Archive for February, 2018
The Ten Commandments are not for everybody; a poem by Adrienna Rich; and the Lessons for Sunday, March 4, 2018
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:2.
The prologue to the Ten Commandments reminds us that these commands are not for general consumption. They are not a set of eternally valid, absolute moral principles meant to be binding on everyone. They are not given to the human race in general. The Ten Commandments presuppose a community united by the saving act of a gracious God who is committed to making them thrive. This community began as a tribe of escaped slaves fleeing oppression from the Egyptian empire at the close of the bronze age. The newly freed refugees are given to understand that they, who were no people, have been rescued from the jaws of imperial bondage to become God’s people in the Land of Canaan. Accordingly, the Commandments are given to protect their new life of freedom, justice and peace under the covenant with their God and to prevent them from evolving into another Egypt. Israel must not become one more oppressive kingdom among many. Israel is to be a light to the nations, an alternative way for human beings to live out their humanity.
For all of these reasons, stripping away the prologue identifying the “Who” and “why” of the Commandments, chiseling them into stone apart from their narrative context and placing them in front of a courthouse trivializes them. Unless we understand that the God who will not tolerate any rivals is the God of oppressed slaves; unless we understand that the sabbath was commanded for a people who knew no relief from work under the whip of the task master, unless we know that the commands protecting the sanctity of life, property and family were given to slaves who were themselves property, whose lives were cheap and who could be worked literally to death, we cannot begin to appreciate what these commands meant for Israel and what they might mean for us. The Ten Commandments were given to create, nurture and sustain a community of faith in the God who liberates slaves in the midst of a culture that routinely enslaves and oppresses. They must be understood as an emphatic “no” to imperial oppression, nationalism, hierarchy and war characterizing the present regime while pointing forward to the peaceable kingdom where humans live in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth and where God’s Spirit is poured out generously on all flesh.
It is also important for us to acknowledge that the Ten Commandments are, in part at least, the product of the same hierarchical and patriarchal culture that enslaved the people of Israel. We need to recognize and accept that they reflect many of the same oppressive assumptions underlying imperial civilization. For example, the Commandments deem women to be the property of their men. Consequently, adultery was not so much a sin between husband and wife as it was a sin by one man against another with the guilty wife being an accessory. While men are warned not to covet their neighbor’s wife, there is no similar prohibition against women coveting each other’s husbands. That is because there was nothing to covet. Women had no ownership rights to be coveted. Slavery, too, was a given in ancient Israel. Male and female slaves belonging to one’s neighbor are among the items of property one is admonished not to covet. There is no escaping the obvious. No reasonable person would want the Ten Commandments interpreted and enforced as they were originally promulgated.
As many womanist Hebrew scriptural scholars have pointed out ( e.g., Valerie Bridgeman, Irene S. Travis, Phillis Bird), we need to recognize the scriptures as time bound, contextual narratives reflecting and sometimes acquiescing in the oppressive assumptions of their age. Rather than rationalizing or explaining away its limitations, we need “to look a text squarely in what it actually says and then make ethical decisions about how it may function in the community.” Bridgeman, Valerie, “Womanist Approaches to the Prophets,” printed in The Oxford Handbook of the Prophets, edited by Sharp, Carolyn, J. (c. 2016 Oxford University Press) p. 487. Additionally, we are called upon to examine these texts “from the vantage point of the marginalized, the oppressed, the silenced, or the voiceless in current society and in the ancient texts.” Ibid p. 483. In so doing, stories like those of Deborah, Haggar, Tamar, Ruth, Esther and many other narratives in which women act out of character come into sharper focus. These narratives challenge the perceived patriarchal norms, illustrating how the texts are not static givens, but living theaters within which the liberating desire of God is striving to break through the oppressive strictures of our present existence. Although the Commandments stand as a watershed against imperial oppression, they also testify to the need for further prophetic resistance.
In sum, the Ten Commandments exhibit the patriarchal and hierarchical assumptions that hold human beings in bondage as much as they point beyond them to a better way. They should therefore be seen not as the final word on morality but rather as a profound crack in oppressive imperial ideology that must invariably widen. They stand as “a mark of resistance, a sign,” as poet Adrienna Rich puts it. As such, they must be understood always first and foremost as God’s covenant provisions given to Israel in a concrete historical context that was very different from our own. We gentile believers must understand that they come to us only through Jesus’ gracious invitation into that covenant relationship with Israel’s God and must be interpreted always with reference to his obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. The Commandments must be construed in ways that strengthen our covenant communities, build relationships of trust and cooperation between us, further protections for the most vulnerable among us and form us into a people of resistance, capable of testifying to the sovereignty of our gracious and liberating God over all other claims of power and authority.
Here is the rest of that poem by Adrienna Rich about resisting.
A Mark of Resistance
Stone by stone I pile
this carin of my intention
with the noon’s weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with the work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.
Source, Poetry Magazine, August 1957. Poet and essayist Adrienna Rich (1929-2012) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother a former concert pianist. She graduated from Radcliffe University and married in 1953. She had three children with her husband, but the marriage ended with their separation in the 1960s. Rich’s prose collections are widely-acclaimed for their articulate treatment of politics, feminism, history, racism and many other topics. Her poetry likewise explores issues of identity, sexuality and politics. Rich’s awards include the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. You can read more about Adrienna Rich and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
It has been twenty years since I first read “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and its Law,” Miller, Patrick D. (published in Interpretation, Vol. 48, no. 3, July 1989) p. 229. I still find that article to be one of the most helpful in understanding the place of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. Miller points out three factors demonstrating the high importance of the Commandments within the Torah as a whole. First, the commandments are set forth twice in the Pentateuch in very different literary contexts. Whereas our lesson for Sunday has the Commandments delivered to Israel shortly after the Exodus from Mount Sinai on tablets still hot from the imprint of God’s finger, they are repeated verbatim at Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Here the people stand at the frontiers of the Promised Land having spent forty years as nomads in the wilderness. In both cases Israel is making a new beginning where she will encounter new opportunities, new challenges and new temptations.
Second, “the giving of the Commandments clearly presents their transmission as something that happened directly between God and the people.” Ibid. p. 230. The “Decalogue is thus perceived as direct revelation of God to the people, while the rest of the law is mediated through Moses.” Ibid. Though, to be sure, all of the law is deemed “God given,” the narratives emphasize that the Ten Commandments represent the starting point from which all subsequent law flows and in which all subsequent law is grounded.
