Archive for August, 2017
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Jeremiah has reached a crisis point. His love for God’s word and will for Israel have only brought into sharper focus how far Israel has strayed from God. This dissonance between what is and what ought to be torments the prophet to the point of despair. “Am I wasting my life pursuing a dream?” he wonders. “Is life under God’s covenant a hopelessly unattainable ideal? Is there any point in continuing to endure abuse from a people hostile to everything I say?” I cannot say that I have ever faced anything during my ministerial career remotely similar to the opposition Jeremiah encountered. Nonetheless, as everyone following this blog can attest, I struggle with my church’s structural, programmatic and theological impediments to fulfilling the mission of proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom. Much of what I see on the denominational and congregational level looks a lot more like self-preservation than self-sacrifice for the gospel. Like Saint Peter in our gospel lesson, we shun the cross and seek to save our institutional lives rather than putting everything on the line for Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. That is, in my view, a large part of why the church’s testimony at the present time of crisis has been limited to measured social policy statements.
Of course, the shortcomings I see in the church are but a reflection of the faults I know have their origin in my own reluctance to embrace fully the way of the cross. Like the rich young man Jesus encountered, I am not eager to place in jeopardy the comfortable retirement that I hope awaits me. I have no inclination to “offer up my body as a living sacrifice” like Kayla Mueller who was kidnapped and killed while providing assistance to Syrian refugees. I know that, at least for the present, speaking out against the racist, sexist and bigoted policies of the Trump administration costs me nothing. Unlike Heather Heyer, I have not had to pay the ultimate price for confronting the demon of racist violence unleashed by the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign and the administration to which it gave birth. I have never had to endure the indignity of being beaten and left overnight in the stocks as did poor Jeremiah. I am therefore hardly in a position to utter the prayer on Jeremiah’s lips in this Sunday’s lesson.
Nonetheless, I experience, as did Jeremiah, that cognitive dissonance between the baptismal covenant under which Jesus invites us to live and the reality of life in the church as I know it. Perhaps that is, at the very least, a good place to start. The people of God should never allow themselves to lose their holy discomfort with the status quo governing the world, the inadequacy of their witness or the degree of their complicity with evil in their own lives. In my own Lutheran tradition we are fond of saying that we are, at the same time, “saints and sinners.” That is all well and good if it means we, like recovering alcoholics, are a community of people liberated from sin yet struggling to help each other hang onto sobriety in a world pulling us back into the self-destructive ways from which Jesus saves us. It is fine to recognize that we are subject to relapse and must stand ready and willing to forgive, help and support any one of us who “falls off the wagon.” But too often this saying is invoked to excuse a banal, secularized ideology of “self-acceptance.” Too often the saint/sinner identification is less a dynamic, faith-animating dialectic than it is a justification for a lifestyle barely satisfying the bar for white middle class respectability and good citizenship. There is a huge difference between sinners struggling to live into the identity of sainthood conferred upon us through baptism into Jesus Christ and sinners who view baptism as a stamp of approval on ethical relativism and spiritual mediocrity. Such piety (if you can call it that) produces Christians whose lives differ little from those of the prevailing culture except that, of course, they happen to be in church on Sunday instead of on the beach-at least one week out of the month anyway.
Of course, there is the opposite extreme that would dispense with the church altogether. Jeremiah seems to be teetering on the brink of doing just that-writing off the covenant people of Israel as beyond redemption. Having lived my life as an active member and/or leader in at least half a dozen congregations over my lifetime, I can sympathize with people who are “done” with “organized religion.” I understand people who are OK with Jesus but cannot stomach the church. I have experienced at least as much hurt, insult and outrage from the church as most of the folks I know who have left for that reason. So why do I stick with it? Well, for one thing, Jesus leaves me no other choice. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he says. The church is the Body of Christ. Discipleship is not an individual task. It requires community. There is no such thing as a lone ranger disciple of Jesus. If you want to hang with Jesus, you are stuck with the rest of the people who follow him. Be warned, they are an unsavory lot!
Second, I need the church-and so do you whether you are willing to admit it or not. At least you need it if you want the mind of Christ formed within you. I think a large part of the church’s problem is that it tends to preach itself rather than Christ. So much of our outreach proclaims the virtue of our churches-their wonderful programs, their fine preachers, their high quality worship, their great sense of community. But that has never been the reality and when we claim that it is, when we promise people a warm, wonderful, safe place where nobody ever gets hurt, we are committing spiritual consumer fraud. In fact, the church has always been a contentious body of disciples who miss the point of Jesus’ preaching, argue over which of them is the greatest and desert Jesus at his time of greatest need. If the New Testament epistles are any indication of what church life was like in the first century, then we cannot help but notice that fights over money, sex scandals, divisiveness, power struggles and worship wars are the norm rather than the exception. The church is not the place you go to escape the nastiness and evil of the world. It’s the place where you come to confront it. The church is home to a lot of people who are here because we are the only community that will put up with them. So if you want to join us, you will have to learn to put up with them too. And here is the thing: we need them, because they teach us what it means to love one another. They instruct us in the art of forgiveness. They help us to recognize Jesus in the least likely of places. We all need each other to be formed into the image of Christ. That is the reason the church exists: to form saints. That is not a process for the faint of heart. If you want to be welcomed, pampered and made to feel loved, then go to the Poconos for a Yoga weekend. But if you want to be sanctified, if you want to be shaped into the image of Christ, the church is the place to go.
Finally, I stick with the church because, every so often, we get it right. Every so often, we come together in a way that reflects God’s enduring love for the world. Sometimes it happens in a small way when the congregation or a group of people in it come together to support a family in crisis by cooking meals, providing baby sitting or transportation. Sometimes it happens in a big way when the church responds generously with financial assistance, volunteer participation and advocacy for victims of war, famine or natural disaster. Sometimes it happens when a pastor, a congregational leader or an individual believer stands up and speaks truth to power on behalf of a child being abused, a woman being sexually harassed in the work place or a victim of discrimination. Yes, the church is a fallible, corrupt and broken community with a lot of sins, failures and lost opportunities on its record. But every so often, we get Jesus and his kingdom just right. When we do, it’s beautiful and often just enough to keep me from walking out the door.
Here’s a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman picturing the church at its very best.
New Marriage, A Barnraising
What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first
post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-
beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have
tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be
offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters
who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What
grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step
on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.
They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading
out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not
own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves
Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.
Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.
This passage is the second of six personal prayers of lament uttered by the prophet Jeremiah in the course of his ministry. The others are Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 17:14-18; Jeremiah 18:18-23; Jeremiah 20:7-13; and Jeremiah 20:14-18. These prayers are similar to the psalms of lament and contain much of the rich phraseology and imagery commonly employed by Israel in her liturgical/devotional life. The prayer is divided into two sections. In the first, Jeremiah addresses God. Vss. 15-18. In the second, God responds to Jeremiah’s complaints. Vss. 19-21. Jeremiah’s prayer begins with a plea for vengeance against his enemies. Professor Thomas Raitt says of this prayer and Jeremiah’s personal laments generally:
“Jeremiah’s so-called ‘laments’ are, at worst, sub-Christian expressions of vengeance, self-righteousness and bitterness about the sacrifices involved in filling the prophetic vocation. At their best these [laments] show that being a messenger of God’s word is a difficult calling and that often the last thing people want to hear is the truth, even from God, about their specific time and situation (which is precisely why prophets are not without honor except in their own country).” Raitt, Thomas M., Jeremiah in the Lectionary, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 161.
Jeremiah’s prayer certainly does illustrate the challenges of the prophetic vocation, but is it really “sub-Christian?” I must confess that I have always had difficulty with prayers for vengeance in the Bible, of which this is only one. Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central for Christian theology and practice that there seems to be no room for expressions of vengeance. But my pious unease is probably related more to my status and privilege than to any legitimate theological objection. I have never been raped or sexually molested. My children have not been murdered either by crazed fanatics in the service of their sick understanding of God’s will or by any respected, hardworking, church going Pentagon employee sitting in a cubicle orchestrating a drone attack in which my loved ones turn out to be “collateral damage.” I have never been driven out of my home by violence and forced to flee across the border into a foreign nation that does not want me. In short, I have not experienced the depth of human cruelty and oppression that gives birth to these laments. It is not surprising, then, that they do not come naturally to my lips.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that the psalmists’ pleas for vengeance are directed toward God. In praying for vengeance, they are confessing implicitly that retribution is the sole prerogative of God. God alone knows the hearts of human beings, what are their motivations and the external circumstances that often determine their actions. Too often, our perceptions of justice are warped by the pain of our own injuries and our personal need for “pay back.” We tend to focus narrowly on the perpetrator of a crime. But are not the parents who abused and neglected him equally responsible? What about his teachers who noticed bruises in odd places but remained silent? What about the neighbors who heard through the apartment walls the noise of abuse and his cries of pain and simply turned up the TV set because, after all, it was not their business. We can further expand this web of responsibility to include an entire nation whose priorities favor tax cuts to programs designed to assist families and children at risk. When it comes to dishing out retribution, there is never an end point. That is why Paul admonishes us in today’s lesson from Romans to leave this issue in God’s hands where it belongs.
