Archive for September, 2016

Sunday, October 2nd

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4
Psalm 37:1–9
2 Timothy 1:1–14
Luke 17:5–10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I spent Saturday of last week touring the site of the historic Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts. The settlement disbanded in 1960 and sold its property to the Shaker Village Museum, a company formed for the purpose of maintaining the site and educating the public about the Shaker’s traditions, crafts and musical/artistic contributions. At this point, the compound consists of a few remaining and several reconstructed buildings that once housed one of the most fascinating Christian movements ever to take root on American soil.

The Shaker movement began in Manchester, England in the mid 18th Century under the name, United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming. It was a break off from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) led by Ann Lee, in whose person, teachings and example the Shakers believed Christ’s second coming had been realized. She was called “Mother Ann Lee” by her followers. The term “Shaker” was originally a derisive label given to the group by outsiders who observed the trembling, shaking and whirling of their esthetic dancing in worship. Like other religious minorities in England, the Shakers experienced ridicule, suspicion and persecution.

In 1774, Mother Ann Lee led eight Shaker converts to resettle in America in hopes of building a community based on their religious tenets. Shakers practiced strict communalism, sharing all property for the common good. They believed in and practiced racial and gender equality. Like the Quakers, Mennonites and Amish, Shakers were pacifists. Unlike these groups, however, the Shakers practiced strict celibacy-even between spouses. Contemporary folks harboring shallow, vacuous and simplistic 21st Century progressive Protestant prejudices are likely to dismiss this last aspect of Shaker belief as “body hatred,” “repression” or some form of sexism. But in a world where women were often treated as little better than male possessions and sexuality was routinely expressed through relationships of male domination, the practice of celibacy was part and parcel of the Shaker’s commitment to radical gender equality. They were dedicated to creating a “Heaven on Earth” in the midst of a violent, oppressive and corrupt world and that meant a community in which “there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28.  The total Shaker population peaked in the mid-19th century at which point there were an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Shakers living in nineteen communities throughout the United States. Today there is only one Shaker community of three believers located at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

Though all but extinct as a current movement, the Shakers’ historical witness continues to challenge the existing social, religious, and economic orders within our nation. The present electoral contest has exposed once again the ugly underbelly of racism, sexism and xenophobia that seem in every age to rise up and threaten the ideals on which our republic was founded. Thus, the Shaker witness is as timely now as ever. The alternative culture created and lived by the Shakers testifies to the reality of God’s kingdom and speaks a stubborn “no” to the normative role of hierarchy, coercion and violence in the rest of society. The Shakers also made important contributions to American culture in the areas of art, design, science, architecture, craftsmanship, business, music, education, government, medicine, agriculture, and commerce. As I viewed the carefully crafted furniture, innovative machinery and ingeniously designed buildings made by this now defunct community, I could not help but be impressed with the creative power, energy and devotion evident in the remains of the compound. This was clearly a people for whom the presence of Jesus Christ was a reality greater than all of the social, political and historical currents sweeping the rest of America into its destiny.

Of course, the Shaker movement was not able to perpetuate itself much beyond the first generation. The white hot devotion of its founders did not translate into practices capable of nurturing and sustaining the community indefinitely. Historians cite numerous reasons for the demise of the Shaker movement such as the rule of celibacy and the flood of cheap furniture injected into the market as a result of the industrial revolution. I don’t find either of these arguments persuasive. While the practice of absolute celibacy clearly didn’t help the Shaker’s evangelistic efforts, I don’t believe it was principally responsible for the group’s ultimate demise. After all, quite a number of monastic orders have been around for over a millennium and are still going strong. Contrary to our modernistic assumptions, it’s quite possible to live well and happily without sex. I also doubt that the industrial revolution had much to do with it. While it is likely that the abundance of less expansive, mass produced goods made it difficult for the Shaker communities to sustain themselves through selling their hand made products, I have no doubt that a community capable of thriving under political oppression and violent persecution could have discovered any number of ways to overcome a mere economic setback. More likely than not, the movement was undone by a gradual loss of faith in its core convictions. The difficulties of living in community and the lure of the outside world become problematic only when the community in question begins to doubt the basis of its existence and loses the certainty of belief in its founding vision. Only then does community life become oppressive and the commitments that hold it together begin to appear burdensome, senseless and limiting.

The history of the Shaker movement is of more than academic interest to me. As a lifelong member of a denomination that often appears to be going the way of the Shakers, I find myself wondering whether the glue that holds my church together is strong enough to carry us into the next generation. What is that glue anyway? Some critics argue that it is simply cultural traditions imported from northern Europe, in my case, from Norway. As our connection to our cultural roots fades, so does the church. That is partly true. Being a fourth generation American of Norwegian stock, I don’t consider myself any more Norwegian than Mandarin. Still, I know the “feel” of Norwegian Lutheran piety. When I was in my 20s, you could still find a disproportionate number of heavy Scandinavian sweaters in our congregations on any given cool, autumn Sunday. There were Ole and Lena jokes and those sugar cookies, names of which I never could pronounce. Nevertheless, there was also in, with and under that cultural packaging a particular piety, a set of practices and a language articulating a unique faith vision.

Of course, faith in Jesus Christ is no more tied to Norwegian cookies than to Shaker chairs. But if the miracle of the Incarnation teaches us anything, it is that faith in Jesus is never a disembodied principle. It cannot be abstracted from the body of believers which it animates. Without Israel and without the church, the Bible would be little more than an historical curiosity like the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be of interest to archeologists and historians of religion, but of no practical importance to the rest of us. Inevitably, the Body of Christ is incarnate in some culture and clothed in some cultural tradition. So the question is, how do you throw out the bathwater without losing the baby? Anybody who has ever bathed one knows that a wet baby is a slippery little eel!

It seems that St. Paul shares my concerns. I sense in his words from II Timothy some anxiety for the future of faith. Later on in that letter Paul warns Timothy to beware of a future in which people will “hold[…] the form of religion but deny[…] the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. It is all well and good that Timothy has been instructed in the faith by his mother and grandmother. But Paul knows that this young pastor cannot possibly drive his ministry on the fumes of the prior generations’ zeal. So he urges Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God” within him. II Timothy 1:6. He admonishes him to “follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Jesus Christ.” II Timothy 1:13. Timothy needs nothing less than the same immediacy of Jesus’ presence as Paul and the rest of the apostles knew. Without that living vine growing into each succeeding generation, the branches are dead.

So how are we to “rekindle the gift of God” within us? What would such a rekindling look like? Some religious traditions would call what Paul describes here as “re-commitment,” Others would call it “revival.” Still others refer to it as “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” One thing is certain: we cannot rekindle faith by trying to preserve or re-create the cultural/religious traditions of the past any more than building a Shaker museum can revive that once vibrant movement. Our hope lies rather in trusting the Holy Spirit to lead the church, believing that the Spirit is given to us freely and that the Spirit will “rekindle” our faith through the means of grace. Our hope is expressed in passing the baton of ministry on to a new generation of believers. Our hope is grounded in Jesus’ promise to be with his church until the end of the age. For that reason, I am confident that there always will be a church. I don’t know exactly what it will look like one hundred years after I am dead and gone. I am not sure that any congregation in it will bear the name Lutheran or that I would recognize any of the hymns it will be singing. Nonetheless, I am confident that it will be exactly the church God needs. That is all I need to know.

Here are two poems by Shaker Phoebe Ann Buckingham reflecting on the passage of time, loyalty to the faith community and a longing to grow in holiness.

January 1, 1837

I am determined to be more faithful
In this year which is now begun.
That I may gain a heavenly treasure
Which will fit me for the world to come.

January 1, 1867

Behold the New Year now has come
O may it prove a prosperous one.
May everyone that now is here
Remain to greet another year.
How many changes time does bring.
Some painful and some happy things.
Within the year that now is past
Many to us have breathed their last.
Some to a happier land have fled
Others in thorns have made their bed,
Left home and friends and all for what—
The lowest pleasures the earth has got.

Source: Website for the Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York. Phoebe Ann Buckingham was a member of the Watervleit Shaker Community. Like many Shakers, she kept a diary in which she wrote a number of short poems.

