ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14.
For most of us protestant Christians, honoring the Sabbath is nearly synonymous with going to church on Sunday. Some protestant churches continue to prohibit work on Sunday in honor of the Sabbath. Strictly speaking, however, the Sabbath is not about worship. It is about rest. Rest from labor for everyone, from princes at the pinnacle of society to the lowliest servant. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, animals were also to be given rest from work on the Sabbath. The land itself was to receive a year of sabbath from cultivation every seven years. In essence, the Sabbath is a labor law designed to protect humans, animals and the earth itself from ruthless exploitation.
The command to rest was the first one God gave us when, at the completion of creation after six days, God rested. I saw recently a clever poster featuring a photograph of the earth from outerspace and this verse from Genesis: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” Genesis 2:1-2. Underneath were the words, “So, tell me again about how busy you are and how you just can’t afford to take a break from all your important work.” A rabbi under whom I studied Hebrew while in college told us that “God commanded us to rest because he knew that, left to ourselves, we never would.”
Work is a good gift of God and a blessing-or at least it is supposed to be. But work has a way of getting out of hand and taking over the rest of life. When I first began practicing law, the hours were long and difficult. When the work day ended, however, I got into my car and enjoyed a relatively easy commute back home, listening to music and decompressing. When I walked through the door into the house, the office was behind me and I was confronted with a fresh set of domestic challenges. If I didn’t have a complete day of rest, at least I got to enjoy little islands of rest protected from the reach of my job.
With the advent of the cell phone, I lost the comfort of knowing that, while driving from place to place, I could enjoy a period of peace where no one could reach me. E-mail extended into the sanctuary of my home the reach of anxious clients eager to know the status of their cases, senior partners needing a legal memo asap and associates with pressing questions about their assignments. More recently, the covid-19 pandemic accelerated this trend by blurring altogether the distinction between home and work through normalizing the practice of “working from home.” It has become increasingly difficult to enjoy any sort of Sabbath, that is, time altogether free from the demands and obligations of work.
In Jesus day, the Sabbath itself had become a laborious burden. Instead of providing an oasis of peace for rest and rejuvenation, Sabbath had become an onerous network of rules to be observed. The ruler of the synagogue in our gospel lesson goes ballistic when Jesus heals a woman bent over from a chronic back condition. “There are six days on which work ought to be done;” he tells the people. “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Luke 13:14. It sounds reasonable enough at first blush. After all, this woman’s ailment is hardly a medical emergency. She has lived with the condition for eighteen years. All she has to do is wait another few hours until sundown.
Jesus, however, takes a different view. He reminds his audience why God gave us the Sabbath. It isn’t as though God created an elaborate set of rules and then, as an afterthought, decided to create people so that there would be someone to follow all of these wonderful rules. As Jesus has told us elsewhere, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27. The Sabbath was designed to ensure that human beings are given rest from their labors. As all of us who suffer from back pain know, it is hard to get any rest when your back is killing you. Jesus is simply opening the door of Sabbath rest to this woman whose pain had been excluding her from it for eighteen years. What better way to honor the Sabbath than to expand its reach to those who need it most?
The Sabbath and its limitations on the scope of labor for the protection of the earth and all its human and nonhuman inhabitants stands in stark contrast to the values of late stage capitalism which exploits all for the sake of profit for a few. This false religion of profit permeates our educational institutions, which are designed to produce workers and professionals meeting the needs of corporate America. When speculating about a person’s wealth, we are typically heard making remarks like, “So what do you think she’s worth?” We compensate and value individuals based on how much value can be extracted from their labor. In the view of capitalism, the world is not God’s creation, but merely a ball of exploitable resources to be used in generating profit. Small wonder, then, that the earth is scarred with deforested wastelands, contaminated waters and dying cities filled with the ruins of factories and poverty stricken people capitalism has left behind after extracting everything it could use.
Sabbath points us to a different kind of economy. It is an economy driven by human need rather than human greed. It is an economy designed to create and nourish community rather than exploiting and then abandoning communities in the interest of cheaper labor and greater efficiency. A biblical economy treats the earth, its habitats and inhabitants with reverence and respect rather than as a treasure trove of resources to be mined ruthlessly for generating profit. A biblical economy seeks to build a society in which all people can live meaningful and productive lives rather than seeking to mold people into productive units to be used by corporate industry until obsolete and then summarily discarded. Honoring the Sabbath is a whole lot more than simply going to church. To honor the Sabbath is to pursue justice and ecological renewal passionately and relentlessly.
