraught with danger, however. Monarchs are fickle and prone to paranoia and cruelty. A little success leads to advancement. Too much success breeds suspicion, distrust and fear on the part of the king, as David learned. Success within the king’s court also invites jealousy and intrigue from those passed over for promotion. Keeping a low profile is, therefore, reasonably good advice for a young person desiring a long career and a secure retirement within the royal court.
A few words about proverbial wisdom are in order. Because Israel believed that “the earth is the Lord’s,” she also believed that it was governed by moral principles clearly set forth in Torah, but also evident in the realm of nature and human relationships. This strain of wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures has often been labeled “humanistic.” The label is inaccurate and misleading, however. While Israel believed the world to be intelligible, she clearly did not believe that anything like “human reason” could arrive at an understanding of God and creation independently. Whether understanding came from observation of the natural world or through meditation on the scriptures, the ultimate source of all knowledge is God’s revelation. It is not surprising, then, that Israel saw no dichotomy between “reason” on the one hand and “revelation” on the other.
Proverbial wisdom has its limits. “Waste not, want not” was one of my mother’s favorite proverbs. That maxim proves true often enough that we teach our children the value of thrift, careful planning and the avoidance of waste. Yet we all know that people sometimes lose everything and come to abject poverty in spite of a lifetime of careful planning and responsible spending. The universe does not run like a Swiss watch dispensing appropriate rewards for wise behavior and punishment for foolishness. We cannot assume that poverty is the fruit of foolish financial management or laziness any more than we can attribute sickness to divine punishment for sin (as Job’s three friends had to learn). It is therefore best to view proverbs as portholes that give us unique perspectives on the world. Each proverb provides an enlightening, but limited view of life that is far from the full picture. It is one perspective. There are others.
For perspectives different from those set forth in Proverbs, one need not look any further than the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon. For further background on this unique book, see my post of Sunday, July 31st. Suffice to say for our purposes that the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes fails to find much of any moral order in human existence concluding at last that “all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2. This gloomy outlook is poles apart from the enthusiastic testimony of Proverbs to God’s wisdom shining through every crack and crevasse of creation. Yet for a young father trapped in a refugee camp helplessly watching his family starve to death, the world probably looks exactly like the cruel and heartless place the “teacher” says it is. It all depends on which porthole you happen to be looking through and the scriptures give us many.
Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs. It affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. There is some truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.
But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, this same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Vs 7. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.
It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though some scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. As noted above, I believe that the wisdom material may well have roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies. Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The formal similarities between the two psalms are striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off half strophes. They share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion.
This reading brings into sharp focus exactly what the letter to the Hebrews is all about. The writer begins with an admonition for the believers to love one another and then goes on to flesh out exactly what that means. Sisterly/brotherly love means sharing the imprisonment and torture of fellow disciples. Despite the delusional ravings of some on the far (very far) religious right who imagine that the government is waging a “war against Christianity,” I maintain that we in this country have absolutely no experience or any concept of what persecution really means. The martyrs of the early church who actually knew a thing or two about what persecution looks like would probably get a pretty good belly laugh from the paranoia of extreme right wing Christians who imagine that they are under siege.
Of course, persecution is a present reality for the church in many places throughout the world where allegiance to Jesus can get you killed. So what does this scripture have to say to us? In what way do we “remember those who are in prison…and those who are being tortured”? Paul teaches us that the church is Christ’s Body and that when one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it. I Corinthians 12:26. What is wrong with our nerve endings that we are not feeling sufficiently the pain of our sisters and brothers in conditions of poverty, persecution and imprisonment?
The writer also calls upon this community to practice hospitality-a core biblical value deeply held throughout the scriptures. The reference to entertaining angels unawares goes back to Abraham’s encounter with the Lord and his angels in Genesis 18. In an age before Holiday Inn where lodging was scarce and the roads vulnerable to banditry, safe travel often depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This was certainly the case in the Bronze Age when the patriarchs lived and probably for much of the First Century world as well. When Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming of the God’s reign, they were sent out with no provisions and instructed to rely upon the hospitality of the towns to which they preached. Mark 6:7-13. This seems to have been the model for early Christian mission. While the admonition to practice hospitality obviously included traveling missionaries, I believe the allusion to anonymous angels suggests that the command applied more broadly to traveling strangers as well. In the gospel lesson, Jesus will push the parameters of hospitality to the limit.
Like so many other episodes in the gospel of Luke, this story takes place at a dinner party. Jesus notes how the guests are vying for the best seats at the table and delivers his “parable” about guests at a wedding feast. I am not clear on why Luke refers to this pronouncement of Jesus as a parable. From a literary standpoint, it is much closer to a biblical proverb such as we find throughout the book by that name. Indeed, the likeness of Jesus’ words here to the proverb in our first reading was probably not lost on the host and his guests. Perhaps they found it rather witty, Jesus holding their behavior up to the mirror of proverbial wisdom. But Jesus has a larger purpose than amusing/embarrassing his dinner companions. His remark is a commentary on the social and political underpinnings of this meal.
In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, meals are sacred. One might even refer to them as sacramental. They are constitutive of community. Passover, Feast of Booths and so many other ritual meals define Israel just as the Eucharist defines the church. Who you welcome to your table tells the world who you are, to whom you belong and who you worship. The Torah makes clear that the Passover meal is to be celebrated by all Israel. Though observed by families, Passover transcends the immediate family to include “all the congregation of Israel.” Exodus 12:1-13. This meal to which Jesus was invited was anything but inclusive of all Israel. Evidently, it consisted of the host’s family and “rich neighbors.” The whole affair is strikingly similar to George Babbitt’s use of dinner invitations to advance his social and professional status. See Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis.
Jesus sees in this occasion a “teachable moment.” “When you give a dinner or a banquet,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors, lest you be repaid.” Vs. 12. Of course, that is the whole purpose from the host’s point of view. In typical George Babbitt style, he is employing the practice of hospitality, not in the way envisioned by the author of Hebrews, but in order to advance his own standing and build up favors that he can someday call in. Jesus lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is making a bad investment. Just how bad this investment is will be revealed in Chapter 16 where Jesus delivers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There it will become clear that this host, through his elaborate and exclusive dinner parties, is building a vast crevasse between himself and the coming messianic banquet with Abraham and all the folks he has seen fit to exclude.
