I am Lutheran Pastor currently serving Trinity Lutheran Church in Bogota, New Jersey. Prior to taking the call to serve Trinity in 2008, I practiced law with the firm of Francis & Berry in Morristown, New Jersey for eighteen years. I am a graduate of Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN. I am married and have three grown children.
Jonah, Jesus and white male privilege; a poem by Emma Lazarus; and the Lessons for Sunday, September 24th
Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2017
I inadvertently published this post two weeks ago prior to the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am now re-posting it as it addresses the texts for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24th
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The concept of fairness seems to be built into our human DNA. Small children are acutely sensitive to what’s fair and what isn’t. They notice when there happens to be a tad more orange juice in a sibling’s glass than their own. Everyone knows that when you visit a three child household, you bring three gifts or none at all. Kids have a low tolerance for disparate treatment. So do adults. Everyone knows it is not wise to share the amount of your bonus with co-workers. Unless you are the sort…
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Forgiveness, Forgiving, being forgiven; a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay and the Lessons for Sunday, September 17th
Posted in Uncategorized on September 12, 2017
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all dwell on forgiveness and forbearance in some fashion. In our lesson from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery recognizing that, what they did to him out of malice, God used to bring about salvation. Our psalm echoes the familiar refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, that God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Paul urges us to treat with gentleness and respect those whose path of discipleship differs from our own. In our gospel, Jesus reminds Peter by way of a challenging parable that our readiness to forgive one another must match God’s willingness to forgive us.
We need to have a clear understanding, though, about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness does not absolve one of responsibility. Precisely because God forgives us, we are now set free to make right what we have done wrong-so far as is humanly possible. Being forgiven for our sins makes us more, not less responsible for their consequences. Forgiveness is not premised on anyone’s request to be forgiven. As Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel demonstrates, forgiveness might not be appreciated. It might not result in a changed life for the one forgiven. Nonetheless, just as God sends the sun and the rain upon the righteous and the wicked and showers both with his love and forgiveness, so disciples of Jesus are to forgive without regard to its effects. Finally, forgiveness is not a grant of permission for abuse. I might forgive my abuser and forego any thoughts of retaliation. But I will not simply permit him/her to continue injuring me without resistance. Quite apart from the issue of forgiveness, I have a moral responsibility to myself, to my abuser and to the community to break the cycle of abuse.
What, then, does forgiveness mean? From God’s side, it is a determination not to let sin define God’s relationship to God’s creation and God’s creatures. God will continue to work with our world, broken and misdirected as it is, to bring about a new creation. Even our acts of evil, selfishness and destruction can become God’s instruments for good-as was the case in the story of Joseph and his brothers. God refuses to give up on our world, and that means we can’t give up on it either. To forgive is to recognize God’s holy image in all people, even when they have names like David Duke and Richard Spencer. To forgive is to continue worshiping, serving and praying with a church full of people that continue to let you down. To forgive is to take a deep breath when someone cuts you off on the interstate-because you don’t know what kind of hell they might be going through. To forgive is to find something true, something beautiful and something good in each day, because it is, after all, the day the Lord has made. Forgiveness is seeing with a clear and unsentimental eye the world as it is, while at the same time holding tight God’s promise of all that it will be.
Here’s a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay with a unique take on forgiveness. It gives us a tantalizing hint about how deeply hurtful we can be in our everyday lives and the breadth of forgiveness required to cover us.
Each moment things forgive you. All your hours
Are crowded with rich penitence unknown
Even to you. Shot birds and trampled flowers,
And worms that you have murdered with a stone
In idle sport-yea, and the well whose deep,
Translucent, green and solitary sleep
You stirred into harsh wrinkles with a stick.
Red mud that you have bound into brick,
Old wood that you have wrought into bark,
Flame in the street-lamp held to light the dark,
And fierce red rubies chiseled for a ring…
You are forgiven each hour by everything!
Source: Poetry Magazine May, 1931. Harindranath Chattopadhyay was an Indian English poet, dramatist, actor and musician. He founded and administered the Hyderabad College in India, which later became the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. You can find out more about Harindranath Chattopadhyay and sample more of his poetry at the Scroll.in website.
“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. Furthermore, “[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 should give us some context for understanding Sunday’s lesson which brings us to the conclusion of the patriarchal saga. As you may recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to a band of traders in a fit of jealousy. They then told their father that Joseph had been mauled to death by wild beasts. Joseph, through a series of misadventures finally winds up in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh where he engineers a food rationing program that saved Egypt from starvation over the course of a seven year famine. Canaan, by contrast, is caught off guard and Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers are facing starvation. Knowing that there is food to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers there with money to buy food. To abbreviate the account, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and assures them that they need not fear retaliation. Then he sends them back with instructions to bring their father with them to the land of Egypt where they can ride out the famine.
When sometime later father Jacob dies, a disturbing thought occurs to Joseph’s brothers. What if Joseph was not as forgiving as he let on? What if he refrained from taking revenge only out of respect for his father? Now that Jacob is dead, what is to stop Joseph from doing to his brothers what he had done to them-or worse. Wishing to be proactive, Joseph’s brothers seek an audience with Joseph in which they plead their father’s dying request that he, Joseph, forgive them for the evil they have done. Whether this final testament of Jacob was real or manufactured, Joseph understands well enough that it reflects what his father would have desired. More significantly, Joseph recognizes that there is something bigger at stake here than whatever quarrel he might have with his brothers. Though the brothers acted out of petty jealousy, God was acting at the same time for the purpose of salvation for the family and for many other people. Joseph understands that he is not “in the place of God” who clearly was determined to save the lives of his brothers and their families and has accomplished that very purpose through Joseph’s ordeal.
It would be easy to trivialize this story by summing it up with the maxim: “All things work together for good.” While that is true, it must be born in mind that the good toward which all things work is not necessarily one’s own good. There was nothing good about Joseph’s years of slavery, his separation from his father and the malice of his brothers against him. Joseph’s good fortune later in the game does not erase the scares of what he had to endure. Yet God was able through these harrowing events to further God’s saving purposes and accomplish the good intended.
We should not fail to recognize the ambiguity inherent in this apparent “good.” Though saved from starvation, Israel is brought into Egypt, the house of bondage, as a result of Joseph’s influence. Note well that Joseph had, for all intents and purposes, forsaken his family, culture and faith in his meteoric rise from prisoner to prince of Egypt. We read that after appointing him to his new office, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, an Egyptian name. The new clothing he received was an Egyptian brand. The woman he married was an Egyptian woman-and not the common suburban type either. She was the daughter of a priest of Egypt’s gods. Genesis 41:50. Joseph did what all good immigrants are expected to do. He assimilated. He learned to dress and speak like an Egyptian. He married into a prominent Egyptian family. He adopted the religion of Egypt and even accepted an Egyptian name. If there is anything left of his Hebrew roots, Joseph has had the good sense to keep it out of sight. Joseph had no intention of returning home. The name Joseph gives to his second son says it all: “God has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.” Genesis 41:51.
Though Joseph was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, the covenant was in grave danger of disappearing into the cultural soup of Egypt. It was salvaged only because God brought Joseph’s family back to him. Joseph’s reconciliation with is brothers was therefore not just a family affair. It was a turning from idolatry to covenant faithfulness on the part of a man who nearly forgot who he was. All of this prefigures the struggle Israel will undergo when she returns to the Promised Land and will be compelled to find ways of living faithfully within the context of a very enticing Canaanite culture.
There is also a note of irony in the story. Joseph’s rationing program became an instrument whereby the Empire was able to purchase the very bodies of his subjects rendering them slaves. Genesis 47:13-22. Little did Joseph know how suddenly the institution of imperial slavery he constructed would be turned ruthlessly against his descendants!
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”
We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.
How much and how often am I expected to forgive? That is Peter’s question and it is a reasonable one. We hear it all the time. How many times do I have to remind you to put down the seat! I can’t believe you forgot to pay the credit card bill again! Can you please stop doing that! You know how it annoys me. I don’t believe that Peter is speaking about actions that, in themselves, press the limits of forgiveness. He isn’t speaking of murder, robbery, arson or anything along those lines. Instead, he is speaking about the sorts of offenses people commit on a regular basis, often without even knowing it. Some people can’t help but offer you their advice, regardless whether you want or need it. Other people have odd mannerisms that can be extremely annoying. There are people who seem to have a natural gift for saying hurtful and insensitive things when you are most vulnerable. Often these people wind up in the church because we are probably the only community of people willing to put up with them. So am I supposed to be a bottomless reservoir of forgiveness?
Well, yes, says Jesus. Then he backs it up with the disturbing parable of the forgiven, but unforgiving servant. The parable is disturbing precisely because it suggests that forgiveness which does not inspire forgiveness in the one forgiven can be revoked. In other words, forgiveness is not unconditional. This isn’t the first time that Matthew’s gospel makes the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15. Perhaps it is best to read this parable less as a threat, and more as a very pointed question directed to Peter: If God’s unlimited forgiveness of our sins does not evoke in us the same breadth of compassion and forgiveness toward our neighbor, what good is it? Have we really heard that gracious word of forgiveness from God? Are we fully aware of the degree to which we harm one another and so dishonor God’s image? If, in fact, we are fully aware of the depth of our sin and the corresponding depth of God’s full and free forgiveness, how can we fail to be as forgiving toward fellow human beings?
As commentator John Nolland points out, this parable is hyperbolic and thus exceeds the parameters of any commercial transaction that might have occurred between slave and master in First Century Palestine. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 760. We should take care, then, not to interpret the parable literally or overly allegorically. From the context it is clear that Jesus is reinforcing for Peter what he has earlier said, namely, that his forgiveness for his fellow disciples must be as limitless as God’s forgiveness for him.
Jonah, Jesus and white male privilege; a poem by Emma Lazarus; and the Lessons for Sunday, September 24th
Posted in Uncategorized on September 11, 2017
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The concept of fairness seems to be built into our human DNA. Small children are acutely sensitive to what’s fair and what isn’t. They notice when there happens to be a tad more orange juice in a sibling’s glass than their own. Everyone knows that when you visit a three child household, you bring three gifts or none at all. Kids have a low tolerance for disparate treatment. So do adults. Everyone knows it is not wise to share the amount of your bonus with co-workers. Unless you are the sort of person who likes to flaunt your wealth or bemoan your poverty, you don’t disclose your financial affairs or inquire into those of other people. Envy and resentment are likely to rear their ugly heads when it comes to who makes how much. For that reason, financial matters, like politics and religion, are routinely avoided in polite company.
Nothing riles us more than to see people get more than we think they deserve. Though I have never run the numbers, I have a sneaking suspicion that the government would save a ton of money if it just provided food assistance to everyone who seeks it without qualifications and without financing an elaborate system of verification and enforcement to prevent fraud and abuse. Again, I don’t know whether that is actually the case. Even if it were, however, I doubt the public would ever approve such a measure-no matter how much money it might save us. The idea that somebody else might get an undeserved share of our tax dollars is just too hard on our moral sensibilities. We all had to work for what we have. So should everyone else-or at least those who can.
