Archive for June, 2017
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The longer I live, the more I learn and the wider I read, I become increasingly convinced that prophecy, biblically understood, has a good deal more in common with fiction, poetry, music and the graphic arts than with systematic theology. Prophecy employs symbols and allusions enabling us to see the big picture. It appeals less to our intellect and more to our imagination. Like the parables of Jesus, prophecy comes through the back door of our consciousness and shatters our strongest beliefs and convictions through which we filter what we see and hear. That, in turn, allows us to see and perceive in a new way.
Prophecy helps us make sense of the world and the way we experience it. Like art, prophecy is often disturbing, upsetting and even offensive. The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem stark naked to bring home the tragic fate of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom already themselves paraded naked into exile by the Assyrians. This served to evoke compassion for these unfortunate kin and bring home the threat of a similar judgment against the people of Jerusalem. The prophet Ezekiel portrays Israel’s faithlessness in a graphic poetic fable about an unfaithful bride using imagery we would surely consider obscene. In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah wears a yolk upon his neck to illustrate God’s placement of Babylon over Judah as punishment for her sin and to warn the people against the futility of rebellion.
But just as art, literature and music can be employed to spread propaganda, so prophecy can lie. False prophets can induce us to consume lies and trust false promises. They can trick us into accepting “alternative facts” and embracing false narratives. False prophecy gains traction because it helps us make sense out of what otherwise seems incomprehensible. It fixates blame on others instead of encouraging introspection and repentance. It’s no wonder I can’t get a decent job when illegal immigrants are flooding across the border to take the few jobs that have not been shipped overseas. Of course morals are in rapid decline. What can you expect when our universities are staffed by America hating, God denying scientists who teach our young people that we all came from a bunch of monkeys? There is a perverse comfort in believing that one’s life is miserable because there are malicious forces at work in the depths of the “deep state” manipulating the economy, the job market and the media in order to make it that way. If these narratives offer nothing in the way of hope, they at least relieve one from having to take responsibility for one’s own life and give one a target against which to vent.
False prophecy points the finger of blame and shifts responsibility for change away from where it needs to begin. The false prophet blames outsiders for our problems. True prophets invite us to examine ourselves to discover the sin at the source of our misery. False prophets insist that we are miserable because the world is such a miserable place. True prophets insist that the world suffers because we are so bent on having our own way. False prophets comfort us with easy lies and pamper our inclination to self-pity. True prophets open our eyes to the very real opportunities we have for change, repentance and faith.
There is no shortage of “prophets” these days purporting to tell us what God demands of Americans and how America figures into God’s will for the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows me with any regularity that I reject all claims of “American exceptionalism” and preaching that blends patriotism and white middle class morality with Christian faith. I must say that I am also skeptical of “progressive” equations of various social causes, however noble they may be, with the cause of the gospel. One should not say lightly those words, “Thus saith the Lord.” God’s ways are not our ways and God’s view of what constitutes progress in the grand scheme of things might not coincide with what we view as advantageous through the narrow lens of any current election cycle. A true prophet takes care not to say more than s/he knows.
True prophecy, like genuine art, stands the test of time. Jeremiah’s words were rejected in his own day and the nationalistic jingo of his opponent, Hananiah, was popularly received with great enthusiasm. Yet it was to the words of Jeremiah that the people turned during their long exile in Babylon. It was the prophecy of Jeremiah that helped Israel rise from the ashes of her darkest hour and find her way to a new day and a renewed community. Jeremiah’s words are preserved for us in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Hananiah’s words were ever even written down, they have long since perished in the dust bin of rightful neglect.
Here’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser speaking eloquently of genuine prophecy as “the song of the way in.”
THE WAY OUT
The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys. Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water; the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.
All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.
Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.
Music of those who have walked out of slavery.
Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.
Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.
Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.
Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
Barbarian music, a new song.
Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, (c. 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser, pub. by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Mureil Rukeyser (1913-1980) was an American poet and political activist. She is known for her poems about equality, feminism and social justice. Her poems were influenced by her roots in Judaism and contain numerous allusions to Hebrew scriptural and Talmudic themes. She grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Vassar College. She also attended Columbia University. Rukeyser is a recipient of Yale Younger Poets Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Levinson Prize and the Copernicus Prize. You can find out more about Muriel Rukeyser and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
Today’s lesson comes from a larger drama in the Book of Jeremiah that could be given the title, “The Dueling Prophets.” Unfortunately, you only get a little snippet of it in the reading. It all begins with God commanding Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Judah that God is about to bring the Kingdom of David and the Temple to an end by the hand of the King of Babylon whose armies are even now advancing upon Jerusalem. To make the point, Jeremiah is told to wear a yolk over his shoulders, the kind used for oxen. It is God who brings the yolk of Babylonian bondage upon Judah. To resist Babylon is to resist God. Jeremiah 27:1-11. You can imagine how that must have gone over. How would you like to be sent out to meet the Fourth of July parade with a yolk on your neck to tell everyone that God is about give victory in the war on terror to ISIS?