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4

The prophet Habakkuk lived and preached during the Babylonian period of domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We know very little about him. Though a prophet by the name of Habakkuk appears in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, it is unlikely that there is any historical or even literary connection.  Moreover, the prophet’s work appears to be a compilation of materials from different periods in Israel’s history, but which share a common theme. Thus, the prophet might be more an “editorial artist” than an original preacher.

Though the notes in my study Bible identify Habakkuk’s theme as “theodicy,” or “justifying the ways of God,” I don’t believe that is really the prophet’s concern here. This is not a dissertation on “the problem of human suffering.” It is, as I said before, a passionate plea from a person of faith calling upon his God to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. The common lectionary has again done a fine hack job on this text, omitting the sections that help us place the words of Habakkuk in context. In verses 5-11 we read of how the prophet attributes to God the raising up of the “Chaldeans,” another term for the Babylonians.

Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.

For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.

Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.

They all come for violence,
with faces pressing* forward;
they gather captives like sand.

At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.

Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!

Habakkuk 1:5-11. After describing the violence, cruelty and injustice of the Babylonian invaders, Habakkuk appeals to the Lord:

Are you not from of old,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
You shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?

You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.

Habakkuk 1:12-14.

God’s answer finally comes in the second chapter. “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. Contrary to Habakkuk’s hopes, this time of trouble, violence and injustice is to continue for an indefinite though surely finite period. Until relief in the form of God’s salvation comes-and it will come-the just must live by faith. That is, they must continue to live justly in an unjust world whether their justice and righteousness bear fruit or not. Faithfulness, not tangible success, is required.

This is a hard word for our culture which is used to seeing conflicts resolved within the space of an hour, less the commercials. But life is not like TV. It plods from one unresolved conflict to the next. Most likely, we will not see the fulfillment of all our hopes within our lifetimes. We will likely die without ever seeing the fruits of our acts of mercy and kindness. But that does not matter. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3.

Psalm 37:1–9

This psalm is one of the acrostic psalms, meaning that the first word of the first strophe begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second strophe begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.

The psalm reads more like a collection of wisdom proverbs, such as found in the Book of Proverbs, than a hymn or a prayer. The unifying theme is trust in God and in God’s providential rule. Throughout the psalm we find assurances that God ultimately rewards faithful behavior and punishes wickedness though, as Habakkuk also had to learn, such justice is not always executed as swiftly and clearly as we might hope. So the psalmist warns his hearers: “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers…” Psalm 37:1. Given the style and content of the psalm, most scholars date its composition as having taken place relatively later in Israel’s history, probably after the Babylonian Exile.

This psalm calls for patience in the face of wrongdoing and confidence in God to accomplish justice. The psalmist warns against “stewing” over the seeming success of the wicked and becoming cynical about life. Rather than obsessing over whether the wicked are properly punished, the righteous person should focus upon his own conduct, committing his way to the Lord. Vs. 5. The righteous person need not take matters of justice into his or her own hands. God, who sees all hearts and knows all circumstances, is in a much better position to determine what is actually just and how justice should be carried out.

Of course, this confidence in divine justice is easier to maintain in times of relative peace and stability where a semblance of justice has a chance of prevailing. Habakkuk, who lived in the shadow of war and societal breakdown, found it far more difficult to take the confident view expressed by the psalmist. Once again, we do well to remember that wisdom sayings such as those found in the psalm offer us a porthole view into reality which may well be true and insightful as far as it goes. Still, a porthole’s view is limited and there are other portholes through which the world must be examined if we are to arrive at a balanced understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to glimpse the world through as many portholes as possible.

2 Timothy 1:1–14

For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post of Sunday, September 11th.

This second letter addressed to Timothy from the Apostle Paul, now imprisoned at Rome, is an admonition for Timothy to stand firm against a number of false teachings that have crept into the church. The primary purpose of the letter, however, appears to be that of summoning Timothy to come and assist Paul in his imprisonment. II Timothy 4:9-13. At first blush, it appears that Timothy was a third generation Christian whose grandmother and mother were also believers. It is just as likely, though, that both mother and grandmother were converted at the same time through missionaries at Lystra. Perhaps Timothy was also baptized at that time or shortly thereafter. In any case, the letter reflects a level of intimacy between the Apostle and his fellow worker.

There is a reference here to the “laying on of hands” conferring a “gift” which Timothy is encouraged to “rekindle.” Vs. 6. Is this a reference to ordination? Or is it an aspect of the baptismal rite? There is support for either proposition, but not enough evidence to make decisive assertions. Like the other pastorals, this letter affirms the good news of salvation through grace in Jesus Christ apart from works. Vs. 9.

Timothy is encouraged to guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to him. That good treasure is “the sound teaching” Timothy has received from Paul. Clearly, the Apostle is concerned that the gospel is in danger of distortion or loss. We can see here a challenge that will confront the church in every age: How to preserve the integrity of the good news from generation to generation while at the same time addressing it to the ever changing circumstances of the world for which it is sent. Obviously, there is a risk involved whenever we seek to make Jesus known to an ever changing cultural context. The temptation is to make Jesus attractive, appealing and likable. The consequence is a portrait of Jesus created in our own image and likeness, a Jesus that fits nicely into our societal routine, but never gets in the way, never challenges us or calls us to repentance. In short, we run the risk of idolatry.

But there is also danger in trying to preserve the proclamation of Jesus by enshrining him in unbending theological orthodoxy or “timeless” liturgical practices. Sometimes heresy takes the form of correct expressions of the truth that have been held onto for too long. The words may not change, but their meanings do. The language of our faith can easily get hijacked, twisted around and used to express all manner of false and misleading notions if we are not vigilant about reexamining and reinterpreting it faithfully to each age. For example, scholars have noted that the word “faith” as used in this letter to Timothy often refers to a body of teaching rather than simple trust in God’s promises as used by Paul in letters such as Romans and Galatians. Whether Paul in his later years saw the need to expand his working definition of the term “faith” to meet the needs and concerns of the church or whether a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name expanded on the term, the same point is illustrated. The church’s teaching must be as flexible as the culture to which it speaks while remaining faithfully anchored in the apostolic witness to Jesus.

Luke 17:5–10

The disciples got it half right. When you need faith, Jesus is where you go. Their problem is that they did not understand faith. They assumed that faith is like a muscle; something you are born with and need to develop. They were looking for a spiritual exercise regimen (or more likely a shot of faith enhancing steroids) to improve their inborn faith. But faith is not a virtue or a human quality with which we are born or can produce in ourselves. It is a gift. As such, it is never a matter of “more or less.” It is like being pregnant. You are or are not. The same is true for faith. You have it or you don’t. Furthermore, if you have it, that is only because the Holy Spirit has given birth to it and brought it to fruition in your heart. The disciples do not need more faith. They need faith, period.

Faith is no longer faith when it becomes a work, a condition we need to satisfy before God will accept us. The worst advice you can give someone plagued by doubt is to say, “Just have faith.” That is like telling a starving child in Somalia, “You really should eat more!” The good news about Jesus is not that our faith saves us, but that God’s faithfulness saves faithless people like us. When that word is proclaimed in its fullness, faith follows. Strange as it may seem, faith begins at just the point where we realize we don’t have it and cannot ever hope to generate it on our own.

The parable about the servants is simply the flip side of faith. Recognizing that faith is a gift and that whatever is done from faith is finally God’s own work removes all grounds for “boasting,” as Saint Paul would say. Romans 3:27-29. For Luke, faith is never merely conceptual. John the Baptist made clear in his preaching that repentance involved bread and butter compassion, such as sharing food and clothing with neighbors in need, dealing honestly and fairly in a culture of greed and exploitation. Luke 3:10-14. Discipleship described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is the shape of faith. Yet precisely because faith is a gift, the “fruits” of repentance and the “works” of faith are not the works of the disciple. They are solely the works of the Holy Spirit and, as such, they do not earn the disciple any right to praise or recognition. The most that can ever be said of a disciple is that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, s/he has become what God the Father created him or her to be from the beginning.