Third, the language in which the Ten Commandments are given remains virtually identical in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. By contrast, there is significant variation between the collection of law given at Sinai by Moses in Exodus and Leviticus on the one hand and that given on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy on the other. Miller goes on to analogize the Ten Commandments to the United States Constitution. Neither are “law” in the sense that they constitute statutes applying to specific circumstances. Like the Constitution, the Ten Commandments are fundamental principles from which specific legislation derives. “These foundations do not change. They continue in perpetuity to be the touchstone for all actions on the part of the people as they seek to live in community and order their lives.” Ibid. 231.
Here we need to exercise caution. While the Commandments may be said to embody moral priorities that are eternally valid for the community of Israel, they come to us “in earthen vessels” to borrow a Pauline phrase. II Corinthians 4:7. Like every other passage in the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are historically and culturally conditioned. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Tenth (or Ninth and Tenth, depending on how you number them) Commandment prohibiting a man from coveting his neighbor’s wife…house, field, servants “or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Vs. 17. Obviously, a man’s wife is here classified as property. Some more contemporary renderings of the commandments change the wording to prohibit coveting of “one’s spouse.” As laudable as the intention may be, I find such efforts to modernize the Commandments dishonest and potentially damaging to the very cause these efforts promote. Not until we recognize the suffocating effect of patriarchy in the biblical world can we begin to appreciate the depth of heroism, ingenuity and creativity demonstrated in the lives of women in the biblical narratives who acted faithfully to further the redemptive purposes of Israel’s God. The stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Debra, Mariam, Esther and so many others bring into sharp focus the central truth of the Biblical story as a whole: the way things are is not the way things have to be-nor the way they always will be.
It is for this reason that Miller points out that we must discern “a kind of trajectory for each commandment as it is carried forward, a trajectory that holds to the intention of the particular commandment but also creates a dynamic of new or broader meanings that are seen to grow out if its basic intent.” Ibid. 234. If we are going to follow this trajectory faithfully, I believe that it is essential for us to keep a couple of things in mind. The prologue to the Commandments is critical because it tells us where they come from. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Vs. 2. The Commandments are not moral, philosophical concepts formed in the world of ideas. The Commandments are given to a people newly liberated from slavery by the God who liberated them and wants to ensure that they do not slide back into slavery again.
It follows, therefore, that the Commandments are unintelligible apart from the covenant between the liberated people of Israel and the God who liberated them. The Commandments were not given for general public consumption. They will not function properly in just any old society. It is for this reason that the Commandments are out of place in front of municipal buildings, courts of law and public schools. The covenant is with Israel, not the United States of America. The Ten Commandments do not function meaningfully outside of that covenant. It cannot be overemphasized that the Torah was given to protect, enhance and strengthen the life of a free people bound to its God and to one another. The laws of the United States are designed to govern the civil life of a people of diverse loyalties, priorities and beliefs that may or may not include faith in Israel’s God. Losing sight of that distinction serves neither the Commandments nor the republic well.
Furthermore, any interpretation of the Commandments that enslaves us is dead wrong. Martin Luther rightly recognized that our use of the Commandments to win the love that God would give us freely and unconditionally enslaves us. So, too, when the Commandments are employed to stigmatize, exclude, dominate and marginalize people they are being misused. The polestar for interpreting the commandments is love: Love for God and love for the neighbor. As Jesus points out, the Commandments are gifts given to people for the benefit of people; people were not made for the purpose of following commands. That is why I keep telling my friends who seem fixated on “biblical views” of sexuality, marriage and God only knows what else that they can scream Bible verses at me until they turn purple and it won’t change my mind. If your interpretation of the law results in placing a stumbling block before someone God is calling into the Body of Christ, it’s wrong. That’s the end of the discussion.
There is much more that can and should be said about the Commandments. For those of you who might be interested in pre-canonical issues regarding the oral history, transmission and literary/historical source material for the Ten Commandments, I refer you to the excellent commentary of Dr. Brevard Childs. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 385-393. You might also consider giving the section on the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism a read. There is some wonderful material there on the First Commandment. If I were going to choose a specific Commandment to preach on this Sunday (I am not), I would go for the Eighth Commandment (under the Lutheran numbering) against bearing false witness. I believe it is probably the most frequently and flagrantly violated commandment of this Century. But don’t get me started on that…
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthypsalm 119, praises God’s law. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe, along with other commentators, that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. See, e.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86.
The term “glory” as used in the Psalms refers to God’s self-revelation in all its splendor. Such revelation naturally inspires awe. The “vault of heaven” or “firmament” held back the waters thought to weigh over the earth. Genesis 1:6-8. Only the merciful and creative Word of God keeps these waters and those beneath the earth from rising up and breaking through the barriers within which God keeps them and enveloping the earth such as almost occurred in the Great Flood. Genesis 7:11-16. The stars inhabiting the firmament, though not gods, nevertheless give praise to God in their silent adherence to their courses and faithful discharge of light. Vss. 2-4. During the day this firmament forms a “tent” for the sun, poetically compared first to a bridegroom emerging from his tent and then to an athlete taking the field. Vs.4b-6. Just as the articulate silence of the stars speaks volumes about God’s creative handiwork, so the regular journey of the sun across the sky testifies to God’s constancy. Though none of these wonders are divine, they are far from inanimate objects. All of them derive their being from their Creator and so cannot help but magnify God’s glory.
Beginning at verse 7 the focus turns from God’s glory reflected in the natural world to God’s perfection made known through the Torah. Vs. 7. We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Attention to Torah “makes wise the simple” (Vs. 7), it rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. Vs. 8. The wise and understanding crave Torah as one would crave honey and desire it as a lesser mind might yearn for wealth. Vs. 10. Yet Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to learning and practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Vs. 11. Mechanical obedience, however, is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14.
This beautiful prayer paints a portrait of faithfulness acquired through a lifetime of attentiveness to the miracle of the universe and the witness of the Scriptures. Both the Word and the world it has called into existence bear witness to the glory of God. Neither witness is complete without the other.