The same kind of righteous outrage seems to be at work in the hearts of the prophet Jonah and the day laborers in Jesus’ parable. Jonah cannot fathom why God should pardon Assyria, a nation so brutal and heartless it makes ISIS look like a church choir by comparison. This is especially galling when one considers that Israel’s transgressions were punished with national defeat and exile. The first hired laborers in Sunday’s gospel are fit to be tied when they discover that the slackers who showed up an hour before sundown take home the same full day’s pay they received for actually doing a full day’s work. What gives here? Is there no fairness at all?
Actually, no. Life isn’t fair and most of us wouldn’t want it to be if we took the time to think it through. I know I wouldn’t want absolute fairness. I have been the recipient of too many undeserved advantages. First off, I had the good fortune to be born in the 1950s when the economy was a good deal kinder to working class men without college degrees like my Dad. Because Dad was able to find a job that paid a living wage, provided health benefits and gave him an adequate pension, he was able to give a stable home to his kids and provide us with the college education he never had. Second, I was born “white.” That means I had little to fear from the police beyond the annoyance of a traffic ticket. I never had to worry about how my ethnicity, skin color or accent was affecting my job interview or whether a client of my firm might have “demographic concerns” about my representing their company. Third, I was born male, which means that there were many more educational and vocational opportunities open to me with no “glass ceilings” to worry about. I never had to worry either about bosses, prestigious clients or white celebrity males touching my breasts, grabbing me by the genitals or propositioning me for sex as a condition for keeping my job. Finally, quite apart from any effort, initiative or skill on my part, I managed to avoid all of the genetic factors that predispose some people to childhood diseases, cancers and chronic conditions that render them incapable of self-care. I did absolutely nothing to earn or deserve any of those advantages. Did I work hard for everything I now have? You bet. But I know that, absent the head start with which I was born, I would have been working a lot harder for a lot less.
Saint Paul states the matter quite plainly with his usual bluntness. “What have you that you did not receive?” he asks rhetorically, “If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” I Corinthians 4:7. We are not self-made people. We didn’t all start at the same place in this race we call life. Those of us who got a head start must recognize that we were, in many respects, just lucky. In many respects, we benefited from the effects of systemic racism and entrenched patriarchy in education, politics and the work place. None of that makes us bad people, but it certainly ought to put a damper on our boasting and kill our obsession with “fairness,” especially as it pertains to ourselves. We should not resent efforts to enable those who have been historically disadvantaged to catch up-though for those of us who have grown accustomed to having a head start in life that might feel as though we are losing ground. It is hard to be told, no, you didn’t hit a triple. In fact, you were born on third base.
I believe it is precisely this irrational resentment and misplaced self-pity that is feeding the resurgence of white supremacy groups throughout the country. When we hear “black lives matter,” we jump to the conclusion that ours don’t. When we see the increasing presence and influence of African Americans in politics, entertainment, sports and professions that formerly were overwhelmingly white, we feel that something of ours is being taken away from us. When languages that are unfamiliar appear on our ballots, signs and official documents, we feel as though we are being pushed aside by strangers. As more and more Americans look less and less like us, it seems as though we are losing the country we thought we knew. Consequently, when someone comes along who vilifies these folks who are destroying our America, assures us that our feelings are justified and promises “to make America great (read, “white”) again,” his voice resonates. “He says what we feel,” one Trump supporter recently told me. So too, the extreme expressions of white supremacy legitimize the blind rage felt by those of us who resent the loss of our privilege, privilege we have mistaken for a natural right.
The lessons for this Sunday speak a salutary word to those of us fuming over the loss of privilege and feeling unjustly deprived. The Book of Jonah reminds us that God loves us too much to treat us fairly. God treats us-all of us-mercifully. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard lets us know in no uncertain terms that God’s good gifts to us are just that: gifts. We are no more worthy of them if we have been toiling throughout the heat of the day and no less entitled to them if we arrive only at the eleventh hour. In fact, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Psalm 24:1. Only when we are ready to release our own claim of ownership on the piece we think is “ours” can we hope to receive it as gift. The following poem by Emma Lazarus expresses gratitude for this land we call home by those for whom it is not yet home. It is the song of immigrants newly discovering America with gratitude and generosity we established Americans too often lack.
“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.
Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
Day’s sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.
After the Southern day of heavy toil,
How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening’s fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
Up from one’s pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.
The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.
Strange faces theirs, wherethrough the Orient sun
Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles’ shame.
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
Refuge o’er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears.
Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings (2002). Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is most famous for the words inscribed on the Statute of Liberty from her poem, The New Colossus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Lazarus was one of the first successful and publically recognized Jewish American authors. She was born in New York City to a wealthy family. She began writing and translating poetry as a teenager and was publishing translations of German poems by the 1860s. Lazarus was moved by the fierce persecution of her people in Russia, a frequent topic of her writings, as well as their struggles to assimilate into American culture. You can sample more of Emma Lazarus’ poetry and read more about her at the Poetry Foundation website.
The book of Jonah differs from all the other prophetic books. Rather than containing the oracles of a prophet, this book tells the story of a prophet. It reads very much like a short story. It is also different in that the prophetic focus is not upon Israel, but upon Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s archenemy, Assyria. That is where the problem lies as far as the prophet is concerned. Jonah would far rather be declaring gleefully Assyria’s doom to his fellow Israelites than bringing a warning to the doomed nation. Assyria, after all, was responsible for the downfall and destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah only narrowly escaped the same fate. Jonah, like the rest of Israel, wanted nothing more than to see God’s judgment fall with full force on this cruel empire. So Jonah does everything in his power to ensure the failure of his mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
First, Jonah tries to run away from his commission. Rather than traveling to Nineveh, he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction. God catches up with Jonah, however and sends a storm that threatens to swamp the ship. Everyone on the boat begins praying frantically to his god, except Jonah who is fast asleep in the hold. Jonah is not on speaking terms with his God. The sailors wake Jonah and implore him to pray to his God for rescue, but instead Jonah suggests that they throw him overboard. He would rather drown than prophesy to Nineveh. But Jonah’s attempt at suicide fails. God is not letting him off the hook that easily. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah and there he remains, in the belly of the fish, for three days. After giving Jonah adequate time to reflect, the fish vomits Jonah up on shore. God repeats the original command: Go at once to Nineveh.
Knowing that he can never escape from God, Jonah goes reluctantly to Nineveh and preaches the shortest and most uninformative sermon ever given by a prophet. The message? “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4. That’s it. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are being overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can do to prevent the overthrow. Yet this half-hearted and incomplete sermon brings about a remarkable effect. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth.” Jonah 3:5. Not only that, but “when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah 3:6. Even the animals repented with fasting! Jonah 3:7-8. “Who knows?” remarked the king. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” Jonah 3:9. God does indeed hear the penitent cries from the people of Nineveh and God changes his mind. God spares the city from destruction.
This is just what Jonah had feared and what he had done everything possible to prevent. “I knew it!” cries the exasperated prophet. “Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2. Jonah knows his Torah well. This confession of God as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 145:8 and Psalm 103:8. Indeed, it is with these very words that God reveals to Moses his innermost being. Exodus 34:6-7. But Jonah does not seem to want a God who is merciful and slow to anger. He wants a God that is fair. Assyria is guilty of unspeakable acts of war, oppression and cruelty. It is only fair that God visit upon Assyria what the empire has inflicted on Israel. An eleventh hour show of repentance should not be enough to win Nineveh a reprieve from justice.
God proves to be as patient and forgiving toward his stubborn prophet as he is toward the wicked city of Nineveh. God employs an object lesson. He causes a plant to grow up giving the sulking prophet shade. Then, a day later, God sends a worm causing the plant to wither and die. Now Jonah is livid. Bad enough that God should make a fool of him by calling off the judgment he had predicted. Now it appears that God means to give him sunstroke as well. Then God makes his point: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11. That is how the book ends-with God’s question. We never hear Jonah’s answer and perhaps that is intentional. The question is really directed at us. What sort of God do we worship? Is God chiefly concerned with abstract notions of justice, with punishing sin and rewarding good behavior? Or is God more concerned with the well-being of people? Does God hate sin because it offends against his precious laws? Or does God hate sin because it harms his creatures?
For numerous reasons, most scholars date this book in the post exilic period following 539 B.C.E. While the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria was a more distant memory, Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians was a fresh and painful recollection. To be sure, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had explained these catastrophes as consequences of Israel’s breach of covenant faithfulness to God. But even so, Israel’s less than perfect obedience was surely light years closer to righteousness than the brutal and oppressive ways of Assyria and Babylonia. If Israel was justly punished for her sin, is it too much to expect that these empires also should face judgment?
The Book of Jonah shifts the focus of this discussion from fairness to mercy. God does not inflict judgment merely settle scores or maintain some sort of moral balance. God punishes in order to heal. Thus, whether God punishes sin or decides to refrain from punishment has nothing to do with fairness. It is finally a question of what will bring about a change of heart, healing and ways that are life giving. If repentance can be achieved without punishment, God abstains from exercising the rod-even if that seems unfair. Likewise, God will inflict whatever hardships are necessary to bring his people to the point of recognizing their self-destructive ways and their need for him-whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime or not. But God’s concern is always for the well-being of his people both within and outside of his covenant with Israel.
“All of this points in the direction of the fact that God’s will for his world is salvation and not destruction. He will do all within his power to see that salvation comes rather than destruction. God’s love and mercy always have priority over his anger (see Psalm 30:3). He wishes life for his creatures rather than death (see Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Fretheim, Terence E., The Message of Jonah, (c. 1977 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 130.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
Formally, this is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. Professor Walter Brueggemann classifies this psalm as a “song of creation,” a subcategory of his “psalms of orientation,” namely, psalms that “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 25. Psalm 145 expresses Israel’s “joyous and grateful confidence in the Creator.” Id. at 28. There is no thematic development in this psalm. It is, as Brueggeman points out, “static in form, articulating what is enduringly true of the world.” Id. at 28-29. The range of praise stretches from the first person to the intergenerational “we” of the worshiping community.
“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8.This refrain is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as pointed out in my observations concerning our first lesson, where we encounter it in the context of irony. Jonah 4:2 It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations. Placed as it is in contrast to Jonah’s citation of this ancient confession, the psalm invites us to ponder what it means to have a God whose principle attributes are graciousness, mercy, and steadfast love. Such a divine disposition is comforting when applied to ourselves but, as the lesson from Jonah illustrates, not quite so palatable when applied to our enemies. Are we prepared to accept God’s graciousness and mercy extended toward Al Qaeda or to ISIS? Or does the very idea throw us into a Jonah snit?