This lesson is a needed corrective for a culture obsessed with self-esteem. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we ought to be self-haters or become obsessed with our unworthiness. I do believe, nonetheless, that there is just as great a danger in becoming overly obsessed with having our accomplishments valued and recognized. I wonder, when did it become mandatory that everyone be “special”? When did we decide that “average” is not good enough? When did we get this idea that we are supposed to “amount to something,” and that the something to which we must amount is necessarily a cut above everyone else: a high GPA, prestigious college, six figure salary, seven figure home and children who achieve even higher in these categories? When did it become necessary to celebrate graduation from middle school, grade school and even kindergarten? This need to succeed and, more than that, have our success recognized starts to smell a lot like the religion of salvation by good works against which Paul and Martin Luther preached. It is a secularized version of “works righteousness” focused on proving my self-worth to myself alone. Whether religious or secular, a life turned in upon itself leads just as surely to emptiness and despair.

Luke’s gospel would have us know that there is no reward in seeking self-esteem through recognition-whether it be through rigorous religious observance or social/financial success. God does not value either sort of achievement. Instead, God values trust in his promises, faithful obedience to his reign and love for the neighbor. These practices might not win you any recognition, but that does not matter. Disciples know that they are not entitled to recognition anyway. They discover instead the joy and freedom of living life without the need for recognition from any quarter.

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Sunday, September 25th

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 6:1a, 4–7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6–19
Luke 16:19–31

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“If we have food and clothing,” Saint Paul tells us, “we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8. That ought to be enough and it is enough for the ravens and for the grass of the fields. Hording is a peculiarly human behavior. Animals typically do not overeat, nor do they hunt other species to extinction. If they have any concept of tomorrow at all, it doesn’t figure into their behavior today. Animals seem to have a primal instinct leading them to be content when there is food at hand, water nearby and no predators on the horizon. Along with godliness, says Paul, such “contentment” is “great gain.” I Timothy 6:6.

There are people, though few in number, who find such contentment. Saint Paul was one of them. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” Philippians 4:11-12. Saint Francis of Assisi was another such person. He also rejoiced in living day-to-day, receiving charity shamelessly and thankfully when in want, but giving cheerfully and generously when blessed with abundance. So, too, there continue to be Anabaptist communities like the Amish, monastic fellowships and other intentional Christian groups that find contentment in living simply and gently on the land, rejecting the American creed of contentment through accumulation and consumption. These witnesses testify to the better life God is able to give us-if only we can empty our hands to receive it.

Here is a poem by Walt Whitman reflecting contentment.

Song of the Open Road
1
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

2
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.

Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.

3
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.

You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!

You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.

4
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.

5
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

6
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Only the kernel of every object nourishes;
Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?

Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?

7
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?

8
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)

Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.

9
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.

The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

10
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.

Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.

The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.

Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.

(I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.)

11
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

12
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Soldiers of revolts, standers by gaping graves, lowerers-down of coffins,
Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, the curious years each emerging from that which preceded it,
Journeyers as with companions, namely their own diverse phases,
Forth-steppers from the latent unrealized baby-days,
Journeyers gayly with their own youth, journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood,
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

13
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither,
To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens,
To take to your use out of the compact cities as you pass through,
To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,
To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts,
To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.

Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.

Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.

Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

14
Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.

15
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Source: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, (c. 1959 by Miller, James E., Jr., pub. by Houghton Mifflin Company). No poet captures the essence of what is genuinely American quite as comprehensively as Walt Whitman. Born 1819 in Huntington, Long Island, Whitman worked alternately as a journalist, government clerk and as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. He traveled widely throughout the United States giving expression to his zeal for democracy, nature, love and friendship. Though admired by such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, it was not until after his death in 1892 that he received wide acclaim in the United States. You can read more about Walt Whitman and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Amos 6:1a, 4–7

For some background on Amos the prophet, see my post for Sunday, September 18th. Amos is continuing his criticism of Israel’s commercial class here. Once again, I cannot understand why the common lectionary omits verses 2-3 of chapter 6. In them Amos invites his listeners to take a field trip to three cities, Calneh, Hamath and Gath. The location of Calneh is uncertain. Hamath was at the northernmost border of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was under the control of Israel’s King Jeroboam II in Amos’ time, but it appears to have been subject to attack and conquest throughout the lengthy struggle between Israel and its arch enemy, Syria. We know that Gath was destroyed by Hazael, King of Syria a century before Amos in about 850 B.C.E. The point here seems to be that God knows how to punish nations for their wickedness. What happened to these cities can as easily happen to Israel. Indeed, the fact that Israel has been chosen as God’s covenant partner makes her subject to a higher standard of righteousness. Consequently, God’s judgment is all the more likely for Israel and will be all the more severe.

The prophet is unsparing in his criticism of Israel’s ruling class for its decadence, opulence and callous disregard for the wellbeing of the people of Israel. Interestingly, Zion is also mentioned here, unusual since the audience is from the Northern Kingdom of Israel rather than the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose capital is Jerusalem (Zion). Amos 6:1. Some scholars suggest that this might be the work of a subsequent editor seeking to make the prophet’s oracle relevant to Judah at a later time. Though possible, it is more likely that Amos himself included his homeland within the sweep of God’s judgment just as he did in chapter 2. Amos 2:4-5. The complete and unfeeling exploitation of the poor by the commercial class in Israel is sure to bring down God’s judgment. Amos warns that these “first” among the people of Israel will be the “first” to go into exile. Amos 6:7.

Psalm 146

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss.7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.

The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and the conquest of the land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here. But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established.

1 Timothy 6:6–19

My son-in-law refers to the lottery as “a tax on stupidity.” He is right. Who would buy stock in a company if the odds against growth were one in 175 million and the odds in favor of losing your principal investment were the same? You might just as well throw your money over the bridge. You would have to be insane to make such an investment, but millions of people do just that every time they purchase a lottery ticket. Most of us know this. So why are lottery tickets such hot items?

A lottery ticket is, as the advertisements correctly call it, “a ticket to a dream.” Somebody has to win. Why not me? And if by chance I won-just imagine! I have to confess that I have often been tempted to purchase a ticket in spite of my understanding of the odds against me. Winning would certainly seem to solve a lot of my problems. Naturally, I have friends and family under financial burdens whom I would be in a position to help (and I expect I would discover family I never knew I had!). And, Oh yes! The church: how could I forget? Beyond the loss of a dollar or two, is there any downside in buying this ticket to a dream?

I think Paul nails it when he tells us flat out: “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” I Timothy 6:9. Why are we so eager to be rich? In my own case, the chief draw is autonomy. If I were independently wealthy, I would not be answerable to anyone. Nobody could tell me when I need to be at work. I would not be dependent upon any bank or mortgage company. I could live my life on my own terms. But wasn’t that precisely why Adam and Eve found the fruit on the tree of knowledge so very attractive? The serpent promised them that the fruit would make them “like God” and enable them to choose for themselves what is good; to live their lives on their own terms.

I have a feeling that the serpent is lurking very near the convenience stores where lottery tickets are sold whispering his same old lies. And they are lies. Truth is, money does not make me autonomous anymore than princes can offer me salvation. What money can do is make me forget how rich I really am. Yes, I am rich precisely because I am surrounded by loving people upon whom I can depend. My family is such a close and loving one because we have always had to depend upon each other and have therefore learned to care so deeply for each other. I am rich because I have received through the testimony of two millennia of saints a faith in a God whose love for me braved even the cross. Because life has taught me again and again that I am not autonomous, I have learned dependence upon and trust in this God who has never failed me. I have learned that true security comes from belonging to a community of mutually caring people living together as a single body-the Body of Christ. Giving up all of that is the true cost of a lottery ticket. Investing in one is therefore even more stupid than the math suggests.

For good reason, then, Paul advises Timothy to shun the quest for wealth and pursue instead “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” I Timothy 6:11. Again, these virtues are not developed in people who are autonomous or imagine themselves to be so. They are developed among people who know themselves to be dependent upon a gracious and compassionate God who shares his very self with them and invites them to do the same for each other.

Luke 16:19–31

A few things are worth noting right of the bat. First, note that Lazarus is the character in this story who is given a name. The rich man has no name. That already tells you something about where Jesus’ concern lies. The poor, starving masses have a name and a face. The rich man, for all his wealth and power, is nearly invisible. It is usually just the other way around, isn’t it? In our culture, the poor, the sick and the dying are kept mercifully out of our sight. The parable mirrors testimony to God’s compassionate care for the downtrodden reflected in last Sunday’s psalm:

Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.

