Archive for January, 2017
The story of Anne Frank is well known. Anne was a Jewish girl living in the Netherlands. She went into hiding in a concealed apartment during World War II with her family to escape from the Nazis. Hidden by a friendly Dutch family for two years, the family was eventually discovered and deported to concentration camps. Anne died of starvation and disease in Bergen-Belsen, a German death camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only family member to survive. The diary kept by Anne Frank while in hiding has become a world classic.
What you might not know is that Otto Frank made repeated attempts to immigrate to the United States with his family. This chapter of the Anne Frank Story was recently told by the Washington Post in a November 2015 article by reporter Elahe Izadi. Despite having high-level connections within the American business community and some political contacts, Frank was unable to secure safe passage to the United States for himself and his family. In a letter dated April 30, 1941, Frank wrote to his college friend in the United States, Nathan Straus, Jr.: “I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to…Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”
Straus was a connected man. He was the son of a Macy’s co-owner, the head of the U.S. Housing Authority and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Appeals were submitted by Strauss and his wife to the State Department, the Migration Department and the National Refugee Service supported by affidavits from employers of Frank’s family members in the U.S. vouching for their financial ability to provide for Frank and the family. But unfortunately for the Franks, U.S. refugee policy reflected growing American anxieties over foreigners from German-invaded countries forming a “fifth column” made up of disloyal elements in European territories. In short, the Franks were denied refugee status in the United States due to “national security concerns.”
The Franks were neither the first nor the only victims of this policy. In June of 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami forcing the ship to return to Europe where more than a quarter died in the Holocaust. The brutal fact is that the Franks and thousands of other Jewish refugees denied sanctuary in the United States were as much victims of U.S. policy as they were of Nazi violence. If you think that’s a stretch, listen to what Martin Luther says concerning the Fifth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill):
“…under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but also he who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him, and yet does not do it. If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; if you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see anyone innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. And it will not avail you to make the pretext that you did not afford any help, counsel or aid thereto, for you have withheld your love from him and deprived him of the benefit whereby his life would have been saved.” Luther’s Large Catechism, “The Fifth Commandment”
Now unless you have been living under a rock for the last week, you know exactly where I am going with this. On Friday, January 27th, which just happens to be Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting all refugee resettlement in the United States for 120 days and resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely. The rationale for this wide ranging ban is the same one used to justify denial of sanctuary to the Frank family. National security is once again being invoked to deny innocent victims of genocidal violence the opportunity to live. It is not enough that we have on our hands the blood of the Holocaust. Now the current administration would add to that the blood of countless refugees seeking asylum from the carnage in Syria and other nations. In my view, this is not, in the main, a “political” issue. The command to care for the foreigner and the resident alien are as old as the Hebrew Scriptures and expressed with crystal clarity in the gospels. National security, however important that might be, cannot be invoked to ignore the call of Jesus Christ to love one’s neighbor. Last I checked, there is no exception in the scriptures for Muslims.
Since 1939 Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) has been answering the call of Jesus by advocating for the acceptance of refugees from all over the world into our neighborhoods, sponsoring them through our churches and assisting them with the provision of education, job opportunities and integration into our communities. In the wake of World War II, LIRS resettled thousands of refugees displaced by that carnage, many of whom went on to become leaders in church and community. After the fall of South Vietnam, LIRS resettled thousands of displaced Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian families within our borders whose communities have enriched our culture and contributed to our economy. We are doing absolutely nothing different today and, God willing, we will be doing nothing different in the years to come. Caring for refugees lies at the heart of being a discipleship of Jesus. As the GEICO commercial says, “It’s what you do.” This is not Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. It’s just Jesus.
But what about national security? What about the possibility that we might be letting into our country people who are dangerous? Shouldn’t we be concerned about that? The answer is that, of course, the government should concern itself with the safety of its citizens. Vetting is and always has been a part of refugee resettlement in the United States. Anyone working at LIRS can tell you that vetting already is extreme and that it is hard to imagine how one could make it more extreme. Background checks with every nation in which a refugee has ever resided, iris I.D.s, fingerprinting and numerous exhaustive interviews at the international, national and local level are all part of the cumbersome process of resettlement. The government also requires proof of sponsorship for refugees by local agencies, churches or other non-profit groups before allowing them into the country. The repeated claim that there are millions of anonymous, unvetted and potentially dangerous refugees flooding into our country does not square with what those of us in the business of resettlement for the last seven decades know to be true. The oft repeated threat of an uncontrolled refugee influx is what we have now learned to call an “alternative fact.” (Back when I was a kid, we called it a lie).
But putting the truth aside for just a moment and assuming, for the sake of argument, that the “alternative fact” about the dangerousness of refugees is a “fact fact,” that is, a real fact, the picture does not change. Jesus never promised that loving your neighbor would be safe or easy. The term “neighbor” includes the “enemy.” Loving your enemy can get you nailed to a cross. Jesus said in no uncertain terms that “where I am, there will my servant be also.” Very simply, to be a disciple of Jesus is to follow Jesus in doing what Jesus did-loving the enemy that nails you to the cross. If you identify as a Christian, you can’t justify refusing to welcome refugees into your community with the argument that they might hurt you or your family-even when you dress it up with lofty sounding titles like “national security.” You follow Jesus by embracing your neighbor and any cross that might come with him/her, or you decide that following Jesus is too dangerous and decide to play it safe. Follow or don’t follow him. Simple, but not easy.
Enough talk. Now I am going to ask you to do something; to take a step in your discipleship with Jesus. I am asking you to speak up for your neighbors in Syria and refugees all over the world caught between death threats to themselves and their children on the one hand and a closed border on the other. Please, please. please take a moment and write a letter in these or your own words to your representatives whose names and addresses appear below. Alternatively, you can go directly to the LIRS website and send them an e-mail or make a phone call. However you do it, let your representatives know that refugee lives matter to you. Let them know that you welcome these endangered neighbors in your community-just as Jesus has welcomed us under his gentle reign. As the great British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burk once said, “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” Don’t do nothing.
I’m your constituent from [your town], New Jersey, and I am appalled by President Trump’s decision to pause the refugee resettlement program for any period of time. I also support the resettlement of Syrian refugees and other Muslim refugees fleeing terror. I believe the United States needs to continue to be a global leader for refugee resettlement and we should honor our commitment to resettle the most vulnerable.
I am also strongly opposed to President Trump’s decision to expand detention and prevent asylum-seeking Central Americans women, children, and families from seeking protection in the U.S.
These discriminatory announcements run contrary to what Christ called us to do and who we are as a nation. It does not reflect the welcome for refugees and migrants I see in my community every day. I urge you to do everything in your power to see this announcement reversed.
Rep. Josh S. Gottheimer
65 Harristown Rd
Glen Rock, NJ 07452
Sen. Corey Booker
One Gateway Center
Newark, NJ 07102
Sen. Robert Menendez
One Gateway Center, Suite 1100
Newark, New Jersey 07102
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions the wisdom and rationale for an ancient saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” His lyrical musings run contrary to logic, and particularly the prevailing logic of our current administration that believes firmly, not merely in good fences, but in twenty foot walls between neighbors. I am captive to that same kind of thinking myself. I insisted that the boundaries of the property I recently purchased on Cape Cod be meticulously defined with permanent markers at each corner. There are practical reasons for doing that. It strains neighborliness to the breaking point when one must point out that the fence for the house next door is beyond the property line and must eventually come down. Yet there is more than practicality at work in establishing borders-whether between neighbors or between nations. The limits of my lot determine the limits of my jurisdiction, my right to do as I please with what is mine. Stepping across the line uninvited poses a challenge. It is inherently threatening.
The Bible reminds us, however, that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Even the land of Canaan given to the people of Israel was to be held in trust for its true owner. The land was to be a demonstration plot for God’s gentle reign under the terms of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Israel’s ownership was never absolute. When Israel forgot the terms of the covenant and began to treat the land as hers, she lost it. It is sobering to recall that every nation, including the United States, occupies land that once belonged to someone else. Nation states are ephemeral. Ours is less than three hundred years old-a fraction of the years dominated by Rome, Persia, Greece, Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt. The borders of our empire will one day be occupied by a people who walk across them without knowing or caring. The lines along which wars were fought, deals were negotiated and walls built will be forgotten. That should give us pause and force us to ask ourselves why we so jealously guard the borders to our nation, the boundaries of our property and the personal space around ourselves.
Frost tells us that “spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do [good fences] make good neighbors?’” Perhaps that mischief is induced by the Spirit of God, a kind of gentle undertow against waves of wall building and isolation. Perhaps the disciple’s calling is to “be the mischief” putting notions in the heads of all people questioning the need for walls? Anyway, here is Robert Frost’s poem.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 33-34. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Some historical background might be helpful in understanding this reading. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was decisively defeated by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. who then sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and carried off a substantial number of the leading citizens of Judah into exile. In 538 B.C.E., Babylonia fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Cyrus issued an edict allowing for the return of exiled peoples such as the Jews to their land of origin and authorized the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The following year, a small group of Jews returned from Babylon and began laying the foundations for the new temple. Due to political and economic uncertainty arising from instability within the Persian Empire, this work came to a stop. So far from the glorious future forecast by the prophecies of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), life for the returning exiles proved to be harsh and difficult leading many to cynicism and despair. This is the context for the preaching attributed to Third Isaiah, Isaiah 56-66.
