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Love, Hate and Indifference

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST/REFORMATION SUNAY

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you are the holy lawgiver, you are the salvation of your people. By your Spirit renew us in your covenant of love, and train us to care tenderly for all our neighbors, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40.

It could not be simpler. All scripture as we have it in the law, the prophets and the apostles of the New Testament are to be interpreted through the prism of these two great commandments. If any interpretation of the scripture drives one to actions that do not reflect love, it is wrong, however carefully and painstakingly exegeted it may be.

Of course, “love is a many splendored thing.” I can use it to express my feelings for my wife just as easily as I can use it to express my appetite for rum raison ice cream. So, to be clear, love in this biblical sense derives its meaning from the narrative of Jesus’ Incarnation, faithful life, sacrificial death and glorious Resurrection. The Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus reduces the law to a life lived in faithful reliance upon God’s grace and unconditional love for one’s neighbor is not an ideal to which believers are required to live up. Nor is it just a mirror into which we need to look from time to time in order to remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of grace. There is nothing ideal, theoretical or aspirational here. The Sermon lays out the path Jesus actually walked and into which he calls his disciples to follow.

It needs to be said that the love to which Jesus calls us has little to do with affection. It is something practiced rather than felt. That means love is extended even, or rather especially, to enemies. That is more problematic than many of us like to admit. I have heard good church people say repeatedly, “I don’t hate anyone.” I wonder, though, whether we are being entirely truthful with ourselves when we make remarks like that. I also wonder whether it is fair to expect people not to experience hatred. Can you insist that genocide survivors not to hate the ones who orchestrated the murder of their families and the destruction of their homelands? Can you ask survivors of sexual abuse to feel less than hatred toward their abusers? To be sure, some people in these circumstances have reached the point where they have extinguished their hatred and are able to forgive from the heart.  Some have even become reconciled with their tormentors. But that usually comes at the end of a long road of struggle. I am not sure it is fair to impose it as a rule. If hate is so alien to God’s people, why do we have so many psalms in the Bible that teach us how to express it? Do these psalms conflict with what Jesus teaches us about love for enemies? Is it possible to love people you hate?

Hate is often portrayed as the antithesis of love, but I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case. Love and hate often live in close proximity. None are capable of hurting me more than the ones I love most dearly. Nobody is able to arouse my anger like the people closest too me.  Most violent crimes are committed by one family member against another. Hatred might be defined as love that has gone off the rails, love that has been betrayed, love broken down through the prism of an abusive upbringing. In its own perverse way, hatred testifies to the existence of love and our yearning for it. Without love, I doubt we would be capable of hate.

As Holocaust survivor,  author and philosopher Elie Wiesel has observed, the antithesis of love is not hatred, but indifference. I may not share with our president and his supporters their xenophobic fear and hatred of refugees seeking only the opportunity to live. But if I believe that the Trump administration is responsible for a strong economy and my retirement account is doing well, I won’t make a fuss over these people that I don’t even know. So, too, I might think it’s a shame what happened to George Floyd and Briana Taylor. I might find it offensive that the president of the United States refers to African nations in terms I will not dignify in print. Still, I don’t care sufficiently to put my nest egg at risk on that account. It is not that I hate my neighbors. I just don’t care enough to love them. Boiled down to its essentials, love means giving a damn, and not just about your own family, tribe, nation or church. We know from numerous examples throughout history that racial discrimination, genocide and other crimes against humanity are carried out by the relatively few under the noses of the many who are simply indifferent.

That brings me back to the extension of love to the enemy. Let us be clear that loving one’s enemy does not mean liking, admiring or even feeling compassion for the enemy. It does not exclude harboring hatred against one’s enemy. Loving one’s enemy does not mean ignoring the enemy’s aggression, allowing the enemy to abuse oneself and others or refraining from taking the enemy to task with a sound rebuke. In my Kierkegaard’s Ghost, I have mercilessly parodied quite a number of public figures leading some to question the depth of my Christian character. Believe it or not, I take that criticism seriously. I ask myself often whether I have crossed a line in seeking to expose what I see to be the injustice and cruelty of civil leaders and the hypocrisy if religious ones. But I do not believe that love is inconsistent with speaking truth to power and, when it comes to employing satire and parody to that end, there is plenty of biblical precedent.

As tough as it must sometimes be, though, love does not lose sight of the enemy’s humanity or forget that the enemy is created in God’s image. As angry and violent as the psalmists’ cries for vengence sometimes are, they always leave the business of dealing out retributive justice in God’s hands where it belongs. Love recognizes the enemy as that one sheep out of ninety-nine the rest of us could do without, but that Jesus is determined to bring back into the flock. Love is not a matter of feeling but doing. You don’t have to feel affection for your neibhbors to feed, cloth, house, visit and heal them. As with many other difficult tasks, the hands must sometimes take the lead and wait for the heart to follow. Love recognizes that what one most hates in the other is often a reflection of what one strenuously denies about oneself. Thus, an encounter with the enemy is an invitation to self reflection and repentance. It has been said that an enemy is one whose story have not yet heard. There may be no justification for the wounds an enemy inflicts on us or upon others. But understanding the enemy’s motives, learning the life paths that brought the enemy to where they stand today and recognizing what within us evokes the enemy’s hostility gives us the handles we need for dismantling that hostility rather then falling deeper into the vortex of endless retaliation.

Here is a poem by Daniel Henderson about encounter with the enemy, illustrating both the potential for healing and the tragic consequences of passing that opportunity by.

Enemies

When I before your gate
Cast sword and shield,
Quitting my ramparts of hate,
Eager to yield,

God, how your hush revealed
The fortress will,
The purpose changeless and steeled-
Hostile still!

Now, in our wrath’s cold blaze
We strut, we guard.
There are castles and moats in your gaze-
My glance is a shard.

Aloof as the very pole,
Disdainful and proud,
I arm myself-my soul
Wears pride as its shroud!

Forever a foe to your mind,
So I shall be,
But oh, if you had been kind,
My enemy!

Source: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (Vol. 33, November 1928) p. 78. Having researched my anthologies and online resources, I have not been able to find any information on poet, Daniel Henderson. I would welcome information from any source on this poet whose work caught my attention just a few months ago.

Donald Trump as God’s “Cyrus”?

TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you…” Isaiah 45:1-2.

Though it is tempting to reflect on the gospel text for this week,[1] I feel compelled to focus instead on our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The reason is that this wonderful text from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of many hijacked by the religion of evangelical Trumpism for its own profane purposes. Leaders of the religious right have cited this text repeatedly, likening Donald Trump to the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, identified by Isaiah as the “anointed one” or “messiah” whose conquest of Babylon enabled the return of exiled Jews to their homeland. Just as the pagan emperor, for his own military and political purposes, sponsored and financed the Jew’s return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, so too, it is claimed that the rude, crude and prophane president is fulfilling God’s purpose by stacking the Supreme Court with pro-life and anti LGBTQ judges. Moreover, Trump has facilitated movement of the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another cherished goal of evangelicals.