German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the biblical prayers for vengeance must remain within our use of the psalter. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible, (c. 1974 Augsburg Publishing House). He goes on to point out, however, that our prayers against the “enemy” are to some degree addressed against ourselves as well. As sinners, we are our own worst enemies. When we pray for God to intervene and adjudicate between ourselves and our enemies, we can never fully understand what we are asking for. God sees our enmity in a different light and without the blind spots that come with the white hot rage of injury. The justice we get in answer to our prayers might not look anything like our expectations for a just outcome.
While forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the good news about Jesus, they are the end result of a process. If forgiveness is to have any meaning, the injuries inflicted by my enemy (and upon him/her as well) need to be fully acknowledged. Lament affords us the opportunity to lay out our wounds, our hurts and the resulting anger in the presence of God. If reconciliation is to be genuine, the mutually destructive relationship between my enemy and myself must be altered. Master and slave are not truly reconciled if, at the end of the process, they remain master and slave. New creation necessarily means the death of the old-which will not go down willingly. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation take time, patience and, above all, grace.
Jeremiah is unsparing in his criticism of the Lord he feels has abandoned him. “Yet,” as one commentator points out, “there is a contradictory character to this prayer, for even when doubting God’s care, it is to God that Jeremiah turns. God called him to be a prophet, and God’s service had been Jeremiah’s “joy” and “delight” as well as his pain and anguish. The prayer reflects a man who even in his deepest doubts about God’s care still knows that he is absolutely dependent upon God. God will be his undoing if God has really abandoned him; but God is also his only hope and to him he must return.” Bracke, John M., Jeremiah 15:15-21, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 175. One of the marvelous capacities of our human constitution is the ability to entertain two mutually conflicting ideas, two very opposite emotions and hope in the pit of despair. Even the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” makes this complaint to the very God whose absence s/he now experiences!
If Jeremiah had been expecting the gentle comfort of one trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, he would have been sorely disappointed. I doubt he had such expectations and, in any event, comfort is not the medicine Jeremiah receives. It is not God who has abandoned Jeremiah, but Jeremiah who has abandoned his God. After all, Jeremiah has been chiding his people for their own unfaithfulness; for their failure to trust God in the face of the Babylonian threat; for seeking salvation from foreign alliances rather than putting their faith in the Lord. Is his own personal danger and suffering any worse than what he is calling his own people to risk and to endure? If God has proved a “deceitful brook” to Jeremiah, has not Jeremiah been preaching deceit to his people? God will continue to be with Jeremiah to deliver him. But Jeremiah cannot expect to escape the judgment he proclaims for his people. That goes with the territory of the prophetic vocation.
These are hard words for leaders of God’s people ministering in hard times. We all know that the church can be awfully hard on the people that serve her. I have been lied too, betrayed, criticized behind my back and hurt by people in the church. Fortunately, these experiences have been only small islands of unpleasantness in an otherwise deep and expansive ocean of love, support and partnership. For the most part, even people with whom I have had deep disagreements remained supportive, caring and faithful to the gospel. My worst day in parish ministry was a romp in the park compared to Jeremiah’s experiences. Jeremiah serves to remind us all that we are calling the world to take up the cross and follow Jesus. That means taking it up ourselves. We cannot get out of being crucified with Christ, but the operative word here is with. Jesus does not call us to anything through which he has not already made a path.
Some commentators view this psalm as the plea for God’s intervention on behalf of one involved in a legal dispute soon to be adjudicated. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 117. Such a circumstances might have given birth to the stereotypical phraseology in the psalm, but the prayer seems to have a broader application as it now stands. Though likely composed as an individual lament prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E., it has been edited to meet the worship needs of the whole worshiping community. Such is the case with many of the personal psalms.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to pray this psalm. Who among us could declare in the presence of God that we “have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” Vs. 1. How many of us would invite God “to prove” and “try us,” to “test [our] heart[s] and mind[s]”? Vs. 2. Yet it seems to me that if we read these two verses as intimately linked to the rest of this prayer for vindication against enemies, they constitute an invitation to humility. Indeed, if we are going to pray for vindication against our enemies, then we must also pray that God will try our own hearts and minds, put us to the proof and bring our motives to light. For in reality, there is no such thing as a one sided conflict. Good and evil are never cleanly divided along the lines of combat drawn between human warring factions. Yet, as I argued in my post for July 20th, we Americans have a strong tendency to view conflict in precisely this fashion. That is why our politics is so dysfunctional. After all, how can you compromise with a party whose agenda is the destruction of American society as we know it? There can be no negotiation or settlement with evil, but only eradication.
Too often, the same is true for interpersonal conflict. We tend to demonize those with whom we differ, attribute to them the worst of motives and dismiss any possibility that they could actually have a meritorious point of view. They owe us an apology and until we get it, hostilities continue. The psalmist entertains no such simple minded illusions. S/he prays not merely that God’s judgment will fall upon his/her adversaries, but that it will penetrate his/her heart of hearts as well. From the psalmist’s standpoint (as from our own!), it may very well seem that s/he has taken the high road, that s/he has avoided “the company of evildoers” (Vs. 5) and “washed [his/her] hands in innocence.” Vs. 6. But in reality, s/he knows that there are in his/her own heart motives that are unseen and assumptions about the enemy that blind him/her to the big picture resulting in vast potential for misinterpreting the meaning of words and the significance of actions. Though the psalmist cannot see it now, s/he knows that when disputes are submitted to God with an honest prayer for vindication, the one seeking such relief must be prepared to discover his/her own complicity in that dispute and be prepared to accept full responsibility. Perhaps that is why the psalmist also prays that God “sweep me not away with sinners.” Vs. 9 (not in our reading). For “if thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.
More, however, needs to be said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that: “The notion that we can never suffer innocently so long as within us there still hides some kind of defect is a thoroughly unbiblical and demoralizing thought.” Godsey, John D., The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1960 Westminster Press) p. 191. We can hardly fault a child in any way for injuries suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. Yet even in what appears to be a clear case of one-sided aggression, the aggressor is a complex individual whose motives, words and actions are the product of a lifetime of experiences that likely include victimization. As evil as his/her acts clearly are, the actor can never be written off as beyond redemption-at least not by us. Thus, while it is quite possible to suffer innocently, it does not follow that the full weight of guilt and retribution can be focused on the most visible perpetrator of the wrong.
As always, I encourage reading of Psalm 26 in its entirety.
The admonitions in verses 9-13 can sound almost pedestrian when they are read in isolation. Have genuine love. Hold to what is good. Show honor and zeal. Be hopeful, patient, prayerful and generous. Well, Duh!!! How else would a disciple of Jesus behave? It is critical therefore to read these admonitions in light of Paul’s earlier call for the Roman believers to present their bodies as sacrifices for God and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the gospel rather than conformed to the world around them. Romans 12:1-2. The “world” of which Paul speaks is the world of the Roman Empire, a hierarchical society in which everyone from the emperor to the galley slave had his or her fixed position. Honor was due from the lesser to the greater. As one commentator points out:
“J.E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by ‘the workings of honour and pride,’ which provided ‘the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactors’ that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain where always present, ‘the duty to “honour” or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself, is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…’ The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring…This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: ‘Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind…Everything, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.’ At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.” Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 citing Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292.
Paul turns this “pyramid of honor” on its head. Rather than compete with one another in the accumulation of honor, disciples of Jesus are challenged to “out do one another in showing honor.” Vs. 10. Within the church, the structures of honor and patronage holding the Roman Empire together dissolve. That explains why the church was accused (and rightly so) of “turning the world upside down.” Acts 17:6. It also demonstrates why Paul’s letter to Philemon is probably one of the most revolutionary documents ever written. Paul’s insistence that Philemon welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother struck at the very foundations of Roman society. While some of our aging commentators left over from the 1960s fault Paul for being less than fully socially conscious because he was not out demonstrating in the streets of Rome against slavery, I cannot help but note that the churches they represent are often just as segregated today as was Selma, Alabama in the 60s. It just goes to prove Mark Twain’s adage, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” Paul’s opposition to slavery was written into his practice-not merely on a cardboard sign. His church struck at slavery by ending it within a counter-cultural community valuing all persons, regardless of their societal status, as equally members of the Body of Christ.