The prophet faces a tough audience. Consider that most of the exiled Jews elected to remain in Babylon where they had managed to build new lives for themselves. The returning exiles were the faithful few inspired by the preaching of Second Isaiah to stake everything on the prophet’s assurance that God would do a “new thing” for them. They fully expected their return to the Promised Land to be a triumphal homecoming accompanied by miraculous acts of salvation rivaling the Exodus from Egypt. Upon arrival, they found a ruined land occupied by hostile peoples. It appeared as though they had been cruelly deceived. One can hear the bitterness in their exasperated cries to the God who so disappointed them: “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?” Vs. 3. As the people see it, they have demonstrated the ultimate act of faith in returning to Palestine. On top of that, they are fasting and humbling themselves in an expression of repentance for all of Israel’s past sins. Can God ask any more than this?
Apparently, God does expect more. We are back to the familiar confusion between ritual and liturgical compliance aimed at pleasing God and obedience to God’s command to care for the neighbor. Evidently, their pious fasting does not prevent the rich from pursuing their unjust and oppressive economic practices. Nor does it prevent the people from quarreling to the point of violence. God is not impressed with shows of humility that do not reflect a true change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, responds to the complaint of the people by instructing them in what true fasting looks like: “to loose the bonds of wickedness:” “let the oppressed go free;” “share your bread with the hungry;” “bring the homeless poor into your house;” “cover” the naked; and “not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” Vss. 6-7.
Of all these examples of proper fasting, the call to “bring the homeless poor into your house” is by far the most jarring. I will cheerfully contribute items of food and donate cash to feed and house the homeless. I have even spent nights at homeless shelters assisting in this good work and spending time with the homeless poor. But taking these people into my home? That is a bridge too far. Sharing my private family space demands too much. I don’t want to share my bathroom with these people I hardly know. I don’t want their laundry mixed up with mine. I must confess that I probably would not sleep very soundly under the same roof with the homeless people I have encountered at shelters. I have to admit that the prophet has rattled my cage with this utterance!
Yet the prophet’s words have taken some faithful disciples beyond mere discomfort. Ten years ago, a group of Christians in Durham, North Carolina, launched a community of hospitality in a historic neighborhood called Walltown. Since then, the Rutba House has welcomed folks who are homeless, returning home from prison and others who just need a safe place to land. Now In his new book, Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests (c. 2013 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pub. Convergent), Rutba co-founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shares everyday stories of the people he has encountered. To learn about some of these remarkable accounts of transformation taking place through the exercise of hospitality, I invite you to read a comprehensive interview with Wilson-Hartgrove at this link. It always shakes me up when I hear about someone who actually takes Jesus and the prophets seriously. It makes me wonder whether I do!
Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs, instructing all who hear to live long and well by conforming their lives to God’s righteous commands that underlie the framework of the universe. As I have said many times before, I believe one must regard the wisdom sayings as “portholes” through which the wisdom teachers invite us to view the world. They offer some unique insights into the nature of reality that can help us make sense of our experiences. As portholes, however, the view they offer us is limited. The reader must always keep in mind the fact that there are other portholes offering views from different perspectives. No one (save God) stands on such lofty ground as to be able to see all things from all angles. Thus, wisdom literature places a high value on humility and openness to continual learning.
With that caveat, Psalm 112 affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. As such, it is characterized, rightly I think, by Walter Brueggemann as a psalm of “orientation.” It expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. Augsburg Publishing House, 1984) p. 25. The Lord blesses the person “who greatly delights in his commandments.” Vs. 1. Such a person is endowed with wealth, protection from evil and God’s constant presence. Vss. 3-4. It is well with the person “who deals generously and lends, who conducts his/her affairs with justice.” Vs. 5. There is much truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.
But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, the same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. Vs 7. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.
It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though most scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. I think it altogether likely that the wisdom material, which was common in the royal courts of 8th and 9th Century B.C.E. nations throughout the near east, may well have found its way into the courts of the Judean and Israelite kings of that period also. Consequently, it is entirely plausible that this psalm has roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies.
Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The two psalms share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion. The formal similarities between the two psalms are also striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off the half strophes. So rendered in English, the first verse of our psalm might read:
A song of praise to the Lord is seemly;
Blessed is the one who fears the Lord
Commandments of the Lord are greatly delighted in by such a person.
I know. The paraphrase is poor and the syntax stinks. But you get the idea.
As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. Vs. 16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.
It is for this reason that Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” when he first preached to the Corinthians. He could easily foresee that, in a church made up of Jews and gentiles of multiple persuasions, there were bound to be endless disputes over moral and religious matters. We all know that when the Bible is invoked as a rule book to settle disputes, the result is usually a shouting match between entrenched ideological positions whose partisans each claim that “the Bible speaks clearly on this matter!” Paul will have none of that! He starts with the presupposition that the Corinthian church with all of its problems is nevertheless the Body of Christ and every person in that congregation is a member of that Body. I Corinthians 12:27. Thus, there can be no question of amputating limbs and cutting out organs that seem not to be functioning in an optimal fashion. There is no alternative other than for all members of the congregation to accept one another and live together with one another as one Body. Such an existence can only be maintained by love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. That is a tall order, but Paul will have it no other way.
According to Paul, true wisdom is imparted by the Spirit. This Spirit is not some abstract, faceless new age force. It is the Spirit of Jesus whose faithful obedience to God and love for his church led to crucifixion by “the rulers of this age.” Vs. 8. Thus, contrary to some rather inept criticisms of Paul by a few commentators who feel that he had little or no concern for anything outside of the church, Paul knows full well that Jesus was crucified for the life he lived and that the church continues to bear his cross as it continues his life in the world. As the mind of Christ is formed in the church, the Body of Christ will continue to suffer until the oppressive tyranny of evil is swallowed up in love. That love which conquers all is revealed in Christ and made present to the community of faith even now. Vss. 9-10.
There is surely too much in these verses for any one sermon. There is a risk that any preacher trying to do justice to the text might well lose sight of the forest for the trees. Again, it is critical to recall that these words gain their force and significance precisely because they are spoken by Jesus who declares in both word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. This kingdom makes claims on its subjects that are contrary to the claims made by Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem for loyalty and obedience. The kingdom of heaven and these existing kingdoms are rivals from the get go. The difference between life under the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus makes clear to his disciples that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Vs. 20.
It is hard to hear that word “righteousness” without the prefix “self” attached to it. The word brings to mid images of the Pharisees or, rather, our stereotypical thinking about the Pharisees. On the whole, the Pharisees were generally pretty decent folk. They are the kind of people I would prefer to have for neighbors. They bring their garbage out to the curb on the right day; keep their lawns mowed and their gardens free of weeds. You don’t have to worry about rowdy parties in the middle of the night, or teenage hard metal bands practicing in the garage on Sunday afternoon or errant baseballs careening through you thermo-pane window when you live next door to a Pharisee. On the whole, I would take the Pharisee as my neighbor any day over many of the characters Jesus was known to associate with. So what is lacking in their righteousness?
In order to answer the above question, we need to skip ahead to the end of the chapter where Jesus tells his disciples that they must “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Perfection, however, is not measured by obedience to the rules. Jesus has already pointed out that we violate the commandment against murder when we hate; we commit adultery when we lust; if we need oaths to substantiate our words, then we are demonstrating that our word is ordinarily less than true and reliable. Perfection is measured by love for enemies. Matthew 5:43-48. That is a tall order. And to be clear, by enemies Jesus does not mean people who rub you the wrong way, people who get on your nerves or people who hold opinions that you find noxious. He is talking about enemies that strike you on the cheek; enemies that threaten you with violence; enemies that would kill you given half a chance. Those are the ones Jesus calls us to love and to pray for. I don’t have enemies like that-at least not up close and personal. Of course, there are people in the world who might kill me because I am an American, because I am a Christian or because they think killing people in general somehow makes a larger ideological point. But these enemies are abstractions to me. I don’t know them apart from media images of masked men with guns in their hands and fists in the air. I don’t really know who they are, what makes them tick or why they are bent on violence.
Yet perhaps that is the point of loving them and praying for them. I have found that praying for people with whom I have conflicts forces me to examine my anger and fear. Without half trying, I start to see the world through their eyes when I pray. The more I understand about my enemy, the easier it is to understand the source of his/her anger and his/her animus toward me. I also find that the more I understand people, the less threatening they become. I discover new ways to approach them, communicate with them and negotiate with them that I never thought existed. I have toyed with the idea of holding a prayer service to pray for members of ISIS and other terrorist groups. I fear that such an activity might initially be seen as disrespectful to our troops, disloyal to our country and insulting to victims of terror. Yet if we, who follow Jesus, do not pray for reconciliation with our enemies, who will? If the Body of Christ is not prepared to place itself on the front lines of peacemaking, who else will?
In verses 13-16 Jesus declares that his disciples are to be “light” and “salt.” The purpose of a lamp is to illuminate the room in which it is placed. It is not there to call attention to itself. So also, nobody I know has ever come back from dinning out raving about the wonderful salt on a steak. Salt is there to enhance the flavor of the meat. You are not supposed to notice it. If you do, it means that the cook has over seasoned the meat. While the disciples’ works are to be seen by the world, they are to glorify the Father rather than call attention to the disciples. Vs. 16. Keep in mind, though, that these admonitions follow immediately upon Jesus’ promise that, like the prophets before them, his disciples will experience persecution, rejection and hatred from the rival kingdoms still asserting jurisdiction over a world Jesus has now claimed for the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet it is precisely in this militant loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven that elicits so much opposition that creation is “seasoned” and the nature of God’s reign is “illuminated.”
In addition to flavoring and preserving, salt was used in the ancient world as a cleansing agent, to brighten the light of oil lamps and to increase the efficiency of baking ovens. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 212. It was recognized in antiquity as a fundamental human necessity. See, e.g., Sirach, 39:26. Matthew goes on to make the point that, while salt is used to flavor, purify and cleanse other items, there is nothing with which salt itself can be restored once its seasoning capacity has been lost. It is difficult to understand how this could occur unless the salt were somehow diluted with some other substance. But perhaps that is the point. Salt is so basic that it cannot be “unsalted” no matter what anyone does to it.