He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 113:5-9. When the transcendent God stoops to look down upon the earth, he sees the poor, the needy and the childless-people that usually are invisible to us. God doesn’t seem much interested in what the kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers are up to.

Second, Jesus tells us nothing about the character of either of the two men in his parable. For all we know, the rich man might have been a regular worshiper at synagogue each Sabbath. He may have been a generous contributor to charity. He may have been a loving husband and a dedicated parent. We cannot assume that he was greedy, miserly or cold hearted. He may have passed by Lazarus without making eye contact, but honestly, who of us has not at some point in our lives done that very same thing on our way to the train or the bus in Times Square or some other place where the wretched of the earth come to beg? As for Lazarus, we know nothing of his character either. He might have been a good, honest and hardworking man just down on his luck. But he might also have been a scoundrel whose irresponsible lifestyle brought him to his sorry state. Can you blame the rich man for not giving him a hand out? How would the guy know whether his generosity will go simply to buying alcohol or drugs? How could he be sure that his well-intended efforts to help would only destroy Lazarus’ last ounce of incentive to better himself? Jesus does not tell us one way or the other. It does not matter to Jesus and it should not matter to us. The Scriptures do not limit the command to care for the poor with any provisos such as that the poor be “deserving.”

Third, this is not a parable about God punishing rich people for failing to care for the poor. God is not even in this parable and God is not responsible for that gap between Hades where the rich man finds himself and the bosom of Abraham were Lazarus resides. The rich man built that gap all by himself. It grew wider every time the rich man drove up to his estate and turned his gaze away from Lazarus as his limo with the tinted glass pulled through the gate. The gap grew larger whenever the rich man switched TV channels to avoid the disturbing images of starving children on the news. The gap widened as the rich man invested ever more of his wealth into shoring up the security fence and the alarm system around his property. When the rich man arrives at the afterlife, he discovers that the gap he erected between Lazarus and himself is still there. The only difference is that the great reversal has occurred. Lazarus is now the honored guest at the messianic banquet and the rich man is on the outside begging for scraps.

Now the saddest thing about this parable is that there is no learning curve. The rich man is still under the illusion that he is somebody important. He thinks he can hobnob with Father Abraham and extract favors from him. He doesn’t even deign to speak directly to Lazarus. Instead, he asks Abraham to “send that boy there-what’s his name? Lazarus? (As though it matters!) Send that boy to fetch me a drink.” Abraham has to point out to the rich man that things have changed. The reversal has come, just as the prophets warned. But the rich man still doesn’t get it. He still thinks nothing has changed. He still thinks he is in a position to order Lazarus about like a servant, only now he wants Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent before they also come to his “place of torment.” Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers have all the warning they need. They have Moses and the prophets. They need only listen. “No, father Abraham,” he protests. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

It is hard to miss the irony here. Of course, we know that someone has come back from the dead, but the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. So what will it take to wake us up? What will it take to convince us that by ignoring the cries of the poor we are building our prison in Hades? God has sent his Son to wake us up from our deathly sleep and after we rejected even him, God raised him up and gave him back to us again. God continues to raise up Jesus for us. If that does not melt our hearts, what will?

 

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 8:4–7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1–7
Luke 16:1–13

Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“You cannot serve God and mammon.” Luke 16:13

Most of us do just that. If we are not laboring to pay off mortgages, car loans and credit card debt we are striving to improve our standards of living in pursuit of a better life. As I have often pointed out, our economy is driven by the desire for increased wealth. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, philosopher/economist Adam Smith argued for a global free market economy based on the premise that the human tendency to pursue one’s own self-interest leads invariably to greater prosperity and economic growth for all. That may be so. I leave to economists the job of hashing out the validity of Smith’s assertions. I am more interested in the moral dimensions of his philosophy.

The concern of both Jesus and Amos is the effect self-interested pursuit of wealth has on the soul. Amos points out to the people of Israel how their pursuit of wealth has hardened their hearts toward the poor of the land and led them to abandon the terms of the covenant with their God. Only grudgingly do they cease from their commercial activity on the Sabbath. Amos 8:5. In blatant disregard of God’s command to leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor, the commercial class is eager to “sell the refuse of the wheat.” Human beings are reduced to units of labor that can be bought and sold like commodities. Amos 8:6. The self-interested pursuit of wealth has made Israel “rich in things but poor in soul,” as the hymn says. Jesus therefore speaks a stark and unwelcome truth to societies like that of 8th Century B.C.E. Israel and 21st Century C.E. America that make pursuit of wealth the driving cultural force: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

I believe that we in the church of Jesus Christ need to have some honest conversations about money, possessions and wealth and how they are shaping our priorities and the decisions we make about the way we live our lives. The early church had no compunctions about addressing the dangers of wealth and the inappropriate use of money. The story of Ananias and Sapphira makes the point very graphically. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Acts 4:32. He goes on to tell of how Barnabas sold a field which belonged to him and gave the full amount of the proceeds to the Apostles for the benefit of the church. Acts 4:36. But when Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold their land, they brought only a portion of the proceeds to the Apostles, representing that they had, like Barnabas, made an offering of the whole. When the Apostle Peter confronted them with their dishonesty, they were both stricken dead. I urge you to read the entire story in Acts 5:1-11. You won’t ever hear it from the lectionary. The message is clear. Greed kills. Self-interested pursuit of wealth does not lead to a better life. More is not better when it comes to money.

I am not suggesting that the early church was a communist utopia. The members of the church clearly had possessions and I suspect that some had more than others. But they all understood that possession is not the same as ownership. They all understood that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Psalm 24.1. What we possess is held in trust for the God who calls us to love our neighbor and care for creation. We came into the world with only our birthday suits and we will leave it with less than that. How we spend each penny in between is a matter of life and death. The question is not whether you have money or how much you have. The question is whether you are spending it, much or little, to invest in the things that are eternal, the things that matter to God, or whether you are simply enriching yourself in a vain effort to find happiness, security and a measure of fulfillment. Do you think of the money in your wallet, checking account or IRA as yours? Or is it a loan given you by the Lord to do God’s work in the world?

We mainline, middle class, ever white and ever polite progressive protestants are a little embarrassed by the outbreak of God’s wrath against Ananias and Sapphira. Yet perhaps the Lord’s swift action there was a kind of mercy. This couple did not live long enough to develop the stress conditions leading to heart attack, stroke and addiction so common among people caught up in the pursuit of the elusive American Dream. They did not live to discover how useless money is when you are standing over the casket of a loved one or how easily the love of money leads you to cross lines that you will regret for the rest of your life. Greed usually kills us gradually, awakening in our hearts a thirst that can never be satisfied, hardening our hearts against our neighbors and filling us with suspicion against our dear ones we suspect of scheming to get hold of our wealth. Mammon is a cruel and jealous master.

We need to recognize and name the false god, mammon. We need to shine the light of truth on the dangers of an unsustainable, greed driven economy that is increasingly dehumanizing.us and poisoning our planet. Jesus calls us to a way of living that is radically different from the self-interested pursuit of wealth. He calls us to learn, as the birds of the air and the lilies of the field already know, that all we need and more comes from the hand of a generous God. Disciples of Jesus know that the world is not a shrinking pie and that we don’t need to be obsessed with getting and keeping our piece. God has no interest in getting from us a share of what is ours. God wants us. When we finally figure out that, because  we belong to God and everything we possess belongs to God, we have all we need, then we can start truly living.

Here’s  poem by William Wordsworth about life wasted in “getting and spending.”

The World is Too Much with Us.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Source: William Wordsworth: Selected Poems (c. 2004 by Penguin Books). This poem is in the public domain. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland in England. He made his debut as a writer in 1787 publishing a sonnet in The European Magazine. In the same year he began attending St John’s College, Cambridge. There he received his BA degree. Wordsworth traveled widely throughout Europe and was particularly drawn to places of natural beauty. Though an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, he was first and foremost a poet drawing his inspiration chiefly from the natural world. Wordsworth was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death. You can read more about William Wordsworth at the Poetry Foundation website and sample more of his poetry.