Jesus warns his host to bridge the divide, close the gaping crevasse and open up the table of fellowship with all Israel before he finds himself on the wrong side of that divide. Let us not trivialize this message by turning it into a call for more social programs to care for the poor or for more advocacy on their behalf. Understand that I am not against either poverty assistance or advocacy. In fact, we could use more of both. But that is not enough and it does not get to the heart of the problem-the great divide between those of us who live in relative ease and the ever increasing numbers of people living in deplorable poverty. That divide will keep on growing as long as we continue treating the poor as a social problem to be solved rather than “the treasure of the church” as St. Lawrence would have it. It is not enough to feed the poor. Jesus sends us to invite them to the messianic banquet, to share our table.
In all candor, I am not keen on welcoming the poor into my home and seating them at my table. I would prefer to write a check or spend an evening every week dolling out food at the shelter. Let me be clear: don’t stop writing checks or volunteering down at the shelter. Just understand that we cannot let it end there. Meals are about more than eating. They are for building the people of God. So we have to find a way to make room at the table, our table, for the poor.
I must say that I was delighted to learn of a church that is doing just that. At St. Lydia’s, in Brooklyn, N.Y., whoever comes to the table gets fed. The church is made up of approximately thirty people from a variety of faith journeys and backgrounds. They join each week to cook, eat and worship in each other’s company around the congregation’s three practices: working together, eating together and sharing their stories. Everyone who attends an evening service is invited to help cook. That way there is no distinction between the helpers and the helped. Everyone contributes to preparing the meal. Everyone is equally a member of the community. That is what makes St. Lydia’s so different from a mere soup kitchen. It is an extension of Jesus’ ministry. Anyone can feed hungry people. But only Jesus can invite them to the messianic banquet.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The Third Commandment calling us to honor the Sabbath was actually the first commandment God gave. Unlike the rest of the commandments, this one was given to all of humanity at the dawn of creation and not only to the people of Israel. At the climax of the creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3. Of course, God does not grow weary and God needs no rest. But God knows we need rest and so this provision for rest is woven into the very fabric of creation.
This statute was again repeated in the Ten Commandments given specifically to Israel, a people just liberated from slavery. God’s Sabbath honoring community called Israel was intended to be an alternative society to that of the surrounding empires in which the life of common people was characterized by never ending, back breaking, soul destroying labor-all for the benefit of the ruling class. Such was the life Israel experienced in Egypt, “the house of bondage.” In Egypt, non-Egyptians were enslaved, oppressed or driven out. Egypt was for the Egyptians-and mostly for Egyptians of the imperial household.
Life under Israel’s covenant with her God was to be a very different arrangement with a radically different view of labor. Elaborating upon the Third Commandment in Exodus 23, Moses declared: “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” Exodus 23:12. Sabbath rest is commanded not only for people and animals, but for the land as well: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Exodus 23:10-11. Aliens and sojourners in the land of Israel were to be treated with the same consideration as citizens. Thus, Moses admonishes his people: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34.
The commandment to honor the Sabbath is as relevant now as ever. It is a word spoken for the sake of men and women working three jobs at wages that barely allow them to make ends meet. It was designed for workers who are fearful of taking what little vacation they have because it might reflect poorly on their devotion to the company and hurt their chances for promotion. Sabbath was made to liberate an earth groaning under the strain of ruthless exploitation and pollution by human consumption and waste. Slavery is what happens when work gets out of hand, when a person’s right to eat and find shelter is determined by the labor market, when profits become more important than people, when the work is worth more than the workers whose lives and limbs are sacrificed to get it completed on time. Bondage to hunger, poverty and ecological ruin result when we cease to view the earth as God’s garden and instead treat it as nothing more than an inanimate ball of finite real estate and resources to be fought over and controlled by competing nation states. God gave us the Sabbath to check our human inclination toward just such bondage and slavery. We need to be reminded that the earth is the Lord’s; that it keeps on turning without our completing all of our very important projects; that labor is a gift given by God enabling us to serve our neighbors, not a tool of the rich and powerful to exploit in feeding their insatiable greed.
To observe the Sabbath in our culture of frantic busyness might be the most radical and subversive act the church can perform. No, I am not talking about reinstating the blue laws or boosting church attendance. I am suggesting that believing workers begin living as though their jobs were less important than the families they support and unite in speaking a firm “no” to the ever expanding reach of the office into all other areas of life. I am suggesting that employers who claim to be disciples of Jesus pay their workers a living wage-whether the law compels it or not. I am suggesting that discipleship involves finding ways to live gently in the land, giving back more to the biosphere than we consume. The Sabbath observance to which God called Israel and to which Jesus calls his disciples involves far more than refraining from work on a single day of the week. Sabbath observance is a way of life. Such a life honors creation, serves the neighbor and leaves behind a legacy of healing, growth and renewal instead of scars upon the land.
Here is a poem by Mary Oliver about John Chapman, the historical figure behind the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Oliver describes a beautiful life that comes as close to genuinely honoring the Sabbath as I have ever seen.
He wore a tin pot for a hat, in which
he cooked his supper
in the Ohio forests. He wore
a sackcloth shirt and walked
barefoot on feet crooked as roots. And everywhere he went
the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely
as young girls.
No Indian or settler or wild beast
ever harmed him, and he for his part honored
everything, all God’s creatures! thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow log touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.
Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
at whose parents’ house he sometimes lingered,
recalled: he spoke
only once of women and his gray eyes
brittled into ice. “Some
are deceivers,” he whispered, and she felt
the pain of it, remembered it
into her old age.
Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever
the secret, and the pain,
there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.
Source: American Primitive, c. 1983 by Little, Brown and Co. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E., but before the second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E. This prophet’s oracles are found at Isaiah 56-66. The verses constituting our reading need to be set in context. This oracle begins at the head of Chapter 58 with a command for the prophet to declare to Israel her transgressions. The people complain because God does not answer their prayers for Israel’s restoration. They pray and fast to no avail. But the prophet points out that even as they fast and pray, the wealthy and powerful among the people pursue their own commercial interests and oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight among themselves even as they offer prayers. Such fasting does not reflect repentance and a change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, declares:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Isaiah 58:6-9. The reading for Sunday further develops this theme promising that if the people will show compassion to the poor and the afflicted, remove the yolk of oppression and cease their hateful quarreling, the restoration for which they pray will be given them. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”Isaiah 58:12.