Here is a poem by Denise Levertov that speaks eloquently to what I believe can be characterized as Sabbath, both as presently experienced and as anticipated with passionate hope.
To Live in the Mercy of God
To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
before ribs of shelter
To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.
To float, upheld,
as salt water
would hold you,
once you dared.
To live in the mercy of God.
To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.
Source: Sands from the Well (c. 1996 by Denise Levertov; pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
 I know that many people find working from home to be liberating. I can understand that. It spares them the time, cost and aggravation of commuting to a distant office. Working from home allows one greater freedom in setting one’s own schedule, thereby enabling them to participate more fully in the life of their spouses and children. But my own experience has been that trying to get work done at home does not make me a better spouse, father or person all around.
TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:56.
I have to confess that my sympathies here are with Jesus’ audience. I have never had much success interpreting the present time. The “signs” of the time have always seemed contradictory to me. While I was growing up in the late 60s and 70s, hard won gains for women and people of color seemed to point to a brighter future even as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened thermonuclear doom. Ultimately, the Soviet threat evaporated while a more conservative Supreme Court began the work of dismantling affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act and protections for reproductive rights-a job the current Supreme Court is poised to complete. Fascism, once thought to have died with Francisco Franco, is on the rise globally and has commandeered one of our nation’s two major parties. Russia has re-emerged under Vladimir Putin as an empire hungry to expand. The future of democracy and human rights is at stake. Nevertheless, if the direst predictions of climate scientists are accurate and the paralysis of world leaders in addressing them persists or the superpower proxy wars turn nuclear, none of that will matter.
Yet as I write these lines, the United States Congress is poised to approve a bill addressing climate change in a significant way. Voters in the state of Kansas overwhelmingly defeated an attempt to role back women’s reproductive rights and the House Committee Investigating the insurrection of January 6, 2020 is slowly but surely chipping away at the pervasiveness of the “big lie” of the stolen election. In spite of efforts by reactionary forces to turn back the clock, time marches on. The sight of interracial couples walking down the street holding hands, a sight never seen in my childhood, is so common today as not to merit a second glance. Same sex couples, who throughout most of my life have had to live in the shadows, now live openly as families and are increasingly gaining acceptance. As dark as the future sometimes seems, today is in many respects a better day than the one on which I was born. That is not to say that tomorrow will be brighter still. Many once great civilizations have fallen into ruin, leaving in their wake ages of barbarism and violence. The jury is out on the future of our current global order. So, on balance, I cannot say where the signs of the times are pointing.
Or perhaps my way of reading the signs of the time is all wrong. Maybe Jesus is not directing our speculative gaze into the future at all. After all, Jesus has warned us more than once against trying to cobble together from scriptural passages and current events God’s timeline for bringing the world to its end and ushering in the reign of God-as though there were such a timeline. Jesus himself denied having such knowledge. That alone should cast more than doubt about anyone who claims to have “cracked the biblical end times code.”
These warnings should also caution us against becoming too shrill and bombastic in our declarations about what God wills or where God is taking us or what constitutes progress toward God’s coming reign. Can we be so sure that “saving American democracy” is God’s priority? What if God means to dissolve the whole world order, the United States included, to make way for something new? Can we be so certain that our frantic efforts to turn around the steady decline in church membership and support is consistent with God’s intent for God’s church? Could it be that God, not secularization or any of the other culprits we blame, is responsible for the modern church’s decreasing numbers, loss of prestige and influence? Could it be that God is looking for a small, poor and marginalized church that has only the Word to sustain it-which is, of course, all that it ever really had to begin with. Perhaps the signs of the times are meant make us aware of how little we understand our own time, how incomplete is our comprehension of what God is doing and how careful and humble we ought to be in speaking those fearful words, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Still, Jesus does assure us that God is at work in the messiness of human life bringing into existence something new. Jesus tells us that what often seem like death throes are in fact birth pangs. Before its birth as a people, Israel was incubated four hundred years in slavery. Before its return to and rebirth in the promised land, the people of Israel languished for seventy years in exile. Jesus lay for three days in the darkness of a sealed tomb-which might better be characterized a womb. As it turns out, God does God’s best work in the dark. That is good news for people like me who are in the dark about most things most of the time!