Amos 8:4–7

Amos was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the preaching we have from him comes to us from his ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. After the death of King Solomon, the small empire King David had built split into two separate nations. Judah, consisting of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, continued under the reign of the house of David until its final destruction by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Israel, consisting of the remaining ten tribes, was less politically stable. It was ruled by a succession of royal families succeeding one another through violent coups. The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 723 B.C.E. Amos came on the scene during the long and prosperous reign of Jeroboam II beginning in about 782 B.C.E. Little is known about Amos. He describes himself as “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees,” which could mean that he was a wealthy land owner or that he was merely a servant on someone else’s estate. Amos 7:14. In any event, Amos makes it clear that he has no prophetic credentials other than his call from the Lord to preach, not to his own people of Judah, but to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos 7:15. By this point, the struggle in Israel between the worship of Yahweh and the cult of the Ba’als was all but over. A decisive death blow had been struck against the priesthood and temple of Ba’al by King Jehu two generations before. After taking power through a bloody revolution, Jehu killed Queen Jezebel, the widow of King Ahab and the chief patron of Ba’al. He then extinguished the entire line of Ahab. By the time Jeroboam II took the throne, worship of the Lord had become the religion of the Northern Kingdom once again. Peace, prosperity and religious revival seemed to demonstrate God’s pleasure with Israel.

But that is not the way Amos saw it. Peace and prosperity had come at a terrible price. The new commercial economy that brought so much prosperity to the commercial classes in the urban areas led to oppression and impoverishment for the rural masses. Property that under Israelite tribal law was held in perpetuity by family clans was now open for purchase or seizure. Statutes limiting the power of creditors over debtors were disregarded. The “safety net” for the poor consisting of “gleaning rights” was likewise ignored by farming interests that routinely soled “the sweepings of the wheat.” Amos 8:6.

Amos criticized the religion of Israel as empty, false and hypocritical. Religious observances, however faithfully performed and liturgically correct, are worthless unless accompanied by justice and compassion. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Amos has this to say concerning the worship of Israel:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 6:21-24. Not surprisingly, Amos’ preaching came to the attention of the Israelite authorities. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, informed King Jeroboam about Amos’ preaching, saying to him “the land is not able to bear all his words.” Amos 7:10. Shortly thereafter, Amaziah ordered Amos to return to Judah and never again preach at Israel’s sanctuary at Bethel. Amos 7:12-13.

What application does this have today? I dealt with one societal issue in my opening remarks, but find it necessary to repeat the point I made last week with respect to application of biblical texts to the contemporary scene. Amos is not speaking to the world at large on the basis of human rights, natural law or some universally recognized concept of justice. He is speaking specifically to Israel as God’s covenant people convicting her of violating the terms of her covenant obligations. That is precisely why we cannot go marching up to Wall Street quoting Amos and insisting that Wall Street has broken the covenant. Wall Street would quite understandably reply, “What covenant?” Neither AIG, nor Bank of America nor J.P. Morgan Chase is God’s chosen people. The United States is not God’s people. The words of Amos are thus directed toward Israel and, through its baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ, to the church.

That said, there are obviously both Jews and Christians who live in the United States, have obligations to the United States and owe loyalties to the United States. So what happens in the United States cannot be a matter of indifference. Disciples of Jesus are called upon specifically not to conform to the surrounding culture, but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds that they may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2. That means it is not our aim to transform society or “change the world” or “make a difference.” Our call is to live faithfully and counter-culturally as the Body of Christ in whatever context we find ourselves. That, of course, might very well turn out to be transformative bringing about significant change that makes an important difference. But whether faithfulness to Jesus does or does not bring about change or the change we hope for and expect is not our concern.

Psalm 113

This psalm is remarkable in its juxtaposition of God’s overwhelming power and transcendence against God’s intimate concern for the “weak,” the “poor” and the “childless.” Verses 4-6 glorify Israel’s God as sovereign over nature and history, exalted over the nations and even far above the heavens. Yet the greatness and magnitude of God are manifested not chiefly in his transcendence, but in his imminence, and particularly in his concern for the lowly. God is glorified in the exaltation of the weak, the salvation of the helpless and the deliverance of the childless from the curse of barrenness. God’s special concern with the weak and the powerless is grounded in Israel’s experience of God’s salvation in the Exodus and is reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s compassion for the childless woman echoes the experiences of numerous women of the Hebrew Bible, including Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah to mention a few. This theme is given expression in Luke’s gospel through Elizabeth, the aged and barren wife of Zechariah to whom John the Baptist was born.

This psalm is the first of a collection (Psalm 113114115116117118) labeled “Hallel.” These psalms are essentially expressions of thanksgiving and joy for divine redemption. In later Jewish liturgical practice they were sung for feasts of pilgrimage at Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, New Moon and the Dedication of the Temple. It is nearly impossible to determine the original setting of Psalm 113 or its original connection, if any, to the other Hallel psalms. The archaic Hebrew expressions found throughout the hymn suggest that it may have ancient roots in the monarchical period of Israel’s history prior to the Babylonian Exile.

1 Timothy 2:1–7

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone…” So begins the lesson. Just as Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, so the church is the mediator between Christ and the world. When you think about it, the chief social function of bodies is mediation. What do I mean when I say, “I know Janet”? Most likely it means that, among other things, I can recognize her face, describe her features and identify body language unique to her. I must qualify this with the word “likely” because the digital age has made it possible for relationships to develop on line without the parties thereto ever meeting face to face. I have a few of those relationships myself. Yet even for these people I have developed mental “pictures.” I know full well that these people probably do not look anything at all like my mental pictures of them. Still, I cannot help myself. I think this involuntary imaginative reflex of mine just goes to show how impossible it is to conceive a disembodied person. That is also why the church confesses “the resurrection of the body” and not the immortality of the soul. Bodies with eyes, ears, noses and mouths are the way persons engage one another. That is why the Word became flesh.

So the Body of Christ mediates God to the world just as Jesus’ bodily presence mediates God to the Church. Precisely because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), the church is to pray for all people without exception. Accordingly, the Kyrie begins with the words, “For the peace of the whole world, for the well being of the church of God and for all people, let us pray to the Lord” (emphasis supplied). Just as the focus of prayer is not confined to those within the church alone, it is not withheld from any nation, tribe or clan even if some of these folks are considered enemies of our own nation or even the church. Thus, prayer is to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Note well that the first century authorities were not particularly well disposed toward the church. To the contrary, they were suspicious of the church and prone to hinder its mission-and that was on good days. Persecution of the church, though not systematic or wide spread at this point, was not infrequent. Nevertheless, Paul understands that however flawed and corrupt government might be, it makes possible the living of a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” I Timothy 2:2.

All of this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 where he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7. I hasten to add, however, that I think protestants and Lutherans in particular have loaded far too much freight on these verses. The terms “instituted” and “appointed” appear to suggest that God has ordained whatever government happens to be in power and that, therefore, disobedience to government constitutes rebellion against God. But that does not follow.

The Greek words used in Romans for “instituted” and “appointed” actually mean more to “order,” “direct” or “arrange.” Thus, God did not ordain the Roman Empire, but God does order, arrange and direct it to do God’s bidding and accomplish God’s purposes. In the same way, God directed Assyria and Babylonia to bring about his judgment upon Israel and arranged for Persia under Cyrus to enable Israel’s return from exile. To say that God makes use of governments (without their knowledge or approval) is quite different from saying that the structures of power that exist were ordained by God and therefore cannot be resisted. Paul’s point, therefore, is not that obedience to government is obedience to God, but that faithful disciples who conduct themselves righteously need not fear the authorities. They are God’s tools whether they want to be such or not. Even if they act unjustly and persecute the people of God, God can be trusted to turn even this conduct to his own good purposes. Consequently, no argument can be made here to support the proposition that God wills for there to be nation states, governments or empires. Neither can this verse bear the weight of that uniquely Lutheran concoction, “The Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” But don’t get me started on that.

Verse 5 contains what appears to be a fragment of early Christian creedal teaching:

5For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all.