Hebrew Scriptural scholar Claus Westermann suggests that vss 13-14 of our lesson come from a different prophetic source. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd, 1969) p. 340. This conclusion is based on the fact that the prior verses all have to do with turning toward one’s neighbor, whereas verses 13 and 14 focus strictly on Sabbath observance. Ibid. However that might be, the text as we have it in the cannon clearly joins Sabbath observance to compassion for the oppressed and the afflicted. As pointed out in the introductory remarks, this is quite in keeping with the understanding of Sabbath reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Divorced from its goal of providing relief from oppression and poverty, Sabbath becomes an empty ritual that is itself oppressive. Jesus will make this very point in the gospel lesson.
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, August 7th. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org.
Thus far the author of Hebrews has argued extensively that Jesus is the new Temple of God that supersedes the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In Chapter 11 s/he compared the life of discipleship to the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Like them, disciples of Jesus are to live as aliens in a hostile world. They willingly forego the comfort and security that comes from having a place to call home or a temple to which they can point and assert: “there is the dwelling of God.” They must believe that Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of their faith” goes with them and before them surrounded by that invisible cloud of witnesses who have died in faith and hope. Now throughout Chapter 12 the author comes to the point: encouragement. The Hebrew disciples must run their race with perseverance knowing that their journey has an end not at the place of judgment, but with a festal gathering of angels and saints.
I am particularly moved by verse 24 in which the author tells us that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” Abel, you will recall, was the world’s first murder victim. When God confronted Abel’s murderer (his brother Cain), God told him that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground. Though the Genesis narrative does not say so specifically, we can infer that Abel was crying out for vengeance from the fact that henceforth the ground was cursed for Cain and bore nothing for him in the way of crops for harvest.
Vengeance is the natural human response to wrong. Much of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures was designed to limit or curtail vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds rather draconian to our way of thinking. But in a society where there was no police force, no judicial system as we know it and nothing to stop the endless bloodletting between feuding clans whose thirst for revenge knew no limits, this is actually a life-giving provision. It does not literally mean that you are entitled to break the tooth of anyone who breaks your tooth. Rather, it limits the remedy of the injured party to recompense from the wrongdoer. Retaliation cannot be made against the wrongdoer’s family and the wrongdoer’s responsibility is limited to restitution for the wrong done. Jesus, of course, directs his disciples to go beyond this statute to exterminate vengeance altogether.Matthew 5:38-42.
In our culture, vengeance is too often equated with justice. “Getting justice” for a victim of violent crime amounts to witnessing the perpetrator’s punishment. Victims often express their hope of getting “closure” from seeing the murderer of their loved ones die. Thanks be to God, I have never had to stand in their shoes. That being the case, I will refrain from judgment. Still and all, I find it hard to believe that punishment of the perpetrator brings any real sense of closure to the families and loved ones of victims. Execution of the murderer does not bring back the victim, heal the void left from the loss or quell the burning anger such crimes ignite. It only takes the object of that anger out of the picture. Retribution does not really heal. That is why it is not really justice. Biblical justice is concerned not merely with the adjudication of disputes and the punishment of wrongs, but with the reconciliation of the parties involved thereafter. In order to get the kind of justice God wants, he must forego retribution. That is what God does in Jesus. Instead of avenging his cruel death, God raises Jesus up and gives him back to us, his murderers, with an offer of reconciliation.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that Jesus died a violent death. If ever vengeance were justified, this would have been the case. If ever there were just cause for raising the sword in self-defense, the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been the time and place. If ever shed blood had reason to cry out for vengeance, it was the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. But herein is the victory of the cross: that God will not be goaded into vengeance. God does not need to get “closure” by witnessing the death of his Son’s murderers. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The blood of Jesus speaks mercy and so inspired the lines from the hymn: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” “Glory Be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship Hymn # 95.
The scene here opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, evidently with the permission of the ruler of the synagogue. Teaching on the Sabbath is not at all objectionable. But when Jesus encounters a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” he calls her to himself and heals her in the presence of all. Evidently wishing to avoid attacking Jesus directly, the ruler of the synagogue directs his criticism to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”
This objection follows roughly word for word the instructions laid down by Moses in Exodus that we saw earlier. In light of this, the ruler’s objection does not seem unreasonable. The woman had been crippled for eighteen years. This was hardly a medical emergency. She had only to wait a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Yet those of us who experience back pain know that when it kicks in, a few hours is a very long time. You don’t get much rest when your back is hurting and rest is, after all, what the Sabbath is all about. So from Jesus’ perspective, there is no better time to give someone rest from pain than on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus puts the question this way: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” Another way to translate this would be: “Was it not necessary that this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?” As we have seen before, Luke speaks frequently of “necessity” driving Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. See, e.g. Luke 24:26; Acts 2:23; Acts 3:18. In view of the drawing near of God’s kingdom, it was necessary to break the yolk of bondage and allow this woman her Sabbath rest.
In addition to clarifying for us the true meaning of Sabbath, this story is also instructive for how we ought to read the Bible. If one goes by the simplistic rubric: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” then you have to side with the ruler of the synagogue. Healing is work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Game over. But if you think more deeply about what the Sabbath is for and why it was given, then I think it becomes clear that Jesus was right. How can you invoke the letter of the Sabbath law to deny Sabbath rest to a daughter of Abraham? This healing was not merely permitted, but demanded by Sabbath law. We don’t read biblical texts in a vacuum. We begin with the proposition that the Bible is God’s word because it is our most authoritative witness to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us that any interpretation of scripture that bars a person from the Sabbath rest God offers to us through Jesus has just got to be wrong.
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus chides his opponents for their failure to “interpret the present time.” That prompts me to wonder about my own interpretive acumen. What can be said definitively about the times in which we live? That assessment is difficult to make, particularly during a presidential election season during which hyperbolic rhetoric distorts reality like the mirrors in a fun house. The pundits tell us that this is an “historical” election. But of course, they say that about every election. Every four years the candidates try to sell us on a particular vision and convince us that they, not their opponents, are on the side of history. Negative campaigning, denigrating the vision of one’s opposition, is also a part of the process and as old as the republic. It has been said that politics has never before been as nasty and personal as it is today. That might be so, but I think it reflects more a trend toward lack of civility, vulgarity and tribalism in the culture generally than a fundamental change in the political order itself. Once the election is over, whoever sits in the White House will wake up to the reality that he or she must negotiate with two houses of congress representing vested interests going far deeper than the simplistic partisan divides firing up political campaigns. Electoral rhetoric will subside and politics will once again settle down into the dull art of achieving the slow, frustrating and limited possible.