This is perhaps the most profound piece that Paul ever wrote. Why is the cross “folly” to those who are perishing? How is it “power” to those of us who are being saved? The cross is the power of God to refrain from retaliating against us, to forgive us and to continue loving us in spite of our rejection and murder of God’s Son. It is, as I said last week, the power of the glue holding the Trinity in unity over our own sin and the devil’s wiles that would pull it apart. To all who view power in terms of coercive force, the power to forgive and the refusal to retaliate appears as weakness. That is why there really is no substantial difference between militarists who view violence as the primary means of dealing with opposition and so-called Christian realists who accept it only as a tragic last resort. It is only a matter of degree. Both maintain that when it comes to dealing with Hitler, ISIS or any other like tyrant, raw coercive power is the only sure bet. To think otherwise is naïve and unrealistic.
The trouble with Christian realists is that they focus on the wrong reality. Jesus’ resurrection redefines reality. The resurrection, as I have said before, represents a divine turning of the other cheek. It is the paradigm for a disciple’s response to violence. It is tempting to invoke here the success of non-violent movements such as those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to bolster the case. It is a temptation, however, that I think must be resisted. At best, these movements suggest that non-violent resistance can be successful. They do not, however, negate the converse. In some circumstances, non-violence may not “work.” The movement might be crushed. For every Selma there is a Tiananmen Square. Does that not bring us back again to the very “realism” we have rejected? Yes, of course we should begin with non-violence and exhaust all avenues of non-violent resistance. Then what? Pull out of our hip pockets the revolver we have been keeping at the ready all the time just in case the police start using real bullets instead of tear gas and fire hoses? Again, the difference between such conditional commitments to non-violence and frank acceptance of violence as a permissible means to a just end is simply one of degree.
As I read Paul and as I read the gospels, the measure of our commitment to Jesus’ way can never be based on some estimate of its potential effectiveness. The cross, by any reasonable measure, is hardly an effective means to any just end. If ever there were a time when violence might have been justified, it would have been in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest. If Peter was forbidden to strike with the sword in order to save God’s only begotten Son from torture and death, when in God’s name (literally!) is it ever acceptable to strike with the sword? To follow Jesus in this way under the shadow of the Third Reich seems like “folly” from the perspective of geopolitical realism. But if Paul is speaking the truth, then this very folly is the power and wisdom of God.
I believe that Paul’s message here is more urgent than ever before. Ours is a world on the brink of violent collapse. I am not referring here to the obvious, i.e., terrorism; school shootings; police brutality; hate crimes and the like. I am speaking of the subtler forms of violence that inhabit our civil (uncivil!) discourse; predatory commercial practices; exploitation of workers with the double edged sword of longer hours and decreased compensation/benefits; coercive and authoritarian management techniques whether at Wall Street firms or church council meetings. Wherever power is understood as the ability to force others to do what we want (or think in our heart of hearts is what they ought to do), the seeds of violence are already sown. Whenever we delude ourselves into thinking that the ends will justify the means, we set ourselves up for the unpleasant discovery that violent means contaminate the ends we seek.
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who place Jesus’ cleansing of the temple near the end of his ministry, John places it at the very beginning. This visit to the temple in Jerusalem takes place near the feast of Passover. It is one of three Passovers mentioned in the gospel, the others being John 6:4 and John 11:55. We are told that Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. That is confusing to us moderns of the northern hemisphere because Jesus was actually traveling south from Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea. We would therefore say he was going “down” to Jerusalem. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, however, one always goes “up” to Jerusalem from whatever direction s/he is proceeding.
This drama took place in the outer court of the temple. The oxen, sheep and doves were being sold to worshipers coming to offer sacrifice. Because imperial coins used in ordinary commerce had images of Caesar on them, they were in violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images. Accordingly, these coins were unfit for payment of the temple tax referred to in Matthew 17:24-27. The much maligned “money changers” therefore provided a necessary service in exchanging this currency for money acceptable for commerce in the temple. Of course, there was an exchange fee involved!
The whip of cords fashioned by Jesus in verse 15 was probably made out of rushes used by the animals for bedding. As such, it was not suitable nor intended as a weapon and does not appear to have been used in this way. The objective appears to have been to clear the temple of the animals and their handlers which would have been accomplished by driving the animals out with the switch. This, at least, has been the understanding of the church from its earliest days as evidenced by the following story recounted by Cosmas Indicopheustes about Theodore of Mopsuestia who lived in the 5th Century C.E.
“Rabbula previously showed much friendship toward the famous interpreter (Theodore) and studied his works. Yet when, having gone to Constantinople to attend the Council of the Fathers (381) he was accused of striking priests, and he responded that Our Lord had also struck when he entered the temple, the Interpreter arose and reprimanded him saying, ‘Our Lord did not do that; he only spoke to the men, saying “take that away,” and turned over the tables. But he drove out the bullocks and the sheep with the blows of his whip.’” Wenda, Wolska, La Topographie de Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 1962 by Presses Universitaires Francaises) p. 91 cited in The Politics of Jesus, Yoder, John Howard (c. 1972 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 51.
However one understands the text, it is surely a slim reed on which to build a case for violence based on Jesus’ ministry. As Yoder points out, Jesus was fully in control of events following the temple’s cleansing. It would have been an easy thing for him to exploit the confusion in the temple and the crowd’s enthusiasm for an assault on the likely unsuspecting Roman fortress next door. Jesus did no such thing. Clearly, Jesus could hardly have been perceived as potentially violent given that his opponents felt free to engage him in conversation and question his authority. Rather than threatening violence, Jesus made himself vulnerable to the violence of his adversaries who he knows will “destroy” him. Vs. 19. See Yoder, supra at 51-52.
There is a play on words here between “house of prayer” which the temple was designed to be and “house of market” or “house of trade” which it had become under the current religious establishment. Vs. 16. It is important to keep in mind that the temple in Jesus’ day was constructed by Herod the Great, the non-Jew appointed “King of the Jews” by the Romans. The Romans took a generous share of the considerable profits generated though temple operations, financing for which fell heavily on the backs of the poor. Thus, so far from being a house of prayer, the temple had become an instrument of commercial exploitation.