The term “mediator” is not used anywhere else by Paul in this or any of his writings. Yet if this is indeed a citation to some other fragment of church teaching, it is hardly surprising that it differs from Paul’s own way of expressing the faith in linguistics and vocabulary. Paul seems to be citing this saying in support of his appeal for prayer directed to all people and reflecting God’s desire that “all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” I Timothy 2:4. One God-One Mediator-One ransom for all.

Luke 16:1–13

This parable has famously (or infamously) been labeled the “Dishonest Steward.” I am not convinced that this fellow in Jesus’ story was dishonest. The parable begins with a “rich man” who had a steward. According to most commentaries, the “rich man” was an absentee landlord letting out his property to tenant farmers. The “steward” was a “property manager” in charge of supervising the tenants and selling the landlord’s share of the produce. Such arrangements were apparently common in first century Galilee. See Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 617 citing Grundmann, W. Das Evangelien nach Lukas (Theologischer Handkommentar zum NT, Berlin 1966) p. 317. The charges brought against the steward involved waste and mismanagement. Such conduct surely evidences carelessness or incompetence, but it does not imply dishonesty. Moreover, we cannot even be sure these charges are true. The allegations of misfeasance against the steward came from third parties that are not even identified and we never hear that the steward was even given a fair opportunity to contest them. In today’s corporate world, heads must roll when mistakes are made and they are often not the heads of those actually responsible. That could well have been the case here.

The steward finds himself in an untenable position. In our culture of unemployment benefits, disability payments and the like, we might be tempted to roll our eyes a bit when the steward reflects: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Luke 16:3. This is no laughing matter, however. Day laborers were paid a mere denarius per day in Galilee. SeeMatthew 20:1-16. The work was brutally difficult, dangerous and not always available. Ibid. Begging was also difficult work and paid a good deal less than labor. Either profession would have been the death sentence for a man of delicate physical constitution.

So here is where the story gets interesting. The steward calls in his master’s debtors and reduces their bills. On the face of it, this appears to be dishonest and it might well be. But if that is the case, why would the master praise his erstwhile steward for defrauding him? That makes no sense. Of course, Jesus’ parables sometimes are counter intuitive. Only last week Jesus told the parable of a shepherd who left 99 sheep alone and unprotected in the wilderness to go searching for one lost lamb. But that was to show how God’s valuation of those persons we have written off is entirely different than our own shallow cost/benefit analysis. There was a point to the implausibility of the parable. It does not seem to me that there is any such literary purpose for the master’s improbable response to getting fleeced by a disgruntled employee.

The most plausible explanation I have found was given by two commentators who suggest that the amount of each debt written off by the steward was his own commission for collecting the debt, not money that was owed the master. Findlay, J.A., Luke, The Abingdon Bible Commentary (c. 1929 Nashville/New York) p. 1049; Fitzmyer, J.A. Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, (c. 1971, London) pp. 161-184 cited in Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 615. If that is in fact what happened, the master would have no cause to complain and might indeed admire the shrewdness of his former steward for using his last commission to create a “golden parachute” for himself.

In either case, Jesus commends this fellow because he understands that he is now in a position where his money will be of very limited use to him. What he needs now more than anything else is friends. He recognizes that his future does not lie with his master or any of the master’s rich friends who no doubt know of his dismissal and are unlikely to hire him to a position of responsibility. Any future he has is with his master’s debtors, the folks he was accustomed to exploiting. For him, the “great reversal” that Mary sings about in the Magnificat is unfolding in his own life. The rich, of which he used to be one, have been cast down. The future belongs to the hungry soon to be filled. This fellow understands that the future belongs to them and that he had better make sure he is among them. To that end, he employs his last commission. He does exactly what the rich young ruler should have done in Luke 18:18-30.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:7–14
Psalm 51:1–10
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Luke 15:1–10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Luke 15:1.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “sinner” as “a person who transgresses against divine law by committing an immoral act or acts.” The Greek word “hamartolos” used in the New Testament is somewhat broader. It means simply “to miss the mark.” Hamartolos does not necessarily carry the inference of immorality that is central to the meaning of the English word “sin.” As employed in Jesus’ day, a sinner is someone cut off from Israel’s covenant with God. To sin is to break the covenant, to fail in living up to the terms under which Israel is called to order her existence. Thus, gentiles were considered sinners by definition simply because they are outside the covenant. Galatians 2:15. We also need to understand that the designation “sinner” was a judgment passed by the community upon certain individuals and groups. Tax collectors, prostitutes, people whose professions necessitated their coming into contact with unclean animals or dead bodies and women married to gentiles were all lumped into that broad category “sinner.”

The problem Jesus addresses here is communal hypocrisy. In any community of people, the dominant majority usually decides what is “sinful” and that is inherently dangerous. We are all far better at spotting the sins of others than our own and we have a remarkable ability to excuse, justify or explain away behavior on our own behalf that does not comport with Jesus’ teachings. Thus, we can easily vilify terrorists, pedophiles and death row inmates. After all, their sins are transgressions most of us would never imagine committing. But just last Sunday Jesus told us, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Luke 14:33. It seems to me that all of us with houses, cars, bank accounts and IRAs have some explaining to do. Is our attachment to wealth and our ambition to increase it somehow not quite as sinful as the sins of those sinners we love to hate? Perhaps so from the standpoint of American middle class morality, but God uses a different measuring stick. By God’s measure all are sinners, all are cut off, all are lost. But that is only half the story and not even the better half. God loves sinners-all of them. Both sinners who know they are sinners and those who imagine that they are not. They are all precious in God’s sight. The question, then, is what sort of sinner are you?

To be sure, the scriptures speak of the last judgment, a time when sin will be judged, a time when the wheat will be separated from the tares. But we misunderstand all of that if we imagine that judgment consists in separating sinners from non-sinners, the theologically correct from the theologically heretical, the not-so-terrible sinners like us from the Hitlers, Osama Bin ladens and the Dylann Roofs. The removal of evil from the world is much more like removing a malignant tumor from the brain stem than it is amputating an infected limb. That is why God alone can be trusted with performing such delicate surgery. Our efforts to judge between good and evil inevitably destroy healthy tissue and leave behind the seeds of greater evil to come. There is a reason why God warned Adam and Eve to stay clear of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Disciples of Jesus do not worship a god bent on purifying creation by beating it into submission, ripping out those persons who reject his reign and imposing his will by way of coercion. Instead, we worship the God whose painstakingly slow way of reconciliation draws each rebellious particle of the universe into the fabric of a new heaven and a new earth. The kingdom cannot come until the last missing coin is found and last lost sheep is gathered into the fold. There can be no new creation until every hardened heart is softened and every last murdered, ignored, bullied, rejected, imprisoned, executed, excoriated and anonymous person ever born is redeemed and returned to his or her Creator. That’s a long, slow process. But thankfully, God has all eternity to work with. Here’s a poem by Richard Michelson that I think captures the magnitude of God’s mission to find and redeem the lost.

Counting to Six Million
I.
Sleep faster, my son says. He’s poking
at my eyelids, pulling at the pillows, the helicopter
hum of anticipation rising in his throat as I reach out
and spin him onto the bed. I want to set my heels
once more in the soft underbelly of his childhood,

airlift him from danger, from disease, from all his fears,
which are maybe not even his fears at all, but only mine.
Yet now as he hovers above me, my body splayed out
like my father’s before me, my every breath is less a prayer
than a love letter torn open in desperation.

II.
Remember, I say, when we counted to six million,
a visualization of tragedy, one half hour a day
for two years, and that, for the tribe only; it would take
another whole year for the gypsies, the Catholics, the gays,
the foreigners, the Negroes, the artists, the philosophers, etc.

You were barely six at the time, your mother wondering
what the hell I was thinking, and even now I can’t fathom
why I didn’t just hold you close—
It would have taken only a moment—
And say whatever it was that I really wanted to say.

III.
I’m watching Batman reruns when the telephone rings.
Holy Charoset, I yell at the kitchen wall, call back later.
Maybe I threw some raisins, I don’t remember.
We’re already married, your mother and I,
but at the time, don’t ask,  I was living alone.