Jesus points out that a city set on a hill cannot be hid any more than a lamp can be concealed by placing it under a bushel basket. Note well that any lamp used anywhere in the First Century would have required a flame. Placing such a lamp under a bushel basket to conceal it would only result in the basket catching fire generating further illumination. Consequently, persecution of the disciples will not quench the light of God’s reign, but only enhance it. I should add that some commentators render the term translated “bushel basket” in the NRSV as “bowl,” pointing out that the reference is most likely to a tightly woven, air tight basket used for extinguishing household lamps without making excessive smoke. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 102. I don’t find much support for that in the text. The word at issue, “modios,” means simply “a grain measure containing about 8.75 liters or almost one peck.” This according to my trusty Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, W. Bower, edited by W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich (c. 1957, University of Chicago Press). Nevertheless, if Schweizer and likeminded folk are correct, then I have read too much into the text. Either way, though, the point remains. It would be absurd to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp only to extinguish it again. It is something that simply would not be done. So also the light of God’s reign will not be suppressed.
Verse 17 shifts focus to the place of the law and the prophets. Matthew is emphatic that Jesus has no intention of abolishing the Torah. Every last provision remains valid and the disciples are not to disregard any of it. Yet as we shall see when the Sermon progresses, Jesus radically re-orientates the law and the prophets. It is not enough merely to follow the letter of the law. This is the righteousness of Jesus’ opponents which makes the law an end in itself. The better righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples is grounded in love so deep and profound that it embraces even the enemy. Such indiscriminant love is the perfection of God to which Jesus calls his disciples. Matthew 5:43-48. “For Matthew, the love-commandment became the principle of interpretation for the law.” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” published in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. 1963 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 104.
The practical effect of this is that Matthew interprets the law always in the service of love for God and love for the neighbor. The law is the servant, never the master of love. Consequently, this love commandment can “be critically directed against individual commandments of the Old Testament itself.” Ibid. 103-104. Matthew is no antinomian. The law and the prophets remain valid, though of course, they must be interpreted. Blind obedience to the letter of the law leads only to arrogance and obscures the spirit of God’s commandments. (Literalists who insist “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” take note!) Interpretation is essential and it is only a question of what guides it. For Matthew, the loadstar of biblical interpretation is love. In his view, an interpretation of the law which leads to contempt for the neighbor or places a stumbling block in front of a person responding to God’s gracious invitation to come under his blessed reign is always going to be wrong, not matter how rationally, thoroughly and scripturally supported.
It seems to me that anyone preaching on this text must choose whether to focus on the “salt and light” theme or the role of the law and the prophets. Fitting both into one sermon will likely do justice to neither. The latter theme discussing the place of the law and the prophets fits nicely with the reading from Isaiah, making the point Jesus will be explaining further on, namely, that obedience to God’s commands is accomplished through love for one’s neighbor. Matthew 22:34-40.
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The prophet Micah does not mince words. He lets his people know in no uncertain terms that God is not interested in superficial piety. Sacrifices and elaborate religious rituals do not impress God. Neither does God care whether our coins bear the inscription “In God we trust,”” or whether the town green has a crèche, or whether we greet one another with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” or whether God is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance. Furthermore, I think Saint Paul would be horrified at our use of the cross in decorative jewelry, on national flags or as a bland symbol to mark graves. I think he would say that our broad acceptance of the cross as a decoration robs it of its symbolic power. He would probably be delighted that atheists are seeking to remove it from places of secular prominence. They, at least, understand that the cross has meaning-even if it is one they don’t like. As for Christians who champion such shallow piety in what they perceive as a war against them, may they lose the battle-and the sooner the better.
So what does God want? You know damn well, says Micah: do justice, love kindness; walk humbly with your God. Is that too much to ask? Justice is no abstract notion for Micah. A nation is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable within its borders. When rulers “abhor justice” and “pervert equity,” by taking bribes and selling the power of government to whomever can pay for it, there is little chance those without means can hope for justice. Micah 3:11. Though care for the poor, the resident alien, the widow and the orphan is imbedded within Israel’s covenant with her God, the Gospel of Matthew assures us that all the nations will be judged by this same standard. See Matthew 25:31-46. Nevertheless, because Israel and the church have these sacred commands enshrined in their scriptures, they bear a unique responsibility for ordering the lives of their communities around them and bearing witness to them as God’s gracious intent for all of humanity.
The shape of injustice in our culture includes oppression of the poor, racism, sexism and homophobic bigotry. According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, in 2015 there were 43.1 million people (13.5 percent of all Americans) living in poverty. Broken down by age demographics, 24.4 million (12.4 percent) of people ages 18-64 were in poverty; 14.5 million (19.7 percent) of children under the age of 18 were in poverty; and 4.2 million (8.8 percent) of seniors 65 and older were in poverty. During that year 13.1 million children lived in food-insecure households. According to a 2015 Survey by the United States Conference of Mayors, the leading cause of American hunger is the inadequacy of the federal minimum wage which stands at just over $7 per hour. Though some states have enacted minimum wage limits to as high as $11 per hour, the cost of living in these states most often exceeds the norm. Justice requires that workers be paid a living wage and that those unable to work are supported out of the community’s resources.
Injustice also takes the form of racism, sexism and the structural support for white privilege in government, education and commerce. Nothing spurs controversy more than bringing up race or sexism in polite company. I get particularly visceral responses to any mention of white male privilege. “Don’t call me a racist and I’m not privileged!” a middle aged man recently said to me. “I grew up in a working class family. I worked my way through college and I’ve worked for every dime I made since. I didn’t steal anything I own from anyone else!” I can understand that sentiment. I, too, worked hard to gain the financial security I enjoy today. I had no contacts in the legal field where I worked for eighteen years and I have no relatives in the hierarchy of the church either. In both cases, I had to sell myself and prove my competence from scratch. Nobody ever “got me in” anywhere.
Nevertheless, I know that there were numerous doors of opportunity open to me that for persons of color remained closed. Nobody in the corporate world in which I moved ever said “Don’t put a black person on that team,” but when the word went out to “get someone who fits in with the team,” we all knew what that meant. So too when a job required “a commanding presence” it meant don’t even think about giving this to a woman. I never had to wonder what effect my race was going to have in any interview. I never had to worry about balancing my projection of confidence against the potential of being thought “bitchy,” or wonder whether keeping a job required flirtation, tolerating wandering hands or giving sexual favors. All of these concerns that are ever present for persons of color and for women never crossed my mind. That is called white male privilege and, whether one chooses to believe it or not, it exists in education, government, the work place and, sadly, the church.
If the past election has had any positive effect, I think it has made it nearly impossible to ignore the deep seated racial hatred and the fear and loathing of strong and competent women among an increasingly insecure, frightened and violent white male population. A blue and white campaign button sported at the RNC convention last summer illustrates the point, “KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs 2 small breasts…left wing.” Another contained a picture of the former Secretary of state that read: “Life’s a bitch. Don’t vote for one.” Mr. Trump’s proud boasts of grabbing women by the genitals and kissing them without their consent didn’t budge his supporters. The victims who came forward to contest his claim that he was “only joking” when he made these remarks were swiftly silenced after he threatened to use the power of the presidency to retaliate against them. It should not surprise anyone that over 500,000 women in Washington D.C. and two million world-wide came out to march in support of a woman’s right to live without fear of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
Mr. Trump’s disparaging remarks about the inability of an American born judge of Mexican heritage to preside over the case of a white man like himself and his vow to deport twelve million Hispanic undocumented immigrants drew cheers from white nationalist groups, one of which famously gave Nazi salutes and cheered “Hail Trump” the morning after the election. The week following saw a surge in racial bias incidents. For example, the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland had its sign advertising Spanish services ripped and vandalized with the words, “TRUMP NATION WHITES ONLY.” Hateful rhetoric begets hateful actions.
Though Mr. Trump has not expressed the same animus toward gay, lesbian and transgendered folk, the platform on which his party ran supports the repeal of marriage equality, the gutting of protections for families of same sex couples and support for the thoroughly debunked pseudo treatment of homosexuals known as “reparative therapy.” The very day of the election a web page on the White House Website dedicated to identifying health and anti-bullying information for the LGBT community was scrubbed from the site. Sexual minorities are understandably concerned that the days of “open season” aggression against them might also be making a comeback.
According to Micah and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, justice means standing where God stands; speaking God’s words; and confronting the powers and principalities that oppose God’s reign. That means standing with the hungry, the poor, women, people of color, members of the LGBT community and all other persons endangered by this angry tidal wave of hatred and contempt. In so doing, those of us who have lived our lives under the shelter of white male privilege need to learn to see life in this culture of ours from the perspective of those who have not. Here’s a poem by Claude McKay to give us a porthole into that reality.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
Source: The Liberator, Vol.2, No. 7 (July 1919) Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry celebrated peasant life in Jamaica, challenged white supremacy in America and lifted up the struggles of black men and women struggling to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
We know very little about the life of the prophet Micah. He was a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and a contemporary of Isaiah, the Judean prophet who preached in the 8th Century B.C.E. Micah preached against the corruption, oppression and idolatry of the Judean monarchy presided over by descendants of King David. Unlike Isaiah, however, who appears to have been a Jerusalem insider with access to the throne, Micah was an outsider from the obscure town of Moresheth. Micah predicts destruction for both Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a consequence of their sin. Interspersed throughout the book of oracles bearing his name are declarations of salvation and promises of liberation. Most scholars believe that these writings come from a prophet living sometime later than Micah preaching to a generation that had already experienced the judgment of defeat and destruction Micah foretold.
