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.