Examples of this biblical hijacking abound. Mike Evans, an evangelical leader who was invited to speak in front of Trump at a White House faith event had this to say:

“[Cyrus] was used as an instrument of God for deliverance in the Bible, and God has used this imperfect vessel, this flawed human being like you or I, this imperfect vessel, and he’s using him in an incredible, amazing way to fulfill his plans and purposes…” Times of Israel, March 8, 2018.

Another evangelical leader, Lance Wallnau, is now selling Trump-Cyrus “prayer coins.” There is on the face of these coins an image of emperor Cyrus in the background. (It’s hard to be sure about this as we have no idea what Cyrus actually looked like). In the foreground is an unmistakably clear image of Donald Trump. These coins can be purchased for a cool $45 apiece. I am not quite sure how they are supposed to help you pray. But then, I never understood prayer clothes either. Evangelicals are not the only ones lauding Trump as a modern day Cyrus. Benjamin Netanyahu has also made the identification of Trump with Cyrus, no doubt in response to Mr. Trump’s strong pro-Israeli policies in the middle east.

Some evangelicals, among them Rev. Franklin Graham and Rev. Paula White, maintain that Mr. Trump, despite his obvious moral shortcomings, is a “born again” Christian. Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and one of America’s leading evangelicals, claims that the president accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior at a meeting in New York City with hundreds of Christian conservatives. This conversion experience has never been confirmed by anyone else, including  Donald Trump. Others concede that Mr. Trump’s conduct, past and present, falls far short of the conduct expected from a born again Christian. Nonetheless, they feel that Donald Trump has given them an audience and, more than any other candidate Democrat or Republican, has taken seriously their concerns. In both cases, evangelicals are convinced that Trump is God’s answer to their prayers for a champion against what they feel is an attack on their faith and their nation by liberalism, moral relativism, atheism, feminism, political correctness and a host of other destructive forces.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because the church is called upon to proclaim Jesus Christ and the kingdom for which he lived and died. It matters because evangelical Trumpism is employing the church’s scriptures in support of a fascist political movement that has consistently lauded, enabled and incited the most violent racist elements of our population. It matters because the Bible is the church’s book and evangelical Trumpism’s misuse of that book misleads the ignorant and gullible while undermining the credibility of our witness to the gospel. As I have said elsewhere, the Bible is a thick, nuanced and complex collection of prayers, poetry and narrative. It has inspired saints to lives of holiness and courageous witness. But it has also given rise to depraved religious cults and has been used to sanction the most vile systems of human oppression, not the least of which is systemic racism. Those of us who regard the Bible as God’s Word need to make clear what we mean by that-and what we don’t mean.

That brings us to Cyrus. Clearly, the prophet Isaiah saw in the geopolitical events of his day God’s creation of a new beginning for Israel. Persia’s conquest of the Babylonian empire and Cyrus’ self interested policy of allowing a right of return to peoples exiled by the Babylonians, of which the Jews were one, made it possible for the people of Israel to regain the land of promise, rebuild their temple and renew the covenant with their God. This does not make of Cyrus a hero or a champion of Israel. His return proclamation, made ahead of his attack on Babylon, was doubtlessly calculated to destabilize that empire by creating within its borders pockets of support for Persia. Isaiah acknowledged as much, but insisted that, whatever Cyrus’ intentions or the Persian political agenda might be, God’s redemptive purposes for Israel were being worked out “in, with and under” the clash of empires.

Note well, that Isaiah does not encourage his audience to join forces with Cyrus, sign up to serve in his army, support his military and political objectives or champion his policies. Israel is not to emulate Cyrus or admire his character. We are told next to nothing about Cyrus’ character because that, too, is irrelevant. Isaiah is not really interested in Cyrus or what he is up to. Cyrus is only God’s unwitting instrument. Isaiah is chiefly concerned with God and God’s agenda. For the prophet, God is the only real actor in this drama:

I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45:2-7.

The point is that God is turning Cyrus’ military and political ambitions toward God’s own gracious purposes. Nowhere do we find Isaiah encouraging the kind of slavish devotion to Cyrus as preachers like Rev. Franklin Graham claim for Donald Trump. The church has no need of a human leader to “champion” its causes. If Jesus needed Donald Trump to defend him or his people, he would be a poor excuse for a savior. Evangelical Trumpism therefore amounts to rank idolatry and it is time for us all to speak up and say so. The church of Jesus Christ must be distinguished definitively from the church of Donald Christ. Sadly, that distinction is getting lost on a growing segment of the population for which Trump style evangelicalism equates with Christianity generally.

That said, evangelical Trumpists might be correct in asserting that Donald Trump is God’s tool for accomplishing some good purpose. As I have said many times before, the one positive contribution made by the present administration may well be its exposure of our country’s deep, abiding and systemic racism. In the face of Charlottesville, the killing of George Floyd and the brutality exercised by law enforcement against peaceful protests in its wake we can no longer hide from this reality. Maybe, just maybe, we have reached the point where we can accept responsibility for our nation’s past and take the bold and difficult steps required to dismantle systemic racism.

It is also possible that God has determined the continued reign of the United States of America is inconsistent with God’s good will for all the earth. What better way to bring the empire down than to place it in the hands of an incompetent man baby and allow it to implode. Maybe all our frenzied, well meaning efforts to “fix” America are actually at odds with the direction God is taking us. Because our faith has been so thoroughly blended with patriotism, we cannot imagine the world better off without the American Empire. But again and again, God’s imagination transcends our own imaginative limits. Of course, I don’t know any of this to be the case, lacking as I do Isaiah’s prophetic instincts. What I do know is that however chaotic and violent the times, God is working redemptively at the center of it all. What I do know is that, for disciples of Jesus, there is one “champion,” one “anointed” and one “chosen.” It is neither Cyrus nor Donald Trump.

Here is a poem by Robert Lowell reflecting on the dark places to which our moral imagination can sink when fear of the future and longing for safety lead weak minds to seek solance in strong leaders.

Inauguration Day: January, 1953

The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want….
Cyclonic zero of the word,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

Source: Life Studies, (c. 1953 by Robert Lowell, pub. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.) Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet. He was born into a Boston family that could trace its origins back to the Mayflower. Growing up in Boston informed Lowell’s poems, which were frequently set in Boston and the New England region. He was appointed the sixth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a post he held from 1947 until 1948. Lowell won the National Book Award in 1947 and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1947. He won the the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1974 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Lowel is widely considered one of the most important American poets of the post-World War II era. You can read more about Robert Lowell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] For anyone interested, I discussed this text six years ago in my post for Sunday, October 19, 2014. Though dated, I believe my observations then are still relevant now.