In Sunday’s lesson Micah employs a much used literary technique of Hebrew prophets. He places the controversy between God and God’s people of Judah on the stage of a mock court proceeding. The prophet summons his people to answer God’s indictment of their sinfulness, calling upon the mountains to act as witnesses to the proceedings. Vss. 1-2. First God, as plaintiff, sets forth his complaint: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!” vs. 3. God proceeds to recite his acts of salvation for Israel from the Exodus through the wilderness wanderings “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” Vss. 4-5. The prophet weaves together a string of God’s saving acts to illustrate God’s faithfulness to Israel. Verse 4, in which God reminds Israel of his faithfulness in the Exodus, echoes the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2. Obedience to these commands, not mere superficial acts of worship and piety, are the proper response to God’s faithfulness.
The narrative of Balak, king of Moab and Balaam referenced in vs. 5 can be found at Numbers 22-24. It contains the delightful story of Balaam’s talking ass. Immediately thereafter follows the not so delightful story of Shittim, also referenced in vs 5. Numbers 25:1-5. The people of Israel began to intermingle with the people of Moab, attending their feasts and marrying their daughters. At the Lord’s bidding, Moses responded by hanging the “chiefs of the people” in the presence of the Lord. He then directed the judges of Israel to “slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Peor,” the Moabite deity. You won’t find this little tale in any Sunday School text. Gilgal was the spot at which Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. See Joshua 3:14-4:24. Thus, the Lord brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness and safely into the Promised Land in spite of her frequent rebellion and unbelief. After such steadfast faithfulness on God’s part, what excuse can the people make for their faithless behavior?
Having no defense to God’s charges, the people respond in verses 6-7, asking what they can do to atone for their sins. They ask whether God will be pleased with more burnt offerings and, if not, whether perhaps the sacrifice of their own children would suffice. The implication here is that the people believe sacrifices, offerings and religious observances can buy God’s favor. They are asking the prophet how much it will take to do the trick. But the prophet replies in verse 8 “don’t give me any of that! You know very well what God wants” (my paraphrase). God is not interested in more offerings or religious observances: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Vs. 8. The power of this response is its stark simplicity. God liberated Israel from Egypt not so that she could become another Egypt oppressing her own people, enslaved to idols and filled with violence. She was given commandments-not because God needs or desires them, but because Israel needs them to preserve the freedom bought for her by her gracious God. These commandments call for obedience to God above all else and love of neighbor. Without such obedience and love, sacrifices, worship and prayer are worth nothing.
It is worth noting that the prophet calls us to walk humbly with our God. Few things frighten me more than people who are certain they know what justice requires. People who are certain have no further need of learning. People who do not learn do not grow. People who do not grow regress to the most infantile level of understanding, i.e., Justice = Retribution. They lose their ability to appreciate ambiguity and to see all sides of every conflict. Every battle is a struggle between good and evil neatly divided along religious, racial, cultural or religious lines. It is always “us against them.” Humble people recognize that genuine learning exposes our lack of understanding and reveals to us how very much more we have yet to learn. Paradoxically, the more you know, the more you realize how much you have to learn. Justice, therefore, must never be done in righteous anger but always with a sober knowledge of the limits placed on human understanding and the flawed nature of all human tribunals and enforcement mechanisms.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world about the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, W, Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self-interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.”
Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”
Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a psalm of “orientation.” Along with the similar Psalm 24, this psalm “reflects only the well-oriented community, one that has not yet addressed a theologically ambiguous or morally disruptive world.” Hence, “it is not inappropriate that access to God be measured in terms of conformity to what is known, trusted, and found reliable.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies, (c. 1984, Augsburg Publishing House) p. 42. As much respect as I have for Professor Brueggamann, I do not share his view of this this psalm. Rather than a naïve faith untested by trials, I believe this psalm reflects a mature prophetic faith. Its message fits neatly into the text from Micah and reinforces the understanding of Israel’s God as one who is interested chiefly in how his people treat one another. Jesus emphasizes this point in his own central teaching: “The first [commandment] is ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31.
This lesson is perhaps the most critical to understanding Paul. Some of his more superficial critics excoriate Paul for ignoring the life and ministry of Jesus to focus only on his crucifixion. Such criticisms ignore the body of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which Paul argues that the life and ministry of Jesus, so far from being irrelevant, are still ongoing within the life of the church. So far from constituting past data, Jesus’ earthly ministry is a present fact in communities where disciples of Jesus continue to break bread in his presence and build one another up in love with the gifts the Spirit pours out upon them.
This love of which Paul speaks is no sentimental ideal. It is a tough, gritty sort of love discovered among people with differing viewpoints, various cultural prejudices and conflicting agendas. We have already seen that the Corinthian church was no happy little commune. It was a place of fragile egos, power hungry factions and loose morals. A person who tries to practice a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7) in such an environment is bound to get his or her heart broken-or crucified. Yet such seemingly “weak” love in the presence of arrogance, pride and coercive force is exactly the life that Jesus lived. Through such “weakness” God demonstrates a love that is so strong that not even death can prevail against it. This “weakness” of God that embraces evil with love is stronger than the divisive forces at work in the Corinthian church seeking to tear it apart.
In this age of polarization in politics and general social discourse, I believe the church is called to reflect an alternative way of living together in community. More than ever, it is critical that we do not become a microcosm of the culture wars raging around us and that our discourse not degenerate to the point of firing the same hackneyed ideological torpedoes dressed in scriptural garb over the familiar fault lines dictated more by political/commercial/social interests than by any recognizable faith commitment. There is a better way to be in community. The church at Corinth, for all of its shortcomings, was such a community. At least the Apostle Paul felt that way about it.
Last week in Matthew 4:12-25 we witnessed the commencement of Jesus’ mission and his proclamation: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Matthew 4:17. Crowds from all over the region are drawn to Jesus and, seeing them, he ascends “the mountain.” Surrounded by his disciples (four at this point that we know of), he sits down and opens his mouth to teach them. It was customary for rabbis to sit when teaching their disciples and the Semitic idiom, “he opened his mouth” adds a note of solemnity to the beginning of this very public address. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 193. The location of the “mountain” or whether it actually was anything like a mountain is altogether beside the point. Matthew’s use of the term is a literary device drawing parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the revelation of Torah, though as with all Hebrew Scriptural parallels we should not push this one too far. Matthew does not wish us to understand Jesus as another Moses or the Sermon on the Mount as another set of commandments. Jesus’ teaching here follows upon his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the shape that kingdom is to take among his disciples as the new age is actualized in the midst of the old.
Thus, the “beatitudes” cannot be interpreted as disembodied sayings printed on a refrigerator magnet. They must be read in the light of the exciting news of heaven’s dawning kingdom that Jesus has begun to inaugurate. For the sake of this kingdom, it is a joy to suffer hunger, mourning and persecution. The hunger for righteousness is a sweet hunger anticipating satisfaction. Persecution at the hands of an unbelieving world only reinforces the disciple’s confidence that the battle has been joined and that s/he is on the victorious side. There is nothing masochistic about the beatitudes. They do not promote suffering for suffering’s sake. They promote joyful anticipation of God’s reign of plenty for all people and a willingness to sacrifice gladly all for the sake of that gentle reign.
For this reason I do not buy into the notion advanced by some scholars that Matthew has “spiritualized” the more earthy beatitudes set forth in the Gospel of Luke at Luke 6:20-23. Neither does Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke, nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude. Since the days of the Clementines, Catholic exegesis has applied this beatitude to the virtue of poverty, the paupertas voluntaria of the monks, or any kind of poverty undertaken voluntarily for the sake of Christ. But in both cases the error lies in looking for some kind of human behavior as the ground for the beatitude instead of the call and promise of Jesus alone.” Bonnoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, Second Ed. (c. 1959 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 119, n. 1.
As in Luke, Matthew sees in the difficult human circumstances he calls “blessed” marks of faithful discipleship lived out in the joyful expectation of the coming reign of God. It is important to understand here that the “kingdom of heaven” is not some otherworldly paradise. “On the one hand, God’s future will not negate his creation; what he has created and done in history will be brought by him to a significant goal. On the other hand, this will not be the result of human efforts and historical processes, but will be entirely God’s doing. It follows that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are deeply interested in what is taking shape on this earth: God is controlling history, and God will bring his Kingdom about in the events on this earth. Therefore our Gospel [of Matthew] closes with authority given to Jesus “in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) pp. 90-91.
The beatitudes constituting our lesson for Sunday are a profoundly significant part of the Sermon on the Mount as Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out: “The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon-precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn and some will be meek.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas) p. 61. In short, the beatitudes are not virtues to be acquired, but the expected consequence of living as subjects in the kingdom of heaven as will be spelled out in the balance of the Sermon.
In many respects the Sermon on the Mount expresses in teaching form the meaning of “love” that is so beautifully expressed in St. Paul’s hymn at I Corinthians 13. In both the Sermon and Paul’s hymn, the cross stands at the center. This is because the cross is the form the kingdom of heaven invariably takes in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. But as Paul reminds us, this seemingly weak and impotent expression of love in the cross is stronger than all the world’s violent hatred.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all employ the metaphor of “light” against darkness in some way. Isaiah announces the light of God’s new day coming first to those sitting in the darkest of circumstances. Matthew the Evangelist employs this same passage to announce the opening of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The psalmist addresses the Lord as “my light and my salvation.” This psalmist knows whereof s/he speaks. S/he is confronted by enemies who would inflict violence. S/he seeks refuge and safety from God because s/he feels threatened, vulnerable and at risk. I know that, since November 8, 2016, people of color, undocumented persons, young women working in male dominated professional environments, gay, lesbian and transgendered people are all feeling a lot less safe and a great deal more vulnerable than they were the Monday before.