And so I’m laughing, mostly from boredom, but still, laughing,
while my father lay dying, gasping for breath in some dirty gutter,
gunned down for a half-empty briefcase, a gefilte fish sandwich,
and a New York Post which the next day would have
his picture on the twenty-eighth page; one more dead Jew.

IV.
You burst into the room, fifth grade facts burning your tongue
like Moses’ coal. 100 people die every minute, you tell me
as I turn down the TV; and then, gleefully: 50 since I’ve been  
in this room, and now 75 and now . . . O my little census bureau,
my prince of darkness, my prophet of numbers, riddle me this:

how many grains of sand before you can call it a desert?
And where were you the day Kennedy was shot? CNN, interrupting,
asks. My grandmother clicks her tongue like she’s chopping onion
in the old country. Poor boy, she says, pointing.
And there’s John-John again, waving that little flag, still saluting.

V.
And who will remember my father when I am gone? And
how many have died since his death? And what’s one more.
or one less. And what do I know of my father’s father?
I’m waiting outside, engine humming, as my son,
eighteen, registers. And now he’s shouting,

running towards me, arms pumping above his head.
He’s Moses the moment before spying the golden calf.
He’s his great grandfather crawling underground to freedom.
He’s my father flying medical supplies, surviving the crash.
My mother must have held him close. You’re home, she cries, safe.

VI.
Vietnam, I say, or Sarajevo.  Afghanistan, my son answers, or Iraq.
My father would have said Germany. He could have said Japan.
Nobody says anonymously. Nobody says Gotham.
Korea, my cousin says, or Kosovo.  My great grandfather
says South Africa. His great grandfather says Spain.

Somebody says Egypt now; somebody, Egypt then.
Nobody says suddenly. Nobody says Brooklyn. I’m counting
myself to sleep, when my wife hears a sound at the door. Careful,
she whispers. We’re alone, in an empty house; my every breath
reminding me I’m older than my father, on the day of his death.

VII.
There are more people breathing this very moment, my son insists,
than have ever died. He’s home from college, so I don’t double-check.
He’s driven a long way to surprise me on my birthday. Are you sure
you can’t stay, I ask, holding him close. He looks full of hope;
a woman I’ve never seen before at his side. Welcome home,

I tell my wife. She’s just turned twenty-four. I’m childless,
fatherless. It’s the day of the funeral; Nineteen years until
the twin towers. Three thousand since Moses murdered
the overseer. But that’s not what I’m thinking. Onetwo, three,
she says, guiding me inside. How could we not fall back in love?

Source: Battles & Lullabies. (c. 2006 by Richard Michelson, pub. by University of Illinois Press). Richard Michelson was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1953. His books of poetry include More Money than GodBattles & Lullabies and Tap Dancing for Relatives. His poetry has appeared in the Norton Introduction to Poetry and Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust. He was poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts and the recipient of a 2016 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship. You can read more about Richard Michelson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Exodus 32:7–14

This story is strategically placed after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. It prefigures the religious and cultural struggle Israel will encounter in the land of Canaan. The religion of the “Ba’als” was imbedded in the agricultural practices Israel would need to adopt in order to thrive in the Fertile Crescent. In a world where the science of agriculture was inseparably bound up with the religion of fertility, it was not possible for Israel simply to pick up Canaanite techniques while leaving Canaanite religion behind. The struggle between Elijah and the wicked King Ahab reflects the prophetic argument that Israel’s God was as much Lord of agriculture as he clearly was Lord of Israel’s Exodus. See I Kings 17-18.

Indications are that this story reached its final written form in the later stages of the development of the Book of Exodus. The motif of sin and forgiveness runs throughout chapters 32-34  forming the compositional unit for which our lesson is the opening scene. See Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1964,Westminster Press) p. 557-558. Accordingly, this story speaks also in a powerful way to the circumstances of the exiled Jews in Babylon. They, too, found themselves in a wilderness of sorts. Like the Israelites journeying in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the exiles living in Babylon following Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. were a vulnerable minority living in a hostile cultural environment as forbidding as the desert wilderness. The temptation to abandon the faith that seemed to have failed them was strong and the pressure to conform to Babylonian religion and culture considerable. The story of the golden calf served to illustrate for the exiles the nature of this temptation and to lay out for them the consequences of surrendering to it. Not one inch of God’s reign must be surrendered to the gods of Babylon. Like the Israelites of the wilderness wanderings, the exiles were in a posture of waiting upon their God to act. No doubt God’s faithful leading of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai to Canaan provided much of the inspiration for Second Isaiah’s poetic depiction of Israel’s way of return from Babylon to her homeland. See, e.g.Isaiah 43:16-21Isaiah 48:20-21Isaiah 49:8-13Isaiah 51:9-11.

The story of the golden calf is cited twice in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the golden calf story, along with several other wilderness wandering episodes, to make the point that many of the ancient Israelites proved unfaithful in spite of their participation in the baptism of the Exodus and the communal eating of the manna from the hand of God. So also, Paul warns, believers in Jesus, that though baptized and actively partaking in the Eucharist, they must not imagine that their unrighteous conduct is immune from God’s judgment. Like Israel in the wilderness, the church journeys through a hostile environment laden with temptations. Just as God’s judgment and discipline brought Israel back to repentance and faith, so the scriptural accounts of these acts serve as a salutary warning to disciples of Jesus to resist temptation and remain faithful. See I Corinthians 10:1-31.

The second citation occurs in Stephen’s speech before the high priest in Jerusalem. Stephen recounts the story of the golden calf (Acts 7:39-41) as yet another instance of Israel’s stubborn rejection of God’s word and Spirit culminating in the rejection of Jesus. On the whole, the speech is extremely harsh in its condemnation of Israel and it should be used cautiously in preaching for that reason. It is critical to remember, however, that Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts which he also authored were written before the final break between Judaism and the church. Thus, Stephen is not speaking from outside Judaism at the Jews. He is speaking within Judaism as a Jew to fellow Jews. As such, Stephen stands in the shoes of Israel’s prophets whose criticisms of Israel’s faithlessness were no less severe than his. Moreover, Stephen’s ire is focused chiefly upon the Jerusalem temple establishment and not to the Jewish people as a whole. Thus, his use of the golden calf story as illustrative of Israel’s (and the church’s) tendency to abandon faith in the true God for idols of one sort or another is quite in keeping with the rest of biblical tradition.

Perhaps most significant is the intercession motif. God declares his intention to destroy Israel and Moses intercedes. We have seen echoes of this motif in Genesis where Abraham intercedes with God for Sodom. Genesis 18:16-23. We see Stephen also interceding for his executioners. Acts 7:59-60. Of course, Jesus also prays that God will forgive his tormentors. Luke 23:33-34. Such prayer, like all prayer, is possible only because of God’s covenant with Israel. Moses does not appeal to high sounding moral principles or “human rights” when pleading for Israel. God is not defined or confined by any human conception of morality. Neither do humans have any rights against God. God, however, has made promises to Abraham to give his descendants the land of Canaan, to make of him a great nation and to bless his descendants and the whole world through them. So Moses holds God to God’s word. The covenant, prayer is merely a pious wish shot into utter darkness with the faint hope that somebody out there is listening.

Psalm 51:1–10

Why stop at verse 10? I don’t know. It is one of the many unfathomable decisions made in the smoke filled room where our common lectionary was born. The very idea of severing this psalm is akin to dividing the living child as proposed by King Solomon to the women disputing their right to it. I Kings 3:16-27. Unfortunately for the church, the makers of the lectionary lacked the sensitivity and compassion of the child’s mother and so we have inherited a mutilated psalm. Nonetheless, I shall consider it in its entirety. This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6Psalm 32Psalm 38Psalm 102Psalm 130; and Psalm 143) so named byFlavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It can be divided into four sections: 1) An invocation raising the theme of forgiveness (1-2); 2) confession of sin (4-6); 3) plea for forgiveness (7-9); and 4) the call for renewal (10-17). As we will see, 18-19 constitute a later addition. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) pp 402-410. For a slightly different outline, see Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 95.