White House Releases Outline of Republican Health Care Plan

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Pressed relentlessly for details of a national health care plan that he has been promising since 2016, President Trump finally announced that he will soon be releasing an outline of the central features for the Republican alternative to the Afordable Care Act commnly known as Obamacare. The Ghost has obtained a draft of the outline from a source who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. A copy of the draft appears below:

 

ROAD MAP TO A HEALTHIER AMERICA

(A Proposal Providing Affordable Health Care for the American People)

From the effective date of this law, all policies of health insurance, whether purchased by employers for their employees or purchased privitely by individuals, shall comply with the following provisions:

Coverage limits: Treatment for all medical conditions, illnesses or injuries will be covered at the discretion of your insurer, subject to a $75,000 annual deductible, a 60% copay and a life time cap of $50,000.   

Authorization for Veterinarians to Treat Medicaid Recipients: We recognize that the poor frequently have difficulty locating physicians and affordable care where they live. Extending the licensure of veterinarians enabling them to treat poor families will significantly increase the availability and lower the costs of care. This is particularly so for rural communities in which there are frequently more animals than people. It makes no sense in these areas to provide costly duplicative coverage. Furthermore, opening veterinary care facilities in urban areas for the treatment of poor families will substantially reduce crowding and staff shortages in our emergency rooms and acute care centers.

Prescription Drug Coverage: There is no need for this. On the whole, most medications are not only ineffective, but some are even harmful. An extensive study produced by Dr. Snae Koil Quack, M.D., distinguished professor at the Trump University Correspondence School of Medicine, demonstrates that elimination of all medications from the body actually increases health and life expectancy. The most obvious example is Insulin. We deplore the shocking increase in dependency upon this highly addictive drug that some people claim they cannot live without. Henceforth, persons claiming to be “diabetic” will be dealt with the same as any other person suffering from addiction. What these people need is to be weaned off this expensive habit.

Addiction Treatment: It is obvious that addiction is a serious problem. It is equally clear that an inordinate amount of time, personnel and money have been thrown into “detoxification,” “counseling” and “rehab” to address this problem to no avail. We believe that re-introduction of the old fashioned “Drunk Tank” in every county jail throughout the country is the best and most cost effective cure for this affliction.

Protection for Persons with Pre-existing Conditions: As promised, we will require insurers to provide coverage for persons with pre-existing conditions. A condition is deemed “pre-existing” if it existed prior to conception. Coverage for such conditions is afforded subject to the above coverage limits and contingent upon proper medical documentation.

Emergency Care: We will require that health insurers cover emergency care and treatment. An “emergency” is defined as a bodily injury, the result of which is likely to be terminal if not treated immediately. Coverage is afforded for “emergencies” after review of an application for emergency treatment submitted to your insurer and approved by a committee of five emergency physicians your insurer has appointed for such review. A decision of the committee shall be provided within fourteen days from receipt of the application. Denials of coverage by the committee may be appealed to the insurer’s review board whose decision shall be final. Transportation to the hospital by ambulance is not covered under this plan, however, your insurer will reimburse your bus fare to and from the emergency room as long as proper documentation is received within twenty-four hours from the date of your alleged emergency.

Surgical Procedures: Your insurer must provide coverage for surgical procedures in accord with the above coverage limits, except the following:

  • Cosmetic Surgery, including treatment of third degree burns; correction of bone irregularities such as scoliosis and bunions; and reconstructive surgery of all kinds.
  • Removal of a bodily organ, limb or other bodily tissue. It is patently unfair to expect employers to subsidize procedures that leave them with employees who are less than what they were when originally hired.
  • Appendectomy: You should have had this taken care of when you had your tonsils out. 

Covid-19: Are you serious??? That is a total hoax! You’re not sick. You just have a case of the sniffles. Man up!

Pregnancy and Child Birth: We do not cover medical expenses related to pregnancy or child birth. You decided to have sex. You deal with the consequences. If you don’t want a baby, get an abortion-but not here. You will need to visit Canada for that-as soon as the border opens up again.

Disability: We provide no relief for disability. You are never going to recover staying at home, lying on the couch and watching TV. If you just kick your butt out of bed, roll up your sleeves and do a good day’s work, you won’t be disabled anymore. Problem solved.  

Several Republicans have praised the plan as both efficient and economical. Said Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, “This should silence forever the Democrat party complaint that Republicans have no plan.” Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff told reporters, “In one short piece of legislation we have solved easily and cheaply problems Democrats have been fumbling with for decades!”  Not every member of the GOP was as laudatory, however. Senator Rand Paul registered his opposition. “It is morally reprehensible that we are throwing even this relatively modest funding into health care, which is not even a right, while we have corporate citizens who are starving for more tax breaks.”

No word yet on whether the proposed legislation will be introduced before the election on November 3rd.

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Pence Threatens To Withdraw from V.P. Debate

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Citing the “Billy Graham rule,” Vice President Mike Pence today threatened to withdraw from his scheduled debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate, Kamala Harris. “I can’t in good conscience meet with a woman not my wife on a platform separating me by several feet from everyone else,” he told reporters. The rule, followed faithfully by the late Rev. Billy Graham, prohibits men from meeting, dining or travelling with women other than their wives. Mr. Pence declared that he has followed that rule for all of his life. “It’s kept me out of trouble to this day,” he said.

At a hastily called meeting by the Trump administration with leaders from the evangelical community, several prominent evangelicals urged Mr. Pence to reconsider. The Rev. Franklin Graham presented the vice president with a written waiver of the rule on behalf of the Billy Graham association. Representatives of the president urged him to act on the waiver. The president himself sent a personal message urging Mr. Pence to “go in their and grab her by [expletive deleted],” in response to which former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. remarked, “Now that sounds like the kind of debate I’d like to watch.”

Meanwhile, the Debate Commission has been negotiating with the Pence team over measures that might be taken to address the vice president’s concern. One member of the commission, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Ghost plans are being made to extend the plexiglass barriers designed to guard against transmission of Covid-19 in all directions around the vice president to contain potential outbursts of lust. “We fully understand Mr. Pence’s concerns,” she said. “We know that he isn’t called the ‘vice’ president for nothing.” Mr. Pence has requested that his wife accompany him at the debate podium, thereby satisfying the Billy Graham rule. That, however, is unlikely to happen. “We told Mr. Pence in no uncertain terms,” said our source, “that bringing ‘mother’ out on the debate floor was out of the question.”  