“Zeal for thy house will consume me.” Vs. 17. This is a citation to Psalm 69:9, a personal prayer for deliverance from enemies. There is some indication that this prayer may have been edited to fit circumstances during the period when the temple was in ruins following the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E. The psalmist laments the state of affairs. Perhaps s/he is one who, like the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was eager to see the temple rebuilt, but faced opposition from his/her own people who had other priorities, from Samaritans opposed to the rebuilding project or both. Just as the psalmist’s zeal for rebuilding the temple has earned him or her opposition, so too, Jesus’ determination to cleanse the temple is now bringing him into conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
“What sign have you to show us for doing this?” vs. 18. Jesus’ warrant of authority has already been given by Jesus in his referring to the temple as his Father’s house. Vs. 16. But the “Jews” now seek from him a “sign.” It is critical to recognize that the term “Jews” refers collectively to the religious leadership governing the temple. It specifically does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole. The temple authorities quite understandably feel that Jesus’ radical action requires a convincing show of authorization. This they will receive in due time. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Vs. 19. In near Clintonesque fashion, everything turns on what “this” means. Jesus’ opponents assume that “this temple” means the structure in which they are standing. Vs. 20. Jesus, we are told, is speaking of his body which will replace the temple as the locus of worship. Vs. 21. More will be said about this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. John 4:19-26. As with so much else in John’s gospel, the full significance of this event in the life of Jesus will become clear only after he has been raised from death. Vs. 22.
Prophetic attacks upon the temple cult in Jerusalem were not new at the time of Jesus. Jeremiah famously predicted (accurately as it turned out) that the temple would be destroyed as it had become “a den of robbers.” Jeremiah 7:8-15. Indeed, the prophet Micah had given the same prophetic warning a century before. Jeremiah 26:18; Micah 3:12. The temple was thus an ambiguous symbol throughout Israel’s history. At its best, the temple was a reminder of God’s abiding presence with and for Israel, a sacred space for worship, praise, lament, forgiveness and thanksgiving. At its worst, it promoted a magical view of God as subject to Israel’s control and manipulation through sacrificial rites and liturgies. As noted earlier, the temple became an instrument of Roman exploitation in the time of Jesus.
It might be worth considering the extent to which our sanctuaries, programs and institutions throughout the church function in destructive and self-serving ways rather than in ways that are life giving. A leader in my own Lutheran Church remarked recently that when a congregation is strapped for cash, the first to go is the organist/music director; then the pastor; and, last of all, the building. Once the church can no longer support the building, it folds. These priorities are, as any sensible middle schooler would put it, “Bass Ackwards.”
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
For what are you willing to die? Answer that question honestly and your answer will tell you a lot about yourself. The operative terms are “honestly” and “you.” Political leaders compete with each other in heaping praise on fallen soldiers and the virtues of the nation for which they died. But that rings hollow coming from men who managed to shirk their military service through fabricated medical conditions or appeals to high level government connections. Patriotism comes a bit easier these days now that we have a soldier class willing to do the fighting. It was different back in the days when the duty of national defense fell upon the whole citizenry (ideally at least) and we understood that the next young man coming home from Vietnam in a flag draped coffin could very well be our brother, father or friend. Under these very different circumstances, we were compelled daily to ask ourselves whether the objectives of this war were worth the human cost.
By contrast, we are now into the fifteenth year of America’s longest war and most of the time we are only peripherally aware that it is going on. That is because the tab for the human cost is being picked up by someone else. Because a group of volunteers are sending their children to fight and die, I needn’t send my own. It is enough that I show up each year at the Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day celebrations to wave my flag and listen to an inspiring speech or two. It is much easier to pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands without asking whether that allegiance is merited or worth the cost when I know in my heart that it will never cost me anything. Give me a free car and I will take it with thanks. But if I have to buy it, you had better believe I’ll take a much closer look under the hood and think long and hard about what I will have to give up in order to make the purchase. In all likelihood, I will decide to hang onto my money and my old clunker. How much more my life!
So what are you willing to die for? I guess we never know the answer to that question until we have to face it. Whenever there is a shooting, fire or some other disaster in a public building, there are those who run in blind terror for the door and a few who confront the danger, risking their own lives to save others. I don’t know that any psychiatric/sociological studies have been done to determine what makes these people we call “heroes” different from the rest of us. But I suspect this difference is rooted in a deeply imbedded commitment to something bigger than oneself that compels one to sacrifice everything-even life itself-in the service of that something. One does not become a hero in the heat of the moment. A hero is often indistinguishable from the rest of us until the crisis arrives that reveals him/her for who s/he is.
I think our admiration for heroes is more than a tribute to their individual courage. I believe we are secretly envious of what they have and what we often lack, namely, something so beautiful, true and good that it is worth dying for. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A man who has nothing he’ll die for has nothing to live for.” Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35. Disciples of Jesus believe that the kingdom of God is worth living for. Reconciliation among nations and people, peace with God, peace within the human community and peace between ourselves and our planet are visions worth living for, sacrificing for and even dying for.
Like many of you, I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I can only imagine how many countless hours of practice, how many sprained muscles and bruised limbs, how many disappointments and setbacks the young athletes standing on the podium must have experienced on the long road to receiving their medals. Yet I doubt that any of them regrets a single minute of that difficult journey. At that moment, they are not thinking about the hours of sleep lost, the parties they did not attend or desserts they had to forego along the way. All of these sacrifices pale in comparison with the satisfaction of finally achieving the dream that inspired them. Surely life under the gentle reign of God into which Jesus invites us is worth at least the same level of dedication, loyalty and sacrifice-and promises us so much more!
Those of us, like myself, who have grown up relatively privileged and know nothing of discrimination, poverty, persecution and alienation often find it difficult to relate to Jesus’ call to take up the cross. We often trivialize this call, equating the cross with some hardship we experience in the midst of an otherwise untroubled life. We say of a difficult relative, a sore back or an unsatisfying job, “this is my cross to bear.” No. The cross is the shape God’s reign takes in a world that is hostile to it. It is the inevitable friction that comes with living the values of the Kingdom in a culture that rejects them. I think that few people understand the fullness of that kingdom and the cost of loving it better than Black Americans whose lives have so often been the very antithesis of God’s reign, yet who desire it, seek it and struggle for it so insistently. It is to the poetry and spirituality of Back poets that I think we can turn to recapture the meaning of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. It is for that reason that I feature the excellent poem of Margaret Walker in this week’s post.
For My People
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;
For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
Miss Choomby and company;
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
people who and the places where and the days when, in
memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
were black and poor and small and different and nobody
cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs
and societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
Source: This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (c. 1989 University of Georgia Press, 1989) Margaret Walker (1915 –1998) was an American poet and writer. She was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago, known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966). She was born in Texas, Alabama to a minister who, along with her mother, taught their daughter philosophy and poetry as a child. The family moved to New Orleans when Walker was a young girl. She attended school there, including several years of college, before she left home and moved north to Chicago.