Verses 14-21 echo Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-48. At first blush, they might seem to conflict with the sentiments expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist in our previous lessons. That is not the case, however. Like the psalmist and the prophet, Paul urges the Roman church to leave vengeance and retributive justice in the hands of God. It might well be that one’s enemy is deserving of punishment. But that is not the disciple’s concern. The disciple of Jesus is called upon to love the enemy, pray for the enemy and show kindness to the enemy whether deserving or not. By assuming God’s prerogative and seeking retribution, one is overcome by evil. Again and again we have learned that by fighting evil with evil’s own tools of violence and hateful rhetoric, we are conformed to the very image of that which we despise. Rather than be so conformed, Paul urges us to be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Romans 12:1-2.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus turns toward Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each of the subsequent transitional sections will remind us of that destination. Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22; Matthew 19:1; Matthew 20:17). Here Jesus reveals to his disciples for the first time that this journey will lead to his rejection by the religious authorities and his suffering and death. Vs. 21. Peter once again personifies what must have been the response of all the disciples: “God forbid!” Vs. 22. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this “rock,” upon which Jesus said in last Sunday’s lesson that the church would be built, has so soon after become a rock of “stumbling” to Jesus!) We now learn that Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Son of the living God, through accurate, is still unformed. He cannot reconcile the glorification of Jesus with the cross. He is not the only one. I have repeatedly been asked about verse 28 in which Jesus tells his disciples that they will not see death before they witness his coming in glory. “Pastor,” they ask me, “How can that be true? We have still not seen Jesus coming in glory.”
Of course, Jesus did come in glory. Our problem is that we don’t understand what glory is any more than we understand what power is. God is nowhere more thoroughly glorified than on the cross where the depth of God’s love for all creation is made known. God is nowhere more powerful than on the cross where even the crucifixion of his Son cannot entice God to turn against us in anger. God’s love is stronger than our sin. The cross, says St. Paul, is the wisdom of God and the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18-25. For Matthew, it is the coming of Jesus in glory. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us looking for a kick ass savior who will appear at the end of time to whoop the anti-christ and impose his reign in the manner of a Caesar on steroids. That is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because that is not the way God triumphs over evil. God overcomes evil in the same way Paul calls upon his churches to overcome evil: by loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them. That will probably take a long time. But God is in no hurry. Neither should we be.
The term “taking up the cross” has become a hackneyed phrase in our common parlance. Typically, it is a synonym for taking one’s own share of hardships that go with living. Suffering becomes a good in its own right, an end in itself, an opportunity to practice patience and self-denial. These are both fine virtues and to the extent one uses suffering to that end, all well and good. But this understanding has nothing to do with taking up the cross. As pointed out by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. The cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or a symbol of anything else. It was the means by which Rome put down anyone confessing a lord other than Caesar. Following Jesus means risking execution.
Yet it is precisely in risking all for Jesus that true life is discovered. Until one is ready to die, there is no prospect for life. The church is called upon to risk all-to risk dying. That is a hard word to speak to a church that is obsessed with survival. Though we talk incessantly about “change” and the “need for change” and the benefits of “change,” the change we often promote is geared chiefly to preserve ourselves. That is understandable. It is easy enough to speak abstractly about the end of the established church in the post Constantinian era. That reality, however, means the loss of some very good social ministries built with the blood, sweat and tears of people whose careers have been defined by them. It means the loss of jobs and the end of career opportunities. On the congregational level it means the loss of century old sanctuaries with brass plates on every piece of furniture memorializing a loved one. It means the loss of cemeteries where generations of families have been laid to rest. It means the end of a multitude of voices singing those dear old hymns to the accompaniment of a majestic pipe organ. That is what the death of “church as we know it” will mean. By way of full disclosure, I have a daughter who is preparing for a career in parish ministry. So although I am close enough to retirement to have gotten my own share out of the Constantinian church, I am hardly a detached observer.
Matthew tells us, however, that we have nothing to fear from death once we recognize that “dying” is the place to which Jesus calls us. We hardly need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how frantically we try to preserve our lives, we are going to lose them in the end. It is the other side of the equation that spells the good news Jesus alone can bring, namely, that by losing one’s life, one gains it. There are, as I said in last week’s post, many new and lively manifestations of “church” in our midst. I do not suggest that any of these models can simply be copied. That, too, is a recipe for failure. But they testify to what is possible when we stop fretting about survival and focus instead on being faithful disciples of Jesus. If God is taking the church we have known and loved away from us, it is because God has something better to give us. Once our hands are free from vainly trying to hang on to what is being lost, we will be free to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst.
Skepticism-the healthy and unhealthy kinds; a poem by Howard Nemerov; and the Lessons for Sunday, August 27th
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It seems that we are living in an era of skepticism. Don’t misunderstand me; a degree of healthy skepticism is not such a bad thing. Learning requires a critical approach to all truth claims, even those we are invited to take on faith. Attempts to “protect” faith from the challenge of learning are misguided. The deeply conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation in which I was raised harbored deep suspicion toward secular colleges and universities, fearing that the teaching of evolutionary biology, astronomy and comparative religion would undermine the faith of its young people. For that reason, our pastor did his best to steer us toward one of the many Missouri Synod schools where he imagined our faith would be shielded from these corrosive influences. That, however, is a losing strategy. Sooner or later, a young person will be forced to confront the challenge of responding faithfully to a growing body of knowledge forcing one always to re-think and reformulate his/her faith. Good Christian education does not seek to protect “childlike” faith by surrounding it with a solid wall of unquestioned dogma against the rising tide of knowledge. Instead, it attempts to provide the believer with conceptual tools required to engage that tide in lively and transformative conversation which, in turn, will grow a mature and robust faith.
Skepticism, however, also has a dark side to it. Taken to extremes, skepticism degenerates into a cynical denial of truth’s very existence. The Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, maintained that neither our sense-perceptions nor our views, theories and beliefs tell us the truth. He insisted that a person should be without views and unwavering in his/her refusal to choose between truth and falsehood, maintaining about every single assertion that “it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.” Beckwith, Christopher I, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (c. 2015, Princeton University Press) pp. 22–23. Such skepticism paves the way to indifference toward moral, philosophical and religious truth claims. Ultimately, it produces contempt even for simple factual claims. Who can forget how, in the face of clear photographic evidence to the contrary, President Trump stubbornly maintained that the crowd gathered for his inauguration was the largest ever for any inauguration. When confronted with the president’s claim and the facts belying it, Counselor to the President, Kelly Anne Conway blithely replied that the president’s inaccurate assertion about the size of his inauguration audience was an “alternative fact.” You have your facts. I have mine. Because there is no such thing as “truth,” it doesn’t really matter whose facts are accurate. Believe whatever suits you.
Saint Augustine maintained against his own skeptic antagonists that truth both exists and is knowable. In this he was thoroughly consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Because our bodies and their senses are the product of a good Creator God, our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell can be relied upon to convey accurately and truthfully the world we experience through them. Because our human ability to think and reason reflects the Creator’s own inventive mind, we can trust our minds to arrive at reliable (if not infallible!) conclusions. Conversely, our refusal to believe what our senses tell us, or our rejection of reasonable arguments from undisputed facts merely because they are upsetting or disagreeable, is worse than ignorance. Such cynical skepticism renders us subhuman and incapable of learning, reasoning and communicating. It leads invariably to public indifference toward a government that lies regularly, repeatedly and with absolute impunity. Where there is no belief in truth or the independent existence of facts, how can you call anything a lie?
Of course, our capacity to learn and the knowledge we acquire is limited, fallible and always subject to growth, revision and obsolescence. Moreover, as Augustine points out, there are matters beyond human understanding that only faith can comprehend. Thirty-four years ago I stood before a congregation of family and friends promising Sesle that I would love her, be faithful to her and join with her in all that was to come. She promised to do the same for me. We both believed and trusted in those mutual promises, though it seems a little preposterous to make or believe promises like these with someone you have known for little over a year. How well can you really know someone in so short a time? How can you make such bold promises when you have no idea what the years ahead hold for you? Truth is, neither of us really understood what we were doing at that point. We could not be certain whether this love we thought we had for each other was durable enough for the long haul (if long it was to be). We had no idea how our resolve to keep our wedding vows would be tested. Now, thirty-four years later, I am a good deal more confident about our marriage and thankful for our having resolved to enter into it. I am confident that our marriage is solid. Still, my confidence does not equate with certitude. We are not yet at the end of this journey. Our lives are all the more vulnerable to tragedy and pain, being now parents, grandparents and a good deal closer to the last frontier. It’s not over until it’s over. Nonetheless, I am more convinced now than ever before that this ship is seaworthy and equal to the storms that lie ahead. I would not have that knowledge, however, had I not initially trusted Sesle’s untested promises. Some things you have to believe and live into before you can know they are true.
I don’t know what was going through Simon Peter’s head when Jesus first called him and brother Andrew to leave their fishing nets to follow him. Peter is credited with having “little faith” according to Matthew’s gospel. Yet his faith was enough to enable him to answer Jesus’ call to follow. It was strong enough to get him out of the boat and onto the surface of the sea, if not strong enough to sustain him there for long. Peter has the insight to recognize in Jesus the promised Messiah, though the true meaning of Jesus’ messianic mission is beyond his grasp. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, will fail Jesus at his time of greatest need. Yet he will learn that, even in the shadow of his greatest failure, the one he abandoned to death appears to him alive and ready to extend yet another opportunity for discipleship. Over time, Peter’s fear, doubt and skepticism will be overcome by repeated expressions of Jesus’ faithfulness. He will learn, step by step, that a life surrendered to Jesus’ call is a life saved from bondage to fear and pointless selfishness. Because Peter believed and trusted Jesus’ promises-gingerly at first, but with growing confidence-he came to know that they were trustworthy and reliable.