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Capitalism as Heresy

feast

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Prayer of the Day: Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.” Isaiah 25:6.

Right off the bat, let me tell you what I do not mean. I do not mean to say that commerce is evil; that markets are inherently bad; that business people are all oppressors; or that all people, regardless of training, initiative or talent should be compensated the same. Nor do I mean to endorse command economies, socialism, communism or any other imaginable “ism” as superior to market economies or divinely ordained. What I do maintain is that capitalism in the United States is functionally a religion. As such, it makes ultimate claims to which disciples of Jesus cannot remain indifferent.

The basic tenant underlying the capitalist faith was first articulated by Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish philosopher and economist. Smith is best known as the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth Of Nations (1776). He put forward the notion that free individuals acting in a free economy making decisions that are primarily intended for their own self-interest will invariably take actions benefiting society as a whole. This is the case even though such beneficial results were not the specific focus or purpose of those actions. A free and unregulated market operates as “an invisible hand” guiding all participants at every level to greater prosperity. I leave to economists the evaluation of capitalist theory. As a pastor and theologian, I am chiefly concerned with its religious/philosophical assumptions.

First, I cannot comprehend how one can believe on the one hand everything Saint Paul, Saint Augustine and Dr. Martin Luther tell us about original sin, yet maintain on the other hand that, as a rule, pursuit of one’s own self interest benefits all the rest of society. Though characterizing human nature as “totally depraved,” as did John Calvin, might be overstating the case, the scriptures are clear that we human beings are flawed creatures. Our self interested decisions are frequently irrational and self destructive. We crave junk food at the expense of nutritional meals. We buy more than we can consume and discard the leftovers. We purchase more expensive cars, bigger houses, pricier clothing all for no better reason than that we can. Our view of the common good scarcely reaches beyond our own back yards and seldom beyond the immediate future.

Second, capitalism’s faith in the “market,” or as Adam Smith would say, “the invisible hand,” amounts to near worship. The market, it seems, is to be trusted with eliminating poverty, providing health care, creating affordable housing and curing all the rest of society’s ills. If only we break the yoke of regulatory shackles from the back of commerce and industry allowing the engines of production free reign, society will invariably flower. In fairness to Smith, he seems to have assumed the underlying moral values of honesty and fairness would govern the workings of the market and so restrain the extremes of human avarice-which means, of course, that a market economy is only as just and efficient as its participants are honest.

I am not convinced Smith’s optimistic belief in the salutary effects of personal morality is capable of moderating the destructive tendencies of modern capitalism. My doubts in that regard have been greatly increased through my reading of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Egan, a reporter for the New York Times, provides a historical narrative of the 1930s “Dust Bowl” disaster on the high plains through painstaking research and numerous interviews with its remaining survivors. This is the story of real estate tycoons and speculators luring people desperate to make a living in the shadow of the great depression out to the great plains with the promise of land that was as fertile as it was cheap. In a matter of a few years, an army of farmers turned over hundreds of square miles of prairie topsoil that had formed over thousands of years. What followed was the greatest environmental disaster this country has yet experienced. The relentless storms of displaced soil that created America’s great Dust Bowl drove thousands of families into homelessness in the midst of an economic depression. Some fled and tried to make a new start in a jobless nation. Others remained to face chronic hunger and often fatal disease from inhaling the ever silty air.

The story Egan tells is a familiar one, much the same as unfolded throughout the 19th century as colonialism savaged the African continent with the slave trade, dispossessed hundreds of indigenous societies and divided up the land along borders chiefly designed to aid in exploiting its resources. It has played out more recently in the northeastern rust belt and in the ruinous fires consuming thousands of homes and acres of forest in the west. Capitalism, defined as unrestricted commerce, devours vital resources to produce enormous amounts of wealth at the expense of the land and at the expense of its inhabitants who become disposable once the prospect of profit has been exhausted. It is a destructive religion grounded in a tragically misplaced faith in human nature and the salutary effects of unregulated commerce.

The reign of God proclaimed in Jesus and envisioned by the prophet Isaiah consists in meeting the needs of “all peoples.” In spite of the havoc we have wreaked upon the earth, it is still capable of satisfying everyone’s need, though not everyone’s greed. The story of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes is a graphic announcement that God’s reign has dawned. The myth of scarcity has been debunked. All that remains is for us to overcome our unbelief, release our grip on what we deem our own and place it in the service of our neighbor. Contrary to the creed of capitalism that would have us pursue our own interests, Saint Paul counsels us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-11.

Once again, I am not suggesting that market economies must be dismantled. What is clear, however, is that “the Market” must not be divinized. We can no more rely upon the market to deliver a just and prosperous society for all than we can expect the weather to deliver sun, rain and wind in just the right measure. In both cases, powers beyond our control bring us benefits as well as occasional injury. The best we can do is manage the former responsibly and make provision for victims of the latter. Just as we cannot expect the weather to rebuild hurricane ravaged cities, we cannot expect the market to alleviate climate change, restore depressed neighborhoods and bring medical care to the sickest among us. The market might well be one tool we employ in the service of addressing these issues, but it must never become our master.

I am not suggesting either that individual rights, individual liberties and individual identity are not deserving of protection. Nevertheless, knowing what the scriptures teach us about our inherently self oriented nature, our tendency to dominate and exploit those more vulnerable than ourselves and our inability to evaluate our own motivations honestly, we cannot subscribe to the view that individuals left free to pursue their own self interest without restraint will serve the good of all creation. In the view of Saint Paul, the American deification of the individual self over all else would be deemed madness. What we need and what God means to accomplish is “the mind of Christ” formed within us,  the One who sought not his own self interest but that of all people. Jesus is the antithesis to the religion of capitalism.

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that serves as a warning against what we might become when formed by the “market” rather than by the “mind of Christ.”

Of The Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Source: Red Bird (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 46. Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was born in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

We’re Not Indispensable

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Prayer of the Day: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21:43.

Long before the days of ATMs and online deposits, I brought a check to my bank for deposit at one of the tellers windows. The teller promptly deposited the check and handed me a deposit receipt. While inspecting it on the way out, I noticed that the amount recorded on the receipt was exactly fifty dollars less than the amount on the check. Needless to say, I returned it to the teller who, after consulting with a bank manager, reissued the receipt in the correct amount with profuse apologies. “Not a problem,” I replied. “Just glad we caught it.” The bank manager was not quite so sanguine. “Don’t forget,” I heard him say to the teller. “You can be replaced.” Though not directed at me, those words and the tone in which they were spoken sent a chill down my spine. Perhaps the chief priests and Pharisees to which Jesus directed his parable felt the same.

