Hard words and the cost of not speaking them; a poem by Emily Dickinson; and the lessons for Sunday, September 10th

Image result for silence in the face of evilFOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 33:7–11
Psalm 119:33–40
Romans 13:8–14
Matthew 18:15–20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 33:8

The Lord makes clear to his prophet that silence is not an option. A person who possesses a truth that ought to be spoken and remains silent is as guilty as those who act contrary to that truth. Moreover, it is no excuse that the truth is likely to be resisted, rejected and ignored. It is not for the prophet to determine whether the word given him/her to speak is likely to be effective. The prophet cannot presume to know God’s intended purpose for God’s word. God’s word might as easily harden hearts as melt them. It is, after all, God’s word. God will use it in whatever manner, in whatever time and for whatever purpose God desires. The prophet’s responsibility is simply to ensure that the word is spoken and released into the world of its hearers.

It falls to God’s prophets to speak hard words. Hard words make for angry outbursts, awkward silences and divided communities. Telling the truth disrupts the lying narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our country, about our acts of selfish meanness and about the people we call enemies. Truthfulness frequently breaches the peace. But God knows that the truth is the only antidote for what ails us. It’s the only medicine that can make us free. So Ezekiel is commissioned to tell his exiled people the truth of their predicament. The Promised Land, the line of David and the temple in Jerusalem have all been taken away from them as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The people need to hear, understand and own this hard truth before they can hear God’s word of forgiveness and promise for Israel’s future. Ezekiel’s silence would have contributed to the painful breach between God and God’s people. It would have made healing and reconciliation impossible.

Hard words should be hard to speak. I worry about preachers who, under the rubric of being “prophetic,” take a perverse delight in shocking, angering and dividing the church. Make no mistake about it, I believe that the Word of God discomforts the comfortable, that he Holy Spirit disrupts our expectations and that the object of our worship is, as Professor Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, an “unsettling God.” But unless a word is as unsettling to the prophet as to his/her audience, it is unlikely a word of God. A true prophet never speaks down in anger toward the people from some platform above the people. The genuine prophet stands with the people under the same judgment s/he proclaims to the community. Amos pleaded with God to soften the judgment on Israel he was told to announce. When Isaiah encountered the Lord in the temple he acknowledged that he was a sinful man among sinful people. Jeremiah lamented bitterly the task of pronouncing Judah’s doom. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures knew that their fate was bound to that of their people. Like the God for whom they spoke, they took “no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Ezekiel 33:11.

Nevertheless, the hard words must be spoken. It is better that the church be divided by the truth than united under something less. To be sure, it is not easy to speak plainly about white privilege and how it continues to hamper people of color from achieving genuine freedom and equality. It is hard to be confronted with the reality of sexual discrimination, intimidation and harassment that is the everyday experience of women and girls in our schools, workplaces and, sadly, the church. Overcoming two millennia of bad science and bad theology that have bred contempt for sexual minorities is proving to be a painful and difficult task for our churches. None of us who have spent our lives working to achieve financial security like being reminded that we have reached this coveted goal at the expense of billions living in poverty.

In the face of all this discomfort, we are strongly tempted to avoid hard words. Isn’t the church a place of communal love? Does bringing the divisiveness of our culture into the church make that love grow? Are we not simply making the church into a microcosm of our polarized society? Doesn’t all of this controversial stuff just offend our people and undermine our ability minister compassionately and be present to them when they desperately need our care in times of personal distress? There is some validity to these concerns. Again, speech that places the prophet on a higher moral plane than the rest of the community, speech that only lectures, judges and condemns is not genuinely prophetic. A prophet must be one whose life demonstrates genuine compassion for his/her people and their everyday concerns. S/he must be fully transparent about his/her own complicity in the evils s/he identifies and honest about his/her own faults, blind spots and failures. Only so will his/her prophetic speech be received as credible and reveal not only the depths of the community’s sin, but also the passionate love of a God who wounds only in order to heal and who breaks down only to build back better and stronger.

Sometimes truth needs to be slipped in through the back door. A frontal assault on one’s deeply held opinion is likely to arouse defensiveness and cause one to cling all the more tenaciously to that opinion. That is why Jesus employed parables. That is why the prophets often used poetic imagery to make their point. When King David committed murder and adultery, the prophet Nathan did not begin by confronting him with irrefutable facts proving his guilt or moral lectures aimed at changing his behavior. Instead, he told a story that drew the king into it so deeply that he did not realize until too late that he himself was the villain and not the hero he imagined himself to be. So, too, Jesus’ parables re-frame issues in ways that force us to challenge old assumptions about sinfulness, righteousness, faith and unbelief. Rather than bludgeoning us into submission, the truth seduces us.