Each day presents new challenges, growth in knowledge and understanding that force one to question one’s faith, test one’s understanding of the scriptures, embrace fresh understandings and abandon long held beliefs that no longer seem credible. Yet over time and experience, the voice of Jesus becomes more familiar and reassuring. Having weathered any number of storms with Jesus, the waves don’t seem as dangerous and threatening anymore. Having survived a few devastating losses with Jesus at our side, it becomes easier to believe that the ultimate loss we most fear, the loss of our very being, is something that Jesus can get us through. We began by believing the witness of the saints that have gone before us. Now we are on the way to knowing.
Here is a poem about learning, knowing and the limits of both by Howard Nemerov.
Learning the Trees
Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors,
Out of a book, which now you think of it
Is one of the transformations of a tree.
The words themselves are a delight to learn,
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.
But best of all are the words that shape the leaves—
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform—
And their venation—palmate and parallel—
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate.
Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.
Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”
Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three
Around the stem; the one in front of you
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;
Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.
Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does
And how it does it, cutting across the world
Not always at the joints, competing with
Experience while cooperating with
Experience, and keeping an obstinate
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.
Think finally about the secret will
Pretending obedience to Nature, but
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,
Dividing up the world to conquer it,
And think also how funny knowledge is:
You may succeed in learning many trees
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.
Source: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (c. 1977 by Howard Nemerov, pub. by The University of Chicago Press). Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He also won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize. Nemerov was raised in New York City where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School. He later commenced studies at Harvard University where he earned his BA. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the United State Air Force. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant and thereafter returned to New York to resume his writing career. Nemerov began teaching, first at Hamilton College and subsequently at Bennington College and Brandeis University. He ended his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was elevated to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov’s poems demonstrated a consistent emphasis on thought, the process of thinking and on ideas themselves. Nonetheless, his work always displayed the full range of human emotion and experience. You can find out more about Howard Nemerov and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (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 6thCentury B.C.E. 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. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Following several other commentators, Professor Claus Westermann holds that this section of the text has become disordered in the course of transmission. He would reconstruct it, working the verses from our reading into various surrounding sections of text. The finished product reads as follows:
[Isaiah 51:1a] Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.[Isaiah 50:10-11] Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God? But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands. Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.
[Isaiah 51:4-6] Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
[Isaiah 51:7a] Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; [Isaiah 51:1] Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. [Isaiah 51:7b-8] do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.
Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) pp 232-234. This arrangement has the virtue of solving several other perceived problems with other sections of the Isaiah text, forging them, along with fragments of our lesson, into a nicely balanced three strophe poem. With all due respect to Professor Westermann, I am suspicious of employing any interpretive tool, including form criticism, for no better purpose than to make the text more “intelligible.” Just because something is difficult to understand does not mean that it is void of meaning. Perhaps the language is obscure because the matter at hand lies at the border of mystery. If that is the case, deconstructing the language is probably the last thing you want to do. Furthermore, it is to my thinking entirely unjustifiable to break up a passage that makes perfectly good sense standing alone in order to solve problems elsewhere in the text. Accordingly, I will take the lesson as we have it.
“You who pursue deliverance” in verse 1 refers to the Babylonian exiles. Just as the Israelite slaves cried out for deliverance in Egypt, so now the exiles seek deliverance from their captivity. The prophet chooses his words carefully to evoke precisely this parallel. Throughout his/her oracles, Second Isaiah likens the return from exile to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. E.g. Isaiah 43:1-7; Isaiah 43:15-17. But in the next verse, the prophet reaches back even further in Israel’s history to the age of the matriarchs and patriarchs. “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and blessed him and made him many.” Vs. 2. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Scriptures outside of Genesis referencing Sarah. Second Isaiah is filled with feminine metaphors for God’s faithfulness to Israel. Isaiah 42:14; Isaiah 46:3; Isaiah 49:1, 5, 15; Isaiah 54:1. Thus, it is not surprising that s/he should include Sarah along with Abraham in this instance.
The prophet is addressing the group of exiles that have been receptive to his/her call to make the journey back to Palestine from Babylon. In all probability, this was a small congregation. Yet the prophet is not dismayed by the meager response of the people to his/her challenge. After all, when God called Abraham and Sarah, they were but two individuals. Moreover, we also know that they were childless and past child bearing age. The prospects for fulfilment of the promise that their descendants would outnumber the stars seemed remote, to put it mildly. Yet just as God raised up the people of Israel from this unpromising beginning, so God will make of this little band of exiles a new people in that ancient land promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago. With God, size doesn’t matter, but only faithfulness.
In verses 4-5 the prophet promises that God’s “deliverance draws near speedily.” Significantly, however, that salvation is described as “a law” going forth from God. The word for law here is “Torah,” a term that means so much more than our word “law.” Torah is “teaching,” a constellation of faithful disciplines and precepts, the study and practice of which leads to wisdom, understanding and communion with the God of Israel. See Psalm 119. It is through the faithful obedience of Israel to Torah in the land of promise that God’s salvation will be made known to the ends of the earth. Simply by being God’s people, Israel will forward God’s salvation.
I believe that the church in America is only beginning to discover (or re-discover?) the insight revealed in Second Isaiah and more specifically throughout the new Testament, namely, that the proper mission of the church is first and foremost being the church. We are moving away from a 1950s and 1960s vision of the church as a union of faithful congregations supporting mission and ministry done by professionals and specialized agencies. No one is looking anymore for a church that will give them spiritual resources to cope with the demands of 21st Century life. Churches still selling this useless snake oil are in decline-and deservedly so. The new model of church where I see most energy, creativity and enthusiasm for ministry is among intentional communities of faith that embody an alternative to life under late stage capitalism dictated by the schedules of public school activities, the demands of the work place/profession and that illusive nirvana, “financial security.”
For example, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, California seeks to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing their homes, resources and friendship. Though not maintaining that their lifestyle is absolutely required for committed discipleship, the Sojourners find that such common living provides them with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood, thereby helping them to grow into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.” So too, Reba Place Fellowship began in 1957 as three people sharing life and possessions in one house just north of Chicago. Since then, it has grown into several communities. Today members of Reba live in an urban “village” in Evanston, and in its communal offshoot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Both branches have a mix of apartment buildings, single family houses, and commercial buildings sheltering a variety of cooperative ventures. Perhaps the most fascinating and exciting example of this model is Koinonia Farm. Established in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, Koininia is a Christian community located in Americus, Georgia. Sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship, residents seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing.
The above communities are few and far between, but they are growing and inspiring the development of other such communities. Hewn as they are from the rock of faithful patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and apostles, I have no doubt that God will use them mightily to carry on the church’s mission into the future. As for the rest of us, “the kingdom of God will come without our prayers” or anything else we have to offer. So says our Catechism. But I pray that it may come also among us mainliners; that we will rediscover our radical roots in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; that we will find ourselves “in that number when the saints go marching in” rather than sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.
Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
The psalmist boldly declares that, though s/he walks “in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life.” Vs. 7. Taken alone, this verse might be understood to mean that God will shield the psalmist from all adversity giving him or her a charmed life. But God promises nothing of the kind and the psalmist is well aware of that. The psalmist knows that his/her life is wholly God’s possession. As such, it finds fulfillment in God’s purposes, not the hopes, dreams and expectations of the psalmist. Hence, the declaration of faith in the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.
Verses 3-8 deserve special attention because they distill in concrete practice what Paul has been speaking about for the last eleven chapters. Because all are under the sway of sin and all are liberated by God’s gracious act of mercy in Jesus Christ, no one is in any position to boast over against any other fellow disciple. In light of this reality, “sober judgment” leads to but one conclusion: we are no longer individuals with conflicting rights to be carefully balanced and adjudicated to maintain justice and peace within our community. We are members of one body belonging to Jesus and existing to serve him as head. Accordingly, whatever our gifts may be, they are precisely what the Body needs and are to be exercised in his service.
This vision of community is seldom reflected in our churches which, both on the congregational and denominational levels, operate under corporate, hierarchical models. I used to follow (at a distance) a Facebook page for Lutheran clergy and have discovered that issues of “power” and “who is in charge” come up with depressing regularity. Resort to the congregational constitution seems to be the default strategy for resolving conflict. I am so weary of congregations complaining that their rights have been violated and denominational leaders complaining that their authority is not sufficiently respected. I can hear the exasperated and unheeded voice of St. Paul in the distance: “Do not be conformed to the world…” vs. 2.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Vs. 2. One reason we fear terrorists so much is that we know they have no fear of death. How do you fight an enemy that is not afraid to die? A man willing to sacrifice his body by strapping on a bomb and blowing himself up to take out the enemy is not likely to be detoured by the death penalty! That, too, is why the Roman Empire was so fearful of the church. Disciples of Jesus didn’t cower when threatened with death. They could not be intimidated by torture. They turned the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror, into a sign of victory! The more forcefully Rome employed its imperial might against the church, the more obvious its impotence became. The shock and awe strategy failed spectacularly as the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. If only Christians had the faith of terrorists! If only disciples of Jesus were as ready to sacrifice their lives in the service of the poor, in reconciliation of enemies and in practicing radical hospitality to the homeless as terrorists are ready to die in battle!