That said, I do believe this election cycle is driven more by fear than any previous one I can recall. I don’t believe that politicians are responsible for creating that fear, though they certainly exploit it. Fear has been building up among us for a lot of years. There is no shortage of angry white lower middle class men who see their America dying. They have watched their jobs evaporate, their social status slip away and their beliefs about right and wrong, manhood and patriotism fade away. Rightly or wrongly, these folks have been described as less educated than the rest of the American electorate on the whole, but they are not stupid. Deep in their hearts, I believe they know that deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a twenty foot wall along our southern border and imposing tariffs on foreign imports will not bring back the old factories supported by an army of lunch box carrying workers, factories that ate raw materials at one end and spit out toaster ovens, television sets and hot plates through the other and, in so doing, supported whole cities with good paying jobs. Those days are gone forever and I think everybody living in the shadows of all the now shuddered rust belt plants knows it. But angry and frightened people always tend to think less clearly. They will struggle to believe any lie, however improbable, when the truth is too frightening to accept. And the truth is that, along with their livelihood, white lower middle class males are fast losing their social, economic and political dominance in our culture. The election will not change that which ever way it goes.
People of color likewise fear the specter of racism-which is more than a specter. The Black Lives Matter movement has made us all painfully aware that racism is still endemic in our law enforcement and justice systems. This year the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act on grounds that its protections were no longer necessary. The ink had hardly dried on the Court’s opinion before states throughout the south began passing re-districting provisions and voter ID laws, the practical effect of which was to burden the access of minorities to the voting booth. The shooting of several African American worshipers along with their pastors by an avowed racist in Charlotte last year is a chilling reminder of how intense racial hatred continues to be in pockets of our culture. People of color have good reason to be afraid and are justifiably angry that their call for change too often falls upon deaf ears. It is hard for those of us who have grown up benefiting from a system favoring white privilege to imagine what it is like to live daily on the receiving end of that system.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I see a church that is driven by fear. It is no secret that the church in the United States has fallen upon hard times. Our congregations see their membership thinning and contributions falling-and too often they resort to the same fear driven responses we see in the corporate world. They cut back where they most need to invest for the future. They lash out at one another in anger and blame. Churches blame their pastors and staff for their lack of effectiveness and adopt punitive measures to “improve performance”. Pastors blame their congregations for their lack of commitment, tepid giving and self-serving attitudes. Congregations and pastors become increasingly angry at a world that seems increasingly disinterested in the church and that, of course, makes speaking a word of grace to that world a lot more difficult. Denominational authorities hire consultants to improve their images, launch all manner of programs to shore up membership and announce new capital fund drives hoping against hope that these efforts will “turn the situation around.” None of those denominational efforts are necessarily bad in themselves. The trouble is that they are too often driven by fear of institutional death and a frantic desire to recapture an idealized past rather than being inspired by hope for the future and sustained by confidence in God’s promises. Survivalism is always grounded in fear and fear always moves us to choose the way of death. That is why Jesus warns us that the surest way to lose our lives is to devote ourselves to saving them.
Against the backdrop of all this fear, the New Testament-and the Gospel of Luke in particular-declares repeatedly, “Do not fear.” “Do not fear” say the angelic messengers to Zechariah, Mary and the Shepherds. “Have no fear little flock,” Jesus told us in last week’s gospel lesson. “Do not fear,” says Jesus to a man who has just been told that his little daughter is dead. “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord to the imprisoned Apostle Paul as he faces trial before the Roman tribunal on capital charges. That isn’t to say disciples of Jesus are never afraid. I cannot imagine how a person in any of the above situations could not be afraid. Moreover, we are right to fear for the future of workers in the rust belt whose livelihood has been devastated. We should fear for the well-being of African Americans, Latinos, Gay, Lesbian and transgendered persons who are regularly targeted for verbal abuse, discrimination and violence. We should fear for the future of the church’s witness in America. But our fears, even when justified, must not be permitted to drive our decision making. We must always act out of our confidence in God’s promises, no matter how futile, impractical or dangerous that might seem. While unbelieving eyes can see only the death throes of a world coming apart at the seams, disciples of Jesus see also the birth pangs of a new heaven and a new earth struggling to be born. Disciples strive to become people able to live in a new creation without borders, walls or divisions. They devote themselves to work that will matter in the age to come rather than to projects invested in shoring up the old order. Disciples look to the future, not with fear and foreboding, but with hopefulness and joy. They know that the key to understanding the present time lies not in the headlines of any newspaper, blog, e-mail blast or tweet, but in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God loved the world so much that God sent God’s only Son. Such love, the Apostle John tells us, “casts out all fear.” Below is a poem by Maya Angelou that makes the point.
Touched by an Angel
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou ( c. 1995 by Virago Press). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
Jeremiah is a prophetic book that reports the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. It is made up of poetic and prose oracles interspersed with vivid narrative capturing the prophet’s ministry among a resistant and hostile people in the twilight years of the Davidic Monarchy. Like most of the prophetic books, the book of Jeremiah has gone through several stages of editing. It reached its final form long after the death of the prophet and this is most likely because it was not until after the fall of Jerusalem that Israel recognized the truthfulness of this faithful prophet who had been hated, persecuted and ignored throughout his lifetime.
Jeremiah’s chief adversaries were his own prophetic colleagues. As the Babylonian military machine tightened its grip on Judah and began besieging the city of Jerusalem, these prophets continued to insist that God would yet intervene to save the holy city and its temple. Not surprisingly, the people were drawn to their messages of hope. These hopeful prophecies were entirely consistent with Israel’s past experience. Hadn’t God always come to the aid of his people in the days of the Judges? Didn’t God break the army of Assyria at the gates of Jerusalem a century before? What reason was there to think that God would not come through for Israel once again?