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the Letter of Friendship Paul wrote while imprisoned. Paul is mindful that his imprisonment might well end with his being sentenced to death. Though hopeful that he will finally be released and allowed to continue his ministry, Paul does not fear death. For whether through his future ministry or through his faithful acceptance of death for the sake of the gospel, whether short or long, Paul’s life will bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:19-20. Paul prefers deliverance from prison to martyrdom, but this is not because he fears death. Indeed, he views death in Christ as “gain.” Vs. 21. Paul wishes to live that he may continue his ministry to the church in Philippi and to his other congregations. Vs. 25-26.
Paul urges the Philippian believers to let their manner of life “be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Vs. 27. To give content to this admonition, we need to read further both in Philippians and in the other letters of Paul. The church, as the Body of Christ, is to live a counter-cultural existence in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. In the midst of the hierarchical and stratified culture of Rome, such a community constituted a subversive challenge. The church was, as Paul aptly pointed out, an “omen to them of their destruction.” Vs. 28. The church can therefore expect opposition. Faith in Jesus naturally entails “suffering” for his sake and participation with Paul in his own conflict with the empire. Vss. 29-30.
Paul’s sentiments and the struggles of his Philippian congregation are hard to grasp in a culture where the church fits neatly into the Americana landscape. Even as Christianity fades from popular culture and the church’s influence recedes, we do not face anything like persecution. Yes, I know about Fox’s reporting on the so-called “war on Christianity.” But if you really think that barring a crèche from the town square during the holiday season amounts to persecution, you need to talk to Christians in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. They will tell you what real persecution looks like. What we actually are experiencing is the beginning of marginalization. Given our substantial loss of membership, participation and support, we mainliners no longer represent a significant demographic group. We are fast becoming a minority. But then again, perhaps we always were a minority. Maybe the cultural support churches received in the past and the social expectation for church membership and participation characteristic of earlier times falsely inflated our numbers. It could be that, despite the loss of members, the church has more disciples today than ever before. I have no idea whether that is so or how one would go about finding out one way or the other. But I digress.
I believe that a careful reading of Paul’s letters in our present context compels a change of subject. Rather than trying to reverse membership loss to save our institutions, we need to be talking about becoming and making disciples. Rather than wracking our brains trying to figure out how to get people to go to church, we need to start talking about how we can better be the church. It’s high time that we become an “omen” once again.
The parable reflects the gritty realities of life in Palestine and, sadly, many places in our own country. Labor is cheap and it’s a buyer’s market. Men and women stand in groups at the market place in Galilean towns or in front of the Shoprite in Union City hoping to get work for the day. The work day in Palestine lasted from sunrise to sunset. The daily wage, a denarius, was set by rabbinic custom and tradition. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) P. 392. The requirement that payment be made at the end of the day is rooted in Torah. Deuteronomy 24:15. “Vineyard” is a frequent metaphor for Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-9.
It is important to understand that this parable follows Jesus’ teaching concerning lifelong fidelity in marriage (Matthew 19:1-9); the call of some to forego marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:10-12); Jesus’ declaration that children, who the disciples found to be a distraction, are the proper heirs of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13-15); the story about the man whose riches prevented him from following Jesus in the way of the kingdom (Matthew 19:16-22); and Jesus’ words on the cost and rewards of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-30). Matthew’s use of the vineyard here suggests that he is giving us a snapshot of what life in the kingdom looks like-if only we have eyes to see it.
The hiring of the first laborers at dawn for a day’s wage is hardly unusual. It would not be unusual either to hire additional laborers later in the day if, for example, the rainy season were drawing near with its potential for cooler weather and even frost. Hiring workers an hour before sunset simply is not credible. Yet that appears to be the point. The owner of the vineyard is not looking at this venture from a purely business like, self-interested perspective. He is looking to the needs of the laborers. At an hour from quitting time, he discovers that there are still laborers standing idle in the marketplace. It seems odd that the owner of the vineyard would ask these unemployed laborers why they are idle. Isn’t that like asking an unemployed factory worker why he isn’t at work? The answer seems obvious, yet the owner seeks an answer from these unfortunate individuals just the same. When the would-be laborers tell him that they are idle because they have not been hired, the owner promptly hires them and sends them out.
While it might seem strange that the owner of the vineyard should pay the last workers before the first, this order of events is critical to the parable. Had the first hired been the first paid, they would each have taken their denarius and gone home contented. As the owner later points out, they received the benefit of their bargain. They are taking home a living wage for a day’s work. Their wages seem disagreeable to them only because they have witnessed payment of the same amount made to those hired last. For this reason only their wages look small and miserly. In reality, the first hired are offended not so much by their own pay as by the owner’s generous treatment of those workers that, in their view, had not earned it. This is the “Jonah” complaint in an economic context.
The owner’s strange management of labor in his vineyard is in fact how the kingdom of heaven operates. Fruitful labor for a living wage is available for all who seek it. To put it into the language of the Lord’s Prayer, daily bread is provided for all. The problem is that people want more than daily bread. That is why it is so hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:23-26. They want and expect more than daily bread. For the rich, a heavenly kingdom where all have enough to see them through each day-and no more-would be a hellish existence. So who is included among these “rich”? Who are the laborers who feel cheated? All of us, I suppose, who have more than what we need to live on today and remain unsatisfied. I believe one reason that the specter of socialism is bandied about to such great effect by political leaders has to do with our deep sense of entitlement to the fruits of our labor. I am entitled to the value of my labor (which always seems undervalued by my employer!) and nobody is entitled to anything that has not been earned. Though public assistance is hardly a significant piece of our tax burden, we still seem hell bent on cutting it because there is something deep inside us that cannot abide a person getting what they have not “earned.”
We are also uncomfortable with this parable because it challenges the gospel of wealth that permeates our culture. America is the land of opportunity, we believe, where anyone with enough determination and grit can get rich. In fact, the gap between rich and poor is growing in our land as it is globally. Those folks who are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet would find it hard to believe that they are not working hard enough. But the problem is not merely that the American dream isn’t working. The larger problem is that, even if it did work, our lives would still be running amuck. Pursuit of wealth is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It selfishly demands more than God promises and winds up settling for much less. It rests on the false assumption that the world is a shrinking pie and my well-being depends on grabbing the biggest piece and guarding it jealously.
The parable of the vineyard, in addition to exposing our selfish, thankless and proud imaginings, also points to an alternative economics. It testifies to the possibility of an economy that maximizes human well-being rather than financial gain; gives priority to the needs of all rather than the luxuries of the few; harvests the fruits of the earth rather than exploiting and poisoning them.
Before leaving this parable, I want to share an additional take on it from Professor Stanley Hauerwas: “It is particularly important for Gentile Christians to remember that as heirs of the promise to Israel we are the last hired. The decisive commentary on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness to Israel developed in Romans 9-11. Paul writes to the Gentile Christians to insist that God’s promise to Israel remains in effect. Israel has stumbled on the stumbling block that is Jesus, but it has done so that salvation may come to the Gentiles (11:11-12). Accordingly, no account of the church, of those last hired, can ever be intelligible without the story of Israel, and those who are the inheritors of that story, the Jews.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brozos Press) p. 176.
Hard words and the cost of not speaking them; a poem by Emily Dickinson; and the lessons for Sunday, September 10th
Posted in Uncategorized on September 5, 2017
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 33:8
The Lord makes clear to his prophet that silence is not an option. A person who possesses a truth that ought to be spoken and remains silent is as guilty as those who act contrary to that truth. Moreover, it is no excuse that the truth is likely to be resisted, rejected and ignored. It is not for the prophet to determine whether the word given him/her to speak is likely to be effective. The prophet cannot presume to know God’s intended purpose for God’s word. God’s word might as easily harden hearts as melt them. It is, after all, God’s word. God will use it in whatever manner, in whatever time and for whatever purpose God desires. The prophet’s responsibility is simply to ensure that the word is spoken and released into the world of its hearers.
It falls to God’s prophets to speak hard words. Hard words make for angry outbursts, awkward silences and divided communities. Telling the truth disrupts the lying narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our country, about our acts of selfish meanness and about the people we call enemies. Truthfulness frequently breaches the peace. But God knows that the truth is the only antidote for what ails us. It’s the only medicine that can make us free. So Ezekiel is commissioned to tell his exiled people the truth of their predicament. The Promised Land, the line of David and the temple in Jerusalem have all been taken away from them as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The people need to hear, understand and own this hard truth before they can hear God’s word of forgiveness and promise for Israel’s future. Ezekiel’s silence would have contributed to the painful breach between God and God’s people. It would have made healing and reconciliation impossible.
Hard words should be hard to speak. I worry about preachers who, under the rubric of being “prophetic,” take a perverse delight in shocking, angering and dividing the church. Make no mistake about it, I believe that the Word of God discomforts the comfortable, that he Holy Spirit disrupts our expectations and that the object of our worship is, as Professor Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, an “unsettling God.” But unless a word is as unsettling to the prophet as to his/her audience, it is unlikely a word of God. A true prophet never speaks down in anger toward the people from some platform above the people. The genuine prophet stands with the people under the same judgment s/he proclaims to the community. Amos pleaded with God to soften the judgment on Israel he was told to announce. When Isaiah encountered the Lord in the temple he acknowledged that he was a sinful man among sinful people. Jeremiah lamented bitterly the task of pronouncing Judah’s doom. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures knew that their fate was bound to that of their people. Like the God for whom they spoke, they took “no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Ezekiel 33:11.
Nevertheless, the hard words must be spoken. It is better that the church be divided by the truth than united under something less. To be sure, it is not easy to speak plainly about white privilege and how it continues to hamper people of color from achieving genuine freedom and equality. It is hard to be confronted with the reality of sexual discrimination, intimidation and harassment that is the everyday experience of women and girls in our schools, workplaces and, sadly, the church. Overcoming two millennia of bad science and bad theology that have bred contempt for sexual minorities is proving to be a painful and difficult task for our churches. None of us who have spent our lives working to achieve financial security like being reminded that we have reached this coveted goal at the expense of billions living in poverty.
In the face of all this discomfort, we are strongly tempted to avoid hard words. Isn’t the church a place of communal love? Does bringing the divisiveness of our culture into the church make that love grow? Are we not simply making the church into a microcosm of our polarized society? Doesn’t all of this controversial stuff just offend our people and undermine our ability minister compassionately and be present to them when they desperately need our care in times of personal distress? There is some validity to these concerns. Again, speech that places the prophet on a higher moral plane than the rest of the community, speech that only lectures, judges and condemns is not genuinely prophetic. A prophet must be one whose life demonstrates genuine compassion for his/her people and their everyday concerns. S/he must be fully transparent about his/her own complicity in the evils s/he identifies and honest about his/her own faults, blind spots and failures. Only so will his/her prophetic speech be received as credible and reveal not only the depths of the community’s sin, but also the passionate love of a God who wounds only in order to heal and who breaks down only to build back better and stronger.