The title associates the psalm with King David, identifying it as a prayer the king uttered after being confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. See II Samuel 11:1-12:24. It should be noted that the titles given to the individual psalms were affixed at a much later date, probably subsequent to the Babylonian Exile that ended around 530 B.C.E. Their purpose appears to have been to legitimate the psalms by tying them to pre-exilic scriptural figures and to officials and musicians in Solomon’s temple. In this way the returning exiles could establish the newly reconstructed temple in Jerusalem and its liturgies as true and genuine over against the rites and places of worship maintained by the Samaritans throughout the exile. Moreover, the Hebrew preposition preceding David’s name (le) can mean “by,” “for” or “to” David. Consequently, the title might say no more than that the psalm was written in honor of or in memory of David. Of course, none of this forecloses the possibility that the psalm might actually go back to David himself. The tradition that David was a musician is well attested. Skeptics point out that the psalm does not mention any of the characters involved with the Bathsheba affair or identify the psalmist’s offense, but that is hardly unusual. The psalms of lament (of which this is one) seldom identify with specificity the individual personal events giving rise to the psalmist’s prayer.

However one might resolve the authorship question, it is clear that the last two verses, 18-19, constitute a post-exilic addition to the psalm. Whereas in verse 16 the psalmist declares that God “has no delight in sacrifice,” verse 19 declares that when the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt, “then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings…” This seeming contradiction is resolved if in the earlier passage the psalmist is understood not to be disparaging sacrifice generally, but merely stating that ritual sacrifice cannot take the place of heartfelt repentance from sin. Nevertheless, these verses shift away from the personal prayer of the psalmist for individual forgiveness to a corporate prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. In so doing, they make this personal plea for forgiveness and restoration suitable as a prayer for national forgiveness and restoration. Whatever its origins and despite its various contextual settings, the psalm has a timeless appeal for all who experience genuine guilt and regret over sin. That accounts for its frequent use in our prayers, hymns and liturgy.

1 Timothy 1:12–17

The two Letters of Paul to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus, constitute the “pastoral epistles.” They are so called because they are addressed by the Apostle Paul to leaders with pastoral oversight. Back in the days when I attended seminary, it was the near unanimous opinion of New Testament Scholars that these letters were not written by Paul, but by a disciple or associate of Paul in his name years after the apostle’s death. This conclusion is based largely on significant linguistic and theological differences between the pastorals and those letters indisputably attributed to Paul (Romans, I &II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians and Philemon). Additionally, it is thought that the high degree of church organization reflected in the pastorals could not have developed during Paul’s life time and ministry. The false teaching against which the pastoral epistles argue is believed to be post-Pauline. Finally, there are substantial differences in style and vocabulary between the pastorals and the letters of uncontested Pauline authorship. As pseudomonas authorship was commonplace in antiquity, it would not have been unusual nor would it have been deemed dishonest or deceptive for a disciple of Paul to write a letter under the name of his master.

While these arguments are formidable, it appears that scholarly consensus against Pauline authorship today is not quite as uniform as I thought. Since my seminary days (over three decades ago) two very prominent scholars have taken issue with that majority view advancing some formidable arguments favoring Pauline authorship for all three of the pastorals. Gordon D. Fee, professor of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia recently published a commentary on the pastorals arguing forcefully for Pauline authorship. Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament at Chandler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia has published a commentary reaching many of the same conclusions. Without digesting their arguments in detail, they maintain that in arguing against newer heretical movements toward the end of his ministry, Paul invoked quotations from other apostolic and doctrinal sources to bolster his positions. That would account for the supposed theological differences between the pastorals and his other works. The advanced state of church hierarchy reflected in the pastorals appears only when one imbues terms such as “bishop,” “elder” and “deacon” with attributes of these offices as they existed much later in the development of the church. From the context of the pastorals alone, one cannot make a convincing case for the existence of any “advanced hierarchy.” It is evident that Paul utilized a recording secretary for his letters, even those unequivocally attributed to him. Perhaps in his later years Paul used a different secretary or gave his secretary more freedom in conveying his message. If so, that could account for the differences in language and vocabulary. In sum, the arguments against Pauline authorship are not as formidable as they appear at first blush.

In support of Pauline authorship, Fee and Johnson point out that with only two exceptions, the early church leaders all assume that the pastorals were written by Paul. Though these folks lived one or two centuries after Paul’s death, they were nevertheless eighteen centuries closer to the New Testament church than us. More significantly, for all of the differences between the uncontested Pauline letters and the pastorals, the similarities in thinking and expression are also substantial and cannot be dismissed. While I still lean toward pseudomonas authorship, I am definitely taking another look at the issue.

In the end, this controversy may well boil down an argument over degree. Pseudomonas authorship defenders readily admit that there are sections of the epistles that could well have come right from the mouth of Paul. Pauline authorship contenders recognize that, whether through the liberality of his secretary, quotation of other authorities or subsequent editing, there clearly is material in the pastorals that is linguistically, stylistically and theologically different from Paul. In either case, I believe that the pastorals are sufficiently stamped with Paul’s influence for me to refer to them as “Paul’s” without committing myself on the question of authorship.

This week’s brief lesson encapsulates Paul’s self-understanding and the significance of his ministry. His appointment by Jesus to the ministry of the gospel is founded in grace. As foremost of sinners, Paul was a prime candidate for apostleship. If his fanatical opposition to Jesus and his church can be forgiven; if even Paul the persecutor can be transformed so as to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ, what limit can there be to God’s mercy and capacity for redeeming sinners?

The formula “the saying is sure,” is characteristic of all three pastorals. See vs. 15. See alsoI Timothy 3:1I Timothy 4:9II Timothy 2:11Titus 3.8. It may well be a stylistic preface for introducing creedal material-early statements of church doctrine that are (or should be) recognized as beyond dispute, e.g. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Vs. 15. If this is the case, we may be looking at the earliest strands of DNA for the Apostles Creed in these fragments from the pastorals.

Luke 15:1–10

Once again, the occasion for the parables Jesus speaks here is a meal. Unlike last week, the meal is not eaten in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In fact, we don’t really know where this meal is taking place. Obviously, it must be somewhere public because the Pharisees and the scribes can observe that “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Vs. 1. We know that Jesus must be at a meal because they complain that he not only receives such folks, “but eats with them.” Vs. 2. That was deeply offensive because meals in first century Judaism were not simply about “grabbing a bite” as so often is the case today. They had a deeply spiritual dimension making them acts of worship. The sacrificial rites in ancient Israel were meals for the most part in which reconciliation with God and among the people was effectuated. “Sinners” in this context are not necessarily those whose sinful acts were more notorious than others. The category included people cut off from Israel because their profession put them in contact with gentiles, unclean animals, corpses or foreign money. Or they might be excluded for having had a disease rendering them unclean, such as leprosy. Then too, they might well be people whose sins were deemed beyond forgiveness. Nonetheless, Jesus welcomes them to his table and that is what gets him into trouble.

The two parables are perplexing-at least the one about the sheep. Jesus asks his hearers, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?” vs. 4. Well, I for one. I may be a city kid, but I know that sheep don’t do well left alone in the wilderness. I expect that this shepherd’s joy at finding his lost sheep would evaporate pretty quickly if upon his return he discovered that the rest of his flock had been attacked and scattered by a pack of wolves. But perhaps that is the point. God will never be satisfied with 99%. Even if the rest of the flock is put in jeopardy, even if rescuing the lost sheep means that the shepherd must now go in search of 99 lost sheep, so be it. The shepherd will keep on searching, keep on gathering and go on herding until he has all 100 safe and accounted for.

By contrast, I think most sensible people would say that getting 99 out of 100 sheep safely through the wilderness is a pretty good day’s work. There is always loss when it comes to shipping goods from point A to point B. So consider it a cost of doing business and write it off on your income tax return. Jesus would have us know, however, that none of his sheep are expendable. What Jesus’ opponents do not understand is that the reign of God cannot come until all the sheep are brought into the fold. By hindering Jesus’ ministry to sinners, they are hindering the coming of the kingdom of God. By shutting sinners out of the community of Israel, they are shutting the door of kingdom in their own faces as well. Perhaps we err in assuming that the tax collectors and sinners are the lost sheep and the lost coin in Jesus’ parables. After all, the sinners are drawing near to Jesus and entering into table fellowship with him. They are not lost. It is only those who turn up their nose at this messianic banquet that are lost.

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