The drama unfolds in Jerusalem where the prophet Hananiah is rallying the people of the city behind the flag. “Salvation is on the way! The Lord is coming to the aid of his people just like he always has in the past! The Lord is coming to rescue Jerusalem! The Lord is coming to save his people! The Lord is coming to whoop those “Babliofascists,” that terrorist scum and give victory to Israel! Within two years we are going to see all the treasures taken from us by the Babylonians returned. We are going to see freedom! We are going to see peace! Do I hear an ‘Amen.’?” (Paraphrase of Jeremiah 28:1-4) “Amen” shouts a voice from the midst of the cheering crowd. Everyone turns to see the prophet Jeremiah-wearing his yolk. “Amen!” shouts Jeremiah. “I hope you are right Hananiah. I hope everything you say comes true. Nothing would make me happier than to be dead wrong about everything I have said. But this is much bigger than you and me, Hananiah. This is much more important than who is right and who is wrong. The question here is, ‘What is the word of the Lord for us this day?’ Don’t forget,” says Jeremiah to Hananiah, “there have been prophets before you and me. Not all of them prophesied salvation. Some foretold disaster and destruction. Remember Elijah, remember Amos, remember Micah who once prophesied that this very city would be laid bare as a mown field. Time will tell what the word of the Lord is, who proclaimed it and who received it faithfully.” (Paraphrase of Vss. 5-9). So ends the lectionary reading, but not the story. Next Hananiah, in a dramatic and brilliant show of oratory, jumps down from the podium, breaks in two the yolk off of Jeremiah’s neck and cries out, “So shall the Lord break the yolk of Babylon from the neck of his people.” Jeremiah 28:10-11. The crowd roars its approval and Jeremiah goes his way. He lost the duel.
It is easy for us two and one half millennia later to recognize Jeremiah as the genuine prophet. But what if instead of being here today, you were among that crowd in Jerusalem at the outbreak of war? Who would you believe? Both prophets have biblical precedent on their side. Hananiah could point to the Assyrian invasion of only a century before. Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria swept down and conquered every nation in Palestine, and most of Judah. Only Jerusalem remained standing-with what was left of Judah’s defeated army cowering behind its walls. God sent an angel of the Lord to slay the Assyrian army during the night and Sennacherib was forced to retreat. Jerusalem was saved against all odds. See II Kings 18:13-19:37. If God could do it then, God can do it now.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, could point to the time of the Judges when the Israelite army, facing an attack by the Philistines, went to the Tabernacle at Shiloh and took the Ark of the Covenant, thinking that God would never let them be defeated if it meant that the Ark would be captured. But God is not one to be manipulated by lucky charms. God handed Israel a defeat and, in fact, permitted the Ark to be taken captive. I Samuel 4. So also, argued Jeremiah, don’t think you can oppress the poor among you, worship idols, ignore the commandments and then go running into the Temple like a band of fugitives from justice to escape the consequences of your deeds. God values holy hearts over holy places. God did not spare the Tabernacle in Shiloh, God will not spare the Temple in Jerusalem either.
So we have two prophets. Both are speaking in the name of the God of Israel. Both have a word consistent with the Bible, but each has a very different message. How can we know which one is speaking the word of the Lord for this people at this time? I wish I had an easy answer for that one, but I don’t. I am not aware of any definitive test that will distinguish between true prophecy and false prophecy. But here are a few observations that might help. First, prophecy is not all about the future. Rather, it is a word that helps us understand what is taking place here and now. For the people of Jeremiah’s time, the big event was the Babylonian invasion. What does it mean? How would God have us respond? What is God’s word to us now? Which scripture speaks to this circumstance?
Second, true prophecy is tempered by humility. If you read further into the story you will find Jeremiah confronting Hananiah again-not in public this time but alone. “And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, ‘Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.’” Jeremiah 28:15-16. I don’t know what to make of that except this: You better be careful what you say after the words, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”
Feminist reformer Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” I think Ms. Anthony is onto something here. I am afraid we are far too confident these days in our beliefs about what God wills, what God is for and what God is against. That goes as much for mainline “advocacy” as it does for right wing efforts to make government strengthen and preserve family values. If Roberta Combs’ Jesus looks suspiciously similar to Ronald Regan, ours sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to Fritz Mondale. When I see churches and individual congregations neatly split along the lines of “red” and “blue,” it is hard not to conclude that we have become proxies in the so called “culture wars” and that our ministries are driven less by theological conviction than ideological prejudices.
That is the difference between Jeremiah and Hananiah. Jeremiah was prepared to admit that he might after all be mistaken, that he might have misunderstood God’s word and that he might need to listen more closely to that word. By contrast, Hananiah knew he was right, was sure he had the truth and therefore felt entirely justified in shouting Jeremiah down. Arrogance is the surest mark both of a weak mind and a false prophet.
