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Taking the Bible back from the masses; a poem by Jacqueline Woodson; and the lessons for Sunday, March 25, 2018
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the journey from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through his betrayal, suffering and death and into the sunrise of the Resurrection. Holy Week, like the church year generally, was designed for a people familiar with and formed by the larger biblical narrative. The parallels between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the messianic prophecies of Zechariah and the triumphal entry of David with the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem should not be lost on such a people. Nor should the strong overtones of the Exodus and Passover at the Last Supper escape their notice. The refrains of the suffering servant songs and the tortured cries of the lamenting psalmists should frame the context for the cross, and the Resurrection should be grounded in the liberation of Israel at the Red Sea and informed by all of the ancient promises made to Israel from Genesis to Malachi. The problem, however, is that practicing Christians are increasingly deaf to these interrelated themes. They are like beginning piano students who, at best, can manage to pick out only the melody line of a complex musical score.
I think this problem goes far beyond mere biblical illiteracy. It is rooted in our protestant insistence that the Bible is a book for general consumption and that any fair-minded person can pick it up, read it and readily arrive at its meaning and significance. Witness the tireless work of the Gideons in assuring that every motel, hotel and resort suite throughout the United States is stocked with a King James Bible. It is as though evangelism were only a matter of getting the book into the hands of the unbeliever. In truth, however, the Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of writings speaking in many voices. It is as much the testimony of Israel and the church as it is the testament of God. Its open-ended narrative is rich in frolics and detours. There are numerous rabbit holes down which one might venture, texts that confuse, terrify and serve as springboards for some of the most abhorrent forms of religious expression ever to appear on the world stage. I sometimes wonder whether placing the Bible into the hands of the common people was not one of Martin Luther’s biggest blunders.
This is not to say that the Bible belongs solely to the educated elite. I am convinced that many scholars armed with the tools of historical criticism are as inept as unlearned literalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas has observed, “literalist fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without mediation by the church.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, (c. 1993 by Abingdon Press) p. 17. That is to say, the Bible cannot rightly be interpreted apart from the communities that gave birth to it and have been formed by it. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would have no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be a fascinating literary relic, of interest perhaps to students of ancient religion, archaeology and art-but of no relevance to most 21st Century people. The Bible continues to speak to the world today only because it speaks directly to these two communities, Israel and the church, telling them who they are, why they are and how they are to live.
Unlike our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we protestants have nothing like a “teaching magisterium” to guide us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, given our fiercely individualistic impulses, the very thought of such an institution makes us see red. We bristle at the notion that anyone should have the right to “tell us what to think.” Yet I believe the fragmented protestant experience has taught us that reliance upon the faculties of reason possessed by the common person (or the highly educated one for that matter) to arrive at the objectively correct reading of a biblical text is misplaced. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit which comes when we read the Bible together as a community of disciples following Jesus. Even when one reads the Bible alone, s/he does not read it in isolation, but in the company of St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., contemporary theologians, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors. Interpreting the Bible is a job far too important to be left in the hands of any one individual. It requires the shared wisdom of a community of disciples in communion with the whole church and grounded in that church’s rich and diverse historical traditions.
Holy Week should be a shared exercise in Biblical interpretation integrated with the disciplines of Lent and careful listening to the passion and resurrection narrative. Just as we cannot hope to follow Jesus apart from the communion of saints, so too, we cannot expect to understand the Scriptures apart from participation in that holy communion wherein the mind of Christ is formed.
Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson with a fleeting picture of what formation looks like within a community of faith.
On Sundays, the preacher gives everyone a chance
to repent their sins. Miss Edna makes me go
to church. She wears a bright hat
I wear my suit. Babies dress in lace.
Girls my age, some pretty, some not so
pretty. Old ladies and men nodding.
Miss Edna every now and then throwing her hand
in the air. Saying Yes, Lord and Preach!
I sneak a pen from my back pocket,
bend down low like I dropped something.
The chorus marches up behind the preacher
clapping and humming and getting ready to sing.
I write the word HOPE on my hand.