Walker received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Northwestern University. In 1936 she began work with the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Progress Administration created under the Roosevelt administration. During that time, she was a member of the South Side Writers Group, a circle of influential African-American writers and poets formed in the 1930s in Chicago. In 1942 she received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In 1965 she returned to that school to earn her Ph.D. Walker married Firnist Alexander in 1943 and moved to Mississippi to be with him. They had four children together.
You can read more about Margaret Walker and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website. You may also want to explore the profound work of other Harlem/Chicago Renaissance poets featured on the website in recognition of Black History Month.
As observed last week, “Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention.
As noted last week, Genesis 1-11 forms the backdrop for Israel’s story. It paints the picture of a Creator deeply in love with his creation, though deeply grieved by the evil and brokenness that have infected it. Chiefly is this Creator God grieved by the violence of human beings made in God’s own image. Because of humanity’s crimes, the earth lies under a curse. Humanity is at odds with its Creator, at odds with the earth from which it was taken and at odds with itself, being divided into nations, tribes and clans separated by language and culture. In Genesis 12:1-3 God begins to undo the curse by calling Abram to follow God’s leading into a land where God will make of him “a great nation” so as to “be a blessing.” It is by Abram, Sarai and their descendants that God will bring blessing to a world lying under the curse of sin. It is therefore not too far a stretch to call the Book of Genesis “a book about dysfunctional families and the ways in which God seeks to use those families as agents of divine grace to ‘all the families of the earth,’” as one commentator has done. Mann, supra, at 341.
This Sunday’s lesson takes us deeper into God’s covenant with Abram. It is part of a larger narrative comprising all of Genesis 17 in which circumcision is introduced as a definitive mark of the covenant people, so much so that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:14. The people of God are to be distinguished from all other nations and tribes by an irreversible physical sign. Precisely because it is irreversible, circumcision makes it impossible to deny affiliation with Israel. Moreover, this is a sign normally imposed shortly after birth and so is hardly a matter of choice.
If the whole of this chapter were included in the reading, it might be worth pondering how indoctrination into faith squares with our modern emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. The famed scientist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins recently remarked, “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.” Daily Mail, April 22, 2013. In a culture where protestant Christianity is so thoroughly integrated into our notions of respectable citizenship, Dr. Dawkins’ assertion comes across as rather preposterous. Yet I think he puts his finger on something important. Our laws are shaped by public consensus on what constitutes responsible behavior. As recently as when I was a child (alright, maybe that isn’t recent!), spanking was an accepted form of discipline. While my parents limited the practice to an occasional front hand swat on the rump, it was not uncommon for fathers to “take the belt” to their children. No one would have considered reporting that to the police and I doubt the police would have intervened if they had. Discipline of children, within reasonable limits, was the prerogative of parents.
Of course, our understandings of “reasonable limits” change and evolve with time. We now understand (or at least we should) that physical punishment is at best ineffective and, at worst, damaging to child development. Accordingly, our laws governing child protection now deem abusive many practices that were common place in my childhood. That, in my view, is a welcome development. But in what direction might our laws evolve should societal consensus conclude that religious indoctrination is harmful? If one assumes that faith, morals and values are matters purely of individual choice, that children should be raised in environments of intellectual neutrality toward competing religious claims so that their choices in that realm are free and uncoerced, where does that leave circumcision? Infant baptism? Catechetical instruction? Is it perhaps time to consider whether our fierce loyalty to individual freedom is not misplaced? Is freedom to be equated with individual autonomy? Is critical thinking necessarily incompatible with being raised as a member of a faith community? Is not raising a child in an environment of strict religious neutrality also a kind of indoctrination? Some of these questions are addressed in a fine article by Michael Brendon Dougherty published in The Week.
But I digress. My point is to draw out the tension in this entire chapter between the promise to Abram and Sarai that they will be parents of “many nations” and the mark of circumcision that singles out the particular nation of blessing. While the Book of Genesis makes much of the line of blessing traced through Abram (and not Lot), Isaac (not Ishmael) and Jacob (not Esau), we see repeated instances where this special people becomes an agent of blessing to those outside of the covenant. Abram pleads with God to spare the righteous in Sodom resulting in the rescue of Lot and his family. Genesis 18:22-33. Jacob’s service to his uncle Laban brings about a substantial increase in Laban’s flocks. Genesis 30:29-30. Through Joseph, God spares Egypt from the ravages of a seven year famine. Genesis 45:4-15; Genesis 50:19-21. This tension between the uniqueness of Israel among the nations and its mission to the nations finds expression throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. If the books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent the extreme in guarding Israel’s unique identity among the nations, perhaps the prophetic oracles of Isaiah 40-55 best articulate Israel’s mission of blessing to the nations.
This tension is perhaps helpful for the church in rethinking her own mission to the world. To a very large degree we have accepted uncritically the premise that the Christian mission to the world is to make everyone a Christian. We have assumed that the command to “make disciples of all nations” means to make all people of every nation into disciples. The job of a witness, however, is not that of the prosecutor or the public defender. Witnesses do not persuade. They witness to what they have seen and heard. The witness will be made passionately, forcefully and convincingly. But the work of persuasion is left to the Holy Spirit to call into the church those whom Jesus has chosen.
It is important to keep in mind that this “election” is not “selection.” The call to discipleship, like the call to Abram, is one of service to the world for the sake of the world. God is not snatching a few select souls from a sinking ship. God is commissioning a people to bear witness to God’s stubborn determination to save the entire ship! To be chosen is to be elected for the purpose of reconciling the world to the gentle reign of God.
There is a seemingly bitter irony in the change of name from Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, meaning “Father of a multitude.” The man is ninety-nine years old and childless at this point. Equally implausible is the change of Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning “princess.” That this barren Bedouin couple should be declared progenitors of a people who one day will possess and rule the land where they now live essentially as illegal aliens seems like a cruel joke. No wonder that the promise invoked bitter laughter from Sarah in the very next chapter! Genesis 18:9-15. The stage is set for the God of Israel to do exactly what God does best: “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:7-9.