This is a royal psalm celebrating God’s salvation as mediated through God’s covenant with David. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 89 in its entirety. It is divided into three sections: 1) vss 5-18 assert God’s power as creator and ruler of the world and expresses the blessedness of Israel as God’s people; 2) vss 19-37 describe the covenant God makes with the house of David; 3) vss 38-51 describe a severe defeat for the house of David and a prayer that God will soon act to restore it. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 188. Vs. 52 is a doxology closing the third book within the psalms (Psalms 72-89) rather than a part of psalm 89.
Scholars are not in agreement over the event giving rise to the third section of this psalm dealing with the monarchy’s defeat. Because the monarchy was brought to an end by the Babylonian invasion of 587, it is unlikely the subject of the psalm, particularly as it is spoken by a king who, though defeated and humiliated, remains on the thrown. Some biblical commentators suggest that the reference might refer to the Assyrian crisis of a century earlier, but there is not enough specificity to assign these verses with certainty to any known historical period or event.
Although it celebrates God’s covenant with David as God’s saving act, the psalm acknowledges that the true sovereign of all the earth is God Himself. Vs. 18. God makes a “covenant” with David. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is clearly the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection and eternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. This is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from the God of Israel to David and his line.
The Davidic covenant was not universally recognized in Israel as was the covenant made at Sinai. Sinai was definitive both for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms drew from the traditions growing out of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of Canaan. The David tradition belonged uniquely to the Southern Kingdom of Judah that was ruled by one of David’s descendants from its inception around 1000 B.C.E. until Judah’s final destruction in 587 B.C.E. For Judah, the rise of the Davidic Monarchy represented another of God’s saving acts, solidifying the twelve tribes and uniting them against their many enemies. Chief among these foes were the Philistine peoples whose professional armies and superior Iron Age technology gave them a significant military advantage over the loose confederation of Israelite tribes and their largely volunteer defenders. David’s political skills and his use of mercenaries to lead his armies transformed Israel into a formidable nation state.
But Israel’s view of the Davidic Monarchy was always conflicted. Doubts about the advisability of monarchy in general are reflected in I Samuel 8 where Samuel warns the people that the security promised through the reign of a king will come at the cost of taxation, oppression and military conscription. These very evils came to fruition under the monarchy and were severely denounced by the prophets. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we find denunciations of the monarchy and its abuses alongside expressions of hope for a messianic descendent of David capable of delivering Israel from her enemies and ruling justly. This hope was burning with white hot fervor during the First Century in which Jesus lived and ministered. Nevertheless, beliefs about where the messiah would come from, what he would do to liberate Israel, how, when and where he would go about doing it were varied and conflicting. Not surprisingly, Jesus appeared reluctant to claim that title. Doing so would have invited a host of misunderstandings about his mission and ministry.
For my general reflections on the book of Romans and the introduction to this chapter, see last week’s post of June 25th. In Sunday’s reading Paul picks up where he left off last week. Again, he poses the rhetorical questions: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” vs. 15. As discussed last week, this conclusion follows only if we assume that sin is the mere breaking of law and that successfully following the law amounts to righteousness. As Paul has already pointed out, that assumption is altogether wrong. Sin is not a matter principally of wrong behavior, but of the self-centered orientation of the heart. Because we are incurably self-centered, we wind up bending the law to serve our own selfish objectives even when we keep it to the letter. This is what it means to be in bondage to sin.
Here we come up against the much maligned and misunderstood doctrine of the “bondage of the will.” Nowhere is the brutal reality of this bondage better portrayed than in Martin Luther’s book by that name. To sin or not to sin is not a choice. Sin is the bondage into which we are born. We can no more decide to be free from sin than we can decide no longer to be bound by the law of gravity. Just so, we cannot will ourselves to be obedient or faithful to God. Luther does not mean to say that we are altogether without the ability to make choices. We can, in fact, choose to marry or remain single; to study chemistry or pursue a law degree; put on the plain tie or the striped one. Indeed, we might even choose to put an end to war, eliminate hunger or stem the tide of pollution. Ironically, folks who chafe most insistently at the notion that we are unable to will obedience to God are usually the first to complain that ending war, hunger and carbon emissions are hugely complicated tasks, fraught with opposing political/economic interests and altogether “utopian.” Yet this world with all of its conflicts and challenges is precisely the arena in which the human will is free and enjoined to act. A clearer testament to the fall into sin you could not ask for: Human freedom extends to every corner of the garden but one-and that is exactly the corner in which human nature insists on exercising it to the neglect of everything else!
So, too, Paul points out that human freedom with respect to God is illusory. We are slaves either of God or sin and, of course, a slave is not free to choose its master! Nothing will change unless God acts to alter our bondage under sin. God has done just that in Jesus. In Jesus God puts an end to our bondage under sin and exercises mastery over us. Our legal status has changed fundamentally. We no longer owe anything to sin, but everything to God. This is not simply metaphysical slight-of-hand, a magic number for X that causes the algebraic equation to work out. Sin is inability to trust God and let God be God. God’s righteousness is God’s irrevocable determination to redeem creation and win back the trust of our unbelieving hearts. This righteousness, this determination of God to remain faithful to the covenant promises made to Israel for the sake of the world is not cheap. It comes at a great cost to God. It is because and only because God is faithful to the point of the cross that faith on our side is possible. Faith comes not from any decision on our part to be faithful, but from the wonderful proclamation that God is faithful. Nothing short of this good news of God’s righteousness, God’s determination to save-no matter the cost, can turn our suspicious and distrustful hearts toward faithful obedience.