Sometimes truth needs to be slipped in through the back door. A frontal assault on one’s deeply held opinion is likely to arouse defensiveness and cause one to cling all the more tenaciously to that opinion. That is why Jesus employed parables. That is why the prophets often used poetic imagery to make their point. When King David committed murder and adultery, the prophet Nathan did not begin by confronting him with irrefutable facts proving his guilt or moral lectures aimed at changing his behavior. Instead, he told a story that drew the king into it so deeply that he did not realize until too late that he himself was the villain and not the hero he imagined himself to be. So, too, Jesus’ parables re-frame issues in ways that force us to challenge old assumptions about sinfulness, righteousness, faith and unbelief. Rather than bludgeoning us into submission, the truth seduces us.
Here are some wise words from Emily Dickinson on truth telling.
Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
The image of the prophet as “watchman” or “sentinel” is a common one. Vs. 7. Cf. Isaiah 21:6; Jeremiah 6:17. For a walled city located near a hostile frontier, the sentinel served as an early warning system. The fate of the city might well depend on the sentinel’s ability to detect and warn the city’s defenders of an approaching enemy. His failure to sound the alarm might seal the city’s doom. So also the prophet bears a heavy responsibility for warning the people about the consequences of their sinful and self-destructive behavior. As grave as the people’s sin would be the prophet’s failure to denounce it in their hearing.
Verses 10-11 indicate that the people have gotten the message loud and clear. “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” vs. 10. This is no vain question. We all know there are sins that leave lasting scars upon us and others. Sometimes a relationship is so deeply wounded by unfaithfulness and betrayal that it can never be healed. Yet that is not the case for Israel and her covenant relationship with her God. The door is open for Israel’s return. This section of Ezekiel, then, prepares the way for the promises and visions that will be the burden of the last part of the book. Jenson, Robert, W., Ezekiel, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert W. Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 254.
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Vs. 11. Yet so much of our cinematic entertainment is grounded in just such pleasure. That is so, I believe, because cinematic art is capable of flattening and simplifying our universe in such a way as to eliminate moral ambiguity. On the screen, evil people are so thoroughly evil and devoid of humanity that their destruction hardly counts even as justifiable homicide. Conflicts lack the historical baggage, cultural subtleties and ethical conundrums plaguing non-virtual, flesh and blood confrontations between individuals, groups and nations. One might argue that, while this is all true, we are dealing here with entertainment. Of course the real world is too varied and complex to fit into a two hour movie. The stage can never replicate life, but only show us a glimmer of it. Yet, be that as it may, when a popular genre generates repeatedly and consistently stories of conflict that admit of no other solution than violence, it can easily start to color the way we process the real world. Worse still, it can distort our view of the scriptures and the character of our God.
John Correia, preacher at an Arizona church, said in a recent article: “What fuels my passion for guns and self defense? First and foremost my Christian faith.” Read the entire article if you wish. Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up. He goes on to say, “I wish everyone got along, I wish that everybody was nice, but they’re not. And until we get into that perfect world where Jesus comes again, we need to be able to protect ourselves and in Luke 22:36 I believe Jesus said ‘let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.’” Though Jesus did say that, he went on to rebuke his disciples when they took him literally as did Pastor Correia. Luke 22:38. Moreover, rather than allow his disciples to use their swords in self defense or in his own defense, Jesus told them to cease fighting immediately and even healed the man they had injured. Luke 22:49-51. If that passage is the best defense the good pastor can put up in support of righteous gun violence, he is firing blanks. It would appear that his Bible is missing a few key chapters-such as the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor Correia is said to have remarked that the only way he would ever willingly give up his firearms was if Jesus personally told him to do so. Well, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52. Seems clear enough to me.
But I digress. The point here is that, once we adopt a world view in which good and evil are neatly divided and the only possible resolution to conflict is violence, we are likely to ignore or simply lose our ability to hear the voice of Jesus in the scriptures. Instead of conforming our lives to the scriptures as interpreted by the cross, we trivialize the cross, treat it as a special case that applied only once and only to Jesus and order our lives by the lights of John Wayne, Chuck Norris or some more moderate philosophy of “realism.” The God of Israel would have us know that this is not how he does business, nor is it the way he would have his people behave. God would have us deal as patiently and forgivingly with our enemies as God dealt with us “while we were enemies” of God. See Romans 5:10.
Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.
I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40.
Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”
This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.
The term “owe no one anything” is a conventional expression for freedom from both monetary and social obligation. Jewett, Robert, Romans, a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 Fortress Press) p. 805. This admonition, deeply rooted as it is in Paul’s concept of the Church as Christ’s Body, is more than mere practical advice. As noted in my post for Sunday, September 3rd, the Roman Empire was a hierarchical society held together by networks of patronage and social obligation with the emperor seated at the apex. Caesar was Lord. The church, however, recognized not Caesar but Jesus as Lord. The social order dictating the terms under which the disciple lived was not that of the empire, but that of the church. Discipleship, then, was radically counter-cultural and deeply subversive.
Again, some commentators have criticized Paul for being too parochial here in focusing the love command upon the church community rather than all humankind. Such criticism, however, presupposes a Constantinian ecclsiology in which an institutional church serves as the moral conscience of a largely Christian society. That same outlook still serves as the unquestioned underpinning both for liberal Protestantism’s social advocacy and right wing Evangelical social conservative initiatives. Each in their own way are attempting to “Christianize” America. Only their platforms differ. Paul, by contrast, understood the church not as an instrument to bring about a kinder, gentler empire, but as a radical alternative to Rome.
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog with any consistently that I favor serious rethinking of our ecclesiology and mission as we find ourselves in the post-modern, post-Constantinian context. The conversations we need to be having revolve not over which legislative initiatives to support, but how we live together as church in a way that mirrors the kingdom of heaven. Religion that does no more than help people cope with the dehumanizing conditions of life under late stage capitalism is not worth spit. A church richly deserves extinction if does no more than issue preachy-screechy social statements, mobilize its membership to support legislative tweaks to a brutally oppressive and unsustainable economic system while asking/offering no more to its members than an hour on Sunday with a tithe.
Will churches modeling the counter-cultural example of Paul’s congregations or the community described in the Book of Acts “change the world?” Well, they will not bring in the kingdom of heaven. At best, they can only witness to it. But if we can simply plant the idea in peoples’ heads that there is an alternative to a life of wage slavery so soul numbing and stressful that you need four weeks of vacation just to cope with it, if we demonstrate that medical care need not be controlled by profit driven corporations and administered by strangers in an alien environment, if we can build communities where security is not dependent upon the dubious integrity of insurers and investment bankers, but grounded in networks of caring relationships, who knows? The church might once again turn the world upside down.
Love fulfills the law. Vs. 10. As indicated in the previous paragraph, “love” is not an abstract principle for Paul. “No, the appropriate social context of the love ethic in this section is the small Christian congregations in Rome, and, more concretely, the love feasts and sacramental celebrations in which members shared their resources. Pervo, Richard I, “Panta Koina: the Feeding Stories in the Light of Economic Data and Social Practice” published in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament Word: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (c. 1994 Nov/TSup 74 Leiden: Brill) p. 192, cited in Jewett, supra, at 807. It is with this understanding in mind that we interpret Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth concerning its failure to “discern the Body” in its Eucharistic celebrations. Where each person “goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another drunk” (I Corinthians 11:21), the community is not living as a Body in which the needs of each part are honored and provided for. See I Corinthians 12:12-31. There is no distinction between Eucharistic sharing and “social ministry.” Sharing of resources to ensure the well-being of all is no more an act of “charity” than is the heart’s pumping of blood to the rest of the body. Love is the concrete act of having all things in common. That does not necessarily imply communal living or “common purse” communities. Conventions governing property ownership vary from age to age and culture to culture. At a bare minimum, however, the church must see to it that the basic needs for food, shelter and healing are met for all its members. To do less than this is to fail to discern the Body.
This passage is cited in just about every congregational constitution I have ever read, usually under the rubrics of “church discipline.” A similar procedure is alluded to by Paul in II Corinthians 13:1. Unfortunately, the passage has frequently been interpreted as a provision to protect the purity of the church. Nothing could be further from Matthew’s intent. In fact, the concern here is for the erring sister or brother. Precisely because Jesus declares “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14) that every effort must be made to prevent conduct rupturing the community and alienating its members. For this reason, sin must first be addressed individually by the one perceiving it with an eye toward reconciliation/repentance. Only when this step fails is it permissible to bring other individuals into the matter. Where reconciliation cannot be achieved with the assistance of two or three additional persons, the matter must then be brought before the church for resolution. Severance of ties between the sinner and the community is a measure of last resort. Moreover, even this drastic step of treating the sinner as a tax collector has in view the objective of winning the estranged member back to the community. Outcasts and tax collectors are not lost causes, but special objects of Jesus’ mercy and compassion. See also, I Corinthians 5:5; II Corinthians 2:5-7.
A further practical caution is in order here. Not every annoying habit, inconsiderate act or careless utterance by someone in the congregation merits this disciplinary procedure. Unless sin rises to the level at which it threatens to rupture the unity of the church or alienate one of its members, it should be borne with patience, understanding and forgiveness. The church was never intended to be a community of the perfect, but rather a congregation of sinners being perfected by the faithful practice of living together under a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7.
Posted in Uncategorized on September 1, 2017
By now, everyone is painfully aware of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Huston, Texas and surrounding areas. I invite anyone reading this article to join me in supporting relief efforts to aid the victims of this catastrophic storm. While there are many worthy organizations working faithfully to provide sustenance, comfort and shelter to the many persons left homeless and displaced in the wake of this disaster, I can personally vouch for Lutheran Disaster Response, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a denominational organization, it has very low overhead and pledges that 100% of every donation designated for Hurricane Harvey victims will be so disbursed. You can donate online, by phone (800-638-3522) Monday through Friday 8 am – 5 p.m. or by making your check out to “Hurricane Response – United States” and sending it to: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, P.O. Box 1809, Merrifield, VA 22116-8009.
The degree to which Huston churches, synagogues, mosques along with so many businesses and individuals are responding by opening their doors to shelter the displaced, donating food, water and other necessities and supporting rescue operations is inspiring. Times like these force us to recognize the importance of community, the bonds of friendship and trust that hold us together and how much we really do need one another. In the face of a hurricane, differences don’t count for much. I doubt that anyone rescued from the top of his or her roof or freed from entrapment in his or her car cares much whether the person performing the rescue was Republican, Democrat, Christian, Muslim, atheist, gay, straight, transgendered or bisexual. Nor, do I believe, does God. As I have said many times before, in Matthew’s parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus does not ask anyone who they loved, to whom they were married, how many times they were married, to which church they belonged or what doctrine they hold. According to the gospel, the only thing that concerns Jesus is how we treated our neighbors, particularly our poor, sick, imprisoned, hungry and estranged neighbors. Furthermore, Jesus’ parable has a lot more to do with what God’s priorities for us are today than with who gets into heaven and who doesn’t in the sweet by and by. That’s why I believe God is passionately focused on what is happening this week in Huston and doesn’t give a rat’s petunia for that blast of hot air called the “Nashville Manifesto on Sexuality” put out by a bunch of “evangelical” leaders who, it should be noted, speak only for one limited strand of American Christianity-not the church at large.