The focus on Jesus’ Messianic identity, which began at Matthew 13:54 where Jesus is rejected in his home country, comes to its climax in our lesson for Sunday where Peter makes his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Vs. 16. Jesus asks his disciples who they believe “the Son of man” to be. The disciples’ response indicates that they must understand Jesus to be speaking of himself in the use of this term. They note that some think Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. Herod has already expressed this belief. Matthew 14:2. They also point out that others believe Jesus to be Elijah, whose possible return was left open by his assumption into the heavens. II Kings 2:9-12. By the time of the prophet Malachi, the return of the prophet Elijah was a standard expectation. Malachi 4:5-6. Jeremiah is mentioned, principally as a representative of the latter prophets believed to have returned under Jesus’ identity. Perhaps this is because Jeremiah, more than any other Hebrew prophet, experienced consistent persecution and rejection. In any event, these persons all serve in a negative manner to specify for the reader who Jesus is not.
Unlike the response given by Peter in Mark, Matthew has Peter confessing Jesus not merely as Israel’s long awaited Messiah, but as the Son of the living God. Vs. 16. This statement is not the fruit of Peter’s own deductive reasoning. It comes to him by revelation. Vs. 17. Peter’s confession answers the question of Jesus’ fellow countrymen in Matthew 13:54 (“Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”).
The Greek word “Christos” is used for the Hebrew term “Meshioch” transliterated “Messiah.” It means “anointed one,” frequently referring to a king, though it was also used to designate the patriarchs, a prophet or a priest. (See Psalm 105:15; I Kings 19:16; Psalm 133:2). By the 1st Century, the term was commonly used to denote a successor of King David who was expected to restore the fortunes of Israel, though this was by no means the exclusive expression of messianic hope. Thus, while Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah is correct, the nature of Jesus’ messiahship will not become clear until after his suffering, death and resurrection.
“Son of God” is a term used for Israel’s kings as evidenced by the enthronement hymn, Psalm 2. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. As will become evident in Matthew’s Transfiguration account, the term means much more than this as applied to Jesus. Matthew 17:1-8. Here, too, Matthew will unpack the full meaning of this title in the action to come.
Many trees have been felled and much ink spilt over the interpretation of verses 18-21. Just as the Roman church has insisted that Jesus’ declaration: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” establishes the primacy of Peter and the doctrine of apostolic succession, so protestants have for the most part maintained that the “rock” upon which the church is built is Peter’s confession of Jesus, not Peter himself. The passage does not fully support either position. It is clear from the word play at work “Petros” (Peter) and “petra” (rock) that Jesus is referring to Peter himself as in some way foundational for the church. Yet Matthew, like Mark, employs Peter as the spokesperson for the rest of the disciples. So, just as his remarks to Jesus represent the questions of the twelve, Jesus’ response must also be seen as directed to all of them. The church, then, is founded upon the witness of the Apostles; however, the case for the primacy of Peter among them is wanting in my opinion. This passage is silent about matters of apostolic succession. That is not to say a biblical case cannot be made in its favor, but only that one who would make it must look elsewhere in the scriptures for support. I think that commentator John Nolland sums it up best:
“The attempt to draw form Mt. 16:18 conclusions as to whether Peter has successors is doomed to failure. It is to press the imagery too hard to assign an exclusive foundational role to Peter. Peter has the privilege of being named in this role, but others participated with him in all that he did and was. In addition, in every new situation there will be those who play a foundational role for Jesus’ building of his church. But sharing the role produces too many partners and successors. On the other hand, the apostles are clearly called upon to play an unrepeatable role, and Peter clearly has some kind of primacy among them. Here there is a genuine claim to exclusivity, but not one that allows any specific place for a successor. But this is not to say that this tradition about Peter should not have inspired the church to focus on its fidelity to the foundations of the faith in terms of a Peter figure from generation to generation.”Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 670.
Matthew is the only gospel that uses the term “ekklasia,” the Greek word our English Bibles translate as “church.” The word means “gathered group” or “assembly.” Matthew’s understanding of the church is fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Matthew 23:1-12. Thus, whatever leadership role is given to the twelve in this passage must be exercised in a way consistent with this vision. One of Jesus’ chief criticisms of the religious leaders in his day is set forth in Matthew 23:13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men…” The keys to the kingdom are given to Peter precisely so that the kingdom may be opened to all people. Thus, however one might interpret the power to “bind” and “lose” given to Peter in verse 19, it cannot be understood as license to blockade the kingdom. Even when the church finds it necessary to excommunicate and treat a former member as a “gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), one must keep in mind the manner in which Jesus consistently reached out to gentiles and tax collectors. To excommunicate a member is therefore to assume enhanced responsibility and concern for that member.
Appeal to my Christian Friends who voted for Donald Trump; a poem by Langston Hughes and the Lessons for Sunday, August 20th
ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7
The open and inclusive invitation extended by the prophet Isaiah to all peoples of every nation to enter into the temple and participate in Israel’s covenant with her God was on display this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia as a group of clergy from different faith backgrounds and varied racial and cultural origins walked through the city, arms linked, while silently offering prayers. All of this stands in stark contrast to the shouts of “blood and soil” chanted in those same streets at what was supposed to be a rally by white supremacists. The quiet, but forceful witness of the church testifies to the world and reminds us fellow Christians that ours is not a faith of blood and soil. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. What defines us is our baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ that cuts across racial, national and tribal boundaries. Disciples of Jesus have no permanent “soil” on earth to call their own. Their lifeblood is that of the Son of God poured out for the sake of the world. As Paul points out in his letter to the Philippians and the author of Hebrews makes very clear, “our commonwealth is in heaven.” While we wait for and witness to the advent of a new heaven and a new earth, we live as resident aliens in and among the nations.
All of this is so obvious that it should not have to be said. But unfortunately, saying it loud and clear is now more important than ever before. The events in Charlottesville should be a wakeup call for us all. If anyone still harbored doubt that the ugly specter of white supremacy is far from dead, the horrific and violent bloodletting unleashed by “Unite the Right” over the weekend should put that doubt to rest once and for all. Of course, the slumbering demon of racism has been ever present throughout American history making itself felt systemically in our government, schools and work places. Over the last year, however, it has been roused and whipped into a frenzy that has not been seen for a generation. We don’t have to look any further than the 2016 election to find the source of this growing malignancy. Right wing persons, publications and entities, once considered fringe elements, have wormed their way into the political mainstream. These include The Daily Stormer, a leading neo-Nazi news site; Richard Spencer, director of the National Policy Institute, which aims to promote the “heritage, identity, and future of European people”; Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, a Virginia-based white nationalist magazine; Michael Hill, head of the League of the South, an Alabama-based white supremacist secessionist group; and Brad Griffin, a member of Hill’s League of the South and author of the popular white supremacist blog Hunter Wallace. Their uniform support of Donald Trump is undisputed and I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that his campaign and his presidency have lent legitimacy to white supremacy that, in turn, has made it “cool” once again to be racist.
After the events of last week, it is no longer possible to dismiss white supremacy groups as political freak show curiosities. They clearly have a significant following and are capable of dangerous acts of terrorism. And now I am going to say something a lot of you will find difficult to hear. Those of you, my fellow Christians, who cast your ballot last November for Donald Trump are responsible for the carnage in Charlottesville. Yes, I know that most of you are decent people who want nothing to do with white supremacists and roundly condemn their hateful ideology. I know that you probably supported Donald Trump for a lot of legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with racism. I understand that many of you felt you had no reasonable alternative to Trump. But I cannot ignore the facts. Before the November election:
You knew that in the 1970s Donald Trump’s real estate companies in New York systematically discriminated against people of color in their rentals and that, after a lengthy court battle, Trump was compelled to bring his practices into compliance with laws against discrimination under regulatory supervision. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump propagated the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and therefore unqualified to be president. You knew that he continued to make this baseless assertion years after it had been thoroughly debunked. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump painted Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as drug dealers and rapists. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump stated publicly and has never withdrawn his assertion that an American born federal judge was incapable of deciding a case involving a white man because he was of Mexican heritage. And though even most Republicans found the remark to be racist, you voted for him anyway.
During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump savagely attacked the Muslim family of an American soldier who gave his life serving the nation in Iraq. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump refused to distance himself from the support of avowed white supremacist and former KKK grand wizard David Duke for days and finally issued the most tepid of disclaimers against him much later. Nevertheless, Duke continued and still does support Donald Trump. And you voted for him anyway.