Paul therefore never conceives of freedom in the abstract. Freedom is not an end in itself, nor can it be. As between God and sin, one of them must be our master. Sin is a ruthless master whose wages are death, but Jesus is a gentle master who gives life-not as a wage, but as a free gift. Vs. 23. In Christ we are thus set free “from” bondage to sin “for” bondage to God in Christ Jesus. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do whatever one desires, but the power to do that which is good and life giving. Freedom to sin is therefore an oxymoron. Such “freedom” is in reality the worst kind of bondage, leading invariably to death. Vss. 20-21.
This brief reading constitutes Jesus’ final words to his disciples before they embark on their mission of preaching, healing and casting out demons throughout Israel. Jesus impresses upon them the profound importance of their task. They are all of Jesus that many people will ever see. Acceptance of Jesus comes through acceptance of the disciples and their ministry. That is profoundly unsettling when one considers the degree to which the church persistently falls short of the community Jesus calls it to be. If the disciples had been exemplary saints with near superhuman goodness, we might despair of our own mission. But in all four of the gospels, we find disciples that mostly fail to comprehend the kingdom Jesus proclaims, mostly fail to be faithful precisely when faithfulness is critical and mostly fail to be the community united in love to which Jesus calls them. The church is at best a poor likeness of its Lord. Yet Jesus seems confident that his half-wit disciples will get it right. Ever so slightly more often than not, it seems they do.
The reading is also a reminder that the disciples’ mission depends upon the hospitality of those to whom they are sent. There is something beautiful about this arrangement. The mission of the disciples is not a one way transaction: “We are here to bring you the gospel. We are the helpers, you are the helped.” The disciples come to their audience with the most basic of needs; food and shelter. Just as they will call upon the villages to whom they have been sent to trust their proclamation of the kingdom and accept its gifts of healing and exorcism, so they must rely upon the kindness and generosity of their hearers. Naturally, then, the rewards of this mission also flow both ways. Not only are the disciples blessed, but also those who support them in their good work. Vs. 42.
This text is also a reminder to me of the hospitality I experience each day of my life. Every week between 25 and 40 people gather to listen to me talk. How many friends do you have who would put up with that? That people are willing to give us pastors an hour of their time to listen is already a huge act of hospitality. Moreover, I am surrounded by people who give of their time, their incomes and their prayers to ensure that the work I do goes on. After almost nine years, these folks know my shortcomings, my flaws and my failures. Yet hardly a day goes by without a word of encouragement, a prayer for support or some random act of kindness. Yes, I know how difficult life in the church can be and I spoke about that last week. I know all about “clergy killers” and “alligators.” Some days we need to take more than our share of aggression. “Into each life some rain must fall.” But let’s not choke to death on the camel while trying to strain out the gnat. We preachers have received an enormous helping of hospitality from the people we serve. They are deserving of our thanks and recognition.
“He is a lovable man, and loves also learning when he finds it in other people.”
Patriarch Timothy of Baghdad speaking of Caliph Mahdi, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate. Coakley, John W. & Sterk, Andrea, Readings in World Christian History, Volume I (Orbis Books 4th ed. 2007), p. 231.
The Abbasid caliphate was founded by descendants of the prophet Muhammad’s youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. Its capital was established at Baghdad in 762 C.E. and it flourished for two centuries thereafter. Timothy was patriarch of the Persian Church of the East. He moved his residence to Bagdad shortly after Mahadi became caliph. The two leaders appear to have been good friends who conferred together frequently over affairs of state and engaged in theological discussions as well. We know all of this because Timothy wrote and circulated an account of one of these interchanges between them that has been preserved to this day. That account documents a lengthy discussion between Timothy and Mahadi about the nature of God from the perspective of the Gospels and the Koran. Mahadi is particularly perplexed about the doctrine of the Trinity and cannot understand how Christians can confess that “God is one” and yet maintain that God has a son. Timothy uses arguments both from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Koran to explain the Church’s Trinitarian faith. Though Mahadi remains unconvinced by Timothy’s arguments, the two men display a remarkable degree of respect for one another’s faith traditions. Timothy remarks to Mahadi, “Muhammad is worthy of all praise, by all reasonable people…He walked in the path of the prophets, and trod in the track of lovers of God.” Ibid. The discussion ends with Timothy returning in peace to his patriarchal residence.