Though purporting to be about “sexuality,” the manifesto does nothing to illuminate the rich and nuanced biblical narratives and insights that might lead us into a deeper understanding of this mystery of our existence. In fact, it does little more than reiterate the signatories’ ideological basis for excluding, condemning and judging gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. I don’t intend to waste my breath refuting point by point the manifesto’s assertions. I’ve been there and done that too many times. I’m tired of being that clown in the parade dutifully following the horses, shovel in hand. If you are interested in such a refutation, I recommend the Denver Statement authored in the main by Rev. Nadia Boltz Weber. Pastor Boltz Weber far surpasses me in eloquence, patience and olfactory endurance. For my part, I will only say that Jesus nowhere, under any circumstances ever said anything at all about same sex attraction or expression. I will also say that nowhere in the scriptures do we find any prohibition against same sex marriage or mutually loving and committed relationships between persons of the same sex. Nowhere do the scriptures speak at all concerning transgendered persons. And yes, I have read the “seven passages” in the scripture that come up repeatedly in our predictably sterile debates over sexual morality. Suffice to say that they don’t say what our “evangelical” friends want them to say. Jesus does say clearly, unequivocally and with no ambiguity, however, that God’s priority and standard of judgment for every nation, faith community and individual is the measure of how the most vulnerable in their midst are treated. The deafening silence of the Nashville gang on this single most important commandment in the shadow of a devastating hurricane that has left thousands threatened, displaced and homeless speaks volumes to their priorities and standards. They are obviously not those of Jesus.
Now, getting back to what God cares about, many people from all walks of life are responding bravely and generously to the crisis in Huston. One business owner, who opened his facility to accommodate displaced persons and provided out of his own inventory bottles of water, food and other necessities remarked, “Today is not about making money or the bottom line. It’s about neighbor looking after neighbor.” So true, and yet, it isn’t just “today.” Every day is about neighbor looking after neighbor-at least that is what Jesus tells us. Our neighbors are dying in Huston as I write these lines. The media images of persons terrified, grieving and homeless make it hard for us to forget that brutal fact. But forget we surely will. When the dramatic work of rescuing trapped puppies and the touching images of movie stars and politicians comforting homeless children fade from media attention, we will once again be back to tax reform, North Korea and the Russia investigation. Huston will become less a heart rending tragedy and more just another blotch of red ink adding to the federal deficit and damned if we taxpayers should be saddled with it!
The true test of neighborliness comes when there is no hurricane howling overhead and no flood waters crashing over the levies. Neighborliness does not come as naturally when the poor remain largely invisible, the victims of disaster are on the other side of the world and human suffering is not the focus of the evening news. I suspect that neighborliness will not come quite as spontaneously a year from now when the waters have receded, the cameras have moved on, but the hard work of rebuilding devastated communities is only beginning. That is when our faithfulness and generosity will be put to the test, that is when we will hear the voice of Jesus appealing to us through those persons the news media will have forgotten, that is when our genuine priorities will be exposed. As disciples of Jesus, we should not need a hurricane to remind us that “it’s all about neighbors looking out for neighbors.” My hope and prayer is that, a year from now, we will still be looking out for our neighbors in Huston and wherever else they may be.
Posted in Uncategorized on August 28, 2017
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Jeremiah has reached a crisis point. His love for God’s word and will for Israel have only brought into sharper focus how far Israel has strayed from God. This dissonance between what is and what ought to be torments the prophet to the point of despair. “Am I wasting my life pursuing a dream?” he wonders. “Is life under God’s covenant a hopelessly unattainable ideal? Is there any point in continuing to endure abuse from a people hostile to everything I say?” I cannot say that I have ever faced anything during my ministerial career remotely similar to the opposition Jeremiah encountered. Nonetheless, as everyone following this blog can attest, I struggle with my church’s structural, programmatic and theological impediments to fulfilling the mission of proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom. Much of what I see on the denominational and congregational level looks a lot more like self-preservation than self-sacrifice for the gospel. Like Saint Peter in our gospel lesson, we shun the cross and seek to save our institutional lives rather than putting everything on the line for Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. That is, in my view, a large part of why the church’s testimony at the present time of crisis has been limited to measured social policy statements.
Of course, the shortcomings I see in the church are but a reflection of the faults I know have their origin in my own reluctance to embrace fully the way of the cross. Like the rich young man Jesus encountered, I am not eager to place in jeopardy the comfortable retirement that I hope awaits me. I have no inclination to “offer up my body as a living sacrifice” like Kayla Mueller who was kidnapped and killed while providing assistance to Syrian refugees. I know that, at least for the present, speaking out against the racist, sexist and bigoted policies of the Trump administration costs me nothing. Unlike Heather Heyer, I have not had to pay the ultimate price for confronting the demon of racist violence unleashed by the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign and the administration to which it gave birth. I have never had to endure the indignity of being beaten and left overnight in the stocks as did poor Jeremiah. I am therefore hardly in a position to utter the prayer on Jeremiah’s lips in this Sunday’s lesson.
Nonetheless, I experience, as did Jeremiah, that cognitive dissonance between the baptismal covenant under which Jesus invites us to live and the reality of life in the church as I know it. Perhaps that is, at the very least, a good place to start. The people of God should never allow themselves to lose their holy discomfort with the status quo governing the world, the inadequacy of their witness or the degree of their complicity with evil in their own lives. In my own Lutheran tradition we are fond of saying that we are, at the same time, “saints and sinners.” That is all well and good if it means we, like recovering alcoholics, are a community of people liberated from sin yet struggling to help each other hang onto sobriety in a world pulling us back into the self-destructive ways from which Jesus saves us. It is fine to recognize that we are subject to relapse and must stand ready and willing to forgive, help and support any one of us who “falls off the wagon.” But too often this saying is invoked to excuse a banal, secularized ideology of “self-acceptance.” Too often the saint/sinner identification is less a dynamic, faith-animating dialectic than it is a justification for a lifestyle barely satisfying the bar for white middle class respectability and good citizenship. There is a huge difference between sinners struggling to live into the identity of sainthood conferred upon us through baptism into Jesus Christ and sinners who view baptism as a stamp of approval on ethical relativism and spiritual mediocrity. Such piety (if you can call it that) produces Christians whose lives differ little from those of the prevailing culture except that, of course, they happen to be in church on Sunday instead of on the beach-at least one week out of the month anyway.
Of course, there is the opposite extreme that would dispense with the church altogether. Jeremiah seems to be teetering on the brink of doing just that-writing off the covenant people of Israel as beyond redemption. Having lived my life as an active member and/or leader in at least half a dozen congregations over my lifetime, I can sympathize with people who are “done” with “organized religion.” I understand people who are OK with Jesus but cannot stomach the church. I have experienced at least as much hurt, insult and outrage from the church as most of the folks I know who have left for that reason. So why do I stick with it? Well, for one thing, Jesus leaves me no other choice. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he says. The church is the Body of Christ. Discipleship is not an individual task. It requires community. There is no such thing as a lone ranger disciple of Jesus. If you want to hang with Jesus, you are stuck with the rest of the people who follow him. Be warned, they are an unsavory lot!
Second, I need the church-and so do you whether you are willing to admit it or not. At least you need it if you want the mind of Christ formed within you. I think a large part of the church’s problem is that it tends to preach itself rather than Christ. So much of our outreach proclaims the virtue of our churches-their wonderful programs, their fine preachers, their high quality worship, their great sense of community. But that has never been the reality and when we claim that it is, when we promise people a warm, wonderful, safe place where nobody ever gets hurt, we are committing spiritual consumer fraud. In fact, the church has always been a contentious body of disciples who miss the point of Jesus’ preaching, argue over which of them is the greatest and desert Jesus at his time of greatest need. If the New Testament epistles are any indication of what church life was like in the first century, then we cannot help but notice that fights over money, sex scandals, divisiveness, power struggles and worship wars are the norm rather than the exception. The church is not the place you go to escape the nastiness and evil of the world. It’s the place where you come to confront it. The church is home to a lot of people who are here because we are the only community that will put up with them. So if you want to join us, you will have to learn to put up with them too. And here is the thing: we need them, because they teach us what it means to love one another. They instruct us in the art of forgiveness. They help us to recognize Jesus in the least likely of places. We all need each other to be formed into the image of Christ. That is the reason the church exists: to form saints. That is not a process for the faint of heart. If you want to be welcomed, pampered and made to feel loved, then go to the Poconos for a Yoga weekend. But if you want to be sanctified, if you want to be shaped into the image of Christ, the church is the place to go.
Finally, I stick with the church because, every so often, we get it right. Every so often, we come together in a way that reflects God’s enduring love for the world. Sometimes it happens in a small way when the congregation or a group of people in it come together to support a family in crisis by cooking meals, providing baby sitting or transportation. Sometimes it happens in a big way when the church responds generously with financial assistance, volunteer participation and advocacy for victims of war, famine or natural disaster. Sometimes it happens when a pastor, a congregational leader or an individual believer stands up and speaks truth to power on behalf of a child being abused, a woman being sexually harassed in the work place or a victim of discrimination. Yes, the church is a fallible, corrupt and broken community with a lot of sins, failures and lost opportunities on its record. But every so often, we get Jesus and his kingdom just right. When we do, it’s beautiful and often just enough to keep me from walking out the door.
Here’s a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman picturing the church at its very best.
New Marriage, A Barnraising
What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first
post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-
beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have
tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be
offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters
who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What
grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step
on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.
They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading
out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not
own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves
Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.
Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.
This passage is the second of six personal prayers of lament uttered by the prophet Jeremiah in the course of his ministry. The others are Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 17:14-18; Jeremiah 18:18-23; Jeremiah 20:7-13; and Jeremiah 20:14-18. These prayers are similar to the psalms of lament and contain much of the rich phraseology and imagery commonly employed by Israel in her liturgical/devotional life. The prayer is divided into two sections. In the first, Jeremiah addresses God. Vss. 15-18. In the second, God responds to Jeremiah’s complaints. Vss. 19-21. Jeremiah’s prayer begins with a plea for vengeance against his enemies. Professor Thomas Raitt says of this prayer and Jeremiah’s personal laments generally:
“Jeremiah’s so-called ‘laments’ are, at worst, sub-Christian expressions of vengeance, self-righteousness and bitterness about the sacrifices involved in filling the prophetic vocation. At their best these [laments] show that being a messenger of God’s word is a difficult calling and that often the last thing people want to hear is the truth, even from God, about their specific time and situation (which is precisely why prophets are not without honor except in their own country).” Raitt, Thomas M., Jeremiah in the Lectionary, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 161.