Spin them anyway you wish, these are facts well known before the November 2016 election. Aware of these facts, you voted for Donald Trump. And now, my friends, you share responsibility for Charlottesville. If you believe that your vote matters, if you believe that the people you elect to public office are an extension of the will of the people, then you have to acknowledge that the blood of young Heather Heyer, mowed down along with several other people and killed by a white supremacist over the weekend, is on your hands. You are, in part, answerable to the numerous victims of hate crimes that have been increasing at an alarming rate since the election of 2016. As harsh as that may sound, it is true and you need to own it. With the right to vote comes the duty to exercise that vote responsibly and to respond responsibly to all of the consequences.
Again, let me repeat that voting for Donald Trump does not make you a racist or a bad person. Maybe you didn’t think his remarks on race mattered. Maybe you thought his racial slurs were just empty rhetoric and that they would not affect his presidency or his policies. Maybe you assumed the talk of banning Muslims, delegitimizing the first African American president, calling Mexicans rapists and claiming that they are unfit to serve in government was all a lot of harmless campaign puffery that would evaporate after the inauguration. But now you know better. Now you have no excuse for failing to recognize the demon of racial hatred and violence let loose in our country by the overtly racist and violent rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency. Now you know that you have helped to elect a government and a president who, at the very least, have created an environment friendly to overt, terroristic white supremacy. So the question is, now that you know, what are you going to do about it?
Understand that I am not writing this because I am angry with you. I am not writing these words to alienate you. I am writing these words because I need you. Your church needs you. The victims of racism need your voice. Folks, we can disagree about national security, healthcare, tax reform and a whole host of political issues without imperiling our unity in Christ. But there should be no issue when it comes to naming and expelling the demon of white supremacy. You need to do just that-in your church, on the job, at the barbershop, in correspondence with your elected representatives. Together we need to create an environment in our country where racist rhetoric, racist humor and racist practices are unable to take root and grow. By standing together, arm and arm, we can shame the likes of Richard Spencer and David Duke into silence and drive them and their kind back under the rock out from under which they slithered. Please. I’m counting on you.
Here’s a poem by Langston Hughes-or perhaps a prayer-particularly fitting for these times.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!
Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight through listening to a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
It is not clear to me why the lectionary omits verses 2-5 as they seem to make up an integral part of the reading. “Happy is the mortal…” (Vs. 2) echoes the form of Psalm 1 which sets forth the two paths a human life may take: righteousness or wickedness. Righteousness is not simply general goodness or ethical behavior. It is a life of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. Sabbath observation is a critical sign of such faithfulness. According to Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath rest is woven into the very fabric of creation. Though ever a central commandment, Sabbath observance became even more important during the Babylonian Exile where it served as a line of demarcation between Israel’s covenant life and the surrounding pagan culture. The Sabbath was a visible sign of Jewish solidarity and identity.
It appears that Sabbath observance might have gone a bit lax within the community of the returned exiles. That would explain why the prophet urges his people to keep it. Vs. 2. Verses 3-5 are remarkable in that they offer full membership and participation in the covenant community to eunuchs and foreigners, both of which were excluded from the assembly of Israel under some provisions of the Pentateuch. Eg., Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Only decades later, Ezra the scribe would take a more severe and exclusive stance toward outsiders. Ezra 9-10. As far as Third Isaiah is concerned, however, Sabbath observance and adherence to the commandments are what determine membership in the community of Israel, not blood. Foreigners are not merely tolerated but welcomed and encouraged to flock to the Lord’s mountain that the sanctuary there might become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Vs. 7. Such is the generous invitation from the God who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 8.
This openness to foreigners runs contrary to the current mood in our country, which is now more consistent with that of Ezra. Presented with these two words of scripture (Isaiah and Ezra) each carrying a very different message, we must determine which one of the two is God’s word to us at this time. The temptation is to select the one that comports with our own view of what is right and just. That can be hazardous as human nature always bends the scriptures to favor its own self-centered needs and desires. In the end, the polestar of our hermeneutic is Jesus. This Sunday’s gospel tips the scale decisively in the direction of openness and inclusion.
Based on verse 6, most commentators agree that this psalm is a harvest hymn giving thanks for a bountiful year. The song has a recognizable structure. It opens and closes with prayers for blessing that ultimately will lead to worldwide recognition and praise of Israel’s God. The middle section falls into two parts calling for universal praise: verses 3-4 call the nations to praise God for God’s just judgment and guidance. Verses 5-6 invite praise for God’s generous bounty in the form of a fruitful yield. Rogerson, J.W. and McKray, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 81.
“The Lord Bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us.” Vs. 1. These ancient lines are similar to and might be taken from the “Aaronic Benediction” (Numbers 6:24-26). Use of the word “Elohim” for “God” as opposed to “Yahweh” has suggested to some scholars that the psalm may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More likely, however, this is a very ancient form that has its roots in the period of the Judges. There is no mention of monarchy (either North or South) or Jerusalem.
“Let all peoples praise you, Oh God (Elohim).” Again, God’s works on behalf of Israel are to result in the praise of all people. This hymn affirms the belief that God is the God not only of Israel, but of all the earth. He is therefore exalted as a righteous judge and guide for all peoples. This echo of themes found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) has led a few commentators to date it after the Babylonian Exile. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Israel always viewed her God as supreme over all the nations. Moreover, the similarities to Second Isaiah could be the result of editing at a later time.
As noted above, verse 5 suggests that the psalm may have been composed for use as a hymn of thanksgiving for a fruitful harvest. Just as the Lord has brought about a successful growing year resulting in prosperity for Israel, so God’s life giving power will spread to the whole earth as Israel’s God is recognized as God of all peoples. The psalm concludes with a prayer for continued blessing that will have ripple effects to the ends of the earth. In the end, all the ends of the earth will revere the God of Israel who is, in reality, the God of all peoples. Vs. 6.
This chapter of Romans is critically important. It deals with a question very near to St. Paul’s heart, namely, the place of his own people, the Jews, in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. If there is one take away verse in this chapter it is verse 1: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” This verse is important because it puts the lie to nearly two millennia of Christian theology teaching precisely the view that Paul here rejects, namely, “supersessionism.” In short, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism. From this conclusion it follows that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s Chosen people. In its more extreme forms, the doctrine holds Jews solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and for that reason maintains that they are thoroughly rejected by God. This view has dominated the thinking of Christian theologians about Judaism until relatively recently and continues to enjoy support in many quarters.
It is important to remember that, in Paul’s time, there was no “Christianity” distinct from Judaism. The Jesus movement, sometimes called simply “the way,” was a reform movement within Judaism. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever dreamed of starting a new religion separate from Judaism. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and the conduit through which gentile believers were brought into God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Both Israel and the church were indispensable partners with God in the drama of redemption.
So how did we get to where we are today? The answer to that question is bigger than can be addressed on this post. But suffice to say that throughout the first century the line between church and synagogue had not been sharply drawn. It appears that Paul moved freely between the church and the synagogue in his ministry. Although some rupture occurred between the Jesus movement in Palestine and the Sanhedrin governing most of the Jewish community in the 90s C.E., there is documentation showing that disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues well into the 2nd Century C.E. If an event signifying the final break between church and synagogue could be identified, it would probably be the rise of emperor Constantine under whose influence Christianity became the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. In 380 C.E. Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by emperor Theodosius. From that point forward, all other religion, Judaism included, was disfavored if not strictly illegal. The Jews found themselves increasingly alienated in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Suspicion and fear of these communities that would not be assimilated into the larger culture often erupted into violent pogroms. The carnage reached its climax during the middle ages when knights on their way to crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land routinely destroyed Jewish communities and murdered their inhabitants along the way. Although the Renaissance saw greater tolerance and acceptance of Jews that continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, anti-semitism lay close under the surface. A deadly mix of these fierce cultural undercurrents of fear and hatred against Jews with the pseudo-scientific theory of white supremacy bequeathed by Enlightenment rationalism run amok infected Germany and several other nations with genocidal madness never before seen on the planet. The slaughter of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe finally led to a much needed (and far too tardy) reconsideration of the doctrine of supersessionism.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a good place to start in reconsidering the relationship of the church to Israel. Paul’s assertion that God does not reject Israel is simply the natural outcome of the view he has been expressing from the beginning concerning salvation by grace. God does not go back on his promises. Therefore, Israel’s disobedience no more invalidates God’s covenant with her than does the church’s disobedience void the promises made in baptism. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Vs. 29. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits Paul’s words to his gentile audience about the importance of Israel in the redemptive purpose of God and the fact that they, as outsiders to the covenant, have been graciously incorporated into the household of God just as wild olive branches grafted into a cultivated tree. Vss. 17-24. As such, the gentiles ought not to vaunt their status over Jews who as yet do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The rejection of Jesus by some Jews does not amount to God’s rejection of them. All Israel is and remains God’s elect by grace. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are fulfilling the purpose for which God called them.