Source: Jacqueline Woodson, “Church” from Locomotion, (c. 2003 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Puffin Books). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a good deal more subdued than the accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. It is not clear whether those accompanying Jesus with palms and praise included anyone other than his disciples. Moreover, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, he is not swept into the temple on a tsunami of praise to cleanse it. Instead, he merely inspects it and retires to Bethany with his disciples. The parade ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark does not cite Zechariah 9:9 in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, he is most probably influenced by the whole of Chapter 9 from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Second Ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 353-354; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 352. For a more dubious view, see Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) p. 257. The oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 foretells the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the dawn of the messianic age. Zechariah 9:9 announces that Israel’s messiah is coming, not as a military conqueror on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” The chariot and the warhorse shall be “cut off” and the new king will “command peace to the nations,” not armed attacks. There may also be echoes in this account of the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” I Maccabees 13:51. Taylor, supra at 546. This triumphal entry also was associated with a cleansing of the temple. Maccabees 13:50. I find the association doubtful, however.
The term “Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew imperative, “Save now” found in Psalm 118:25. Vs. 9. This is a cry for salvation similar to other such cries found throughout the Psalms of lament, though used here in a Psalm of thanksgiving. It is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to address kings with petitions for relief. II Samuel 14:4; II Kings 6:26. Psalm 118:25 is perhaps antiphonally juxtaposed to Psalm 118:26 cited by Mark immediately thereafter: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.” Vs.10. This was possibly a blessing pronounced by the priest to pilgrims coming to worship at the temple on high holy days and would certainly fit the occasion of Passover in Jerusalem. Mark, of course, expands this exclamation to cover Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as messiah/king. The words “blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” stop short of “full throated Messianic homage.” Vs. 10. Taylor, supra at 452. Clearly, however, Mark himself fully intended for the reader to draw this conclusion. Cranfield, supra at 352.
The meaning both of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of Zechariah’s prophecy are sharpened by the occurrence of another parade that would have taken place a week earlier when through a gate at the opposite end of the city Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to keep the peace during the potentially turbulent time of Passover. See Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus Final Week in Jerusalem (c. 2006 Harper) pp. 2-5. Pilate represented another kind of peace: the Pax Romana. To an extent never before seen in history, the Roman Empire was able to enforce its reign over the Mediterranean basin establishing law and order. While Rome’s governance kept a lid on local hostilities and allowed the expansion of trade and commerce, these benefits came at a terrible human cost. The cross was the ultimate instrument of terror by which Rome kept the peace.
I cannot help repeating what I have said many times before, namely, that while pacifism has been at the fringes of Christian theology since the beginning of the 4th Century, it is at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Palm Sunday is as strong a repudiation of the Armed Forces parade as any you will ever find. Pilate at one end of the city with his armed columns, their sabers rattling and their boots tramping over the stones with military precision inspiring terror. At the other end, the humble king riding unarmed and peacefully into town on his donkey greeted with joy and hope. The “Just War Tradition,” “The Two Kingdom Doctrine” and “Christian Realism” amount to little more than Christendom’s lame effort to march in both parades at once.
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.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Mark’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfills all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
I don’t preach on the Passion. The Passion text preaches itself. Whatever I might add can only detract. Yet, if you are foolhardy enough to try and improve on the gospel narrative, there are several points of interest. First, the story begins with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. Mark 14:3. This individual was likely well known to Mark’s audience as nothing more is said to identify him. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books) p. 371. It is worth noting that, up to the very end, Jesus maintains table fellowship with those deemed unclean.
Second, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster flask of ointment is worth telling. Mark 14:3-9. It is ironic that this story has been saved, according to Jesus, to preserve the woman’s memory though we do not even know her name! We might use this opportunity to memorialize all the unknown, nameless persons whose acts of extravagant generosity go unrecognized. It strikes me that this would be a good opportunity for recognizing social workers, school teachers and other members of the helping professions seldom mentioned without a condescending sneer on the lips of politicians from a certain political party of the American two-party system which is not Democratic and will otherwise remain appropriately anonymous. These folks work long hours, are disgracefully underpaid and typically handle oversize classes and/or caseloads with decreased funding. On top of all that, they must endure the constant refrain that their sacrifices are pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.