“[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at vs. 23. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
In this snippet from Paul’s Letter to the church at Rome, Paul lifts up Abraham as an example of saving faith. It is important to emphasize that Paul understands “faith” not as subscription to creedal or doctrinal formulae, but as trust in God’s promises. In Abraham’s case, the promise was to give him an heir and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. As we have seen, the promise was problematic due both to the Abraham and Sarah’s advanced age and their infertility. The biological clock had ceased ticking for both of them ages ago. But for Abraham, age and infertility did not enter into the equation. God had made a promise and would keep the promise. It was up to God, not Abraham, to figure out how to make it all work.
Of course, we know that Abraham was sometimes less than trusting. He even tried to “help God out” by resorting to what amounts to surrogate parenting. He took Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, as a concubine and managed to father Ishmael with her. But God did not need Abraham’s help and insisted that the covenant promises would be kept through a child of Sarah. This takes nothing away from Paul’s point. However shaky and imperfect Abraham’s trust in God may have been, God’s faithfulness never wavered. That is why Abraham “grew strong in his faith.” Vs. 20. The implication is that his faith was not so strong to begin with. God’s faithfulness precedes our faith and makes that faith possible. It is because God raised Jesus from death that we dare to trust that the reign of God Jesus proclaimed is a present reality despite all evidence to the contrary in the world around us. Because God faithfully returned to Jesus the life Jesus trustingly commended into God’s hands, we can entrust our lives to God knowing that we will receive them back again restored, sanctified and made new.
Paul also makes the point that children of Abraham are those who share the faith of Abraham-not necessarily those who share his genes. Again, Paul appeals to the missional aspect of Israel’s existence expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Paul is not suggesting that the church displaces Israel as God’s people. Recall that Paul is writing at a time when the Jesus movement was understood and understood itself as existing within the larger tradition of Judaism. Paul’s argument is that Abraham is the father not merely of Israel but of many nations and of all who share his faith in Israel’s God through baptism into Jesus Christ.
This is the first instance in Mark’s gospel where Jesus speaks specifically to his disciples about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. This speech comes immediately following Peter’s declaration of faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. Peter is understandably confused and upset. The messiah is supposed to liberate Israel. How can his rejection, suffering and death accomplish anything along the lines of salvation? We might expect Peter to wonder a bit about Jesus’ resurrection and what that might mean, but it seems he cannot get past Jesus’ suffering and death. So Peter does what any good friend would do for a buddy who talks about being rejected, persecuted and dying. He gives him a pep talk! “Come off it Jesus! Don’t be such a Debbie Downer. They’ll love you in Jerusalem just like they do everywhere else!”
This pep talk earns Peter a rebuke-a harsh rebuke. To be sure, Peter was missing the whole point of Jesus’ mission and ministry. But was it really necessary to call him the devil? That seems a little over the top. Yet as we saw last week, Jesus was driven into the presence of Satan immediately following his baptism. There God declared Jesus to be God’s Son. Jesus, and by extension his church, is never in greater danger of Satanic influence than when Jesus’ identity and mission are misconstrued. While we cannot know what Peter had in mind when he declared Jesus to be God’s messiah, a couple of things are obvious. First, the cross had no place in Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ mission. Whatever Peter’s understanding of God’s Kingdom may have been, he was convinced it could be ushered in without the cross-the very argument advanced by Satan according to Matthew and Luke and implicitly in Mark as well.
Second, as will become clear from the story of the Transfiguration to follow, Jesus is more than Israel’s messiah. He is more than even Moses and Elijah. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Peter should listen to him rather than insisting on advising him. At this point, Peter’s understanding is moribund, limited to what is humanly achievable. Whatever his notion of salvation may have been, it was too small. Satan knows too well that he cannot deter Jesus by tempting him with what is evil. So he tempts Jesus with something that is merely less than the highest good. Listen to Peter. Don’t do anything rash. Stay out of harm’s way. Dead men cannot preach, heal and cast out demons. Peter’s is the voice of reason, but as Martin Luther once said, reason can easily become the devil’s whore.
Ultimately, Peter is seeking to make an end run around the cross. That is why Jesus must make it clear that all who wish to follow him must embrace the cross. This is not an abstract metaphor. The cross was Rome’s ultimate instrument of terror. Execution by crucifixion conformed to a morbid ritual in which the condemned person was required to carry his/her own cross bar to the place of execution, which was always a public area. The condemned was then stripped naked and fastened to the cross by nails through the hands or wrists and through the feet or above the heels. Held immobile for every passersby to see, the crucified was unable to cope with heat, cold, insects or care for his bodily needs. Perker, Pierson, “Crucifixion,” The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 747. Crucifixions were common events throughout Galilee and so Jesus’ hearers knew he was not referring to an aching back, a nagging in-law or any of the other annoyances bandied about in common parlance as “my cross to bear.” As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary 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.
In sum, God’s reign has come. It is present, not future tense. Nevertheless, the reign of God is being asserted in a world where other powers claim supremacy. Cultural norms, societal expectations and civil obligations make demands upon us that are contrary to the claim of Jesus, the shape of which is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It is for this reason that loyalty to Jesus brings us into conflict with the world around us. In such a world, God’s reign necessarily takes the shape of the cross.
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” Psalm 25:7.
Perhaps it is a function of age that makes this particular line from the psalm strike me with such poignancy. The past is fixed and you can only look back on it with a sense of thankfulness, nostalgia or deep regret. You can’t alter it. It is what it is. Though I am hardly without sins of commission, the most painful sins of my youth are those of omission. These include the friendships I let die from neglect; the opportunities to offer help and comfort for which I was too busy; my shameful lack of generosity growing out of an unfounded fear that I did not have enough for myself and my loved ones; my failures to express thanks to the many people whose lives have enriched mine; the times I remained silent when I know in my heart I should have spoken up; my indifference to the suffering of the poor and oppressed around the world and around the corner. I have lived a privileged life with a great measure of wealth, opportunity and security. But having been given so much, it seems I have contributed so little.
Perhaps the biggest regret I have is that Sesle and I never took in any foster children. I always had in my mind the strong belief that being foster parents is something we ought to do. Every child deserves a stable and loving home. We had such a home and we could easily have opened it to children in need. Of course, there were many reasons we never got around to it. We had three children of our own, one with a chronic medical condition that required a substantial commitment. Sesle was very ill for over a decade in our younger years which would have made taking on additional responsibilities difficult. We were stretched financially at times-or thought we were. Nevertheless, despite all of these excuses, the fact remains that we could have opened our home to more children and I have no doubt we would have been blessed beyond whatever hardships came with them. If I had only looked to the enormity of God’s generosity and the wealth of God’s promises rather than to my own perceived lack of time, money and stamina, I would have ordered my life differently-or so I tell myself.