Paul goes on to explain that the hearts of many of the Jewish people have been hardened toward Jesus-not because God is rejecting them, but because this hardening will open the way for faith among the gentiles. The faith of the gentiles will, in turn, awaken jealousy among the Jews that will ultimately draw them to faith in Jesus. Vss. 11-12; 25-28. I must confess in all humility that this is where I fall off the caboose in Pauls’ train of thought. It is not clear to me how Israel’s rejection of Jesus facilitates the faith of the gentiles or how the faith of the gentiles will finally draw Israel to Jesus. Obviously, that is not how things worked out historically. Nevertheless, be that as it may, Paul is absolutely clear about two things: 1) Israel is God’s people by the grace of election every bit as much as the church; 2) Israel plays an indispensable role in the redemption God is working out for all of creation. The church must therefore never understand itself as “the new and improved Israel” or as Israel’s replacement.
Every so often, the lectionary gets things right. Here the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” is further illuminated by the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus makes the point that one does not become unclean by what s/he consumes or by what s/he handles. Nor does one avoid uncleanness by adhering strictly to ritual practices. One is polluted by those things that fester deep in the heart. From a heart infected by greed, lust, anger and folly proceed evil words and actions.
In the Gospel of Mark, the woman in our lesson is described as Syro-Phoenician. Mark 7:24-30. Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite. Throughout the Pentateuch Moses repeatedly warned the people of Israel to have no dealings of any kind with Canaanites. Canaanites were to be exterminated thoroughly without mercy: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them…” Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Canaanites were repeatedly blamed throughout the Book of Judges for leading Israel into idolatry and betrayal of her covenant with God. That there probably were no persons living at the time of Jesus whose linage could have been traced to the Canaanite peoples of the Bronze Age is beside the point. Matthew wishes to make clear that this woman is the epitome of “unclean” in terms of Hebrew sensibilities. Yet she recognizes Jesus as “Lord,” and addresses him as “Son of David.” Her persistent plea for Jesus’ salvation for her daughter comes from a heartfelt confidence in Jesus’ ability and willingness to save. She, unlike Jesus’ ritually sensitive critics, is “clean.”
It is important that we avoid “dumbing down” this story. It is tempting to treat it as a morality play praising the heartfelt devotion of this woman while deriding the superficial ritualism of the Pharisees. Let us give the Pharisees their due. Faithful practices are essential to the development of character shaped by virtue. The ritual provisions of the Torah were designed to remind Israel in each of the most mundane and routine tasks of daily living that she belonged to her God. Prayer was woven into the fabric of work and play. Each meal was an act of worship and a celebration of community. There was no artificial division in Hebrew thought between secular and sacred such as we more or less take for granted today.
Jesus had no objection to ritual observances, but he would have us know that all such observances presuppose a covenant relationship of grace between God and the community of faith. To those on the outside, these observances must witness to the generosity of God and serve as an invitation to participate in that generosity. A community formed by the virtues of Torah and which practices Torah accordingly appeals to persons experiencing a hunger they didn’t know they had for a God they do not yet know. It is precisely for this reason that Judaism has in fact drawn proselytes from all the surrounding cultures in which it has made its home. That Jews have not historically sought such converts only further serves to illustrate the point.
Nonetheless, when religious practices become ends in themselves their meaning is distorted no matter how deeply scriptural they may be. That goes for Christian as well as Jewish practices. When prayer, the sacraments, preaching, fasting, tithing and Bible Study are used to manipulate, control and maintain power rather than to strengthen the covenant and nourish the community of faith, they become demonic. When observance becomes a measure of one’s worthiness to be part of the community of faith rather than means for inviting participation and strengthening membership, it conceals an unclean devotion to self-promotion and control of others. Under these circumstances, the joyous invitation to repent and believe in the good news is obscured.
TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Storms rage around us and cause us to be afraid.” So says the prayer of the day and it hits the nail on the head. I am afraid. I’m not so much afraid for myself. Straight white males like me haven’t much to fear in the way of oppression and never have. I am afraid, however, for my friends who are people of color whose position becomes ever more tenuous under the growing tide of white supremacy that has found its way into the mainstream and even into the once hallowed halls of the White House. I am afraid for my daughters, my granddaughter and all the women I love whose safety and well-being has casually been devalued by our country’s appalling indifference to the history of sexual predatory conduct dogging the man it elected to the highest office of law enforcement in the land. I am particularly afraid for many family members, friends and colleagues who identify as gay, lesbian and transgendered against whom, in an effort to whip up support from the army of deplorables that created it, the present administration has unleashed a string of punitive executive initiatives, including the discharge of all transgendered persons serving in the military, many of whom have served for years with courage and distinction. I am sickened by the growing chorus of hatred against these people I love by the unholy choir of so-called “evangelical” Christians and the willingness of our ruling party to grovel at their feet to win their votes by codifying their bigotry into cruel, repressive, humiliating and unjust laws. Most of all, I am frightened by my own church’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront this darkness with a bold proclamation of Jesus as gospel.
I can’t say that I fully understand the sentiments of Elijah in our first lesson for this coming Sunday. Nobody has ever persecuted me on account of my faith. Truth is, when it comes to mistreatment, I have born a lot more hostility, insult and injury from within the church than from the world outside. But even the worst of that does not amount to anything like persecution. Still, like Elijah, I do at times feel tired, lonely, isolated and, yes, frightened. I sometimes wish I could wake up and discover that the last seven months have been a terrible nightmare and that Barak Obama, George Bush or any other president whose administration I have lived through were still in the White House.
I’d like for God to end these fearful storms we are experiencing, but that is not what is promised. Elijah receives only the bare assurance that he is not altogether alone, that God still has important work for him to do and that the purposes for which God called him will be fulfilled, though perhaps not in his lifetime. The psalmist is not saved from his/her distress, but assured that his/her prayer and hope for a new day have been heard. Though Jesus quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, we know that there are greater storms ahead. All Jesus’ disciples know is that Jesus will be there to help them navigate through. That has to be sufficient. We don’t get an end to the storm, only enough (sometimes just enough) hope, faith and courage to weather it. We don’t get a road map for the journey. We get only enough light to take the next step. We don’t get a game plan. We only have the same instructions Jesus gave us two thousand years ago to speak good news to the poor boldly and truthfully, live generously without anxiety, care for the poor, the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry and the stranger. We are invited to stand with Jesus as he stands with the powerless and persecuted-whether it is politically popular or not. We don’t always get to see the fruition of our labors. We get only the assurance that God will work with them to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s own good time.
Finally, we are again invited to believe in the reign of God inaugurated in Jesus. That is the one reliable anecdote to fear. After all, racism, nationalism, hate and bigotry (even under the cloak of religion) have no future. Tomorrow belongs to the Lord. All we need to know about tomorrow is that it brings us another day closer to that age when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; one day closer to the day when, in the words of the psalmist:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
In the meantime, we pray that God’s’ will may at least be done among us and through us for a world desperately in need of God’s reign of love.
Lo! The hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.
“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Text: Harry E. Fosdick, 1878-1969 Tune: CWM RHONDDA, Evangelical Worship, # 705.
Here is a poem about soldiering on in hope through history against the tides of overwhelming opposition by Nikki Giovanni.
The Song of the Feet
It is appropriate that I sing
The song of the feet
The weight of the body
And what the body chooses to bear
Fall on me
I trampled the American wilderness
Forged frontier trails
Outran the mob in Tulsa
Got caught in Philadelphia
And am still unreparated
I soldiered on in Korea
Jungled through Vietman sweated out Desert Storm
Caved my way through Afghanistan
Tunneled the World Trade Center
And on the worst day of my life
Walked behind JFK
Stood embracing Sister Betty
I wiggle my toes
In the sands of time
Trusting the touch that controls my motion
Basking in the warmth of the embrace
Day’s end offers with warm salty water
It is appropriate I sing
The praise of the feet
I am a Black woman
Source: Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (c. 2002 by Nikki Giovanni, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2002) Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was born 1943 in Knoxville, Kentucky and attended Fisk University, a prestigious, all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee from which she graduated in 1968. From there she went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York. Giovanni authored several volumes of poetry for children and adults. She is the recipient of multiple NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award and over twenty honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country. You can read more about Nikki Giovanni and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The most fascinating character in the Book of I Kings is not a king at all, but the prophet Elijah. Elijah first appears during the reign of King Ahab over the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Continuing the policies of his father, Ahab renewed Israel’s Phoenician treaties solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess with a fierce loyalty to her god, Baal. Though Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel, he did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.
Elijah the prophet appears as if out of nowhere announcing to King Ahab a drought that would soon devastate the land of Israel for three years and end only upon the prophet’s word. At the prompting of the Lord, Elijah flees and lives for the next three years as a fugitive. Ahab, knowing that Elijah holds the key to ending the drought, seeks him throughout Israel and asks for extradition privileges from any other kingdom in which the prophet might seek refuge. At the end of the three year period, Elijah reveals himself to the king with a proposition. Let there be a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal. The God of Israel challenges Baal to a duel-high noon at Mr. Carmel. Let two altars be built, one for Baal and one for the Lord. The god who consumes the sacrificial animal on his altar is God indeed. Ahab agrees and the prophets of Baal turn out in force and build their altar. Elijah, too, builds an altar and places his offering upon it. Fire from heaven consumes the offering on Elijah’s altar. Baal is a no show. A rain storm follows breaking the drought. Everyone knows who to thank.