Here are some wise words from Emily Dickinson on truth telling.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Ezekiel 33:7–11

Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

The image of the prophet as “watchman” or “sentinel” is a common one. Vs. 7. Cf. Isaiah 21:6Jeremiah 6:17. For a walled city located near a hostile frontier, the sentinel served as an early warning system. The fate of the city might well depend on the sentinel’s ability to detect and warn the city’s defenders of an approaching enemy. His failure to sound the alarm might seal the city’s doom. So also the prophet bears a heavy responsibility for warning the people about the consequences of their sinful and self-destructive behavior. As grave as the people’s sin would be the prophet’s failure to denounce it in their hearing.

Verses 10-11 indicate that the people have gotten the message loud and clear. “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” vs. 10. This is no vain question. We all know there are sins that leave lasting scars upon us and others. Sometimes a relationship is so deeply wounded by unfaithfulness and betrayal that it can never be healed. Yet that is not the case for Israel and her covenant relationship with her God. The door is open for Israel’s return. This section of Ezekiel, then, prepares the way for the promises and visions that will be the burden of the last part of the book. Jenson, Robert, W., Ezekiel, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert W. Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 254.

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Vs. 11. Yet so much of our cinematic entertainment is grounded in just such pleasure. That is so, I believe, because cinematic art is capable of flattening and simplifying our universe in such a way as to eliminate moral ambiguity. On the screen, evil people are so thoroughly evil and devoid of humanity that their destruction hardly counts even as justifiable homicide. Conflicts lack the historical baggage, cultural subtleties and ethical conundrums plaguing non-virtual, flesh and blood confrontations between individuals, groups and nations. One might argue that, while this is all true, we are dealing here with entertainment. Of course the real world is too varied and complex to fit into a two hour movie. The stage can never replicate life, but only show us a glimmer of it. Yet, be that as it may, when a popular genre generates repeatedly and consistently stories of conflict that admit of no other solution than violence, it can easily start to color the way we process the real world. Worse still, it can distort our view of the scriptures and the character of our God.

John Correia, preacher at an Arizona church, said in a recent article: “What fuels my passion for guns and self defense? First and foremost my Christian faith.” Read the entire article if you wish. Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up. He goes on to say, “I wish everyone got along, I wish that everybody was nice, but they’re not. And until we get into that perfect world where Jesus comes again, we need to be able to protect ourselves and in Luke 22:36 I believe Jesus said ‘let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.’” Though Jesus did say that, he went on to rebuke his disciples when they took him literally as did Pastor Correia. Luke 22:38. Moreover, rather than allow his disciples to use their swords in self defense or in his own defense, Jesus told them to cease fighting immediately and even healed the man they had injured. Luke 22:49-51. If that passage is the best defense the good pastor can put up in support of righteous gun violence, he is firing blanks. It would appear that his Bible is missing a few key chapters-such as the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor Correia is said to have remarked that the only way he would ever willingly give up his firearms was if Jesus personally told him to do so. Well, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52. Seems clear enough to me.

But I digress. The point here is that, once we adopt a world view in which good and evil are neatly divided and the only possible resolution to conflict is violence, we are likely to ignore or simply lose our ability to hear the voice of Jesus in the scriptures. Instead of conforming our lives to the scriptures as interpreted by the cross, we trivialize the cross, treat it as a special case that applied only once and only to Jesus and order our lives by the lights of John Wayne, Chuck Norris or some more moderate philosophy of “realism.” The God of Israel would have us know that this is not how he does business, nor is it the way he would have his people behave. God would have us deal as patiently and forgivingly with our enemies as God dealt with us “while we were enemies” of God. See Romans 5:10.

Psalm 119:33–40

Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.

I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40.

Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”

This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.

Romans 13:8–14

The term “owe no one anything” is a conventional expression for freedom from both monetary and social obligation. Jewett, Robert, Romans, a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 Fortress Press) p. 805. This admonition, deeply rooted as it is in Paul’s concept of the Church as Christ’s Body, is more than mere practical advice. As noted in my post for Sunday, September 3rd, the Roman Empire was a hierarchical society held together by networks of patronage and social obligation with the emperor seated at the apex. Caesar was Lord. The church, however, recognized not Caesar but Jesus as Lord. The social order dictating the terms under which the disciple lived was not that of the empire, but that of the church. Discipleship, then, was radically counter-cultural and deeply subversive.