Jeremiah had the difficult task of letting his people know in no uncertain terms that there would be no miraculous act of deliverance this time. Judah’s belief that God would be compelled to defend Jerusalem in order to protect his temple amounted not to faith, but godless superstition. There was indeed hope for Judah and even the promise of deliverance-but not for the monarchy, not for the temple and not for a society built upon injustice and exploitation. Salvation lay on the far side of judgment. Not until Judah’s false hope for salvation without repentance was crushed could genuine hope come into view.
Our lesson for this morning finds the Lord addressing the false prophets through the lips of Jeremiah with a series of rhetorical questions: “Am I a God near by…. and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Jeremiah 23:23-24. These prophets of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace” are reminded that they will be held accountable for the messages they proclaim. They cannot hide behind the poor excuse that they were simply mistaken. Of course, they can speak all they wish about their dreams and visions. They can express their views about what is taking place in Jerusalem and perhaps even venture an opinion about what God might be up to. But one dare not frivolously preface such remarks with “Thus saith the Lord.” That seems to be Jeremiah’s chief point: if you are going to speak in the name of the Lord, you better be sure that you have got it right and that what you speak is in fact the Lord’s word and not your own.
Of course it is easy for us to side with Jeremiah from our own safe vantage point. For us this is all ancient history. The outcome of the war with Babylon is well known as is Judah’s subsequent interpretation of that traumatic event. I doubt that matters were so clear in the midst of Jerusalem’s siege. Jeremiah’s prophetic colleagues turned out to be wrong in the end, but the people listening to them and to Jeremiah were not at the end. They were in the anxious middle trying to discern the word of the Lord in the midst of all this prophetic wrangling. I don’t think it was unreasonable to hope that God would rescue Judah from Babylon at the eleventh hour just as he had saved Israel from Pharaoh at the Red Sea and rescued Judah from the army of Assyria in the days of King Hezekiah. If I were standing in the shoes of the audience, I cannot say whether I would be more inclined to trust Jeremiah over his more hopeful critics.
Perhaps we can never judge the genuineness of prophecy except in retrospect. In any event, that appears to have been the case for Jeremiah. With the temple destroyed, Jerusalem in ruins and the people in exile, Jeremiah’s was the only prophetic word able to help the remnant of Judah make sense out of the terrible thing that had happened to them. His promise of salvation on the far side of judgment, a word that people frantic to escape judgment could not possibly hear, now relit the flame of hope.
I often wonder whether we mainline protestants are not even now facing our own 587 B.C.E. In the face of precipitous decline, we are turning to consultants, gimmicks and motivational techniques in an effort to turn ourselves around. Though the rhetoric of change is rampant, from where I sit it appears that we are all in high gear preservation mode. We are cutting costs, consolidating administrative functions and merging task forces, etc. But that strikes me more as siege behavior than genuine transformation into a new thing. Could it be that the real enemy is not secularization, anti-institutional sentiment or generational differences, but the Lord God? What if God does not need our denominational machinery any more than God needed the Davidic Monarchy, the Jerusalem temple or the land of Palestine? What if God is bringing our years of societal influence, strength in numbers and established patterns of ministry to an end? What if the church we are striving to save is not the church God needs? What if our efforts to revive our church are really just desperate acts of rebellion?
I would be committing the same offense as Jeremiah’s colleagues if I were to suggest that I know this to be the case. I don’t. Nothing here is prefaced with “thus saith the Lord.” Nevertheless, I believe it is worth thinking about where we might be in time, not chronological historical time, but in time as measured by the biblical narrative. Is 2013 also 587 B.C.E.? If so, it is reassuring to know that we are not without hope and light. However dark this stretch of the road may be, the scriptures testify to people of God who have traveled there before us. They have wisdom and encouragement to share that we very much need. As we shall see, our lesson from Hebrews makes this very point.
This psalm reflects an early period of Israelite history when the existence of gods other than the Lord was more or less taken for granted. Nevertheless, these gods were always viewed as inferior to Israel’s God, YAHWEH. The psalmist gives us a peek into the grand council of the gods in which YAHWEH rises to criticize these lesser gods for the unjust management of their respective realms. These lesser gods are “national” gods in the true sense of the word. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 164. That is, their sole concern is to promote the interests of their national patrons. Ibid. It is important to note that YAHWEH does not rise to assert the rights of Israel over the nations governed by the gods. Israel is not even mentioned. YAHWEH’s agenda for this meeting is justice for the “weak,” the “orphan,” the “destitute” and the “afflicted.” The “foundations of the earth” do not rest upon any kingdom, empire or nation state. They rest on justice. Naturally, then, these “gods” who base their reign upon princes or kings will share with them the same fate of mortality. The psalmist concludes by affirming that, notwithstanding the many gods worshiped among the nations of the world, these nations nevertheless belong to YAHWEH who will judge them according to justice.
There is much debate over the extent to which Israel, even in the early period of its history, accepted the existence of gods other than the Lord. While academically interesting, this question is hermeneutically irrelevant. The take away here is that Israel’s God is not a national deity. God’s chief concern is not with Israel’s nationalistic ambitions, but with justice for the weak, the orphan, the destitute and the afflicted in whatever land they might be. To be sure, Israel is God’s chosen nation. But she has been chosen not to receive special favors or achieve national prominence, but to be a faithful witness to the justice and compassion God desires for all people. Needless to say, this insight is also applicable to the church.
Our lesson for Sunday builds upon last week’s discussion of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Having ended his inspiring roll call of faithful saints from the dawn of creation to the Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, the writer identifies and alludes to many other such heroes of faith whose stories would hardly fit the printed page. He goes on to point out that their faithfulness, courage and willingness to suffer stems from the conviction that God is leading them to a better country. For the sake of that promised homeland, they were content to be pilgrims, travelers and outcasts.
This is a helpful reminder that the church is a pilgrim people. Something deep inside of me resents that. I yearn to be settled. Yet I must admit that, for reasons I have never been able to explain, I feel the deepest sense of anxiety when I finally do get settled into a place where I am happy, enjoy my work and feel content. Perhaps that anxiety arises from my knowledge that nothing ever remains quite the same. Pleasant conditions never last forever. The neighborhood I moved into twenty-one years ago is not the one I live in today. My children have left home. Many of our friends have moved on and strangers live in the houses that once were oases of hospitality. I scarcely recognize the town in which I grew up. Even the church that I have served for the last eight years is not the same. Some dear old souls have passed on to the church triumphant. New people have stepped in and made their presence felt. The words of the old hymn ring true: “Change and decay in all around I see.”
This letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are called not merely to endure such changes but to embrace them. The suffering and loss that go with being always on the move constitute more than the death throes of our old way of life. They are also birth pangs of a new creation. It is the firm conviction that God is at work in the midst of conflict, suffering and death bringing to birth a new creation that makes endurance possible. So the author of Hebrews urges his/her readers to take comfort from the example of this scriptural “cloud of witnesses” whose faithful lives both challenge and encourage them to persevere in suffering and persecution. More than that, they are called upon to look to Jesus who embraced the cross-not because suffering is a good thing in itself; and not because God needs a blood sacrifice in order to be merciful; but because the cross is the natural consequence of faithfulness to God’s command to love even the enemy.
Jesus’ opening words here call to mind the preaching of John the Baptist in the early chapters of Luke: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:16-17. Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem will cast fire upon the earth. The consequences that John speaks of metaphorically as separation of wheat from chaff, Jesus spells out with brutal particularity. The line of demarcation between loyalty to Jesus and unbelief will split families down the middle and create discord. Such is the cost of peace through reconciliation, not to be confused with the tense, brutal and unjust peace imposed by Rome. That false peace is soon to be shaken to its core. This is fully in accord with Jesus’ teaching about the cost of discipleship elsewhere throughout Luke’s gospel. Luke 8:19-21; Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-26.
Jesus does not call his disciples to endure this baptism alone. Indeed, the lesson opens with Jesus’ declaration that the baptism of fire is first and foremost his own. Jesus will be the first to endure the betrayal, abandonment and loneliness that goes with prophetic faithfulness. Because Jesus goes before his disciples into this baptism of fire, his disciples will not face that ordeal alone. In the hostile reception and treatment they receive from the world, they will be united with him. That unity is the basis for the new community, the family of God bound together not by ties of blood but by the promises of baptism.
At verse 54, Jesus changes his focus from the disciples to the multitudes gathered about him. The charge that these folks are “hypocrites” suggests that Jesus’ hearers are actually more astute than they let on. Their ability to recognize signs of imminent weather phenomena does in fact extend to “interpret[ation of] the present time.” Vs. 56. By now it must be evident that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem signals stormy weather on the horizon. Such knowledge should impel his listeners toward an appropriate response, namely, repentance and reconciliation. Instead, Jesus’ hearers choose to remain blind to the signs of the times. This is further spelled out in the parable which follows (but is not included in the gospel reading): “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Luke 12:57-59. With every step Jesus takes toward Jerusalem, the judgment draws closer and the call for repentance and reconciliation becomes more urgent.
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The clarion call for preparedness sounds throughout the New Testament. This call, however, is far more specific than the Boy Scout motto: “be prepared.” The Apostles urge us to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, the day on which Jesus will be revealed, the judgment of the quick and the dead. I wish the Apostles had told us more. Specifically, I wish the Jesus had given us an historical road map through the remainder of history, a date certain for the end or at least some way to know when the time is drawing near. Nothing is quite as unnerving as getting lost and being without a map, compass or GPS.
I hardly need to tell you that there are no shortage of pastors, teachers and self-proclaimed prophets who claim to have found just such an historical road map in the Bible. One such individual was Rev. Timothy Lahaye who passed away last week. Lahaye co-authored the popular Left Behind series of books that later inspired several movies under the same franchise. Though perhaps good for some harmless distraction while trapped in an airport or sitting in the doctor’s office, these books should not be taken for more than what they are: fast, entertaining reads. They tell us a lot more about Rev. Lahaye’s politics, philosophy and worldview than about anything in the Bible. The Left behind series reflects fear and loathing for the United Nations, globalization, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Behind the elaborate plot and a very selective use of scriptural passages ripped from their context lies a profound despair over the future. The Left Behind books mirror the American religious right’s deeply felt conviction that the America we all once knew and loved has been taken away from us. Lahaye and his followers, however, have given up on “taking America back” and “making America great again.” They are convinced that the world has slipped too far into the grip of the forces of evil they fear. Nothing short of a violent cleansing for the earth through the wars, plagues and natural disasters of the “tribulation” and the forceful implementation of Christ’s kingdom can set things right.
Of course, Lahaye is not the only one claiming to have figured out God’s’ timeline. In the 1970s Hal Lindsey made a big stir with his book, The Late Great Planet Earth. And who can forget Harold Camping and his prediction that the world’s end would occur on May 21, 2011? There are numerous other individuals throughout history too numerous to list who have tried to figure out what even Jesus himself did not know-exactly when the kingdom of God will be revealed in its fullness.
It’s easy to poke fun at these failed prophets and more so the many hapless folk who always seem to be taken in by their claims. But I can understand the anxiety and impatience that give such claims their appeal. After all, it is not easy remaining on full alert twenty-four/seven until further notice. It’s not easy, having to earn a living, raise a family and pay off a mortgage-all while keeping one eye peeled for the coming of the Son of Man. More difficult still is our lack of understanding about what exactly we are looking for and how we are supposed to know it when we see it. Yes, I know there are some graphic descriptions of the coming of the Son of Man in the New Testament. But these come to us in the garb of apocalyptic literature whose lurid, poetic imagery was never intended to be taken as news headlines from the future. It is the kind of language you have to use when talking about something you know to be real but don’t fully comprehend. It was designed to inspire, encourage and comfort-not to measure, quantify and explain.
Our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Faith seeks understanding, but does not require it. Abraham and Sarah did not need to understand how God would fulfill God’s promise to give them an heir. Nor did they have to understand when or how God would manage to give their descendants the land ruled by powerful Canaanite city states in which they were dwelling as illegal aliens. In the same way, we don’t need to understand when or how God will complete the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ, how the hearts of all the world will be won over to faith in Jesus or how those who have died in faith will be raised up to participate in God’s new heaven and earth. As John the Apostle tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2. It is enough to know that in the end, God will dwell among God’s people; we will have formed in us the mind of Christ; and we will be able to see God as God is and all of God’s people as they are known and loved by God in Christ. The when and the how of that must be left in the hands of the God who promises to bring it all about.