I pause here to state what should be obvious, namely, that the passage cited above does not support the heretical supersessionist view that Christianity is God’s “better” replacement for Judaism. In fact, this text comes to us from a time before which either “Judaism” or “Christianity” existed as such. There was in Jesus’ day a people of Israel consisting of faith communities in Judea, Galilee, Samaria and regions scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The Jesus movement was one of several such communities. The boundaries for inclusion within Israel were disputed, as was the locus of genuine religious authority. Moreover, the parable is not directed against Israel as a whole, but against the chief priests and the Pharisaic leaders in Jerusalem. Consequently, Jesus’ harsh condemnation of the temple establishment and its leaders (similarly delivered by other faith communities within Israel) cannot be interpreted as a rejection of Israel in favor of a new chosen people.

How, then shall we read this text in our present context? As the parable is directed to the “clergy” of Jesus’ day, perhaps that is the place we ought to start. Maybe this text presents a challenge to those of us on the roster who identify as “called” to reflect on the kinds of fruit we produce. That is an especially uncomfortable task for me as I am currently retired from full time ministry. What I have done is done. It isn’t as though reflection on my part is going to benefit the church’s ministry going forward. Still, I am part of a living community of faith and so, along with all the baptized, I stand in need of confession, repentance and absolution.

“Fruit” is important for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew’s gospel. It is the defining characteristic of a true disciple. “You will know them by their fruits,” says Jesus. Matthew 7:16. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’” Matthew 7:21-22. I suppose I might plead, “Was I not baptized and confirmed in your name? Was I not ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in your name?” Yet the possibility remains that my fruits might be such as to make me altogether unrecognizable as disciple of Jesus. Matthew 7:23.

While I am sure there are more shortcomings in my ministry than I am aware of, the one that grieves me most is my failure to appreciate properly the faithfulness and dedication of my lay leaders. In my first parish, I was particularly critical of my treasurer who seemed always to be fretting about the state of our finances when I was trying to get our council to focus on mission opportunities. “Why does it always have to come down to dollars and cents?” I asked at one meeting in a tone of exasperation. Though addressed to the council as a whole, my treasurer felt the brunt of that remark-as I probably intended. I didn’t stop to think that this woman, now in her 60s, was taking on a responsibility nobody else wanted, that she lay awake at night worrying about meeting the church’s expenses-not the least of which was my salary-or that she already had a full time job and an infirm relative to care for. Of course, I stand by my firm belief that a church’s life is guided not by the resources it has on hand, but by the mission to which it is called. But the faith required to sustain such a vision should not fall solely on the individual who must pay the bills and balance the books. What my treasurer needed was an expression of my appreciation for her good work and my assurance that she would be supported no matter what financial difficulties might arise from our decisions.

Nothing used to frustrate me more than council meetings at which we discussed and re-litigated again and again issues that were resolved in prior meetings, as evidenced by the minutes we approved! “These people have memories like mayflies!” I once vented to a colleague. Then, after resigning my first call, I went to law school and spent the next twenty-one years in practice. Although I remained on the clergy roster and did some supply preaching during that time, I was for all intents and purposes simply another member of the congregation to which I belonged. In this new life, the church and its rhythms were no longer the focus of my day to day existence. There I learned what it is like to work between sixty and seventy hours a week, care for sick family members, carry the weight of anxiety about potential unemployment and deal with the struggles of my children in school-only to be snapped at during a counsel meeting because I could not recall exactly what happened at a meeting that took place the month before. When I took my second full time call, I made a point of trying to exercise more patience, understanding, appreciation and compassion for these people who were giving up an evening at home with their families to support the work of their church. I hope that I did a better job the second time around.

When Jesus warns us that the kingdom might be taken away from us, he cannot be understood to mean that we are lost to the kingdom. The kingdom is God’s generous gift to the whole world God created and loves. It cannot be confiscated by anyone, neither will God rescind it. The kingdom does not belong to us anymore than it belonged to the chief priests and the Pharisees. Like them, we are stewards of the mysteries of God, spokespeople for the kingdom. Like them, we are not indispensable. We can be replaced. The call to be servants to the servants of God is a privilege, not a right. If we fail to produce the fruits of the kingdom, God will find others for this good work. That is good news for the people of God, even though it strikes a little healthy fear into the hearts of us clerics.

I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that, whatever my shortcomings, God has permitted me to remain in the ministry of Word and Sacrament for all these years. Nonetheless, I am sure that “the Day” will disclose much in my ministry that will fail the test of “fire.” I Corinthians 3:10-15. But however much of the work I might have botched, Saint Paul assures me that I myself can yet be saved-albeit by fire. I Corinthians 3:15. We do well, I think, to read Jesus’ parable as a sobering reminder that we are not irreplaceable, that we are fallible vessels for an infinite treasure and that the time we have to be of service is extremely limited. So we are left with the prayer of Moses, the man of God: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.” Psalm 90:17.

Here is a poem about lost opportunity for fruitfulness that should inspire us to use wisely and well the time and the gifts we have been given in order to be fruitful servants for the kingdom of God.

Autumn Regrets
 
What’s left of my garden is
bathed in the moon’s white, frosty glow.
Big green tomatoes which will never ripen
into juicy red fruit
hang motionless from vines dried and dead.
The soil I spent so much time turning
over, mulching and raking is now choked
with weeds and littered with fallen leaves.
An early freeze took all but a few hearty geraniums.
Those remaining are but a sad, ruined shadow of
the flowerbed I envisioned beneath the
fig and mirabella trees.
My shovel, rake and hoe resting in the wheelbarrow
nearby accuse me of neglect.
They have been sitting idle, caked with dirt
since early spring.
This garden has too seldom felt the caring
touch of a gardener.
Many a day its parched earth cried out for water.
Weeds choked its tender shoots without mercy.
I saw, but was consumed with more important things.
Now, my heart grieves for this little plot of ground,
this garden which I planted but could not cultivate,
and for all the dreams I have failed to nourish,
the plans for good I have allowed to die.

Source: Anonymous

Time to Bid Farewell to Sunday School and Confirmation?

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Prayer of the Day: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” Philippians 2:5.

One could say that this is the whole point of the church, namely, to be a community animated by the Spirit of Jesus. I didn’t come that understanding in my seminary studies. I learned it in the church of my childhood from a teenager named Gary. Gary helped with our Sunday School and he was the only teenage boy I knew who showed any interest in kids my age. My church friends and I lived for that fifteen minutes between the end of Sunday School and the start of the service during which Gary played kick ball with us. He listened to our stories and laughed at our silly jokes. I don’t remember exactly when I learned Gary was what in those days we called “mentally retarded.” What I do know is that my thinking about Gary was shaped by a community that received him, not as a social problem to be solved, but as a child of God with special gifts to offer. I didn’t need to be “taught” that “disabled” persons were not to be mocked, ridiculed or patronized. The “thou shalt not” was unnecessary because the “shalt” had been so thoroughly modeled for me in a community shaped by the mind of Christ.