In the final analysis, the cross and the resurrection are key to interpreting the present time. Birth does not happen without pain, rending of flesh and bloodshed. The new creation implies the death of the old. The new heaven and earth is pushing its way into the old, but the old is not going down without a fight. To welcome the new creation, one must be willing to relinquish one’s hold on the old. Even the intimate ties of family must give way to the embrace of God’s reign. The temptation to do just the opposite is more powerful for those of us who have known mainly the comforts, privilege and influence this world affords. We who cling desperately to what we deem ours by right and imagine God’s future reign as nothing more than an eternal continuation of our past benefits are bound to be sorely disappointed. The signs of the times should serve as a warning to us that our attachment to wealth, power, blood, soil, nation or whatever else we deem eternal is bound for dissolution. Hell might be nothing more or less than one’s realization that one’s life has been wasted on a whole lot of what doesn’t matter.
Perhaps that is what the “signs” are intended to remind us. The events of our day, random, threatening and chaotic as they might be, are nevertheless given meaning by the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the biblical narrative bearing witness to it. In Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection we are invited to see in our lives and experiences signs of God birthing a new thing in the midst of an old and tired world. We may not know all that God is up to, but we know that God is at work for our redemption in the midst of our messy existence. We have no idea exactly what that will look like, how it will emerge or when it will reach completion. Yet, whatever it turns out to be, it is sure to be more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. That isn’t all we might like to know. But it is enough.
The following poem by Alli Warren invites us to interpret the present time. Though she suggests that events, great or small, are bearers of meaning and significance, she leaves much for us readers to supply. Her poem functions in many respects the way Jesus’ parables function, seeking not to answer our questions, but rather to solicit from us better questions.
Something is Coming Toward us
Flaunting in the atrium, ostentatious at the gates
I saw a shooting star thru a window on Alcatraz Ave
& cladding struck up against those who demand
We stomach the stick and tend the commode
They’re selling trees in the paint store! trees in the paint store
Datebook chips in the soft skin of our wrists
On NBC, CNN, and NPR broken windows are weeping
We’ll have 35 apples and shrieking in the thickets
Aloft in the air golden and golden the dial among the mounds
So much is stunted in understanding of what a light can be
They storm the scrimmage line and clear-cut bran and germ
We want the petal unto itself, the unalterable vessel
The arc end of the precipice grows 1.9% annually
What was popular music like before the crisis?
Source: I Love It Though, (c. 2017 by Alli Warren; pub. by Nightboat Books). Alli Warren is an Ameican poet and author. She was born in Los Angeles and now lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Her writing has been published in many venues, including Harpers, Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail and Feminist Formations. You can find out more about Alli Warren and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16.
Our second lesson for this coming Sunday is an excerpt from a much longer roll call of faith heroes in the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with Abel, the first born of Adam and Eve, and ending with the prophets. I encourage you to read Chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews in its entirety. The faith of these individuals, we are told by the anonymous author of the letter, consists of the assurance of things they do not yet see, trust in promises not yet fulfilled, belief in a future beyond the horizons of their lifetimes. Like them, disciples of Jesus are “strangers and foreigners on the earth.” They are “are seeking a homeland.” They are refugees for whom there is no permanent place, no ultimate loyalty and no “blood and soil” tie to any place.
Unless you have been residing on another planet for the last ten years, you know that “refugees,” “foreigners” and “strangers” are among the most hated individuals on the globe. Refugee camps all over the world host millions of people that are unwanted by any nation anywhere. Refugees fleeing war zones, gang violence, religious persecution and starvation brave unimaginable dangers seeking to bring themselves and their families to safe havens in our country and others, only to be met with barbed wire, armed guards and a population unwilling to offer them sanctuary. Like the saints of old, they suffer “mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They [are] killed by the sword; they [go] about….destitute, persecuted, tormented…” Hebrews 11:36-37. It is as refugees, the writer tells us, that disciples of Jesus are to live. We are a people belonging to no country but seeking a homeland that, for now, is only a promise.
Refugee status defines much of biblical history. Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden. Abraham and Sarah are foreigners and squatters in the land of Canaan. They later become refugees driven by famine into Egypt and compelled to trade sexual favors for security in that realm. The people of Israel spend four hundred years as enslaved and exploited laborers in the land of Egypt and forty more years as landless nomads in the wilderness. Following the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, the people of Israel are carried into exile and resettled throughout the middle east. Those who return to the land of Israel find themselves ruled by imperial decree and treated as foreigners in their own land. Jesus and his family came to Egypt fleeing political violence and genocide. As the Letter to the Hebrews makes clear, the story of Israel and the Church is a story of God’s love for refugees and God’s choice of those who are “no people” to be “God’s people.” I Peter 2:10.