Again, some commentators have criticized Paul for being too parochial here in focusing the love command upon the church community rather than all humankind. Such criticism, however, presupposes a Constantinian ecclsiology in which an institutional church serves as the moral conscience of a largely Christian society. That same outlook still serves as the unquestioned underpinning both for liberal Protestantism’s social advocacy and right wing Evangelical social conservative initiatives. Each in their own way are attempting to “Christianize” America. Only their platforms differ. Paul, by contrast, understood the church not as an instrument to bring about a kinder, gentler empire, but as a radical alternative to Rome.

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog with any consistently that I favor serious rethinking of our ecclesiology and mission as we find ourselves in the post-modern, post-Constantinian context. The conversations we need to be having revolve not over which legislative initiatives to support, but how we live together as church in a way that mirrors the kingdom of heaven. Religion that does no more than help people cope with the dehumanizing conditions of life under late stage capitalism is not worth spit. A church richly deserves extinction if does no more than issue preachy-screechy social statements, mobilize its membership to support legislative tweaks to a brutally oppressive and unsustainable economic system while asking/offering no more to its members than an hour on Sunday with a tithe.

Will churches modeling the counter-cultural example of Paul’s congregations or the community described in the Book of Acts “change the world?” Well, they will not bring in the kingdom of heaven. At best, they can only witness to it. But if we can simply plant the idea in peoples’ heads that there is an alternative to a life of wage slavery so soul numbing and stressful that you need four weeks of vacation just to cope with it, if we demonstrate that medical care need not be controlled by profit driven corporations and administered by strangers in an alien environment, if we can build communities where security is not dependent upon the dubious integrity of insurers and investment bankers, but grounded in networks of caring relationships, who knows? The church might once again turn the world upside down.

Love fulfills the law. Vs. 10. As indicated in the previous paragraph, “love” is not an abstract principle for Paul. “No, the appropriate social context of the love ethic in this section is the small Christian congregations in Rome, and, more concretely, the love feasts and sacramental celebrations in which members shared their resources. Pervo, Richard I, “Panta Koina: the Feeding Stories in the Light of Economic Data and Social Practice” published in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament Word: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (c. 1994 Nov/TSup 74 Leiden: Brill) p. 192, cited in Jewett, supra, at 807. It is with this understanding in mind that we interpret Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth concerning its failure to “discern the Body” in its Eucharistic celebrations. Where each person “goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another drunk” (I Corinthians 11:21), the community is not living as a Body in which the needs of each part are honored and provided for. See I Corinthians 12:12-31. There is no distinction between Eucharistic sharing and “social ministry.” Sharing of resources to ensure the well-being of all is no more an act of “charity” than is the heart’s pumping of blood to the rest of the body. Love is the concrete act of having all things in common. That does not necessarily imply communal living or “common purse” communities. Conventions governing property ownership vary from age to age and culture to culture. At a bare minimum, however, the church must see to it that the basic needs for food, shelter and healing are met for all its members. To do less than this is to fail to discern the Body.

Matthew 18:15–20

This passage is cited in just about every congregational constitution I have ever read, usually under the rubrics of “church discipline.” A similar procedure is alluded to by Paul in II Corinthians 13:1. Unfortunately, the passage has frequently been interpreted as a provision to protect the purity of the church. Nothing could be further from Matthew’s intent. In fact, the concern here is for the erring sister or brother. Precisely because Jesus declares “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14) that every effort must be made to prevent conduct rupturing the community and alienating its members. For this reason, sin must first be addressed individually by the one perceiving it with an eye toward reconciliation/repentance. Only when this step fails is it permissible to bring other individuals into the matter. Where reconciliation cannot be achieved with the assistance of two or three additional persons, the matter must then be brought before the church for resolution. Severance of ties between the sinner and the community is a measure of last resort. Moreover, even this drastic step of treating the sinner as a tax collector has in view the objective of winning the estranged member back to the community. Outcasts and tax collectors are not lost causes, but special objects of Jesus’ mercy and compassion. See also, I Corinthians 5:5II Corinthians 2:5-7.

A further practical caution is in order here. Not every annoying habit, inconsiderate act or careless utterance by someone in the congregation merits this disciplinary procedure. Unless sin rises to the level at which it threatens to rupture the unity of the church or alienate one of its members, it should be borne with patience, understanding and forgiveness. The church was never intended to be a community of the perfect, but rather a congregation of sinners being perfected by the faithful practice of living together under a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7.

 

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