Yes, I know that the church doesn’t always get it right. You don’t have to look any further than Saint Paul’s letters to find out that the church was from the beginning and still is rent by false teachings, divided along racial and cultural lines, plagued with ambitious  leaders obsessed with being “first” and consumed with disputes over money. Yet it is within the furnace of such communities that saints are forged. The mind of Christ is formed among people who would never have chosen each other as friends. It takes shape when people who don’t much like each other learn to love one another. Formation of Christ’s mind in our midst depends on a confident belief that Jesus has called everyone in our congregation, even-or rather especially-the one you can hardly stand. The church’s job is to incorporate each person’s gifts into Jesus’ ministry and mission. The ancient church had a name for this process: catechesis.

Sometimes catechesis happens informally and spontaneously as was the case with Gary. But discipleship, as the name suggests, is built on discipline. It is something that must be taught and learned through communal practices. On the whole, I think it is fair to say that mainline protestant churches like my own have, at best, a mixed record when it comes to developing effective catechetical practices. I have been reflecting a lot recently on those practices within my own Lutheran tradition. While I have nothing in the way of new revolutionary approachs to catechesis, I have a few concerns about our old ones and some observations about how catechesis actually happens, often in spite of rather than because of what we do. I leave to greater minds the development of new directions formal catechesis might take in the future.

First, I think it is time to retire Sunday School. Don’t get me wrong. Sunday School once served a noble purpose. Sunday schools were set up in the 18th century to provide education to working children. The American system was begun by Samuel Slater in the 1790s. Classes were held in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There was no universal compulsory education at that time and no prohibition against child labor. Thus,  Sunday was the only day on which school could be held for working children. The church took a leadership role in this movement with the laudable goal of providing basic education to children that would otherwise have grown up illiterate.

With the passage of laws prohibiting child labor and requiring universal compulsory education, the Sunday School movement’s objective was met. But, like so many institutions that have outlived their usefulness, Sunday School refused to die. Instead, it evolved into a ministry of the church designed to provide “Christian education” to its members’ children. Over the years few, if any, church leaders questioned this method of catechesis. We all assumed that employing the methods of the classroom to catechetical instruction was the best way to pass on our faith to the next generation.

That is still the assumption. In every church I have served, Sunday School was in decline and there was much distress over that fact. I have spent numerous anxious hours with good church people wracking their brains over how to “fix” Sunday School. In all these discussions, there was always an unshakable conviction that Sunday School was the future of our church and that our survival depended on building it back up. But if a healthy Sunday School really does equate with effective catechesis, then I have to wonder, where are all the thousands of kids that went through Sunday School in the church’s heyday? Why are they and their children not in church today? Perhaps Sunday School was not all it cracked up to be.

More important, when did you ever read about Jesus or Saint Paul teaching religion classes? Jesus’ disciples learned to follow Jesus by, well, following him. They got their training on the job. So, too, Saint Paul urges his churches to “imitate” him. That might sound a little arrogant, but if your chief catechetical tool is example, it makes good sense. Perhaps our children should be accompanying our lay leaders on home communion visits, working with them at food distribution centers or learning to write letters to congress as part of the church’s advocacy ministry. Maybe time formerly devoted to Sunday School should be spent training children to assume responsibilities for service on the altar at worship. Education is best received when it is requested via the inevitable questions, i.e., “So why do we do this? Why are we changing the color of the vestments? Why do we stand for the gospel? How come we don’t say alleluia in Lent?” It should be noted that our Small Catechism, the Lutheran Church’s chief teaching document, was designed for heads of families to instruct their children. Where did we get the idea that it was supposed to be used by pastors for teaching confirmation classes?

Which brings me to my second observation. Perhaps it is time to retire confirmation. For the life of me, I could never see the logic in demanding that budding adolescents, who are only beginning to think for themselves, question what they have been taught and form their own opinions, publicly commit to a set of doctrinal propositions they learned in classes they were most likely required to take. Confirmation, as we currently practice it, is inherently coercive. If there is one thing young teens hate, it is being coerced. Small wonder, then, we see so few of them after they are confirmed. I am aware, of course, that theologians, Christian educators and pastors (myself included) have worked from hell to breakfast trying to make confirmation more “relevant” for young people. But it has always seemed to me that we were only taking the edge off what is a fundamentally flawed program-a little like trying to make chicken salad out of chicken poop.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that the church should give up on discipling teens. The church must work actively to shape in adolescents the mind of Christ no less than it does for all its members. What I do believe is that, once again, catechesis is accomplished more through example and participation in ministry than in formal classroom teaching. Moreover, not every individual travels in the same direction or at the same pace when it comes to spiritual formation. Rather than establishing one hard and fast time and place for all teens to make their formal confession of faith, why not create several opportunities for Affirmation of Baptism throughout the church year? There are also plenty of occasional opportunities where the Affirmation can be employed meaningfully, such as upon taking on a ministry or office in the congregation or during a rite of blessing before leaving for college. There is no reason to require arbitrarily that all persons aged fourteen who have completed a specified religious curriculum submit to this rite under penalty of extreme disapproval.

Catechesis is and always has been critical. If we had done it right from the beginning, we would not have to be explaining to our members why it is important to declare that black lives matter, why we welcome refugees a lot of Americans want to keep out of our country, why we care as much for the poor on the other side of the world as for those in our own neighborhoods or why being pro life does not mean submitting the bodies of women to government regulation. Of course, we have never gotten catechesis completely right. Perhaps we never will. But that is no excuse for striving to do it better.

Here is a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman with a lyric description of what catechesis looks like in her faith community.

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.

 

 

 

 

Mitch McConnell to Hold Prompt Vote on Confirmation of Trump Supreme Court Nominee-Whoever it is

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel announced today that he will push for an immediate vote to confirm President Trump’s nominee to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court-whoever that might be. “If the President want’s him,” he told reporters, “there’s nothing left to discuss. So let’s get on with the vote.”  McConnel dismissed criticisms from Democrats who pointed out that Republicans blocked former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee on grounds that no such action should be taken by the Senate on the eve of a general election. “This is  not the same thing at all,” McConnel quipped. “This situation is entirely different. Why, it’s as different as black and white.” Mr. McConnell denied assertions that Republicans were out to undue Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of supporting civil rights for women and minorities. “The whole idea that Republicans are out to deprive minorities of their voting rights and take away protections from discrimination against women and limit women’s reproductive rights is just left wing hysteria,” McConnell said. “But even if that were all true,” he added, “would it really be so bad?”