I thought it important to share this bit of our Christian heritage because it illustrates that from a very early period and throughout most of subsequent history, Christians and Muslims have lived together in various parts of the world in peace despite their very pronounced theological differences. That has not always been the case. Violence between our two faith communities has occurred over the centuries with distressing frequency to the shame of both. It is pointless to argue over who initiated each one of these various conflicts, who had the better claim and whose transgressions were the more blameworthy. Suffice to say that there is enough blood on the hands of all to bring us both under the judgment of our respective teachings. That said, it bears repeating: violence has been the exception rather than the rule for most of our common trek through history. This is particularly so for the United States where Muslims have been a documented part of our history from as early as the 1850s. Two Muslims are known to have served as officers of the Union Army in the Civil War. Beginning in the 1880s, Muslims began immigrating to the United States in significant numbers. Construction of mosques, beginning in 1915, picked up in the 1920s and by 1952 there were over 20 mosques throughout the United States. During this time Muslims established several charitable organizations for the purpose of aiding new Muslim immigrants and assisting them with finding housing, getting work and learning English. Though their numbers have increased in recent years, Muslims are hardly new comers to the American scene. The Mosque has been a productive part of American society and a peaceful neighbor to the American Church a good century.
Last Saturday, June 10th, ACT for America, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest and most influential national security grassroots advocacy organization with over 750,000 members,” organized marches in more than two dozen cities calling for a ban against the enactment of Sharia law in the United States. The group maintains that “Sharia is incompatible with Western democracy and the freedoms it affords.” Marchers at the June 10th events carried signs with messages such as “Sharia = ISIS” and “Sharia laws are the laws of devils.” These expressions of hatred and intolerance ought to sadden us all. This is not the America I was raised to love and honor. We are not a people driven by blind fear and prejudice. We are a nation of laws and justice. That is why ACT and its hateful rhetoric must be answered.
ACT’s fears are irrational for two reasons. First, Sharia is not a legal system. The meaning of this Arabic word is literally “the way” or “the way to the watering hole.” Sharia spells out the overall way of life for Muslims as it was understood and practiced in accord with early interpretations of the Koran. It is not considered divinely inspired as is the Koran and is therefore subject to reinterpretation and reapplication to ever changing conditions. Second, there has been no enactment of Sharia in the United States to date. Furthermore, there is virtually no chance any legal mandate promoting religious practices of Islam or any other faith could ever be enacted. Even if, by some strange turn of events, such a law were to pass a state legislature or be implemented by a county or municipal government, it would never survive judicial review. Enacting a statute banning Sharia law is therefore about as silly as passing a law against Martian immigration.
All of this hysteria over Sharia must be unmasked for what it really is: xenophobia, that is, the fear of foreigners generally and fear of Islam specifically. ACT is feeding the persistent meme that Islam is a religion of violence bent on dominating the rest of the world. It is true that Sharia prescribes harsh punishments for acts like adultery, but many such penalties are also found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Similarly, there is no question that the Koran contains violent passages and vividly violent images. But, once again, the same is true for the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The Book of Joshua, for example, recounts a divinely sanctioned campaign of extermination against the inhabitants of Canaan. The New Testament book of Revelation subjects the entire earth to a blood bath with a body count higher than the whole of the Koran and Hebrew Scriptures combined. Tragically, all three of these holy books have been used to rationalize violence and bloodletting. Such instances remind us that, as people of faith, we have a solemn obligation, Muslim and Christian alike, to speak up when our scriptures are being misinterpreted and employed to justify evil conduct. But that obligation can only be taken so far. In the final analysis, we cannot control what people do and say with our scriptures. American Muslim communities can no more be expected to know about and denounce every threat made by anyone anywhere in the world claiming to speak for Islam than can American Christians be expected to correct every outlandish remark made on television, radio or the internet by every whackadoodle claiming to speak in the name of Christianity or the Bible. Both religions are plagued by groups and individuals, over which they exercise no control, who try to exploit their teachings to advance particular political and ideological agendas. Such persons are few, however, and their voices disproportionately noisy. Moreover, they are usually well beyond the influence of mainstream believers. Consequently, it makes no more sense to subject American Muslims to increased scrutiny for the crimes and rhetoric of Al Qaeda and ISIS than it would have made sense two decades ago to conduct hearings investigating American Catholics for the atrocities committed by the Irish Republican Army.
Our obligation to our Muslim sisters and brothers is clearly set forth in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism where Luther discusses the meaning of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness.” According to Luther, this means that “[w]e should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” The claim that Islam is a religion of violence, that Muslims are inherently prone to terrorism or that Muslims are contriving to bring us all under some sort of repressive theocracy by legislating Sharia is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. It goes without saying that we should not be repeating these assertions or giving them any credence. Beyond that, we need to speak well of and defend our Muslim neighbors when we hear them so defamed.