Third, I have always found interesting that, at the close of chapter 13, Jesus admonishes his disciples three times to “watch.” Mark 13:32-37. In the Garden of Gethsemane they must be jarred out of sleep exactly three times and reminded to watch. Mark 14:32-42. Recall that the disciples are preoccupied with the timing of the temple’s destruction and the signs accompanying the close of the age. Evidently, they do not know what to watch for. The darkening of the sun (Mark 15:33), the acclimation of Jesus as “King” (Mark 15:26) and the confession of Jesus as God’s son by the gentiles (Mark 15:39) all occur within the Passion narrative. Jesus came in his glory, but the disciples missed it because they failed to keep watch! Makes you wonder what signs should we look for? How does Jesus rule? What is glory anyway? Nothing of what we expect.
Then, of course, there is my favorite: the streaker in the garden. Mark 14:51-52. This little aside about the young man wearing a linen cloth has always fascinated me. Where did he come from? Why was he naked except for the linen? Why, out of all the disciples, did the temple authorities grab him? Whatever happened to him? Why does Mark (and only Mark) bother to relate such a seemingly inconsequential detail of such an important story? I can’t answer any of these questions, much less figure out how to get a sermon out of them.
In summary, I recommend not preaching the Passion. But if you must, these are just a few things you might talk about.
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.
Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.
I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.
But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.
The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.
You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!
The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America. It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.
Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.
We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.
Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).
Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.
Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.
After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.
More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.
What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.
Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.
That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.
Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.
In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.
God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.
“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.
I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in the United States of America. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his own.
What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.
Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.
For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.
As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.
“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.
It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.
“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.
The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.
Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.
Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.
One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.
 In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.
The Ten Commandments are not for everybody; a poem by Adrienna Rich; and the Lessons for Sunday, March 4, 2018
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:2.
The prologue to the Ten Commandments reminds us that these commands are not for general consumption. They are not a set of eternally valid, absolute moral principles meant to be binding on everyone. They are not given to the human race in general. The Ten Commandments presuppose a community united by the saving act of a gracious God who is committed to making them thrive. This community began as a tribe of escaped slaves fleeing oppression from the Egyptian empire at the close of the bronze age. The newly freed refugees are given to understand that they, who were no people, have been rescued from the jaws of imperial bondage to become God’s people in the Land of Canaan. Accordingly, the Commandments are given to protect their new life of freedom, justice and peace under the covenant with their God and to prevent them from evolving into another Egypt. Israel must not become one more oppressive kingdom among many. Israel is to be a light to the nations, an alternative way for human beings to live out their humanity.
For all of these reasons, stripping away the prologue identifying the “Who” and “why” of the Commandments, chiseling them into stone apart from their narrative context and placing them in front of a courthouse trivializes them. Unless we understand that the God who will not tolerate any rivals is the God of oppressed slaves; unless we understand that the sabbath was commanded for a people who knew no relief from work under the whip of the task master, unless we know that the commands protecting the sanctity of life, property and family were given to slaves who were themselves property, whose lives were cheap and who could be worked literally to death, we cannot begin to appreciate what these commands meant for Israel and what they might mean for us. The Ten Commandments were given to create, nurture and sustain a community of faith in the God who liberates slaves in the midst of a culture that routinely enslaves and oppresses. They must be understood as an emphatic “no” to imperial oppression, nationalism, hierarchy and war characterizing the present regime while pointing forward to the peaceable kingdom where humans live in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth and where God’s Spirit is poured out generously on all flesh.
It is also important for us to acknowledge that the Ten Commandments are, in part at least, the product of the same hierarchical and patriarchal culture that enslaved the people of Israel. We need to recognize and accept that they reflect many of the same oppressive assumptions underlying imperial civilization. For example, the Commandments deem women to be the property of their men. Consequently, adultery was not so much a sin between husband and wife as it was a sin by one man against another with the guilty wife being an accessory. While men are warned not to covet their neighbor’s wife, there is no similar prohibition against women coveting each other’s husbands. That is because there was nothing to covet. Women had no ownership rights to be coveted. Slavery, too, was a given in ancient Israel. Male and female slaves belonging to one’s neighbor are among the items of property one is admonished not to covet. There is no escaping the obvious. No reasonable person would want the Ten Commandments interpreted and enforced as they were originally promulgated.