I am writing these lines on January 16th, our national holiday honoring the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life was dedicated and ultimately sacrificed in the struggle of African Americans and all people of color to win the justice, equality and protection from discrimination that ought to be every American’s birthright. This same week we will inaugurate as president of the United States a man who only last week spoke contemptuously of Representative John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement that cost King his life. Lewis himself was severely beaten by Alabama State troopers as he marched, along with several other persons, on the way to a peaceful demonstration in Montgomery. Yet the president elect referred to Mr. Lewis as a man of “all talk” and no action. This is the same man whose housing facilities faced three lawsuits under the federal fair housing act for discriminatory conduct against African Americans. This is the same man who told us during his campaign that he did not believe an American born judge of Mexican ancestry is capable of presiding fairly over the case of a white man like him (though he has never questioned the competence of white judges who regularly preside over cases involving people of color). This is the man who famously bragged about groping women-then threatened with the power of the presidency those who identified themselves as his victims. Spin these facts however you will, they remain facts-and troubling facts at that.
I know that I am entering into dangerous territory here. Lutherans like me have always maintained that people of good will can disagree sharply over political philosophy, public policy and the merits of legislation governing our common life as a nation. The balance between state and federal power, the role of the judiciary, the scope of American foreign policy, the proper role of the military, the degree of government regulation of our economy-all of these issues have been debated from the founding of the republic. Where one stands on any of these questions is not a measure of one’s faith. I understand that many Christian people who voted for Mr. Trump deplore his racist and misogynist statements and opinions. They voted for him because they agree with his proposals for dealing with the pressing problems our country is facing or because they find him less offensive than his rival. I get that. But my question to all of my Christian friends who voted for Donald Trump is this: now that you have elected him to implement the measures you support, are you ready to stand against his bigotry and hateful speech? Are you ready to stand with the people he has ridiculed, insulted and marginalized?
Discipleship is radical obedience to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. The kingdom of heaven is not an abstract notion or the promise of a better existence in the distant future. It occupies space in the here and now. Its sharp contours spelled out in Jesus’ life and teaching rub up against the regimes of principalities and powers that claim sovereignty over our lives. If the failure of Lutheranism under the Third Reich and the failure of the white protestant church during the civil rights movement teach us anything, it is that there are moments in history when the church cannot faithfully remain politically neutral. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1963 are as timely and relevant for the American Church today as they were when he wrote them during his imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counselor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to justice; who consistently says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but cannot agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who advises the Negro to ‘wait for a more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963 (c. Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
It is up to voters, the legislature and the judiciary to determine what sort of nation the United States will be in the coming decades. For the church, there is no decision to be made. “Where I am,” says Jesus, “there my servant will be also.” Jesus, we know, stands with the outcast, the judged, the oppressed and the neglected. We stand there with Jesus or side with his enemies. There is no middle ground. I hope and pray that we will not again fail Jesus and our neighbors in the facing of this hour. I hope that we will find the courage to speak up for those whose voices are being suppressed. I hope that those of us who know only the world of white, male privilege can yet learn to sing the laments of our oppressed neighbors and, more importantly, stand with them against the darkness of systemic injustice.
Here’s a poem by Maya Angelou about the song I believe God would teach the church to sing.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou ( c. 1995 by Virago Press). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This reading comes to us from the prophet Isaiah who lived and prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E. During this period the Northern Kingdom of Israel was annexed by the powerful Assyrian Empire bringing Assyrian tyranny to Judah’s very doorstep. The Kingdom of Judah, ruled by descendants of David, lived uneasily in the shadow of this super power as a tributary. Crushing tribute and political oppression tempted Judah on a number of occasions to rebel against Assyria in league with other local tributaries. The prophet warned Judah’s rulers against such reckless policies and counseled them instead to wait for Israel’s God to lift the yolk of oppression.
Today’s text will no doubt sound familiar as we routinely encounter it in Advent. If you were to read down to verse 6 you would hear the line so dear to us and to George Frederick Handel: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” This Sunday, however, the emphasis is on the opening prose in verse 1. To understand it properly, we need to go back to Isaiah 7-8. Isaiah has failed in his efforts to dissuade Judah’s King Ahaz from allying himself to Assyria in order to gain protection from local enemies. Ahaz will not be still and place his faith in the Lord. He is bound and determined to place his trust in Assyria-which will lead to hardships much worse. In despair, Isaiah calls his disciples to witness his written testimonial to God’s coming judgment upon the nation. As for the decision of King Ahaz, the prophet declares: “Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn.” Isaiah 8:20. “They will pass through the land greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” Isaiah 8:21-22.
Now our lesson for Sunday begins with a very different word, a message of hope so far at variance with the preceding verses that many scholars consider this to be an utterance much later in the career of the prophet or perhaps the word of another prophet altogether. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Commentaries (c. SCM Press Ltd. 1962) p. 111. However that might be, the canonical arrangement of the oracles conveys a message entirely consistent with Isaiah’s call for Ahaz to place his trust solely in God’s promises. The people who have lived in the darkness of judgment will indeed see light again. The yolk of their oppression will be broken, the burdens removed from their shoulders and prosperity returned to their land. But this will not be the fruit of military maneuvers or foreign alliances. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel located in Galilee. The “way of the sea” refers to the highway from Damascus to the sea. It was likely the route for the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 733 B.C.E. The peoples of this territory who first experienced the brunt of Assyrian aggression will also be first to witness the liberation of all Israel from Assyria. The prophet foresees the day when the people of the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah along with their territories will be reunited under a messianic king. The yolk of Assyria will be thrown off. “The day of Midian” refers to the victory of Gideon over the Midianites recounted in Judges 6-7. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were significantly involved in this battle. Judges 6:35.
In order to understand this reading, it is important that we be aware of the prior words of judgment against Judah. Yet it is more important still to recognize that judgment is not the last word. In spite of Ahaz’ faithless refusal to trust in God’s promises and his resort to a shortsighted and disastrous policy for his people, God will nevertheless bring to fruition the peace and prosperity promised to Israel. God’s people cannot make a bigger mess of things than God is capable of cleaning up. That’s gospel.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that s/he feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though, as previously noted, the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14. As usual, I am at a loss to understand the surgery performed on the psalm by the lectionary. Accordingly, I will deal with Psalm 27 in its entirety.
This psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” Vs. 4. I suspect that most of you out there, like me, probably don’t have enemies like that. So what place does a psalm like this have in our lectionary? I suggest that one reason for praying these psalms is so that we can hear and join in the prayers of the whole Body of Christ which, of course, extends beyond our own congregation. The Coptic Christians in Egypt whose churches have been burned and looted know well enough what it is like to have enemies. So do the Christians of Iraq, two thirds of whom have fled their homeland fearing terrorist violence. The churches in Syria have been targeted for violence by both sides of the bloody civil war there. For millions of Christians around the world, the danger posed by enemies is real and often life threatening.
In a recent article published in the Christian Century Martin Tel, director of music at Princeton Theological Seminary, makes a strong case for congregational singing of the entire Psalter-the good, the bad and the ugly: “All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.” Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer cited in “Necessary Songs, The Christian Century, January 8, 2014 at p. 23. Our prayers are too often limited by the scope of our own experiences and frequently directed toward our own personal concerns and the concerns of those around us. The Psalter forces us to enter into the experiences and join the prayers of believers throughout the Body of Christ.
The last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” It is important to understand that biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
We began last week a journey into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that will take us through Epiphany. Sunday’s reading reveals that this is a church divided by several warring factions, each fiercely loyal to its chosen church leaders. Some are fans of Peter. Others favor Apollos and some are partisans of Paul. Some scholars maintain that these divisions reflect strife among the apostles of the early church. That might be so, but I think it more likely that these factions were citing their favorite Apostles much the same way partisans fire proof texts at each other from the Bible to further their own agendas. The teachings of the various Apostles are used as ammunition in the same way biblical texts are so often wretched out of context and made to support some unrelated ideology. In any event, Paul refuses to arbitrate these disputes. He offers not a straw even to his own supporters in the congregation. Instead, he points all of them to Christ Jesus. At the end of the day, we are not disciples of Paul or Peter or Luther or any other human figure. We are all fellow disciples of Jesus. One Body animated by the same Spirit-whether we like it or not.
“Cephas,” as we learned in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, is the Greek translation of “Peter.” Apollos was a Jewish disciple from Alexandria. His understanding of the good news about Jesus was evidently deficient in some respect. The Book of Acts tells us only that he “knew only the baptism of John.” Acts 18:25. In Ephesus he met Paul’s associates, Priscilla and Aquila who took him under their wing and instructed him further. Acts 18:24-28.
We will need to wait until next week to find out more about the “folly” and “weakness” of the cross Paul mentions at the end of the reading. Stay tuned!
As we have seen, Matthew is keen to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here he quotes our reading from Isaiah in which the prophet foretells the dawn of salvation under the messianic king beginning in Galilee. Not surprisingly, this is where Jesus’ ministry begins with the calling of his first disciples followed by a tour of preaching, healing and casting out demons. The long awaited day has dawned at last! No doubt Matthew’s Jewish audience was well aware that the verses cited by Matthew are a lead in for Isaiah’s announcement of the messianic king. Isaiah 9:6-7.
Jesus’ message is, on the surface, exactly the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Vs. 17 cf. Matthew 3:2. Yet unlike John whose baptism was anticipatory, Jesus’ ministry is accompanied by the healing power of God. What John foretold has now arrived. We can see in Jesus’ healing work echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6. Matthew means for us to understand that the advent of Jesus marks the beginning of a new era just as John marks the end of the old. He will elaborate further on this in Matthew 11:1-19.
