Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.