Jeremiah’s prayer certainly does illustrate the challenges of the prophetic vocation, but is it really “sub-Christian?” I must confess that I have always had difficulty with prayers for vengeance in the Bible, of which this is only one. Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central for Christian theology and practice that there seems to be no room for expressions of vengeance. But my pious unease is probably related more to my status and privilege than to any legitimate theological objection. I have never been raped or sexually molested. My children have not been murdered either by crazed fanatics in the service of their sick understanding of God’s will or by any respected, hardworking, church going Pentagon employee sitting in a cubicle orchestrating a drone attack in which my loved ones turn out to be “collateral damage.” I have never been driven out of my home by violence and forced to flee across the border into a foreign nation that does not want me. In short, I have not experienced the depth of human cruelty and oppression that gives birth to these laments. It is not surprising, then, that they do not come naturally to my lips.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that the psalmists’ pleas for vengeance are directed toward God. In praying for vengeance, they are confessing implicitly that retribution is the sole prerogative of God. God alone knows the hearts of human beings, what are their motivations and the external circumstances that often determine their actions. Too often, our perceptions of justice are warped by the pain of our own injuries and our personal need for “pay back.” We tend to focus narrowly on the perpetrator of a crime. But are not the parents who abused and neglected him equally responsible? What about his teachers who noticed bruises in odd places but remained silent? What about the neighbors who heard through the apartment walls the noise of abuse and his cries of pain and simply turned up the TV set because, after all, it was not their business. We can further expand this web of responsibility to include an entire nation whose priorities favor tax cuts to programs designed to assist families and children at risk. When it comes to dishing out retribution, there is never an end point. That is why Paul admonishes us in today’s lesson from Romans to leave this issue in God’s hands where it belongs.
German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the biblical prayers for vengeance must remain within our use of the psalter. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible, (c. 1974 Augsburg Publishing House). He goes on to point out, however, that our prayers against the “enemy” are to some degree addressed against ourselves as well. As sinners, we are our own worst enemies. When we pray for God to intervene and adjudicate between ourselves and our enemies, we can never fully understand what we are asking for. God sees our enmity in a different light and without the blind spots that come with the white hot rage of injury. The justice we get in answer to our prayers might not look anything like our expectations for a just outcome.
While forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the good news about Jesus, they are the end result of a process. If forgiveness is to have any meaning, the injuries inflicted by my enemy (and upon him/her as well) need to be fully acknowledged. Lament affords us the opportunity to lay out our wounds, our hurts and the resulting anger in the presence of God. If reconciliation is to be genuine, the mutually destructive relationship between my enemy and myself must be altered. Master and slave are not truly reconciled if, at the end of the process, they remain master and slave. New creation necessarily means the death of the old-which will not go down willingly. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation take time, patience and, above all, grace.
Jeremiah is unsparing in his criticism of the Lord he feels has abandoned him. “Yet,” as one commentator points out, “there is a contradictory character to this prayer, for even when doubting God’s care, it is to God that Jeremiah turns. God called him to be a prophet, and God’s service had been Jeremiah’s “joy” and “delight” as well as his pain and anguish. The prayer reflects a man who even in his deepest doubts about God’s care still knows that he is absolutely dependent upon God. God will be his undoing if God has really abandoned him; but God is also his only hope and to him he must return.” Bracke, John M., Jeremiah 15:15-21, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 175. One of the marvelous capacities of our human constitution is the ability to entertain two mutually conflicting ideas, two very opposite emotions and hope in the pit of despair. Even the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” makes this complaint to the very God whose absence s/he now experiences!
If Jeremiah had been expecting the gentle comfort of one trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, he would have been sorely disappointed. I doubt he had such expectations and, in any event, comfort is not the medicine Jeremiah receives. It is not God who has abandoned Jeremiah, but Jeremiah who has abandoned his God. After all, Jeremiah has been chiding his people for their own unfaithfulness; for their failure to trust God in the face of the Babylonian threat; for seeking salvation from foreign alliances rather than putting their faith in the Lord. Is his own personal danger and suffering any worse than what he is calling his own people to risk and to endure? If God has proved a “deceitful brook” to Jeremiah, has not Jeremiah been preaching deceit to his people? God will continue to be with Jeremiah to deliver him. But Jeremiah cannot expect to escape the judgment he proclaims for his people. That goes with the territory of the prophetic vocation.
These are hard words for leaders of God’s people ministering in hard times. We all know that the church can be awfully hard on the people that serve her. I have been lied too, betrayed, criticized behind my back and hurt by people in the church. Fortunately, these experiences have been only small islands of unpleasantness in an otherwise deep and expansive ocean of love, support and partnership. For the most part, even people with whom I have had deep disagreements remained supportive, caring and faithful to the gospel. My worst day in parish ministry was a romp in the park compared to Jeremiah’s experiences. Jeremiah serves to remind us all that we are calling the world to take up the cross and follow Jesus. That means taking it up ourselves. We cannot get out of being crucified with Christ, but the operative word here is with. Jesus does not call us to anything through which he has not already made a path.
Some commentators view this psalm as the plea for God’s intervention on behalf of one involved in a legal dispute soon to be adjudicated. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 117. Such a circumstances might have given birth to the stereotypical phraseology in the psalm, but the prayer seems to have a broader application as it now stands. Though likely composed as an individual lament prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E., it has been edited to meet the worship needs of the whole worshiping community. Such is the case with many of the personal psalms.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to pray this psalm. Who among us could declare in the presence of God that we “have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” Vs. 1. How many of us would invite God “to prove” and “try us,” to “test [our] heart[s] and mind[s]”? Vs. 2. Yet it seems to me that if we read these two verses as intimately linked to the rest of this prayer for vindication against enemies, they constitute an invitation to humility. Indeed, if we are going to pray for vindication against our enemies, then we must also pray that God will try our own hearts and minds, put us to the proof and bring our motives to light. For in reality, there is no such thing as a one sided conflict. Good and evil are never cleanly divided along the lines of combat drawn between human warring factions. Yet, as I argued in my post for July 20th, we Americans have a strong tendency to view conflict in precisely this fashion. That is why our politics is so dysfunctional. After all, how can you compromise with a party whose agenda is the destruction of American society as we know it? There can be no negotiation or settlement with evil, but only eradication.
Too often, the same is true for interpersonal conflict. We tend to demonize those with whom we differ, attribute to them the worst of motives and dismiss any possibility that they could actually have a meritorious point of view. They owe us an apology and until we get it, hostilities continue. The psalmist entertains no such simple minded illusions. S/he prays not merely that God’s judgment will fall upon his/her adversaries, but that it will penetrate his/her heart of hearts as well. From the psalmist’s standpoint (as from our own!), it may very well seem that s/he has taken the high road, that s/he has avoided “the company of evildoers” (Vs. 5) and “washed [his/her] hands in innocence.” Vs. 6. But in reality, s/he knows that there are in his/her own heart motives that are unseen and assumptions about the enemy that blind him/her to the big picture resulting in vast potential for misinterpreting the meaning of words and the significance of actions. Though the psalmist cannot see it now, s/he knows that when disputes are submitted to God with an honest prayer for vindication, the one seeking such relief must be prepared to discover his/her own complicity in that dispute and be prepared to accept full responsibility. Perhaps that is why the psalmist also prays that God “sweep me not away with sinners.” Vs. 9 (not in our reading). For “if thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.
More, however, needs to be said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that: “The notion that we can never suffer innocently so long as within us there still hides some kind of defect is a thoroughly unbiblical and demoralizing thought.” Godsey, John D., The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1960 Westminster Press) p. 191. We can hardly fault a child in any way for injuries suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. Yet even in what appears to be a clear case of one-sided aggression, the aggressor is a complex individual whose motives, words and actions are the product of a lifetime of experiences that likely include victimization. As evil as his/her acts clearly are, the actor can never be written off as beyond redemption-at least not by us. Thus, while it is quite possible to suffer innocently, it does not follow that the full weight of guilt and retribution can be focused on the most visible perpetrator of the wrong.
As always, I encourage reading of Psalm 26 in its entirety.
The admonitions in verses 9-13 can sound almost pedestrian when they are read in isolation. Have genuine love. Hold to what is good. Show honor and zeal. Be hopeful, patient, prayerful and generous. Well, Duh!!! How else would a disciple of Jesus behave? It is critical therefore to read these admonitions in light of Paul’s earlier call for the Roman believers to present their bodies as sacrifices for God and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the gospel rather than conformed to the world around them. Romans 12:1-2. The “world” of which Paul speaks is the world of the Roman Empire, a hierarchical society in which everyone from the emperor to the galley slave had his or her fixed position. Honor was due from the lesser to the greater. As one commentator points out:
“J.E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by ‘the workings of honour and pride,’ which provided ‘the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactors’ that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain where always present, ‘the duty to “honour” or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself, is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…’ The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring…This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: ‘Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind…Everything, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.’ At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.” Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 citing Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292.
Paul turns this “pyramid of honor” on its head. Rather than compete with one another in the accumulation of honor, disciples of Jesus are challenged to “out do one another in showing honor.” Vs. 10. Within the church, the structures of honor and patronage holding the Roman Empire together dissolve. That explains why the church was accused (and rightly so) of “turning the world upside down.” Acts 17:6. It also demonstrates why Paul’s letter to Philemon is probably one of the most revolutionary documents ever written. Paul’s insistence that Philemon welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother struck at the very foundations of Roman society. While some of our aging commentators left over from the 1960s fault Paul for being less than fully socially conscious because he was not out demonstrating in the streets of Rome against slavery, I cannot help but note that the churches they represent are often just as segregated today as was Selma, Alabama in the 60s. It just goes to prove Mark Twain’s adage, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” Paul’s opposition to slavery was written into his practice-not merely on a cardboard sign. His church struck at slavery by ending it within a counter-cultural community valuing all persons, regardless of their societal status, as equally members of the Body of Christ.
Verses 14-21 echo Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-48. At first blush, they might seem to conflict with the sentiments expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist in our previous lessons. That is not the case, however. Like the psalmist and the prophet, Paul urges the Roman church to leave vengeance and retributive justice in the hands of God. It might well be that one’s enemy is deserving of punishment. But that is not the disciple’s concern. The disciple of Jesus is called upon to love the enemy, pray for the enemy and show kindness to the enemy whether deserving or not. By assuming God’s prerogative and seeking retribution, one is overcome by evil. Again and again we have learned that by fighting evil with evil’s own tools of violence and hateful rhetoric, we are conformed to the very image of that which we despise. Rather than be so conformed, Paul urges us to be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Romans 12:1-2.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus turns toward Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each of the subsequent transitional sections will remind us of that destination. Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22; Matthew 19:1; Matthew 20:17). Here Jesus reveals to his disciples for the first time that this journey will lead to his rejection by the religious authorities and his suffering and death. Vs. 21. Peter once again personifies what must have been the response of all the disciples: “God forbid!” Vs. 22. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this “rock,” upon which Jesus said in last Sunday’s lesson that the church would be built, has so soon after become a rock of “stumbling” to Jesus!) We now learn that Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Son of the living God, through accurate, is still unformed. He cannot reconcile the glorification of Jesus with the cross. He is not the only one. I have repeatedly been asked about verse 28 in which Jesus tells his disciples that they will not see death before they witness his coming in glory. “Pastor,” they ask me, “How can that be true? We have still not seen Jesus coming in glory.”