The call of the disciples is related in a manner so brief that one could almost read over it. That would be a mistake. It is of profound significance that Jesus begins his ministry with the call of his first followers. Already the church is on the scene in embryotic form and its existence is presumed throughout the gospel narrative. It is important to keep that fact in mind, particularly as we enter into the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. They make no sense whatsoever unless we understand from the get go that they are intended to govern the living community of disciples who follow Jesus. They are not general ethical principles applicable to any individual or community. The Sermon is to be the shape of this newly birthed community which, in turn, is the shape of the kingdom of heaven drawing nigh.
The brevity of this account has always intrigued me. There is no indication that Jesus has ever met these four disciples before. Yet when he calls, they follow him without hesitation leaving all behind. I have heard more than a few preachers suggest that the four fishermen must have known Jesus beforehand, heard his preaching and been impressed with his message. That is why they jumped at the chance to follow him. But that isn’t how Matthew tells the story and I am always suspicious of attempts to read more into the text in order to make it easier to understand and digest. As Matthew tells it, there is something so interesting, so compelling and winsome about Jesus that you just can’t refuse his call. What was it? Or more to the point, what is it about Jesus that draws people and how does his church reflect it?
As much as I love every church I have ever belonged to, I am not sure we reflect that bold, exciting, interesting and controversial person that is Jesus. To children, we too often portray Jesus as a schoolmarm on steroids preaching morals and good behavior. To adults we portray him as, at worst, a stern moral judge. At best, we portray him as a sorrowful, soft eyed parent who, though forgiving, is nevertheless perpetually disappointed in our shortcomings. The church comes across as yet another civic organization making demands on our overloaded schedules and over extended finances. Is it any wonder nobody is interested?
Yes, I know. There is more to these churches than meets the eye. They are faith communities in which the Spirit is at work doing marvelous things. But for some reason, we are not getting that message across. We succumb to the consumer culture marketing church membership-a product nobody is looking for anymore. There is nothing you can get at church that somebody else can’t provide-except Jesus. So it looks as though we are going to have to speak less of our programs and activities and more about Jesus. That’s the only way people are going to be drawn into the net of God’s kingdom and caught up in the joy and excitement of discipleship.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Our gospel lesson for this coming Sunday follows an episode in which John the Baptist is interviewed aggressively by the religious authorities from Jerusalem. In response to persistent questions about his identity, John tells us a good deal more about who he is not than who he is. But John’s reticence evaporates when he “sees Jesus coming toward him.” Suddenly, John has plenty to say! He speaks at great length about what he has seen. John tells us that he “saw the spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.” He has “seen and borne witness” that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” How odd! How can you “see” the Spirit of God? What does the Spirit look like? How can you tell that the Spirit is “remaining” in any given space? Doesn’t Jesus tell us that the Spirit blows where she wills, that we hear the sound of her but know not where she comes from or where she is going? And what exactly did John the Baptist see to convince him that Jesus is the Lamb of God-whatever that might be? John doesn’t even try to explain himself. He simply points Jesus out to a couple of his disciples and says “Behold!” We don’t know what these two disciples saw in Jesus or understood about John’s witness. But what they saw and heard was enough to convince them to follow Jesus.
We put a lot of stock in our sense of sight. “Seeing is believing,” we are told. But our ability to process what we see is highly overrated. Study after study reveals that numerous factors influence both what we see and how we remember what we see. E.g. Lorenza, Sheena M., Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification, The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, vol. 6 (c. 2003 by Fisher Publications). Our brain does a good job of distorting our sight. When something we see does not fit with our internal narrative about the way things are, our brain “corrects” our vision. That is why proof reading your own work is so difficult. You know what is supposed to be on the page. For that reason, your brain fills in the missing comas, conjunctions and letters you inadvertently omitted from the text. You read right over your mistakes because you see what you know is supposed to be there instead of what is. That goes a long way toward explaining how racial stereotypes persist in spite of ample evidence debunking them, why we find ourselves judging people we have known for only seconds and why there are some people in our lives who take offense at everything we say, never appreciate anything we do for them and never respond to any friendly overtures. Once the mind is made up, the eye seems always to follow suit. Thus, you can have 20/20 vision and still be blind.
We would all like to believe in a world where the truth is crystal clear, where the line between good and evil is stark and plain, where everyone we meet falls into recognizable categories. I suspect that is why the press is one of our most hated institutions among people of nearly all ideological persuasions. A good reporter uncovers facts that expose the errors in our scripts, blur the distinctions we use to make sense out of our chaotic existence and present to us a world that is nuanced, complex and too big to fit into our religious, political, ideological paradigms. Contrary to our modernist creed, we are not rational beings. Neither are we capable of “objectivity.” We believe what we want to believe and the facts (at least the discomforting ones) be damned. Anyone who has ever had the unpleasant task of arguing with a racist (or “white nationalist” as they like to be called these days) knows what I am talking about. As Simon & Garfunkel so aptly put it, “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.” Perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe you can’t see truly until you believe truly.
From the very beginning, John’s gospel provokes us to question everything we think we see and know. In these opening verses from our gospel lesson, John propounds mysteries that will deepen and unfold as his narrative builds. There are “signs” in Jesus’ ministry that are more suggestive than definitive. Every time we think we have a fix on Jesus, he eludes our conceptual grasp and coaxes us deeper into the riddle of his identity. At the conclusion of the gospel, we find the disciples as confused and directionless as ever. Even after witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, receiving the breath of his Spirit and being sent out into the world by him as he was sent by the Father, they still can find nothing better to do with their lives than go fishing. But Jesus will not let them be. He appears one last time, calling them to leave behind the last ties to life as they once knew it and follow him. In the end, there really is no faithful response to Jesus other than to inhale the Spirit he breaths upon us and follow him deeper into the Trinitarian mystery of love between the Father and the Son. In the process, we discover the poverty of our vision, unlearn all that we thought we knew and so begin at last to see with new eyes.
“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud in this darkness. And if thou wilt busily travail as I bid thee, I trust in His mercy that thou shalt come thereto.” The Cloud of Unknowing, (an anonymous 14th Century English monk’s sublime expression of contemplative discipleship).
Here is a poem about the frailty of sight and the power of vision.
My vision isn’t what it used to be.
Time was when I could read signs
A quarter mile up the road.
I could make out the tree line
On mountain ranges, mark
The glacial frontier and the
Divide between ice and ice cold stone
With surgical precision and
Rock solid certainty.
Today, without specs,
I can barely discern the signs
In front of my face and wonder even so
If there is anything on them to be read.
Field and forest, ice and stone
All blend together into one
As life into death and I’ll be damned
If I can tell them apart from where I stand.
I squint at the horizon for signs of contrast,
Shape and defining form
But see only the blur of connectedness as,
It seems, did the great Monet in his declining years.
Yet lacking clarity, perhaps we see the more truly.
Once again the reading in Isaiah is taken from the second section of the book (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. For more specifics, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. This is the second of four “servant songs” in which the prophet sings both of his own calling and struggles and, more widely, of Israel’s calling to be God’s light to the nations. For a more thorough discussion of the “servant songs,” see my post of January 8th. As I noted last week, it is not always easy to discern where the prophet is speaking of himself and where he is speaking of Israel as a whole. For example, the Lord declares, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations.” Vs. 6. It seems likely that the prophet himself is the person addressed since he ministers to Israel. Most commentators seem to follow this view. I believe it is also possible, however, that the word is addressed to the Babylonian exiles whose return and restoration of Jerusalem will rally the “preserved of Israel” and so constitute a light to the nations. Again, these different interpretations are really a matter of emphasis. The prophet’s mission is inextricably bound up with that of Israel to the nations.
The first verse lets us know that the song as a whole is addressed to the nations: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and harken, you peoples from afar.” Vs.. 1. There are three stages of development according to Hebrew scriptural scholar Claus Westermann: 1) the election, call and equipment of the servant; 2) the servant’s despondency as a result of his perceived failure; 3) the servant’s new (or perhaps better understood) task. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66 (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 207. To the nations the prophet declares that he has been called to serve Israel’s God and Israel whose mission is to “glorify” God. Vs 3. Once again, the line between the identity and mission of the servant and that of Israel is necessarily blurry. The prophet/Israel is despondent because his life’s work/Israel’s history seems to have been in vain. Vs. 4. So far from glorifying God, Israel has become a despised refugee minority from a fallen nation.
In verse 5 the mood changes with the words “and now.” Though called to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, such a calling is “to light a thing” for the servant. God declares that the servant will henceforth be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Vs. 6. Verse 7 does not appear to be part of the song set forth in verses 1-6. But it follows naturally from the servant song nonetheless. Though now deeply despised, ruled by foreign powers and oppressed, the day will come when “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Vs. 7. Though perhaps uttered at an earlier time in more vindictive tones, within the present cannon this verse serves to emphasize how the servant’s and Israel’s faithful suffering obedience will finally bring the nations to their knees in adoration of Israel’s just and merciful God.
This and the other servant songs at Isaiah 42:1–9 Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 have been central to New Testament thinking about Jesus and his mission. It bears repeating that the biblical witness to peace and non-violence did not begin with Jesus. Note well how the prophet speaks of his/her call. God has made the prophet “a sharp sword” and a “polished arrow.” Vs. 2. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God’s weapon is God’s word, God’s voice, God’s speech. It is finally through persuasion that God reigns over humanity. Persuasion takes time, patience and a willingness to experience your efforts as “nothing and vanity.” Vs. 4. The way of the prophet foregoes coercion and the use of force. Such faithful suffering witness to God’s reign is, to use St. Paul’s words, foolishness. More precisely, it is the “foolishness of God.” I Corinthians 1:25. Yet this “foolishness of God” is wiser than human wisdom that seeks results, demands progress and resorts to any means to achieve what it views as the right end.