In the meantime we wait, remaining alert to the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. As the saints of old, we will likely die in faith. Yet we, like them, “have seen and greeted” that day from afar. Hebrews 11:13. As church, we struggle to live together as though the kingdom has come in its fullness and God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven. As Clarence Jordan so aptly put it, we strive to be a demonstration plot for the new heaven and new earth spoken of in the Book of Revelation where God and all God’s people live together as one. Much of the time, we fail miserably. But every so often, we get it right. Every so often the miracle of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace shine through in our midst by some witness of love, courage and wisdom. That seems to happen just often enough to remind us of what God has in store for us at the end and to keep us watchful, hopeful and ready for the coming of the Son of Man.
At the end of the day, it matters more that our hearts and minds are shaped by the faithful anticipation of Jesus’s revealing than knowing when and how it is to come about. The best preparation for the coming of the Son of Man is learning to love and serve him now so that, whenever he arrives, we will not find him to be a stranger.
Here is a poem about faithful anticipation by Emily Brontë.
How Beautiful the Earth is Still
How beautiful the earth is still,
To thee – how full of happiness!
How little fraught with real ill,
Or unreal phantoms of distress!
How spring can bring thee glory, yet,
And summer win thee to forget
December’s sullen time!
Why dost thou hold the treasure fast,
Of youth’s delight, when youth is past,
And thou art near thy prime?
When those who were thy own compeers,
Equals in fortune and in years,
Have seen their morning melt in tears,
To clouded, smileless day;
Blest, had they died untried and young,
Before their hearts went wandering wrong,
Poor slaves, subdued by passions strong,
A weak and helpless prey!
” Because, I hoped while they enjoyed,
And, by fulfilment, hope destroyed;
As children hope, with trustful breast,
I waited bliss – and cherished rest.
A thoughtful spirit taught me, soon,
That we must long till life be done;
That every phase of earthly joy
Must always fade, and always cloy:
This I foresaw – and would not chase
The fleeting treacheries;
But, with firm foot and tranquil face,
Held backward from that tempting race,
Gazed o’er the sands the waves efface,
To the enduring seas – ;
There cast my anchor of desire
Deep in unknown eternity;
Nor ever let my spirit tire,
With looking for what is to be!
It is hope’s spell that glorifies,
Like youth, to my maturer eyes,
All Nature’s million mysteries,
The fearful and the fair –
Hope soothes me in the griefs I know;
She lulls my pain for others’ woe,
And makes me strong to undergo
What I am born to bear.
Glad comforter! will I not brave,
Unawed, the darkness of the grave?
Nay, smile to hear Death’s billows rave –
Sustained, my guide, by thee?
The more unjust seems present fate,
The more my spirit swells elate,
Strong, in thy strength, to anticipate
Source: The Poems of Emily Brontë, edited by Derek Roper and Edward Chitham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Emily Brontë was born on July 30, 1818 in the parsonage at Thornton in Yorkshire to the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. Best known for her novel, Wuthering Heights, she was also the author of several poems, most of which did not receive public attention until after her death in 1848. You can read more about Emily Brontë and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
Abram’s arrangement with Eliezer reflects a custom known to have existed in Mesopotamia documented in the Nuzu tablets. Nuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian city located southwest of Kirkūk in Iraq. Excavations undertaken there by archaeologists in 1925–31 revealed material extending from the prehistoric period to the age of the early Roman Empire. More than 4,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered at the site. These tablets date from about the 15th century B.C.E. and contain numerous statutes governing family relationships and civil institutions. According to these provisions, a childless property owner could provisionally adopt a slave who would then be obligated to care for his owner until death and see to his proper burial. In exchange for these services, the slave would be freed and inherit his owner’s property. The arrangement was provisional insofar as it became null and void upon the birth of a legal heir to the owner. Such was the case for Eliezer upon the birth of Isaac. (Sorry Eliezer. Close, but no cigar.)
Abram is assured that his line will not become extinct, but that a son born to him will be the channel of fulfillment for the original promise made in Chapter 12 (Genesis 12:1-3) and repeated here. Abram’s response is to believe the promise. This particular response of Abram is prominent in Paul’s arguments in both Romans and Galatians for the primacy of faith over works. Knowledge of this background is critical to understanding what Paul means by “faith.” It is not the unquestioning acceptance of doctrinal propositions, but confidence in God’s promises. Therefore, even though faith is primary, it is never divorced from a faithful response. Abram has already demonstrated his confidence in God’s promises to him by uprooting himself from his homeland and becoming a wandering sojourner in Canaan. Though some of Abram’s subsequent actions reflect a less than faithful attitude, that only goes to show that the fulfillment of the covenant promises finally depends neither upon Abram’s faith nor on his works but upon God’s faithfulness.
This psalm of praise celebrates Israel’s God as both creator and lord of history. Sunday’s reading begins at verse 12 with the exclamation, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he has chosen as his heritage!” God is not a passive and objective observer when it comes to the affairs of nations and peoples. God is unashamedly partisan and favors Israel through which he will be made known to the world of nations. Neither kings nor their armies direct the course of history. Reliance upon them is futile. By contrast, the Lord can be trusted to deliver those who rely upon him. Consequently, while the nations rely upon their rulers and their armies, Israel’s hope is in the Lord.
It is difficult to date this psalm. An argument can be made that, given the psalmist’s dismissive attitude toward the power of kings and military might, the psalm was likely composed after the Babylonian Exile when Israel had neither the monarchy nor an army. On the other hand, even during the pre-exilic monarchy Israel always understood that victory comes from the Lord. Consequently, it is altogether possible that this psalm constitutes a festival liturgy used for worship in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps even during the era of the Judges.
In a culture that is prone to rely increasingly upon military might, violence and raw power to settle disputes, this psalm sounds a dissonant chord, calling us to recognize God’s reign and leave the business of retribution to him. The Lord neither needs nor desires our assistance in punishing the wicked. Instead, we are called to bear witness to God’s goodness in lives of faithful obedience. The extent of faithfulness to which we are called is the measure of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death. Knowing that “the eye of the Lord is on all who fear him [and] on those who hope in his steadfast love,” we can face the might of kings and their warhorses without violence and without fear. “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.” Vs. 20
As we will be hearing from the Book of Hebrews for the next four weeks, it might be helpful to refresh our recollections with an overview. As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the new age. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Christians who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For Christians it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews and Christians alike. Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands.” John 2:19-22. So the objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the ministry and mission of Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews comes after the conclusion of these arguments. The disciples are called to live faithfully in an uncertain time. There are no eschatological markers (such as the Temple) to indicate where they stand in relation to the consummation of God’s reign. The day might be just around the corner, but it is more likely somewhere further out into the indefinite future. The disciples must therefore accept their current status as aliens in a hostile land awaiting the country God is preparing for them. In this respect, they are following in the train of a long list of Israelite heroes whose faith sustained them and who died without seeing the realization of their hope. Abraham is raised up as a primary example of faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Vs. 1. In obedience to God’s call, Abraham set out for a land he had never seen on the strength of a promise whose fulfillment was humanly impossible.