This coming Wednesday I will receive on my forehead, along with millions of other Christians, the sign of the cross in ashes. This is a graphic reminder that so much of what we plan, hope for, value and prize turns out to be only ashes and dust in the end. We are confronted with all that might have been if only our lives had been inspired by faith rather than driven by fear. For those of us whose lives are mostly behind us, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Nonetheless, it is the pill that frees us. It is the truth that makes us free and the truth, bitter though it sometimes is, can be borne because we worship a God who is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This God does not judge us according to all that we have done and failed to do. This God judges us on the basis of God’s own steadfast love and faithfulness. However late the hour, it is not too late. “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Joel 2:1.
The past cannot be changed, but we can decide what it will mean for us going forward. The past can be the enslaving power that shapes our future into its own perverse image or it can be that from which we turn away for the sake of a new future. Yesterday can be the negative in the dark room that produces a bright and colorful new image. The ashes remind us that we are dust; but they also remind us of the God who at the dawn of time breathed life into lifeless dust to create a living being. The disciplines of Lent offer us a path toward healing the past precisely because God’s compassion is deeper than the sins of our past and is able still to make something beautiful with our remaining days-however few they may be.
Here is an interesting poem by Louis Untermeyer juxtaposing the solemnity of Ash Wednesday with something of the giddy joy of Easter Sunday.
Shut out the light or let it filter through
These frowning aisles as penitentially
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair,
Performs a parody of the divine.
The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm;
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth
To find a lonelier and darker height.
The church grows dingy while the human swarm
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth.
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light.
And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.
He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.
Source: Untermeyer, Louis, Burning Bush (New York: Harcourt, 1928). Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) was the son of a New York jeweler. His interest in poetry led to friendships with poets from three generations, including many of the century’s major writers such as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. In addition to children’s books and anthologies, Untermeyer published collections of his own poetry. You can find out more about Louis Untermeyer and sample more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are best understood as an “overture” to the biblical story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-3. There God calls Abram to leave everything behind and follow God’s leading into a land that will one day belong to his descendants. More importantly, Abram’s descendants are to become a nation by which all nations will find blessing. As Professor Terence Fretheim points out, “[t]he first eleven chapters of Genesis explain in advance why all the families of the earth need the blessing of God. [They] define the universal condition of sin that explains Israel’s particular history. Why God chose Israel, the election of the people of Israel, has meaning only against this universal background. Israel can make sense of her own history only in relation to God’s creation, judgment, and preservation of all mankind.” Fretheim, Terence, Creation, Fall, and Flood, Tower Books, (c. 1969 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 17-18. These themes of creation, judgment and preservation are introduced and interwoven into the opening chapters of Genesis. It is important to understand from the start that judgment always serves God’s larger aims of creation and preservation. Even that most terrible of all judgments, the Great Food, serves in the end to preserve the earth through the establishment of a new covenant between God and God’s creation.
The Flood story found in Genesis 6-9:19 is a complex and layered narrative put together from two different and sometimes conflicting versions of the event. For some background on the composition of the first five books of the Bible generally, see the online article on the Documentary Hypothesis I have cited previously. Here it is enough to note that the full text is far too long for reading in a typical protestant worship service. That is unfortunate, because our lesson cannot be appreciated fully apart from an understanding of the larger narrative. The story begins with God’s observation that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. God was “sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Genesis 6:6-7. There are a couple of things worth noting here. First, though God’s grief is induced by human evil, God resolves to blot out not only human beings, but all other creatures as well. The animals appear to be “collateral damage.” Like non-combatants who, through no fault of their own, happen to be standing in front of a military target, the animals will be caught in the crossfire of God’s war on humanity. Tragic and unfair as it may be, this is war after all. Any good Niebuhrian realist would understand.
Second, there is one slight wrinkle. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Genesis 6:8. Surely Noah at least must be saved. Of course, because “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), it will not do to let Noah’s wife and children perish in the coming judgment. Furthermore, the animals are both partners and sustainers of Noah’s existence. So God commands Noah to build an “ark” to shelter himself, his family and two pairs of each animal (or seven, depending on the source) throughout the coming flood. If you read with care Genesis 6:14-22, you will discover that the “ark” Noah was commanded to build is definitely not a large ship. It was, as the term implies, a great enclosed box. That is precisely what was required under the circumstances.
According to the first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4, God placed the earth between two huge vaults of water, one “above the heavens” and the other “under the earth.” Genesis 1:7-9. So when we read in Genesis 7:11-12 about how the “fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened,” it becomes clear that the flood was not simply an abnormally heavy rainfall that covered the earth with water. God was dismantling the infrastructure of creation, allowing the waters to prevail over the earth and so returning everything to a “formless void.” Genesis 2:2. Obviously, a boat would have been useless in such a catastrophe!
But in the middle of God’s demolition project, something remarkable happens. “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. Where will Noah, his family and the animals be when there is no more being? How can they live without the creation which once sustained them? It seems God must choose between saving the last of his creatures and carrying out his design to blot out all that he has made. It is at this point that God drives the waters from the face of the earth with a wind, shuts up the fountains of the deep and closes the windows of heaven. Genesis 8:1-3. God turns away from God’s destructive intent. God reverses course and heals the creation. That is the context for Sunday’s lesson. God makes a covenant with the whole creation, promising “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9:11. Again, this is more than just a promise to limit the destructiveness of ordinary weather phenomenon. God is promising never to exercise the “nuclear option” against creation. That is why all of the Bible banging nincompoops threatening us with “Left Behind” type scenarios are chuck full of buffalo chips. At the dawn of history God lay down God’s bow and determined once and for all not to be the sort of angry, vengeful, mean spirited deity that most of humanity makes him out to be.
