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.