So now we come to the purpose of this article. As you no doubt already know, FBI statistics show a spike in the number of bias crimes against Muslims over the last two years. Events such as the June 10th ACT march are known to encourage such violence. According to the Brookings institute, 42% of all Americans hold an “unfavorable” view of Muslims. This is a sad commentary on the state of a country founded on principles of religious freedom, tolerance and equality. But by my calculations, this article will reach about 200 of you. No, I am not asking you to forward, share or re-post this article. Instead, I am asking that you talk to someone and put in a good word for your Muslim neighbor. That’s all. If each of you can talk to at least two people this week, we are already up to 600. If each of those 600 could do the same-well, you get the picture. Changing public opinion is like changing the course of an aircraft carrier. It will not happen immediately, but it can happen over time. Each incremental push in the right direction is important. So push! Pastor Olsen.
 A “caliph” is a successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam.
 A “caliphate” is a jurisdiction or kingdom ruled by a caliph.
THE HOLY TRINITY
Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The God of the scriptures is anything but abstract. This God “breaths” over the primordial waters, “speaks” creation into existence, takes up clay and fashions the human form, breathing into it the breath of life. This God enters into a wrestling match with Jacob, places a hand over Moses and touches the mountains to make them smoke. While we ought not to take these descriptions in a strictly literal way, I am reluctant to interpret them purely figuratively either. The scriptural witness to God and God’s actions is not simply a primitive expression of faith in a deity that we sophisticated moderns know and understand far better today as a wholly “spiritual being.” The God of the Hebrew Scriptures has a body. The New Testament declares that this Body is revealed and glorified in his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Paul declares that the church is Christ’s Body. Our creeds insist that God became incarnate-and remains so.
That is all very important and here is why. A distinctly unbiblical ideology clothed in Christian rhetoric has played a dominant role in undermining our environmental protection regulations in the United States and has recently been invoked as a justification for ending our country’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord. Though mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have condemned President Trump’s withdrawal from the accord, many Christians identifying as “evangelical” appear staunchly opposed to environmental protection generally and the Accord in particular. The rationale for such a seemingly irresponsible stance is grounded in the teachings of evangelical leaders who are convinced that we are living in the end times. There are several iterations among the adherents of this doctrine of the way in which the end of the world supposedly will unfold. But nearly all of the scenarios have God handing the world over to the destructive whims of a satanic world dictator who will, in turn, wreak havoc on the earth before its final destruction. Some of these folks go so far as to say that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. Spokespeople for these viewpoints include conservative pundit Erik Erikson who said recently that “[Jesus] calls us all to be good stewards of the planet, but doesn’t mean I have to care about global warming.” Also in the same camp is Matthew Hagee who insists that evidence of climate change are biblical signs of the end and “rather than try to clean up all of the air and solve all of the problems of the world by eliminating factories, we should start to tell people about Jesus Christ who is to return.” Add to this list the late Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame, Hall Lindsay who has been sounding the rapture alarm since the early 70s, and, of course, the late Brother Harold Campion who famously predicted the end of the world in May of 2011. For these folks, the physical world doesn’t matter. So why sweat global warming?
I don’t intend to argue here that humanly induced climate change is real. If 97% of the world’s scientists can’t persuade you, I probably can’t either. What I will argue is that neglecting climate change, or any other pressing environmental issue, on grounds that God is about to hand the world over to the devil and his angels is religious rubbish. It’s as much junk theology as pseudo-scientific arguments against humanly caused climate change is “junk” science. “End times” theology, not climate change, is the real hoax. Though it parades as orthodox Christianity, it was in fact the product of a British movement in the 1820s known as “Dispensationalism.” I hasten to add that the Plymouth Brethren, thought to be the epicenter of this movement, did not purport to know or predict when the end would come or assert that they were able to discern its signs. Nor, to my knowledge, did they ever use their faith as an excuse to foul the air, land and water. These developments are more recent American phenomena that are entirely unbiblical, unorthodox and, yes, unscientific.
I don’t care to get embroiled here in disputes over the interpretation of biblical apocalyptic. For my take on apocalyptic literature generally and Revelation in particular, see my post of Sunday, April 10, 2016. Suffice to say that, for purposes of this post, the biblical God confessed in the creeds became flesh and remains physically engaged with the world and all its creatures. God is both aware of and grieves the fall of each sparrow. The wounds we inflict upon the earth, its creatures and one another are inflicted on the God who sent his only Son to redeem that earth. God loves the world and will not cede one blessed inch of it to the antichrist-not even temporarily. To desecrate the earth, then, is to desecrate God’s temple. Invoking the name of Christ to rationalize such desecration is blasphemy of the highest order.
It is encouraging to see that scientists are beginning to make intentional efforts to speak up in defense of their work and expose “junk” science that is too freely bandied about in what should be serious political discourse. One example is the recent “March for Science” held April 22nd of this year in more than five hundred cities throughout the world. Our nation and its leaders are sorely in need of some scientific education. A crash course in theology might also be helpful. Junk theology, like junk science, needs to be exposed and discarded.
Here is a poem by Carl Dennis that speaks the miracle of incarnation from a pagan/secular perspective that is hauntingly biblical.
Days of Heaven
That was a great compliment the Greeks paid to human life
When they imagined their gods living as humans do,
With the same pleasure in love and feasting,
Headstrong as we are, turbulent, quick to anger,
Slow to forgive. Just like us, only immortal.