The lectionary folks might arguably have gotten it right in halving this psalm had they ended with verse 10 instead of verse 11. Verses 13-17 of the psalm are found nearly verbatim in Psalm 70. Thus, it appears as though Psalm 40 is a composite of at least two originally separate psalms. Verses 11-12 serve as a bridge linking together verses 1-10 and verses 13-17 into a single coherent prayer. For reasons I despair of ever understanding, the lectionary planners walked halfway across the bridge and stopped short. On the whole, I would have recommended including the entire psalm. It is important to understand that the psalmist uttering the words of praise in our reading is actually encompassed in “evils without number;” that his/her “iniquities have overtaken” him/her; that his/her heart fails him/her. The high praises for God’s past faithfulness and deliverance are thus a preface to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance.
Immature faith naively assumes that trust in God shields the believer from all harm. Growing faith laments, having discovered that covenant life with God sometimes plunges one into the depths of despair. Mature faith recognizes that evidence of God’s faithful intervention and salvation in one’s life stand side by side with indications of God’s absence. Neither praise nor lament can be permitted to exist exclusive of its seeming opposite. At all times both are called for. As Alfred North Whitehead has said, “the fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality-an Essay in Cosmology, (c. 1978 The Free Press) p. 338. This psalm binds both praise and lament together in a mature expression of faith in time of crisis. Though faced with numerous threats and challenges and seeing no obvious way out, the psalmist boldly cries out to God having recited God’s faithfulness to him/her throughout his/her life. I therefore recommend reading Psalm 40 in its entirety.
The reading is from the opening lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. It constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style, beginning with the name of the sender. That is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, the recipient would not know the identity of the sender until s/he had read the entire letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader knows from the start the audience being addressed.
Though clearly the work of St. Paul, the letter is also from Sosthenes “our brother.” He is not mentioned at any other point by Paul. Some scholars suggest that he might be identified with the Sosthenes who, according to Acts 18:17, was chief of the synagogue at Corinth when Paul was arrested there. While possible, there is no textual evidence for this assertion beyond the name which appears to have been a common one. As in his other letters, Paul introduces himself as an Apostle called by God. The body of the letter will demonstrate that some in the Corinthian church had been comparing Paul’s apostleship and teaching authority unfavorably to other church leaders. Paul is laying the groundwork for the defense of his apostleship to be set forth more particularly in I Corinthians 15:3-11.
As usual, Paul begins his letter with an expression of thanksgiving for the church to which he writes. He also expresses confidence that the testimony of Christ has been so confirmed within the Corinthian congregation that it lacks no spiritual gift necessary to sustain it until “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 7. Paul’s confidence is based in God’s faithfulness as indeed it must. For as we discover upon further reading, the faithfulness of the Corinthian church was more than a little shaky.
It is worth noting that Paul routinely gives thanks for his churches-even a church as compromised as the Corinthian church with all of its personality conflicts, doctrinal disputes and moral lapses. In my view, clergy often do entirely too much complaining about their churches and the church at large. True, the church is far from perfect. Yet it is worth remembering that Paul could say even of this dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Note that he does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ;” or “If only you could get your act together you might someday be the Body of Christ.” He says of this church “you are.” That is already enough reason to give thanks.
In this reading John the Baptist, who in previous verses has been reticent about his own identity and mission, now becomes quite vocal and explicit in testifying to Jesus. As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out, John unfolds through the speech of the Baptist a whole Christology. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one and the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel of John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29 (c. Doubleday, 1966) p. 58. The reading opens with what Brown identifies as an “encounter formula” frequently employed in the Book of Revelation substantially related to the Johannine literature. A messenger of God sees a person and says “Look” or “behold” followed by a description in which the seer reveals the mystery of the person’s mission. Ibid. A similar instance of this formula is found later in vss. 35-37. The construction has roots in the Old Testament as well. (See, e.g., I Samuel 9:17).
There has been much discussion over what is meant by the term “Lamb of God.” Many scholars argue that the meaning is grounded in a Jewish understanding of the lamb as a heroic figure who will destroy evil in the world. This meaning fits well with the synoptic depiction of John the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher of judgment and with the imagery employed by John of Patmos in Revelation. It does not fit quite so well, however, with John’s depiction of the Baptist chiefly as a witness to Jesus. Other New Testament scholars believe that John’s testimony was shaped by an understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant depicted in the “servant songs” discussed above. Especially pertinent is the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) in which the prophet states that “[The servant] opened not his mouth, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers.” Isaiah 53:7. This argument assumes that John (the author of the Gospel) made the connection between these prophetic oracles and the story of Jesus. Although specific textual evidence is sparse for such an assertion, many of John’s allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures are intentionally more suggestive than explicit.
Some scholars favor identifying the Lamb of God with the Passover lamb. As Brown points out, the Western Fathers favored this interpretation. Ibid, p. 61. In favor of this interpretation, the Passover lamb is a central symbol in Israelite worship, whereas in the servant songs the lamb is but one isolated image. Passover symbolism is common throughout the Gospel of John. The slaying of the paschal lamb and its protective blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites fits well into the parallel between Jesus’ mission and the Exodus narrative. The problem arises with what follows, namely, that the Lamb of God is to take away the sin of the world. The Passover lamb was not understood as a sin offering and thus the shedding of its blood cannot be construed as making atonement for sin.
I tend favor the apocalyptic interpretation as most consistent with the Johannine tradition over all. Nevertheless, I believe that the suffering servant theme and the Passover tradition are also instructive and very much in the consciousness of the gospel writers. The fact that Jesus was crucified (according to John’s Gospel) the day before Passover at just the time when the Passover lambs would have been slain in preparation for the meal is suggestive. It seems to me that the death of the Passover lamb that shielded Israel from destruction is not so very inconsistent with the death of the servant in Isaiah whose ministry took the shape of suffering. Nor are these understandings inconsistent with the slain Lamb of God in Revelation who nonetheless is the only one mighty enough to open the seals to God’s future. Revelation 5:1-10.
Finally, we have the call of the first disciples. Two disciples of John the Baptist, one of which was Andrew the brother of Peter, follow Jesus in response to John’s testimony. They ask Jesus where he is staying and they wind up going to Jesus’ place of abode and “remaining” with him. Recall that beforehand John reported that he knew Jesus was the Lamb of God because he saw that the Spirit “remained with him.” The Greek word in both cases is the same and seems to indicate that, just as the Spirit remains or abides with Jesus, so Jesus’ disciples abide with him. Through him they will also have access to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus will make that very point later on when he tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Again, the word translated as “abide,” is the same word translated as “remain” in our lesson. Abiding in Jesus seems to be all important. Perhaps that is why John’s gospel ends the way the Synoptics begin: with the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. See John 21:15-22.
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be your daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The gospels all grapple with one single issue: the identity of Jesus. In his own words, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” What the gospels give us is less a definitive answer than the parameters within and the springboard from which the church must struggle until the end of time with the same question. The Creeds of the church likewise do not end the inquiry, but rather mark decisive turning points along the way in our journey toward that time when, as Paul puts it, “we will know as we are known.”
Certain formulations of the church’s past understandings about Jesus were decisively rejected at Nicaea and Chalcedon while other formulations were recognized as faithful and true. These landmark confessions guard against our slipping back into inaccurate, incomplete and misleading formulations of the faith, but they do not finally answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the norming authority of Scripture and in accord with the ecumenical Creeds, the church in every age must continue to articulate its teaching and shape its practices toward a deeper faith in Jesus and an ever more faithful witness to his saving work among us.
There has never been an age in the life of the church when the importance of Jesus’ identity was more critical than our own. This is so because the identity of Jesus in the United States has been hijacked by a contingent of largely white and largely male adherents to a deviant and truncated iteration of Christianity aligned with the ugliest manifestations of nationalism, racism, patriarchy and homophobia. It is maddening to hear the media regularly employing terms like “Christian” and “Evangelical” when referring solely to this narrow demographic. Rest assured (I find myself repeating to so many people whose perceptions of the church have been shaped by this vocal minority), the vile hate speech spewing from the likes of Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee and James Dobson does not represent the preaching and teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to which I belong. We confess Jesus, the Son of the God who chose two nationless nomads to found a nation of blessing; the God who chose as his people a band of landless slaves over the powerful empires sparing for control of the earth. This God says of Jesus, “this is my beloved Son. With him I am pleased.” We follow this Jesus who didn’t have a single encouraging word for people who amass wealth nor a judgmental word to speak against the poor; who rejected family values over kingdom values; who associated himself throughout his ministry with people branded “sinners” by the “moral;” who was killed because he proclaimed the coming reign of God in which the wealthy and powerful will be toppled from their thrones and their wealth redistributed. Jesus staked his life on the coming reign of God and lost it in the process. He loved the world that much-all of it.
Now I hasten to add that we Lutherans have not been stellar examples of the Christ we proclaim. We are one of the whitest churches ever to thrive in the midst of this diverse culture growing on American soil. We have been shamefully slow to name the sins of racism and sexism among us. We have stumbled awkwardly and slowly toward recognizing and welcoming our LGBT members and the gifts they bring to our life and ministry. We are materialistic, institutionally entangled with systemic injustice, infatuated with worldly power and sadly lacking in spiritual vibrancy. Yet for all of our failures, we are at least failing in the right things. We are failed disciples of Jesus, but our failures at least testify to what we are striving to become. The worst football team in the league might be playing poorly and losing every game, but at least it is playing the game. Incompetent and inept as the players might be, they know what good football is supposed to look like and they are trying to get there. Their failures testify to what they know they should be and the game they are trying to play well.