I have said many times that pacifism is not a tangential subtheme in the scriptures, inspirational for monks, nuns and starry eyed idealists but of no use to practical “worldly” Christians. To the contrary, God’s unequivocal rejection of violence is at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptural witness. It is founded in God’s refusal to be a God who reigns through the exercise or threat of violence. God will suffer violence rather than inflicting it upon his creation. You might say that here, in the very first covenant made with all creation, God first takes up the way of the cross. That way will be embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer full of all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. Just as in our lesson from Genesis God would not allow human sin to define God’s relationship to his creation, so by virtue of our baptism, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
For my more extensive comments on this section generally, see my post of Sunday, May 25, 2014. Sunday’s reading is one of the more obscure snippets of scripture. It is perhaps the only New Testament reference to Jesus’ descent into hell (or to the dead, if you prefer) referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. To begin with, I believe it is important to point out that “1 Peter 3:18 is not saying that Christ’s body died but his soul was resurrected; it is saying that although from a human point of view he was put to death, he was given life in and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the realm where death has no dominion. Though it may appear that the religious and civil authorities won, the real victory belongs to God.” Judith Jones, Professor of Religion, Wartburg College and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Waverly, Iowa on workingpreacher.org. The “angels, authorities and powers” made subject to Jesus are not mere abstractions. As pointed out by Walter Wink, the “powers and authorities” are embodiments of the “domination system” of oppression upheld by the myth of “redemptive violence.” Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress) pp. 57-62. In Jesus’ day and in that of the New Testament church, these powers consisted mainly of the Roman Empire and its bureaucratic/militaristic machinery. Today these authorities and powers are frequently embodied in the governments of nation states, in the corporate powers controlling health care, access to capital and exploitation of the earth’s resources and in a consumer culture dictating our values and priorities.
Our understanding of Jesus’ descent into hell therefore requires us to refrain from over spiritualizing. “Hell” is less a place of eternal punishment for disembodied souls as it is the position of all who find themselves victims of the domination system. It is the place of those branded “sinners” by the religious establishment; “unclean” by reason of sickness; “godless and ignorant” by virtue of their lack of access to education; “idle” because they are unable to find employment; abandoned by God as evidenced by their shameful and public execution under the laws of the state. These are the imprisoned ones for whom Jesus descended into hell in order to proclaim the good news of God’s triumph over the powers that enslave them.
I firmly believe that Jesus’ descent into hell belongs in the Creed. Moreover, I favor retaining the word “hell” rather than “descent to the dead,” notwithstanding the fact that a more literal translation of the Greek text favors the latter. “Hell” aptly describes what a high school boy often experiences when he discovers that he is gay and has no safe place even to talk about his feelings, fears and hopes. It describes the gut wrenching terror felt by the parent of a child with cancer whose insurance company denies coverage for life saving treatment. Hell is what returning soldiers experience when they discover that they cannot leave the horrors of war buried in the sands of Iraq or the caves of Afghanistan as they try to resume civilian life as usual. People who say there is no hell have never seen what a teenage girl can do to her body after being convinced by pop culture’s false notions of beauty that she is ugly. The bad news is that hell is real. The good news is that Jesus has descended into that godforsaken place to break its hold over the spirits imprisoned there.
Matthew and Luke both tell us in detail about the temptations Jesus faced. Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12. Mark tells us nothing more than that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. As we have already seen, Mark’s gospel has Jesus moving with urgency and breakneck speed. Jesus goes “immediately” from one place to the next, one confrontation to the next. Suddenly, in the midst of this maddening pace of his life and ministry, Jesus is driven out to live in the wilderness for forty days.
I don’t know, but I suspect that one temptation Jesus faced was to get himself out of the wilderness prematurely. Who can blame him? Forty days is a long time to be out in the wilds where there is no cell phone reception, no internet access and no hope of getting anything productive accomplished. I suspect that Jesus wanted some direction, some sense that he was getting somewhere, some idea of how far he had to go and how much longer it was going to take. But when you are in the wilderness, you can only take each day as it comes. You will get there when you get there-wherever “there” is. In the meantime, you have to adapt to whatever terrain you pass though, deal with whatever wild beasts come your way and be content with whatever you find along the way to satisfy your needs. That sounds like a heck of a way to live.
Yet it describes well the way many of us live for much of our lives. For many of us, grief is a kind of wilderness. If I have learned anything about grieving over the years it is this: grief takes a different shape for each loss and every individual’s journey through it is unique. I never say to a grieving person, “I know what you are going through” because, in fact, I do not. After more than six years, I still struggle with the loss of my parents. That grief was compounded by the death of my grandson three years ago. I am still not back to normal, whatever normal may be. I doubt that I ever will be normal again, if normal is the way I was before all of these losses occurred. There is a strong presumption out there in society that I ought to be “over” all this by now. If not, then I ought to seek counseling, therapy or something else to “fix” what is wrong with me and get me back up to speed. “It’s time to move on.” That is the common modern mantra. But people who live in the wilderness understand that life cannot be conformed to schedules, “to do” lists and strategic planning. They know that there are powers much greater than self in the universe and that they are as much driven as they are driving.
Mark does give us one small piece of information we don’t find in Matthew or Luke. We read that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Vs. 13. If you are going to spend any time in the wilderness, the true wilderness, you need to be comfortable with the idea of being always in the presence of wild, carnivorous beasts. That takes some getting used to, because our culture is geared toward fencing out wild beasts. We desperately want to live in a secure, gated neighborhood where tragedies don’t occur, where families never fracture, where people never die. That is why people on magazine covers, even the AARP bulletin, are young and vibrant rather than old and infirm. That is why sitcom families always manage to work out all their problems in sixty short minutes-less the commercials. That is why we treat sadness with a trip to Disney World, a shot of scotch or medication rather than embracing and trying to understand it. You have a right to be happy. It’s written into the Declaration of Independence. So if you are not happy, if you are not satisfied, if you are not content in your marriage, your job or your neighborhood, something must be wrong. Something needs to be fixed. You need to get yourself a life coach. You need to get out of the wilderness and back on track.
It is significant, I believe, that Jesus’ temptation comes hard on the heels of his baptism. To be told that you are God’s child is a mind blowing experience. It is not surprising that Jesus would need at least forty days to sort all of that out and decide what it means. Perhaps that is what baptism is like (or should be like) for all of us. We are ripped out of the fabric of our family, cultural and societal identities and reborn into this new regime in which God alone reigns. We spend the rest of our lives figuring out what that means. The Lenten journey affords us a good opportunity for reminding ourselves that we are in many respects still lost in the wilderness, still clueless about the kingdom and have much to learn from Jesus.