Meanwhile, the White House announced that the flag would be flown at half mast to honor the departed Supreme Court Justice. “Fifteen minutes ought to do it,” said presidential press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. Asked whether the president had yet settled on a nominee, McEnany declined comment, but added that Mr. Trump’s criteria for selection are simple. “It all boils down to three things: white skin, a penis and loyalty to the president,” she said. McEnany did not deny that white supremacists, Richard Spencer and Stephen Miller were on Trump’s short list. “There has been plenty of controversy over which lives matter in this country,” she said. “The president strongly believes that the highest court should settle the matter once and for all and so it’s critical that we have enough people on the court with a clear understanding of what is really at stake.”

**************************************************************

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Justice isn’t Fair!

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness 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.

“…are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:15.

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11.

Jonah has a problem with God. It is not that God is cruel, vengeful or capricious. Jonah’s problem is that his God is too kind, too generous and not sufficiently vindictive. There is nothing wrong with Jonah’s expression of anger against God or his desire for revenge against Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s arch enemy. The Psalms are filled with such sentiments. But however graphic and terrible the punishments called down upon their enemies, the psalmists always leave for God the responsibility of executing the justice they seek. “’Vengeance is mine,”’ says the Lord,” according to St. Paul. Romans 12:19 citing Deuteronomy 32:35.

The problem for Jonah, and perhaps for us too, is that God’s justice frequently looks different from the way we think justice ought to look. In our limited perspective, justice amounts to fashioning a punishment that fits a particular crime. From that constricted point of view, the mercy shown to Nineveh was clearly unjust. The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was notoriously brutal in its scorched earth methodology of conquest. Next to Assyria, ISIS looks like a scout troop. How can the God who brought destruction on the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple for Israel’s sins give Nineveh a pass on its centuries of violence just because its king declared a national day of prayer? Can you imagine the outrage if one of our judges were to suspend execution or imprisonment for a serial killer in exchange for a mere expression of remorse, however sincere it might be?

I suspect the same outrage is evoked by Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It just doesn’t seem right that a group of workers, who have spent the better part of the day unemployed and sitting in the shade, should be paid the same wage as those who have been working from dawn to dusk. We Americans, who believe ourselves to be self made, independent and industrious, put a high premium on rewarding hard work and punishing sloth. Treating the late coming workers the same as those that have been in the field for the duration cannot help but destroy their incentive to work hard and earn their livings. Moreover, what incentive is there for the other workers to continue putting in a full day’s work once they find out they can get the same pay by showing up an hour before quitting time? In short, it just isn’t fair.

But I have to ask, is “fair” what we really want? If that is what justice requires, what is fair punishment for the serial killer? Should the same punishment be inflicted on the parents who abused him since he was a toddler? What about the neighbors who heard him scream with every lash of the belt, but simply turned up the TV and tried to ignore it because, after all, it was none of their business? What about the gym teacher who noticed the welts on the young boy’s body, but didn’t want to risk an ugly confrontation with the family? What about a community that votes consistently to defund school counseling services and other programs designed to identify and intervene on behalf of children with serious behavioral problems? None of this is to suggest that the killer is not responsible for his deeds. He surely is. But the responsibility is not his alone and perhaps not even primarily his. What would justice look like if everyone in that chain of responsibility got what they deserved?

In my reading of Jesus’ parable, I have always identified more with the workers who went into the vineyard early and worked to the end of the day. And why not? I worked hard in school (at least after my second year in high school). I worked hard in every parish I served. I worked my way through law school and practiced law for eighteen years, working my way into partnership at my firm. I was never unemployed a day in my working life. The comfortable retirement I now enjoy is nothing less than what I earned by the sweat of my brow-or so I like to think.

But is my thinking correct? Did I really pull myself up by my own bootstraps? I had the good fortune to be born in the mid fifties when the economy was friendlier to blue collar workers lacking a college education-like my father. Having been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, Dad was able to secure an entry level job that paid a living wage. Through careful saving, numerous opportunities for on-the-job training that, in turn, led to promotions, he was able to build a small house and secure for his four children the college education he was never able to obtain. Though Dad was a diligent, hard worker, I have no doubt he would have found his course a good deal more difficult had he started out at the same place around the turn of the recent century.

As I said, I worked hard for all my life but, like my father, I had more than a few head starts. For one thing, I am a man. That means that a lot of professional opportunities were open to me that did not exist for my sisters. Even though women have made numerous advances throughout my lifetime, they still experience barriers I never had to overcome. I never had to worry about how to deal with a predatory boss or client, whether my clothing was too provocative, to severe or otherwise inappropriate. I didn’t have to worry about going into a job interview with just the right balance of respect and assertiveness so that I don’t come across as either too weak or too “bitchy.” I did not have to battle daily the presumption that some jobs are not for my sex, that people of my sex are not suited for leadership positions, that my family responsibilities would hinder my job performance or that, because I had a working husband, I could make due with less pay.

For another thing, I was white. That means I never had to think about how job interviewers might react to my skin color, my hair, facial features or my accent. I didn’t have to deal with questions trying to ferret out whether I really earned my law degree or whether I got into school and got special treatment because of some “affirmative action” program. I didn’t graduate from college, seminary or law school with a crushing load of debt. I could add to this that I was not born into abject poverty; that I was not born with physical or mental impariments making it difficult or impossible to find work; that I have not experienced any disabling accidents or injuries throughout my working life. The list could go on forever. Again, I am not saying I didn’t work hard to get where I am today. But I am compelled to admit that, without the aforementioned advantages, I would have been working a lot harder and a lot longer to get to the same place.

So, in reality, I am more like the eleventh hour workers than I like to admit. For that reason, I am reluctant to insist that justice be based solely on fairness. I shudder to think where that might leave me. Perhaps that is the point of Jesus’ parable. Justice-God’s justice-is not a matter of giving everyone their just desserts. It is about giving all of us together what we need to thrive. Why are we so resentful about that? Why, when God has provided so richly for our needs, do we look with a resentful eye at God’s goodness toward someone we deem undeserving? Why are so many religious people outraged at the very thought that God might not punish the wicked in this life or the next as they seemingly deserve? Is it so hard to see that if God were to execute our kind of justice, no one “could stand?” Psalm 130:3. The good news of the gospel is that God does not exercise against us the kind of justice we would exercise if we were God.