As many womanist Hebrew scriptural scholars have pointed out ( e.g., Valerie Bridgeman, Irene S. Travis, Phillis Bird), we need to recognize the scriptures as time bound, contextual narratives reflecting and sometimes acquiescing in the oppressive assumptions of their age. Rather than rationalizing or explaining away its limitations, we need “to look a text squarely in what it actually says and then make ethical decisions about how it may function in the community.” Bridgeman, Valerie, “Womanist Approaches to the Prophets,” printed in The Oxford Handbook of the Prophets, edited by Sharp, Carolyn, J. (c. 2016 Oxford University Press) p. 487. Additionally, we are called upon to examine these texts “from the vantage point of the marginalized, the oppressed, the silenced, or the voiceless in current society and in the ancient texts.” Ibid p. 483. In so doing, stories like those of Deborah, Haggar, Tamar, Ruth, Esther and many other narratives in which women act out of character come into sharper focus. These narratives challenge the perceived patriarchal norms, illustrating how the texts are not static givens, but living theaters within which the liberating desire of God is striving to break through the oppressive strictures of our present existence. Although the Commandments stand as a watershed against imperial oppression, they also testify to the need for further prophetic resistance.
In sum, the Ten Commandments exhibit the patriarchal and hierarchical assumptions that hold human beings in bondage as much as they point beyond them to a better way. They should therefore be seen not as the final word on morality but rather as a profound crack in oppressive imperial ideology that must invariably widen. They stand as “a mark of resistance, a sign,” as poet Adrienna Rich puts it. As such, they must be understood always first and foremost as God’s covenant provisions given to Israel in a concrete historical context that was very different from our own. We gentile believers must understand that they come to us only through Jesus’ gracious invitation into that covenant relationship with Israel’s God and must be interpreted always with reference to his obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. The Commandments must be construed in ways that strengthen our covenant communities, build relationships of trust and cooperation between us, further protections for the most vulnerable among us and form us into a people of resistance, capable of testifying to the sovereignty of our gracious and liberating God over all other claims of power and authority.
Here is the rest of that poem by Adrienna Rich about resisting.
A Mark of Resistance
Stone by stone I pile
this carin of my intention
with the noon’s weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with the work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.
Source, Poetry Magazine, August 1957. Poet and essayist Adrienna Rich (1929-2012) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother a former concert pianist. She graduated from Radcliffe University and married in 1953. She had three children with her husband, but the marriage ended with their separation in the 1960s. Rich’s prose collections are widely-acclaimed for their articulate treatment of politics, feminism, history, racism and many other topics. Her poetry likewise explores issues of identity, sexuality and politics. Rich’s awards include the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. You can read more about Adrienna Rich and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
It has been twenty years since I first read “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and its Law,” Miller, Patrick D. (published in Interpretation, Vol. 48, no. 3, July 1989) p. 229. I still find that article to be one of the most helpful in understanding the place of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. Miller points out three factors demonstrating the high importance of the Commandments within the Torah as a whole. First, the commandments are set forth twice in the Pentateuch in very different literary contexts. Whereas our lesson for Sunday has the Commandments delivered to Israel shortly after the Exodus from Mount Sinai on tablets still hot from the imprint of God’s finger, they are repeated verbatim at Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Here the people stand at the frontiers of the Promised Land having spent forty years as nomads in the wilderness. In both cases Israel is making a new beginning where she will encounter new opportunities, new challenges and new temptations.
Second, “the giving of the Commandments clearly presents their transmission as something that happened directly between God and the people.” Ibid. p. 230. The “Decalogue is thus perceived as direct revelation of God to the people, while the rest of the law is mediated through Moses.” Ibid. Though, to be sure, all of the law is deemed “God given,” the narratives emphasize that the Ten Commandments represent the starting point from which all subsequent law flows and in which all subsequent law is grounded.