I can’t say how successful these so-called “evangelicals” are in their game because I don’t know what game they are playing. All I can say is that it looks nothing like discipleship. Trash talking the poor, glorifying wealth, preaching hate against perceived “sinners,” advocating fear and distrust of people who are different and dealing with enemies by means of brute military force sounds nothing like the Jesus we meet in the New Testament and it certainly doesn’t sound like “good news” (the root meaning of “evangelical”). Whatever this game of theirs might be, it isn’t discipleship and it’s high time the rest of us under the “Christian” umbrella called them on it. Jesus is not the poster boy for white privilege, late stage capitalistic wealth accumulation, nationalism, bullying, sexism and discrimination. He is the friend of sinners, outcasts and what our culture regards as “the least” among us. He is the Son of our God who came to save, not condemn the world. What we say about Jesus is important. In fact, it is the most important issue we have to talk about and struggle with.Here is a poem in which Marcus Wicker struggles with the identity of Jesus.
Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
—1 Corinthians 12:13
If in his image made am I, then make me a miracle.
Make my shrine a copper faucet leaking everlasting Evian to the masses.
Make this empty water glass a goblet of long-legged French wine.
Make mine a Prince-purple body bag designed by Crown Royal
for tax collectors to spill over & tithe into just before I rise.
If in his image made am I, then make my vessel a pearl Coupe de Ville.
Make mine the body of a 28-year-old black woman
in a blue patterned maxi dress cruising through Hell on Earth, TX
again alive. If in his image made are we, then why
the endless string of effigies?
Why so many mortal blasphemes?
Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied
to a clothesline of broken necks long as Time?
Is this thing on? Jesus on the ground. Jesus in the margins.
Of hurricane & sea. Jesus of busted levees in chocolate cities.
Jesus of the Middle East (Africa) & crows flying backwards.
Of blood, on the leaves, inside diamond mines, in under-
developed mineral-rich countries. If in your image made are we,
the proliferation of your tie-dyed hippie doppelgänger
makes you easier to daily see. & in this image didn’t we make
the godhead, slightly stony, high enough to surf a cloud?
& didn’t we leave you there, where, surely, paradise or
justice must be meted out? Couldn’t we see where water takes
the form of whatever most holds it upright? If then this
is what it’s come down to. My faith, in rifle shells.
In Glock 22 magazine sleeves. Isn’t it also then how, why,
in a bucket shot full of holes, I’ve been made to believe?
Source, Poetry (December 2016) Marcus Wicker was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1984. He is the poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review and serves as director of the New Harmony Writers Workshop. Wicker is currently an assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana. You can find out more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Verses 1-4 constitute the first of four “servant songs” found in the second of three major sections of Isaiah. See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. The other three servant songs are found at Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. This section (Isaiah 40-55), you may recall, is attributed to an unnamed prophet who lived among the Babylonian exiles during the 6th Century. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. The servant and the servant people are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
There is an interesting contrast here between the conquering Cyrus (referred to as God’s “anointed” or “messiah.” Isaiah 45:1) before whom God “breaks in pieces the doors of bronze” and the servant who will not break a “bruised reed” or extinguish a “dimly burning wick.” Vs. 3. To be sure, God turns Cyrus (and all nations) to God’s own redemptive purposes. But they have no knowledge or understanding of these purposes. As far as they know, they are simply pursuing their own national interests. In the end, it is not the might of Cyrus, but the quiet and faithful servant who will “bring forth justice.” The servant will accomplish this through his humble ministry of healing and compassion. It bears repeating that the witness of non-violence and redemption through peacemaking do not begin with Jesus. While the Hebrew Scriptures reflect the cruelty and violence of the cultures in which they were composed, these harsh realities serve merely as a backdrop for the peaceful reign of God to which they testify.
The messiah will not be “discouraged.” Vs. 4. The task of “establishing justice in the earth” though forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking requires much patience. That is a quality sorely lacking in human nature generally. We want justice now. We want peace in our time. Oddly, it is often our impatient longing for peace and justice that leads us down the false path of violence. In the face of tyranny, injustice and oppression, violence promises a swift solution. Kill the enemy. Overthrow the “axis of evil.” Fight fire with fire. In reality, however, the victory obtained by violence only sows the seeds of future violence. Yesterday’s “freedom fighters” armed to undermine Soviet power are today’s terrorists against whom we are told we must also fight. Efforts to destroy these new enemies are building up resentment in an upcoming generation of Afghan and Pakistani youths. We are merely sowing for our children a new crop of enemies that may well prove more threatening still. The “short cut” to peace and justice violence promises leads finally into a vortex of hate, breeding more and more violence and destruction.
As long as peace and justice remain abstract nouns, concepts or ideals to be achieved, they will remain forever beyond our reach. Jesus does not promise a way to peace and justice. He calls us to live justly and peacefully. It is through communities that embody the heart of God revealed in Jesus that God’s justice and peace are offered to the world. That is a hard word for impatient people who become discouraged when they cannot see measurable results from their life’s work. Disciples of Jesus know, however, that there are no shortcuts to the kingdom of God. The cross is the only way. It is a hard, slow and painful way. But it is the one sure way. That is what makes it such an incredibly joyful way.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther was said to compose hymns from drinking songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of tragic, large scale weather events. Did God send this week’s blizzards and brutal cold over the country or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it more comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a tornado to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-places where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
Acceptance of gentiles into the church was a contentious issue. Peter’s vision related in Acts 10:1-16 reflects the inner struggle of the deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jews, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving these outsiders into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman, an oppressor of Israel to eat his unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Peter had to give up his long held interpretation of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be.
This story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47.
The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist has always been a subject of dispute among New Testament scholars. About all they can seem to agree upon is the fact that Jesus was baptized by John. Knowing as little as we do about John the Baptist and what his ministry represented, that isn’t much to go on. How did John understand his own role? The New Testament portrays him as Jesus’ forerunner, but did he see himself that way? It seems obvious to me that John saw himself as the forerunner of somebody. The gospels all agree on this point and, unless one rejects the gospel narratives as reliable information about John (some biblical scholars have), then it seems that John understood his baptism as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew very explicitly identifies John’s ministry with the return of Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5. see Matthew 17:9-13. Knowing what we do about the fate of John, this revelation can only alert us to the reception the Messiah will finally receive at the hands of Rome and the religious leadership in Jerusalem.
The larger question is: Why would Jesus seek out and submit to a baptism of repentance? Mark and Luke see no need to deal with this obvious question. The Gospel of John does not specifically state the Jesus was baptized by John, only that John bears witness to Jesus. Matthew, by contrast, puts into the mouth of John himself the question we must all be asking. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” vs. 14. Jesus’ response is that his receipt of John’s baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” But does that explain why Jesus would need a baptism of repentance? I suppose that depends on how you understand the word “repent.” Literally, the Greek word means to turn around or go in a new direction. In the New Testament context, the term means turning toward God and God’s will. For sinful human beings, that necessarily means turning away from sin. But for Jesus, the sinless Son of God, it means simply to turn toward God. That is not to say that Jesus ever was turned away from God, but merely that Jesus’ turning toward God is much the same as his being “eternally begotten of the Father.” As the obedient Son, Jesus is always turning toward God. Only as the Word becomes incarnate and becomes flesh (to borrow John’s language) does this turning appear as a discrete act rather than an intrinsic and essential aspect of his being. So understood, Jesus’ baptism into the body of people prepared by John for the coming of the Messiah is but another step in his messianic mission of drawing that body into the Kingdom of Heaven.
“This fulfilling takes place in the adoption of baptism: in that the Messianic judge of the worlds and the Messianic baptizer himself becomes a candidate for baptism, humbles himself and enters the ranks of sinners. By this means he fulfils ‘all righteousness.’” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” printed in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. SCM Press Ltd 1963) p. 138. It is important to recognize that for both John and Jesus, righteousness has nothing to do with adherence to an objective moral code and everything to do with being rightly related to God and to neighbor. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew-A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 154. That is not to say, of course, that the law has no importance for Matthew. To the contrary, Matthew more than any of the other gospel writers emphasizes Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, no part of which can be set aside as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:17-18. Yet for this very reason righteousness must grow not out of slavish obedience to the letter of the law, but out of faithfulness to Jesus. The latter righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law as demonstrated by the Sermon on the Mount.
This gospel lesson is rich with references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The declaration of the divine voice is almost a direct quote from Psalm 2:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
Psalm 2:7-9. Matthew’s allusion to this psalm reflects his conviction that Jesus is indeed Israel’s king. Yet this declaration must be juxtaposed to the so called “king of the Jews” we have already met, namely, Herod. The coronation of Jesus at his baptism signals a new kind of king that exercises a very different sort of power and calls us into a kingdom radically different from any nation or kingdom the world has ever known.
More distant scriptural echoes are heard in the creation out of the watery chaos in Genesis 1:1-2; the liberation of Israel from slavery into freedom by passage through the Red Sea. Exodus 14:1-15:2. Matthew means to let us know that, although Jesus is by every measure the king that was David, the teacher that was Moses and the prophet that was Elijah, he is much more. The presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters of the Jordan into which Jesus enters and emerges testifies that God is doing something altogether new here. In the words of Stan Hauerwas, “Jesus is unleashed into the world. His mission will not be easy, for the kingdom inaugurated by his life and death is not one that can be recognized on the world’s terms. He is the beloved Son who must undergo the terror produced by our presumption that we are our own creators. He submits to John’s baptism just as he will submit to the crucifixion so that we might know how God would rule the world. His journey begins. Matthew would have us follow.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 49.