Verses 13-16 make the point that neither Abraham nor the other Hebrew heroes of faith were truly at home. They had received the promise of a homeland more real to them than the land of their sojourning. Precisely because their lives were pattered after the ways of this anticipated homeland, they were constantly at odds with the predominant cultures in which they lived. Such lives, lived in faith and ending in hope, became paradigms for discipleship in the early church. We see rightly, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, only as the biblical narratives become our own stories. I think the late John Howard Yoder says it best of all in his book, Body Politics:
“Whereas contemporary dominant mental habits assume that there is ‘out there’ an objective or agreed account of reality and that faith perspectives must come to terms with that wider picture by fitting into it, as a subset of the generally unbelieving world view, I propose rather that we recognize that we are called to a believing vision of global history, suspicious of any scheme or analysis or management that would claim by itself to see the world whole or apart from faith or apart from avowing its own bias. The modern world is a subset of the world vision of the gospel, not the other way around. That means we can afford to begin with the gospel notions themselves and then work out from there, as our study has done, rather than trying to place the call of God within it.” Yoder, John Howard, Body Politics, (c 2001, Herald Press) p. 74.
I am not sure what the lectionary people had in mind here. It seems as though verses 32-34 belong with verses 22-31 in which Jesus gives his sermon on God’s care for the ravens and the lilies of the field, admonishing his disciples not to live anxious and fearful lives. Verses 35-40 advance into a new topic, namely, watchfulness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. So it seems to me that, if one chooses to preach on the gospel, it probably will be necessary to make a choice between these two topics.
The admonitions against anxiety follow naturally from last week’s parable of the rich fool. It is just as foolish for the destitute disciples to fret over their seeming lack of necessities as it was for the man in the parable to fret over what to do with his surplus of goods. God provides for the ravens (crows) that feed on carrion. Are not the disciples of more value than these birds? So also God clothes the lilies, short lived plants that perish in a matter of days, in raiment more glorious than that of kings. Can the disciples imagine that this God will neglect them?
That sounds comforting until Jesus spells out the natural consequences. “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Vs. 33. There is no need to amass any degree of wealth if you believe what Jesus has just said about the birds and the lilies. To store up supplies for the future is to make a mockery of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Yet accumulation is a way of life culturally ingrained upon our consciences. The financial industry impresses upon us constantly the need to save through investing, the need to plan for the indefinite future and the necessity of obtaining to that nirvana of “financial security.” In the face of all this, obedience to Jesus in this instance appears to be highly irresponsible. So who do you believe: Jesus or the banks? Whose word do you follow: Jesus’ or that of your financial adviser?
I cannot find an easy out for us here. Of course, there are plenty of tricks preachers have used over the years to dodge this bullet. One is the contextual argument: The society in which Jesus lived was vastly different from our own. The banking and monetary systems on which we depend did not exist. Therefore, you cannot take what Jesus said in the context of an agricultural subsistence economy and simply apply it to the economy of a modern industrialized society. So the argument goes, but I find myself asking, “Why not?” How is piling up money in the bank different from storing your surplus grain in barns? Isn’t this just a distinction without a difference?
Then, of course, we can spiritualize the text and argue that Jesus was speaking only figuratively. Selling all of your possessions means simply remaining sufficiently detached from them. That is, “have your wealth as if you had it not.” I have heard that one too. It sounds about as convincing as the drunk who insists that he is not an alcoholic because he really could quit drinking any time if he wanted to. In the end, I think this is one of many instances where Jesus tells us something about our lives, our values and our culture that we really would rather not hear.
Verses 35-40 mark an abrupt change of subject. The topic now is readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus begins by directing his hearers to “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Vs. 35. The Greek word for “loins” or “waist” is “osphus.” It refers to the locus of the reproductive organs. In the first century, garments were worn loosely around the waist without a belt while inside the home. When one went outside the home, it was customary to tie them up about the loins with a belt functioning in much the same way as a male athletic support. Thus, having “your loins be girded” was a sign of readiness for immediate departure or vigorous work. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 535. There is an echo here of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites in Exodus on the eating of the first Passover meal: “In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…” Exodus 12:11. Just as the Israelites had to be prepared for God’s imminent act of liberation from Egypt, Jesus’ hearers must be prepared for the salvation God will usher in through the coming of the Son of Man.
Jesus uses the image of a man gone off to a marriage feast, leaving his slaves in charge of the house. Marriage celebrations in ancient Palestine could last for days and so the slaves would have had no way of knowing precisely when their master would return. They must therefore be ready to unlock the door and welcome him home at any time of day or night. This much is entirely plausible. But then Jesus goes on to promise that, should the master of the house find his slaves ready and waiting for him with everything in order upon his return, he will invite his slaves to sit at table and will gird himself for work and serve them. It is hard to imagine a fellow making dinner for his servants after coming home in the middle of the night from days of partying. Yet that is precisely the point. The coming of the Son of Man brings with it rewards that are beyond imagination-for those ready and waiting for it. But for those who are unprepared, the day will come like a thief, catching unprepared the householder who leaves his home unattended.
Whether the coming of the Son of Man is understood as the final event signaling the end of the age or whether one understands this coming as an event occurring throughout the life of the church, the point is the same. For those waiting with eager anticipation for that day and who have pattered their lives on obedience to the Son of Man, the coming of the Son of Man will be an occasion of unimaginable joy. For those living as though Jesus’ coming were some distant event so far in the future that it has little bearing on day-to-day life, that coming will be a rude awakening.
In some respects, this latter section of the gospel lesson ties in nicely with the lesson from Hebrews urging us to let our lives be shaped and our expectations informed by the narrative of those heroes of faith who lived in anticipation of God’s future. Make friends with God’s future now and you need not worry that it will overtake you like an ambushing foe.