Part of our problem is that our thinking about justice is based on our own Anglo European notion of what justice entails. In a typical criminal case, the jury renders a verdict and the judge sentences the defendant. In civil matters, the jury decides between the contending parties and the judge enters an order reflecting the jury’s determination. After that, the judge moves on to the next case. The judge is no longer concerned with what happens to the parties after that. God, however, continues to be concerned about the fate of the parties post judgment. That is because God’s justice does not end in retribution or compensation, but in restoration. Judgment is not the end of, but the means to justice. God desires restoration of relationships. That, of course, includes compensation for injuries inflicted and assumption of responsibility for wrongdoing. Beyond that, however, divine justice means reconciliation and peace. God’s exercise of God’s sole prerogative to punish, forgive or excuse wrongdoing is therefore not tied to any supposed measure of sin’s severity, but to God’s determination to achieve the perfect justice that is “God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” II Corinthians 5:19.

Here is a poem/prayer by Alexander Pope that reflects an attitude of humility and respect for the mystery of God’s just and gentle reign to which Jesus calls us.

Universal Prayer  

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives:
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth’s contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace import
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe’er I go,
Through this day’s life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot;
All else beneath the sun
Though know’st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,—
Whose alter earth, sea, skies,—
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature’s incense rise.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed.), Edit. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo and Stallworthy, Jon, (c. 1970 Norton & Company, Inc.) p.574. Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) is regarded as the foremost English poet of the early eighteenth century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive works as well as for his translation of Homer. Pope was born in London. He was taught to read by his aunt and went to Twyford School. From there, he went on to two Roman Catholic schools in London. While illegal, such schools were tolerated in some areas. In 1700, however, Pope’s family moved to Berkshire due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a law preventing Catholics from living within ten miles of London or Westminster. Pope made his share of enemies as fellow critics, politicians, and several other prominent figures felt the sting of his satires. So hostile were some of these enemies that Pope feared for his life. Pope was known to carry a pistol on his evening walks for self protection.

Pope suffered numerous health problems from the age of twelve, including tuberculosis. His illnesses deformed his spine and stunted his growth, leaving him with a hunchback. Throughout his life he struggled with respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain. He grew to a height of just a little over four feet. Although he never married, Pope had many female friends to whom he wrote witty letters. You can learn more about Alexander Pope and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Forgiveness: It’s Never Wasted

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

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.

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:35.

These words, particularly in the context of the foregoing parable of the Unforgiving Servant, are severe by all measures. And that for good reason. Forgiveness is not just another admirable quality in some hierarchy of virtues. For the church, it is constitutive and essential to its ongoing life. It is assumed that members of the church will sin against one another and that they will be sinned against. How could it be otherwise where sinful people are called into a life of holiness? The only way such a community can function is through regular confession, repentance and forgiveness. Though all of this takes place regularly on a corporate level, it must, on occasion, occur on an individual level as well. Last week’s gospel lesson dealt with the procedures applicable to that practice. This week’s gospel focuses more broadly on the nature of forgiveness itself.[1]

Forgiveness is often portrayed as weakness, a form of selflessness that renders its practitioner a kind of doormat. It is anything but. On one level, forgiveness is very practical and self interested. Holding grudges is draining and self defeating. It bends your mind back into a past moment that cannot be changed and away from a future that can still be shaped. Forgiveness is not capitulation to the one who wrongs you. It is an affirmative act of resistance. By forgiving my enemies, I deny them power over me. My daughter Emily, also a pastor, regularly admonishes me to “evict the troublesome tenants in my head.” She goes further, inviting us to imagine serving a notice of eviction to the one most deeply imbedded under our skin. She even encourages us to imagine the sheriff forcefully removing the tenant from the premises.

Forgiveness is therefore liberating, both for the one forgiving and the one forgiven. For the former, it frees up band width for relevant data and operations that matter. For the latter, it opens up the possibility for renewed relationship free from the constraint of past hostility. The operative word here is “possibility.” One can always hope that expressing forgiveness to an offender will inspire thankfulness and a determination to make a new start. As Jesus’ parable illustrates, however, that hope does not always materialize. For that reason, it is important to understand that forgiveness is not contingent on repentance. As Jesus points out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. Disciples of Jesus are called to practice the same perfect forgiveness whether it meets with acceptance and repentance or not. Matthew 5:48.

Forgiveness is not permission for the offender to continue aggressive, abusive or violent behavior. Jesus’ life and ministry are nothing if not a frontal assault on evil, oppression and injustice. Thus, his admonition to “turn the other cheek” when stricken does not mean that aggression is not to be resisted at all. It does mean that aggression is not to be resisted with counter-aggression. Violence is not an arrow in the disciple’s quiver. But there are numerous means by which aggression can and should be resisted that do not involve violence or equate with vengeance. The insistence that violence is sometimes unavoidable is grounded more in a lack of imaginative faith than in “realism.”

Forgiveness does not mean that wrongful acts have no consequences. The harms done to others live on, regardless whether they have been forgiven. They will continue to have ramifications into the future. Forgiveness, however, opens up the possibility for redemption. Sin can be that which needs constant justification, excuses and rationalizations, all of which keep one bound to the past. Or, thanks to forgiveness, it can be a turning point, an opportunity to abandon destructive courses of conduct and pursue “a more perfect way.” It is precisely because one has been forgiven that one has opportunity for change and reconciliation.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, tells the tale of a meeting between an aged seaman and a young guest on the way to a wedding celebration. The Mariner stops the young man and relates to him his near death experience on the sea. While sailing in the Antarctic Ocean the mariner’s ship is caught in a storm and driven into icy waters. Lost and directionless, the ship meets with an albatross, a large sea bird, that leads the pilot safely through the ice into open water. For no reason in particular, the Mariner shoots the albatross with his cross-bow. Thereafter, things go badly for the ship as it sails into the doldrums, drifting aimlessly over the sea with no wind to propel it. The rest of the crew succumbs to thirst, leaving only the mariner alone and near death on a ship full of corpses. Through numerous dangers and surreal adventures, the ship is brought safely to the mariner’s homeland. During his long ordeal, the mariner comes to recognize the gravity of his cruel and thoughtless killing of the albatross. He comes to understand his frailty and vulnerability, his inescapable dependence on all living things, the natural elements and his fellow human beings. Most importantly, he comes to know the mercy of a God who spares his life though he was the least deserving among the crew. Forgiveness has not been wasted on this mariner and his redemption did not come cheap. The poem is the antithesis to Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. I offer here the parting words of the ancient mariner to the wedding guest. I encourage you to read the entire poem at the Poetry Foundation Website.

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemèd there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772- 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England. He also had a major influence on American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman and perfectionist who was rigorous in the careful reworking of his writings. Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression.  He was physically unhealthy, suffering the ill effects from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. He was treated for these conditions with drugs that helped foster a lifelong addiction to opiates. Despite these impediments, Coleridge was enormously prolific as a writer and critic. You can read more about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Thus, the lectionary’s coupling of Jesus’ interchange with Peter and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is potentially misleading.