You would think the matter had been settled once and for all. Wrong. Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, issues a death warrant for Elijah. Once again, Elijah is a fugitive. Understandably, he is despondent. Three years of toil, sacrifice and danger with nothing to show for it. Baal still rules the religious roost in Israel, the priests of the Lord are being murdered or driven into exile and Elijah is a homeless fugitive. That is the state in which we find him at the top of Mount Horeb in our lesson for Sunday.
The voice of the Lord is sought in earthquake, wind and fire. But the word of the Lord is not found in any of these dramatic phenomena. Rather, that word is revealed in a “still, small voice,” as the RSV translates it. Vs. 12. The NRSV translates the term as “a sound of sheer silence,” seemingly an oxymoron (or perhaps foreshadowing Simon & Garfunkel?). The Hebrew word is unclear, but perhaps the critical and operative term is “voice” or “sound.” It is through the word that God achieves God’s purposes-not through spectacular shows of force. If fireworks could turn the heart of Israel back to her God, surely the fire from heaven coming down on Mr. Carmel would have been enough to do the trick. But miraculous shows of power alone, like the miracles Jesus performed, are incapable of producing faith. At best, they inspire fear and amazement. They might show that God is powerful, but they do not demonstrate conclusively that God is good.
Elijah gets a word that is not altogether encouraging. Seven thousand people in all Israel remain faithful to the Lord and have not worshiped Baal. Vs. 18. That isn’t very many. Elijah is instructed to anoint a new king for Syria, Israel’s arch enemy. Vs. 15. That cannot be a good sign. He is also instructed to anoint a new king for Israel. This is somewhat hopeful as it indicates God’s determination to bring Ahab’s corrupt line to an end. Finally, Elijah is instructed to anoint his own successor. This can only mean that Elijah will not live to see the work of his ministry completed. He will come to the end of his life with a lot of loose ends still hanging out there.
That might be God’s word to the church in the United States-or at least the protestant part of it. Gone are the days when protestant Christianity was recognized as the de facto religion of the United States. Gone are the days when businesses, sports leagues and civic programs ceased their activities on Sunday morning out of deference to the church. Gone are the days when everyone went to church somewhere (or claimed they did because they knew they were expected to go). The culture we live in today is largely indifferent to traditional, mainline Christianity. We are increasingly discovering that we must make the case for why Jesus is important, why the church matters and what difference all of this makes in one’s day to day life. In other words, we need to start doing what Jesus has been telling us to do for centuries: make disciples. Churches that are finding ways to do that are thriving. Churches that are carrying on with business as usual and simply hoping that people will someday come back are dying. That is the long and short of it.
There is much good news here for those with ears to hear it. The good news is that the reign of God is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom’s coming will be in God’s own time and in God’s own way. We are privileged to take part in that drama. We don’t get to choose our parts or write the script. For a church that has gotten used to being a powerful and respected force within society, becoming a smaller and poorer community speaking from the margins of society is a bitter pill to swallow. But for a church that recognizes in its poverty, decline and weakness the still small voice of God’s word, which is the only thing of value it has ever really had, this ancient scripture opens up new vistas of hope and promise.
This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety. If you read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it starts with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
Paul’s argument here is based on a passage in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Paul begins by reiterating what he has said previously: that if one would justify himself/herself by the law, one must do more than learn it and adhere to the letter. One must live by it. That, as Paul has already pointed out, is impossible while we remain in the flesh. The flesh is forever using the law to justify itself, ingratiate itself to God and elevate itself over others. Rightly understood, the law is a gift given to Israel to protect her freedom. It is the servant of love, never the master. Wrongly understood, the law is something that must be retrieved by “go[ing] up to heaven” or “cross[ing] to the other side of the sea.” In fact, the law has already been given to Israel to assure her blessedness in the promised land. But it does not secure God’s favor. The Book of Deuteronomy from which Paul quotes has already made clear from the outset that it is not because of any greatness or goodness on Israel’s part that God loves her: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. God loves Israel no more when she is obedient and no less when she is disobedient.
So Paul comes back once again to his gospel moorings. The “word” which is near us is the good news about Jesus Christ that inspires confident trust in God’s promises: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Vs. 9. This is wildly important and tragically misunderstood. “Belief” is not mere intellectual assent. Perhaps some of you can recall the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion program purporting to school believers in the art of evangelism. Would be evangelists are instructed to ask those to whom they witness: “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your response?” The problem with this whole approach is that it treats faith as though it were mere intellectual assent to a doctrinal proposition. What you need to get into God’s good graces is information. You have to come up with the correct answer and articulate it correctly.
That is nothing like the heartfelt trust in Jesus that Paul is talking about. Faith is the conviction that God raised Jesus from death. The tomb is empty. If that really is the case, human life should look altogether different than the way we experience it. If God raised the man who fed five thousand with just five loaves, then we ought not to sweat a few thousand children crossing the border into our country. If God raised from the dead the man who would not take up the sword in his own defense, then there is no reason any disciple of Jesus should feel the need to own a fire arm for self-defense. If God raised the preacher that gave us the Sermon on the Mount, there is no reason why any believer in Jesus should not be tithing his or her income. Quite frankly, the problem is that there are more atheists in the church than outside it. Functional atheism confesses Jesus with the lips but does not believe with the heart that God raised him from death. To borrow another phrase from Paul, too many of us are “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. That is why churches fight constantly over budgets. That is why the average percentage of income given yearly by the average Lutheran church member is a whopping 1.9%. That is why Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour in the United States. That is why protestant denominations are turning to highly paid consultants, resorting to capital fund drives and fundraising gimmicks under the false label of “stewardship” to save their institutional souls. All that religious stuff is fine for children and little old church ladies. But we all know that in the real world you have to be practical. So when it comes time to talk money, we politely ask Jesus to leave the room.
Paul would have us know that there are two starkly different claims about what is real and only one of them can be true. Either you believe that Jesus is still dead, that everything he lived for was hopelessly idealistic and impractical, or you believe that God said “yes” to the life Jesus lived by raising him from death. If Jesus is still in the tomb, nothing has changed. If the tomb is empty, everything is changed. Once you get it through your head and into your heart that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive, you don’t listen to practical advice from the worldly wise telling you how impossible it is to walk on the surface of the sea-which brings us right to the gospel for Sunday.
The lesson follows directly on last week’s story about the feeding of the five thousand plus. Now that the crowds have been fed, Jesus dismisses them. He “compels” his disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Because Jesus sends them “ahead of him” we can assume that he meant to catch up to them at some point. The disciples are making their way across the sea against a strong headwind when they spot Jesus walking on the surface of the sea. Understandably terrified by what they take to be a ghostly apparition, the disciples cry out in terror. Immediately, Jesus calls out to them and urges them not to be afraid. Peter then replies, “Lord, if it really is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Vs. 28. Interestingly, Peter seeks a command from Jesus. Apparently, he knows that he is incapable of such a feat on his own. When Jesus replies, “come,” Peter steps out of the boat onto the water and comes to Jesus. Vs. 29.
The way Matthew tells it, Peter is not entirely clueless as he is portrayed in Mark’s gospel. He believes that Jesus is both capable of walking on the sea and that he is capable of enabling Peter to do the same. This belief is not merely theoretical as Peter’s first step out of the boat onto the water demonstrates. Moreover, when Peter begins to sink as a result of his doubt, he nevertheless knows to call out to Jesus for salvation. His faith, albeit “little,” is nonetheless genuine. So, too, the disciples confess Jesus as God’s son-a conclusion never reached by any of the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Yet this knowledge, like Peter’s faith, is not fully formed. There is more to Jesus than meets the eye and more yet to be learned and absorbed.
The telling of this story is perhaps shaped by Psalm 107 which narrates the perils faced by pilgrims making their way to the place of worship in Jerusalem and God’s saving intervention on their behalf. Of particular interest are verses 23-32:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Just as the pilgrims in the psalm recognize the compassion and salvation of God in their escape from the dangers of the sea, so the disciples are compelled to worship Jesus who stills the storm and brings them safely to their destination. The face of Israel’s God shines through the works of his messiah.
Though they recognize Jesus as “God’s Son,” the disciples still must learn what sort of Son Jesus is. Their failure to understand or accept the death Jesus predicts for himself in Jerusalem, their failure to anticipate Jesus’ resurrection and their continued doubt even in the presence of the resurrected Christ show that the disciples’ faith leaves much to be desired and will require continual growth through challenges yet to come. The message, then, for the church from Jesus is this: your faith is genuine; you have what you need to be my disciples; but your faith is still “little” and in need of nourishment, formation and maturity. One never graduates from the school of discipleship.