Of course, Jesus did come in glory. Our problem is that we don’t understand what glory is any more than we understand what power is. God is nowhere more thoroughly glorified than on the cross where the depth of God’s love for all creation is made known. God is nowhere more powerful than on the cross where even the crucifixion of his Son cannot entice God to turn against us in anger. God’s love is stronger than our sin. The cross, says St. Paul, is the wisdom of God and the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18-25. For Matthew, it is the coming of Jesus in glory. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us looking for a kick ass savior who will appear at the end of time to whoop the anti-christ and impose his reign in the manner of a Caesar on steroids. That is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because that is not the way God triumphs over evil. God overcomes evil in the same way Paul calls upon his churches to overcome evil: by loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them. That will probably take a long time. But God is in no hurry. Neither should we be.
The term “taking up the cross” has become a hackneyed phrase in our common parlance. Typically, it is a synonym for taking one’s own share of hardships that go with living. Suffering becomes a good in its own right, an end in itself, an opportunity to practice patience and self-denial. These are both fine virtues and to the extent one uses suffering to that end, all well and good. But this understanding has nothing to do with taking up the cross. As pointed out by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. The cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or a symbol of anything else. It was the means by which Rome put down anyone confessing a lord other than Caesar. Following Jesus means risking execution.
Yet it is precisely in risking all for Jesus that true life is discovered. Until one is ready to die, there is no prospect for life. The church is called upon to risk all-to risk dying. That is a hard word to speak to a church that is obsessed with survival. Though we talk incessantly about “change” and the “need for change” and the benefits of “change,” the change we often promote is geared chiefly to preserve ourselves. That is understandable. It is easy enough to speak abstractly about the end of the established church in the post Constantinian era. That reality, however, means the loss of some very good social ministries built with the blood, sweat and tears of people whose careers have been defined by them. It means the loss of jobs and the end of career opportunities. On the congregational level it means the loss of century old sanctuaries with brass plates on every piece of furniture memorializing a loved one. It means the loss of cemeteries where generations of families have been laid to rest. It means the end of a multitude of voices singing those dear old hymns to the accompaniment of a majestic pipe organ. That is what the death of “church as we know it” will mean. By way of full disclosure, I have a daughter who is preparing for a career in parish ministry. So although I am close enough to retirement to have gotten my own share out of the Constantinian church, I am hardly a detached observer.
Matthew tells us, however, that we have nothing to fear from death once we recognize that “dying” is the place to which Jesus calls us. We hardly need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how frantically we try to preserve our lives, we are going to lose them in the end. It is the other side of the equation that spells the good news Jesus alone can bring, namely, that by losing one’s life, one gains it. There are, as I said in last week’s post, many new and lively manifestations of “church” in our midst. I do not suggest that any of these models can simply be copied. That, too, is a recipe for failure. But they testify to what is possible when we stop fretting about survival and focus instead on being faithful disciples of Jesus. If God is taking the church we have known and loved away from us, it is because God has something better to give us. Once our hands are free from vainly trying to hang on to what is being lost, we will be free to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst.
Skepticism-the healthy and unhealthy kinds; a poem by Howard Nemerov; and the Lessons for Sunday, August 27th
Posted in Uncategorized on August 21, 2017
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It seems that we are living in an era of skepticism. Don’t misunderstand me; a degree of healthy skepticism is not such a bad thing. Learning requires a critical approach to all truth claims, even those we are invited to take on faith. Attempts to “protect” faith from the challenge of learning are misguided. The deeply conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation in which I was raised harbored deep suspicion toward secular colleges and universities, fearing that the teaching of evolutionary biology, astronomy and comparative religion would undermine the faith of its young people. For that reason, our pastor did his best to steer us toward one of the many Missouri Synod schools where he imagined our faith would be shielded from these corrosive influences. That, however, is a losing strategy. Sooner or later, a young person will be forced to confront the challenge of responding faithfully to a growing body of knowledge forcing one always to re-think and reformulate his/her faith. Good Christian education does not seek to protect “childlike” faith by surrounding it with a solid wall of unquestioned dogma against the rising tide of knowledge. Instead, it attempts to provide the believer with conceptual tools required to engage that tide in lively and transformative conversation which, in turn, will grow a mature and robust faith.
Skepticism, however, also has a dark side to it. Taken to extremes, skepticism degenerates into a cynical denial of truth’s very existence. The Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, maintained that neither our sense-perceptions nor our views, theories and beliefs tell us the truth. He insisted that a person should be without views and unwavering in his/her refusal to choose between truth and falsehood, maintaining about every single assertion that “it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.” Beckwith, Christopher I, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (c. 2015, Princeton University Press) pp. 22–23. Such skepticism paves the way to indifference toward moral, philosophical and religious truth claims. Ultimately, it produces contempt even for simple factual claims. Who can forget how, in the face of clear photographic evidence to the contrary, President Trump stubbornly maintained that the crowd gathered for his inauguration was the largest ever for any inauguration. When confronted with the president’s claim and the facts belying it, Counselor to the President, Kelly Anne Conway blithely replied that the president’s inaccurate assertion about the size of his inauguration audience was an “alternative fact.” You have your facts. I have mine. Because there is no such thing as “truth,” it doesn’t really matter whose facts are accurate. Believe whatever suits you.
Saint Augustine maintained against his own skeptic antagonists that truth both exists and is knowable. In this he was thoroughly consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Because our bodies and their senses are the product of a good Creator God, our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell can be relied upon to convey accurately and truthfully the world we experience through them. Because our human ability to think and reason reflects the Creator’s own inventive mind, we can trust our minds to arrive at reliable (if not infallible!) conclusions. Conversely, our refusal to believe what our senses tell us, or our rejection of reasonable arguments from undisputed facts merely because they are upsetting or disagreeable, is worse than ignorance. Such cynical skepticism renders us subhuman and incapable of learning, reasoning and communicating. It leads invariably to public indifference toward a government that lies regularly, repeatedly and with absolute impunity. Where there is no belief in truth or the independent existence of facts, how can you call anything a lie?
Of course, our capacity to learn and the knowledge we acquire is limited, fallible and always subject to growth, revision and obsolescence. Moreover, as Augustine points out, there are matters beyond human understanding that only faith can comprehend. Thirty-four years ago I stood before a congregation of family and friends promising Sesle that I would love her, be faithful to her and join with her in all that was to come. She promised to do the same for me. We both believed and trusted in those mutual promises, though it seems a little preposterous to make or believe promises like these with someone you have known for little over a year. How well can you really know someone in so short a time? How can you make such bold promises when you have no idea what the years ahead hold for you? Truth is, neither of us really understood what we were doing at that point. We could not be certain whether this love we thought we had for each other was durable enough for the long haul (if long it was to be). We had no idea how our resolve to keep our wedding vows would be tested. Now, thirty-four years later, I am a good deal more confident about our marriage and thankful for our having resolved to enter into it. I am confident that our marriage is solid. Still, my confidence does not equate with certitude. We are not yet at the end of this journey. Our lives are all the more vulnerable to tragedy and pain, being now parents, grandparents and a good deal closer to the last frontier. It’s not over until it’s over. Nonetheless, I am more convinced now than ever before that this ship is seaworthy and equal to the storms that lie ahead. I would not have that knowledge, however, had I not initially trusted Sesle’s untested promises. Some things you have to believe and live into before you can know they are true.
I don’t know what was going through Simon Peter’s head when Jesus first called him and brother Andrew to leave their fishing nets to follow him. Peter is credited with having “little faith” according to Matthew’s gospel. Yet his faith was enough to enable him to answer Jesus’ call to follow. It was strong enough to get him out of the boat and onto the surface of the sea, if not strong enough to sustain him there for long. Peter has the insight to recognize in Jesus the promised Messiah, though the true meaning of Jesus’ messianic mission is beyond his grasp. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, will fail Jesus at his time of greatest need. Yet he will learn that, even in the shadow of his greatest failure, the one he abandoned to death appears to him alive and ready to extend yet another opportunity for discipleship. Over time, Peter’s fear, doubt and skepticism will be overcome by repeated expressions of Jesus’ faithfulness. He will learn, step by step, that a life surrendered to Jesus’ call is a life saved from bondage to fear and pointless selfishness. Because Peter believed and trusted Jesus’ promises-gingerly at first, but with growing confidence-he came to know that they were trustworthy and reliable.
Each day presents new challenges, growth in knowledge and understanding that force one to question one’s faith, test one’s understanding of the scriptures, embrace fresh understandings and abandon long held beliefs that no longer seem credible. Yet over time and experience, the voice of Jesus becomes more familiar and reassuring. Having weathered any number of storms with Jesus, the waves don’t seem as dangerous and threatening anymore. Having survived a few devastating losses with Jesus at our side, it becomes easier to believe that the ultimate loss we most fear, the loss of our very being, is something that Jesus can get us through. We began by believing the witness of the saints that have gone before us. Now we are on the way to knowing.
Here is a poem about learning, knowing and the limits of both by Howard Nemerov.
Learning the Trees
Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors,
Out of a book, which now you think of it
Is one of the transformations of a tree.
The words themselves are a delight to learn,
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.
But best of all are the words that shape the leaves—
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform—
And their venation—palmate and parallel—
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate.
Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.
Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”
Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three
Around the stem; the one in front of you
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;
Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.
Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does
And how it does it, cutting across the world
Not always at the joints, competing with
Experience while cooperating with
Experience, and keeping an obstinate
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.
Think finally about the secret will
Pretending obedience to Nature, but
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,
Dividing up the world to conquer it,
And think also how funny knowledge is:
You may succeed in learning many trees
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.
Source: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (c. 1977 by Howard Nemerov, pub. by The University of Chicago Press). Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He also won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize. Nemerov was raised in New York City where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School. He later commenced studies at Harvard University where he earned his BA. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the United State Air Force. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant and thereafter returned to New York to resume his writing career. Nemerov began teaching, first at Hamilton College and subsequently at Bennington College and Brandeis University. He ended his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was elevated to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov’s poems demonstrated a consistent emphasis on thought, the process of thinking and on ideas themselves. Nonetheless, his work always displayed the full range of human emotion and experience. You can find out more about Howard Nemerov and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Following several other commentators, Professor Claus Westermann holds that this section of the text has become disordered in the course of transmission. He would reconstruct it, working the verses from our reading into various surrounding sections of text. The finished product reads as follows:
[Isaiah 51:1a] Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.[Isaiah 50:10-11] Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God? But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands. Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.
[Isaiah 51:4-6] Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
[Isaiah 51:7a] Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; [Isaiah 51:1] Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. [Isaiah 51:7b-8] do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.
Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) pp 232-234. This arrangement has the virtue of solving several other perceived problems with other sections of the Isaiah text, forging them, along with fragments of our lesson, into a nicely balanced three strophe poem. With all due respect to Professor Westermann, I am suspicious of employing any interpretive tool, including form criticism, for no better purpose than to make the text more “intelligible.” Just because something is difficult to understand does not mean that it is void of meaning. Perhaps the language is obscure because the matter at hand lies at the border of mystery. If that is the case, deconstructing the language is probably the last thing you want to do. Furthermore, it is to my thinking entirely unjustifiable to break up a passage that makes perfectly good sense standing alone in order to solve problems elsewhere in the text. Accordingly, I will take the lesson as we have it.