And now that those gods have proven mortal too
And heaven and earth can’t be divided,
Every death means a divine occasion
Has been taken from us, a divine perspective,
Though the loss gets only a line or two in the news.
Hard to believe the headlines this morning
That a banker on Mt. Olympus has been pilfering,
That a builder has been guilty of shoddy construction
On a bridge that spans a river in heaven,
Cutting corners to squirrel away his fortune
For a better day, when the great day has already come.
For news that heartens we must turn to the classifieds.
Here in what’s left of heaven it’s right to advertise
For a soul mate. It’s right to look for a job
That lets us incarnate spirit more fully
And leave something behind that time is kinder to
Than the flesh of gods. Lucky there’s work.
Lucky the streets of heaven are in need of repair.
Paint is peeling from the dream-house trim.
Holy rainwater backs up in leaf-clogged gutters
Till the ceiling sags and tiles need regrouting.
And look at the list of practical items for sale—
Used snowblowers, croquet sets, chainlink fencing.
And what about a wooden canoe with two paddles.
Why don’t we make time for a turn before sundown?
Out on the broad lake a breeze will find us
That’s wafted around the planet to cool our divinity.
The clouds will hover above us in a giant halo
As we watch our brother, the sun, descend,
His gentle face turned toward us, his godly expression
Undarkened by accusation or disappointment
Or the thought of something he’s left undone.
Source: Ranking the Wishes. (c. 1997 by Carl Dennis, pub. by Penguin Group (USA). Carl Dennis was born in 1939. He teaches English and is a writer in residence at State University of New York-Buffalo. He has written numerous books of poetry and one book on poetic criticism. Dennis was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2001 and also the Ruth Lily Prize. You can find out more about Carl Dennis and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This marvelous poetic portrayal of creation is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch constituting the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
As discussed last week, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
Our reading from the first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
The command to “fill the earth and subdue it” has spawned some unfortunate misunderstanding about human responsibility in the realm of creation. I am not convinced that this verse, much less the Biblical witness as a whole, can be saddled with the responsibility for global warming. I believe rather that ideologies spun out of the Enlightenment extoling the power of reason and desacralizing the natural world are chiefly responsible for that and other ecological woes. Nonetheless, this verse has often been lifted out of its context and employed to give religious sanction for ruthless exploitation of the earth and its resources. One popular commentator recently remarked, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Colter, Ann, If Democrats had any Brains They’d be Republicans, (c. 2007 by Crown Forum) p. 104.
In all fairness to Ms. Colter, the Hebrew text actually does support her literal interpretation. The Hebrew verb for “subdue” is “CABAS” meaning “to tread down, beat or make a path or to subdue.” In at least one instance, the Bible uses this word to connote rape. Esther 7:8. The word can also mean to “enslave.” Jeremiah 34:11. For the most part, however, it is used to describe the conquest of Canaan and its inhabitants by Israel. Numbers 32:22; Joshua 18:1; I Chronicles 22:18. This is important because the land of Canaan was given to Israel in trust. Very specific provisions were made for care of the land, including a year of rest from cultivation each seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. Israel’s reign over the land of Canaan was to mirror God’s gentle and gracious reign over creation. This in marked contrast to the Babylonian empire’s brutal domination of the Near East reflecting the violence and brutality of the gods it worshiped.
Thus, I believe that the poet of Genesis 1 was using the term “CABAS” to undermine the imperial model of world domination in much the same way Paul employed images of weaponry to undermine the militaristic reign of Rome. Just as Paul points out that the weapons of the church are the good news of the gospel, prayer, faith and peacemaking (Ephesians 6:14-18), so the poet makes clear that God overcomes and rules the world by God’s exercise of patient, faithful and everlasting compassion. That is how God subdues us and that is the means by which God’s people subdue the world. Thus, if I were to forego preaching about the Trinity this Sunday, I might consider talking about the mythological framework behind the national and corporate empires of the Twenty First Century. Imperial power is as tyrannical today as it was in Sixth Century and even more destructive to the earth and its ecology. Is the assertion of personal property rights, national self-interest and territorial sovereignty consistent with the claim that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”? Psalm 24:1.
In addressing Trinity Sunday, it is worth observing that the term “Trinity” is nowhere found in the scriptures. That is not to say, however, that the doctrine lacks scriptural support or that it is inappropriate to speak of the Triune God in understanding this text. I do not share the strict historical critical assumption that the meaning of a biblical text is arrived at through stripping away all residue of the church’s interpretation and applying objectively the tools of text criticism, source criticism, redaction analysis, form criticism, literary criticism and whatever else I left out. This is not to say that these individual components of the method are not useful in some measure to critique and correct our interpretations. They are clearly important, but they are not the key to preaching the text. I believe that at the end of the day, the Bible is the church’s book and it cannot be read faithfully (by Christians anyway) apart from the Church’s confession that Jesus is Lord. So be warned that I confess unashamedly to reading and preaching the scriptures through the lens of the church’s Trinitarian faith. Historical critical tools are sometimes helpful to that end, but they don’t get to drive the bus.