In view of all this, it should come as no surprise that the church has historically been involved in the ministry of welcoming refugees and assisting them in resettling. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, an oranization of my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been in this good work for eight decades. That has never before been considered a political issue. Welcoming strangers is part and parcel of discipleship. As the GEICO commercial says, “its what you do” when you follow Jesus. See Matthew 25:35. There has, of course, always been some opposition to admitting refugees into the country, most of which has been grounded in racism, xenophobia and an unfounded fear that refugees will take jobs away from hard working Americans and bleed taxpayer dollars in public benefits. But these misguided and uninformed voices were a small, if noisy, minority. Overall, refugee resettlement has been historically popular and has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. Consequently, the church’s resettlement ministry has been no more controversial than running food pantries and thrift shops.
But then came the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and his virulent rhetoric characterizing refugees as murderers, rapists and violent criminals. For many reasons, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article, Trump’s rude characterization of refugees caught on in a big way. Churches that had been involved with refugee resettlement for decades suddenly found themselves faced with angry local citizen’s groups and even death threats. See “Opposition to Refugee Arrivals Keeps Getting Louder,” by Joel Rose on NPR’s All Things Considered. Suddenly, this ancient church practice of welcoming strangers recognized in the Hebrew Scriptures, established as a fundamental Christian practice in the New Testament and practiced by monasteries, convents, hospitals and inns throughout the centuries has become subversive and anti-American.
The church has historically stood with the refugee because we are refugees ourselves. If we don’t look much like refugees seeking a better homeland, then perhaps it is because we have gotten a little too cozy with the one through which we are supposed to be “just passing through.” In the words of the hymn/poem below:
“O shame to us who rest content
While lust and greed for gain
In street and shop and tenement
Wring gold from human pain,
And bitter lips in blind despair
Cry, ‘Christ has died in vain.’”
We have perhaps forgotten that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that no claim of national sovereignty can rise higher than God’s bequest of this good earth for the benefit of all people. No demand for national loyalty can rise above Jesus’ call to love our neighbor, no matter what side of any humanly drawn border that neighbor might have resided. Baptism trumps citizenship. To turn away a refugee is to turn away Jesus. The nations built on foundations of blood, soil and culture that would demand our ultimate allegiance at the expense of our neighbor are simply too small to accommodate the reign of God. Nothing less than the “Holy City seen of John” is fit to be called our homeland. These are neither liberal propositions nor conservative ones. They are neither Democratic nor Republican. They are just plain Jesus. If they do not comport with your politics, then you will just have to get yourself a new politics or a new savior.
Here is the text of the hymn written by Walter Russell Bowie cited above. It speaks of the City long sought by the biblical saints and how pursuit of that homeland ought to shape our hearts and actions.
1 O Holy City, seen of John,
Where Christ, the Lamb, does reign,
Within those four-square walls shall come
No night, nor need, nor pain,
And where the tears are wiped from eyes
That shall not weep again.
2 O shame to us who rest content
While lust and greed for gain
In street and shop and tenement
Wring gold from human pain,
And bitter lips in blind despair
Cry, “Christ has died in vain.”
3 Give us, O God, the strength to build
The City that has stood
Too long a dream, whose laws are love,
Whose ways, the common good,
And where the shining sun becomes
God’s grace for human good.
4 Already in the mind of God
That City rises fair:
Lo, how its splendor challenges
The souls that greatly dare:
Yea, bids us seize the whole of life
And build its glory there.
Source: RitualSong (2nd ed.) #957. Walter Russell Bowie (1882–1969) was a priest, author, editor, educator, hymn writer, and lecturer in the Episcopal Church (United States). He was born in Richmond, Virginia where his family had deep roots. He received a B.A and M.A. from Harvard University. As an undergraduate, Bowie was co-editor of The Harvard Crimson along with Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was ordained a deacon in 1908 and returned to Virginia where he entered the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary, now known as Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Bowie became known as a preacher as well as author and hymnist. In the 1920s, he advocated for creation of the League of Nations and US immigration reform. He staunchly opposed the the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of religious fundamentalism. Bowie joined the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, The Church League for Industrial Democracy, the Citizens’ Committee to Free Earl Browder and the Civil Rights Congress.