“You who pursue deliverance” in verse 1 refers to the Babylonian exiles. Just as the Israelite slaves cried out for deliverance in Egypt, so now the exiles seek deliverance from their captivity. The prophet chooses his words carefully to evoke precisely this parallel. Throughout his/her oracles, Second Isaiah likens the return from exile to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. E.g. Isaiah 43:1-7; Isaiah 43:15-17. But in the next verse, the prophet reaches back even further in Israel’s history to the age of the matriarchs and patriarchs. “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and blessed him and made him many.” Vs. 2. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Scriptures outside of Genesis referencing Sarah. Second Isaiah is filled with feminine metaphors for God’s faithfulness to Israel. Isaiah 42:14; Isaiah 46:3; Isaiah 49:1, 5, 15; Isaiah 54:1. Thus, it is not surprising that s/he should include Sarah along with Abraham in this instance.
The prophet is addressing the group of exiles that have been receptive to his/her call to make the journey back to Palestine from Babylon. In all probability, this was a small congregation. Yet the prophet is not dismayed by the meager response of the people to his/her challenge. After all, when God called Abraham and Sarah, they were but two individuals. Moreover, we also know that they were childless and past child bearing age. The prospects for fulfilment of the promise that their descendants would outnumber the stars seemed remote, to put it mildly. Yet just as God raised up the people of Israel from this unpromising beginning, so God will make of this little band of exiles a new people in that ancient land promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago. With God, size doesn’t matter, but only faithfulness.
In verses 4-5 the prophet promises that God’s “deliverance draws near speedily.” Significantly, however, that salvation is described as “a law” going forth from God. The word for law here is “Torah,” a term that means so much more than our word “law.” Torah is “teaching,” a constellation of faithful disciplines and precepts, the study and practice of which leads to wisdom, understanding and communion with the God of Israel. See Psalm 119. It is through the faithful obedience of Israel to Torah in the land of promise that God’s salvation will be made known to the ends of the earth. Simply by being God’s people, Israel will forward God’s salvation.
I believe that the church in America is only beginning to discover (or re-discover?) the insight revealed in Second Isaiah and more specifically throughout the new Testament, namely, that the proper mission of the church is first and foremost being the church. We are moving away from a 1950s and 1960s vision of the church as a union of faithful congregations supporting mission and ministry done by professionals and specialized agencies. No one is looking anymore for a church that will give them spiritual resources to cope with the demands of 21st Century life. Churches still selling this useless snake oil are in decline-and deservedly so. The new model of church where I see most energy, creativity and enthusiasm for ministry is among intentional communities of faith that embody an alternative to life under late stage capitalism dictated by the schedules of public school activities, the demands of the work place/profession and that illusive nirvana, “financial security.”
For example, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, California seeks to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing their homes, resources and friendship. Though not maintaining that their lifestyle is absolutely required for committed discipleship, the Sojourners find that such common living provides them with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood, thereby helping them to grow into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.” So too, Reba Place Fellowship began in 1957 as three people sharing life and possessions in one house just north of Chicago. Since then, it has grown into several communities. Today members of Reba live in an urban “village” in Evanston, and in its communal offshoot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Both branches have a mix of apartment buildings, single family houses, and commercial buildings sheltering a variety of cooperative ventures. Perhaps the most fascinating and exciting example of this model is Koinonia Farm. Established in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, Koininia is a Christian community located in Americus, Georgia. Sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship, residents seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing.
The above communities are few and far between, but they are growing and inspiring the development of other such communities. Hewn as they are from the rock of faithful patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and apostles, I have no doubt that God will use them mightily to carry on the church’s mission into the future. As for the rest of us, “the kingdom of God will come without our prayers” or anything else we have to offer. So says our Catechism. But I pray that it may come also among us mainliners; that we will rediscover our radical roots in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; that we will find ourselves “in that number when the saints go marching in” rather than sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.
Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
The psalmist boldly declares that, though s/he walks “in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life.” Vs. 7. Taken alone, this verse might be understood to mean that God will shield the psalmist from all adversity giving him or her a charmed life. But God promises nothing of the kind and the psalmist is well aware of that. The psalmist knows that his/her life is wholly God’s possession. As such, it finds fulfillment in God’s purposes, not the hopes, dreams and expectations of the psalmist. Hence, the declaration of faith in the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.
Verses 3-8 deserve special attention because they distill in concrete practice what Paul has been speaking about for the last eleven chapters. Because all are under the sway of sin and all are liberated by God’s gracious act of mercy in Jesus Christ, no one is in any position to boast over against any other fellow disciple. In light of this reality, “sober judgment” leads to but one conclusion: we are no longer individuals with conflicting rights to be carefully balanced and adjudicated to maintain justice and peace within our community. We are members of one body belonging to Jesus and existing to serve him as head. Accordingly, whatever our gifts may be, they are precisely what the Body needs and are to be exercised in his service.
This vision of community is seldom reflected in our churches which, both on the congregational and denominational levels, operate under corporate, hierarchical models. I used to follow (at a distance) a Facebook page for Lutheran clergy and have discovered that issues of “power” and “who is in charge” come up with depressing regularity. Resort to the congregational constitution seems to be the default strategy for resolving conflict. I am so weary of congregations complaining that their rights have been violated and denominational leaders complaining that their authority is not sufficiently respected. I can hear the exasperated and unheeded voice of St. Paul in the distance: “Do not be conformed to the world…” vs. 2.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Vs. 2. One reason we fear terrorists so much is that we know they have no fear of death. How do you fight an enemy that is not afraid to die? A man willing to sacrifice his body by strapping on a bomb and blowing himself up to take out the enemy is not likely to be detoured by the death penalty! That, too, is why the Roman Empire was so fearful of the church. Disciples of Jesus didn’t cower when threatened with death. They could not be intimidated by torture. They turned the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror, into a sign of victory! The more forcefully Rome employed its imperial might against the church, the more obvious its impotence became. The shock and awe strategy failed spectacularly as the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. If only Christians had the faith of terrorists! If only disciples of Jesus were as ready to sacrifice their lives in the service of the poor, in reconciliation of enemies and in practicing radical hospitality to the homeless as terrorists are ready to die in battle!
The focus on Jesus’ Messianic identity, which began at Matthew 13:54 where Jesus is rejected in his home country, comes to its climax in our lesson for Sunday where Peter makes his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Vs. 16. Jesus asks his disciples who they believe “the Son of man” to be. The disciples’ response indicates that they must understand Jesus to be speaking of himself in the use of this term. They note that some think Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. Herod has already expressed this belief. Matthew 14:2. They also point out that others believe Jesus to be Elijah, whose possible return was left open by his assumption into the heavens. II Kings 2:9-12. By the time of the prophet Malachi, the return of the prophet Elijah was a standard expectation. Malachi 4:5-6. Jeremiah is mentioned, principally as a representative of the latter prophets believed to have returned under Jesus’ identity. Perhaps this is because Jeremiah, more than any other Hebrew prophet, experienced consistent persecution and rejection. In any event, these persons all serve in a negative manner to specify for the reader who Jesus is not.
Unlike the response given by Peter in Mark, Matthew has Peter confessing Jesus not merely as Israel’s long awaited Messiah, but as the Son of the living God. Vs. 16. This statement is not the fruit of Peter’s own deductive reasoning. It comes to him by revelation. Vs. 17. Peter’s confession answers the question of Jesus’ fellow countrymen in Matthew 13:54 (“Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”).
The Greek word “Christos” is used for the Hebrew term “Meshioch” transliterated “Messiah.” It means “anointed one,” frequently referring to a king, though it was also used to designate the patriarchs, a prophet or a priest. (See Psalm 105:15; I Kings 19:16; Psalm 133:2). By the 1st Century, the term was commonly used to denote a successor of King David who was expected to restore the fortunes of Israel, though this was by no means the exclusive expression of messianic hope. Thus, while Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah is correct, the nature of Jesus’ messiahship will not become clear until after his suffering, death and resurrection.
“Son of God” is a term used for Israel’s kings as evidenced by the enthronement hymn, Psalm 2. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. As will become evident in Matthew’s Transfiguration account, the term means much more than this as applied to Jesus. Matthew 17:1-8. Here, too, Matthew will unpack the full meaning of this title in the action to come.
Many trees have been felled and much ink spilt over the interpretation of verses 18-21. Just as the Roman church has insisted that Jesus’ declaration: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” establishes the primacy of Peter and the doctrine of apostolic succession, so protestants have for the most part maintained that the “rock” upon which the church is built is Peter’s confession of Jesus, not Peter himself. The passage does not fully support either position. It is clear from the word play at work “Petros” (Peter) and “petra” (rock) that Jesus is referring to Peter himself as in some way foundational for the church. Yet Matthew, like Mark, employs Peter as the spokesperson for the rest of the disciples. So, just as his remarks to Jesus represent the questions of the twelve, Jesus’ response must also be seen as directed to all of them. The church, then, is founded upon the witness of the Apostles; however, the case for the primacy of Peter among them is wanting in my opinion. This passage is silent about matters of apostolic succession. That is not to say a biblical case cannot be made in its favor, but only that one who would make it must look elsewhere in the scriptures for support. I think that commentator John Nolland sums it up best:
“The attempt to draw form Mt. 16:18 conclusions as to whether Peter has successors is doomed to failure. It is to press the imagery too hard to assign an exclusive foundational role to Peter. Peter has the privilege of being named in this role, but others participated with him in all that he did and was. In addition, in every new situation there will be those who play a foundational role for Jesus’ building of his church. But sharing the role produces too many partners and successors. On the other hand, the apostles are clearly called upon to play an unrepeatable role, and Peter clearly has some kind of primacy among them. Here there is a genuine claim to exclusivity, but not one that allows any specific place for a successor. But this is not to say that this tradition about Peter should not have inspired the church to focus on its fidelity to the foundations of the faith in terms of a Peter figure from generation to generation.”Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 670.
Matthew is the only gospel that uses the term “ekklasia,” the Greek word our English Bibles translate as “church.” The word means “gathered group” or “assembly.” Matthew’s understanding of the church is fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Matthew 23:1-12. Thus, whatever leadership role is given to the twelve in this passage must be exercised in a way consistent with this vision. One of Jesus’ chief criticisms of the religious leaders in his day is set forth in Matthew 23:13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men…” The keys to the kingdom are given to Peter precisely so that the kingdom may be opened to all people. Thus, however one might interpret the power to “bind” and “lose” given to Peter in verse 19, it cannot be understood as license to blockade the kingdom. Even when the church finds it necessary to excommunicate and treat a former member as a “gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), one must keep in mind the manner in which Jesus consistently reached out to gentiles and tax collectors. To excommunicate a member is therefore to assume enhanced responsibility and concern for that member.