At the very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures we are told something very important: that God speaks. It is only because God speaks that it is possible for us to speak of God at all. God initiates a conversation within God’s Triune self through which all things are spoken into existence. As creation progresses, God’s speech spills over to address the creation. The earth is commanded to bring forth vegetation, the lights of the firmament are commanded to give light to the earth, the waters are commanded to bring forth swarms of living creatures, the earth is commanded to bring forth living creatures. Creation can respond with praise, prayer and thanksgiving because and only because God gives it a word to which it can respond. Then in verse 26 for the first time we overhear the Trinitarian deliberation and dialogue concerning our own creation. We learn that we are uniquely created in the image of our Creator.
Much ink has been spilt pondering what it means for us to be made in God’s image. I am not convinced that the poet in Genesis gives us much in the way of an answer to the inquiry. That is not surprising given that poetry is always more suggestive than definitive. We may infer, as I have already said, that humanity’s reign over the earth is to reflect God’s gracious reign over all creation. Yet the shape of both reigns must await further development as the scriptural narrative progresses. The call of Abraham from the wastes of Babel, the sojourning of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the liberation of Israel from bondage will dramatize both God’s judgment on dehumanizing ways of existence and God’s promise of an alternative way of being human. The shape of human existence in obedience to God is spelled out in God’s covenants wherein God’s faithfulness is demonstrated and the promise of true humanity is held out. Israel is ever in the process of becoming human precisely so that by its light the world may finally learn the proper way of being the world.
The image of God is finally realized in Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” More than any of the other gospels, John’s narrative illustrates both the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God. We can say that humans are created in God’s image precisely because, as St. Augustine reminds us, we “are capable of Him, and can be partaker of Him; which so great a good is only made possible by [humanity’s] being His image.” Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, Book 14, Chapter 8:11 (c. 2012 by Fig-books.com) p. 372. In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, keep them in my name which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:11. It is through this perfect oneness in love that the world will know the love of the Father for the Son reflected in the disciples’ love for one another. John 17:23. Moreover, this love will spill out into the world for which Jesus died to all those who believe through the disciples’ witness. John 17:20. Jesus has sheep that are not yet of his flock and who must also be embraced by the Father’s love. John 10:16. In short, Jesus is the only one ever to be truly human and our becoming fully human depends on our unity with him. God is never more truly God’s self than when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. In this way, the final yearning of God expressed in the Book of Revelation is satisfied. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.” Revelation 21:3.
This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.
The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.
As noted in my remarks on the Genesis reading, it is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth] look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. As pointed out in my opening remarks, ecology is very much a biblical value!
Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.
The only reason for lifting up these final words of farewell from Paul’s Second Letter the church at Corinth appears to be that they contain one of only two full Trinitarian invocations in the New Testament. The other such invocation is found at the end of our gospel lesson from Matthew. The Trinitarian order is significant. The Grace of Christ inspires the love of God which is actualized through the Spirit producing fellowship in the church. A better translation than “fellowship” as set forth in the old RSV might be “participation in” or “communion of,” as the NRSV has it.
There is plenty to talk about in this story of the Great Commission. The commission occurs at Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples as a whole. According to Matthew, only the women who came to the tomb saw Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus sent them back with instructions to the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Matthew 28:10. The disciples follow these instructions and encounter the resurrected Christ who announces that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him and that on his authority they are to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the Triune name. The gospel ends with the assurance that Jesus will be with his disciples until the end of the age.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Perhaps this is another way of saying, as did Luke, that Jesus is henceforth the right hand of God at work in the world. It certainly does not suggest that Jesus is simply delegating a task that he is unable or unwilling to do himself. Jesus’ continuing presence with his disciples is reaffirmed. The dialogical relationship between immanence and transcendence is at work here.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Jesus’ instruction to “make disciples” of all nations-not church members or converts. “Of all nations” does not mean that nations themselves are to be converted or drawn into the cultural orbit of Christendom. Rather, it means that disciples are to be made and churches planted “within” all nations that the gospel may be preached to the ends of the earth. One dreadful mistake we mainliners have made over the centuries is marketing to consumers instead of seeking, as the U.S. Marines would say, “a few good people.” Consumers, of course, consume. They are a demanding crowd that invariably requires more attention, more programs and more benefits than the small but committed core of disciples can meet. Consequently, they leave again disappointed that their needs have not been met. Thus, even when mass marketing is successful, it fails. Matthew’s gospel challenges the church to focus not on membership rolls, but on making disciples. Better one new disciple than twenty new members! At least that has been my own experience.
I am sure that the lectionary’s motivation for including this text was the Trinitarian baptismal formula at verse 19. I don’t know what more there is to say about this other than that it appears the church was using this Trinitarian formula from at least the 80s-90s where scholarly consensus places the writing of Matthew’s gospel. For my thoughts on the rather baseless claim that this formula was a later addition to the gospel, see my post of Sunday, April 30, 2017.