Third, the language in which the Ten Commandments are given remains virtually identical in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. By contrast, there is significant variation between the collection of law given at Sinai by Moses in Exodus and Leviticus on the one hand and that given on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy on the other. Miller goes on to analogize the Ten Commandments to the United States Constitution. Neither are “law” in the sense that they constitute statutes applying to specific circumstances. Like the Constitution, the Ten Commandments are fundamental principles from which specific legislation derives. “These foundations do not change. They continue in perpetuity to be the touchstone for all actions on the part of the people as they seek to live in community and order their lives.” Ibid. 231.
Here we need to exercise caution. While the Commandments may be said to embody moral priorities that are eternally valid for the community of Israel, they come to us “in earthen vessels” to borrow a Pauline phrase. II Corinthians 4:7. Like every other passage in the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are historically and culturally conditioned. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Tenth (or Ninth and Tenth, depending on how you number them) Commandment prohibiting a man from coveting his neighbor’s wife…house, field, servants “or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Vs. 17. Obviously, a man’s wife is here classified as property. Some more contemporary renderings of the commandments change the wording to prohibit coveting of “one’s spouse.” As laudable as the intention may be, I find such efforts to modernize the Commandments dishonest and potentially damaging to the very cause these efforts promote. Not until we recognize the suffocating effect of patriarchy in the biblical world can we begin to appreciate the depth of heroism, ingenuity and creativity demonstrated in the lives of women in the biblical narratives who acted faithfully to further the redemptive purposes of Israel’s God. The stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Debra, Mariam, Esther and so many others bring into sharp focus the central truth of the Biblical story as a whole: the way things are is not the way things have to be-nor the way they always will be.
It is for this reason that Miller points out that we must discern “a kind of trajectory for each commandment as it is carried forward, a trajectory that holds to the intention of the particular commandment but also creates a dynamic of new or broader meanings that are seen to grow out if its basic intent.” Ibid. 234. If we are going to follow this trajectory faithfully, I believe that it is essential for us to keep a couple of things in mind. The prologue to the Commandments is critical because it tells us where they come from. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Vs. 2. The Commandments are not moral, philosophical concepts formed in the world of ideas. The Commandments are given to a people newly liberated from slavery by the God who liberated them and wants to ensure that they do not slide back into slavery again.
It follows, therefore, that the Commandments are unintelligible apart from the covenant between the liberated people of Israel and the God who liberated them. The Commandments were not given for general public consumption. They will not function properly in just any old society. It is for this reason that the Commandments are out of place in front of municipal buildings, courts of law and public schools. The covenant is with Israel, not the United States of America. The Ten Commandments do not function meaningfully outside of that covenant. It cannot be overemphasized that the Torah was given to protect, enhance and strengthen the life of a free people bound to its God and to one another. The laws of the United States are designed to govern the civil life of a people of diverse loyalties, priorities and beliefs that may or may not include faith in Israel’s God. Losing sight of that distinction serves neither the Commandments nor the republic well.
Furthermore, any interpretation of the Commandments that enslaves us is dead wrong. Martin Luther rightly recognized that our use of the Commandments to win the love that God would give us freely and unconditionally enslaves us. So, too, when the Commandments are employed to stigmatize, exclude, dominate and marginalize people they are being misused. The polestar for interpreting the commandments is love: Love for God and love for the neighbor. As Jesus points out, the Commandments are gifts given to people for the benefit of people; people were not made for the purpose of following commands. That is why I keep telling my friends who seem fixated on “biblical views” of sexuality, marriage and God only knows what else that they can scream Bible verses at me until they turn purple and it won’t change my mind. If your interpretation of the law results in placing a stumbling block before someone God is calling into the Body of Christ, it’s wrong. That’s the end of the discussion.
There is much more that can and should be said about the Commandments. For those of you who might be interested in pre-canonical issues regarding the oral history, transmission and literary/historical source material for the Ten Commandments, I refer you to the excellent commentary of Dr. Brevard Childs. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 385-393. You might also consider giving the section on the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism a read. There is some wonderful material there on the First Commandment. If I were going to choose a specific Commandment to preach on this Sunday (I am not), I would go for the Eighth Commandment (under the Lutheran numbering) against bearing false witness. I believe it is probably the most frequently and flagrantly violated commandment of this Century. But don’t get me started on that…
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthypsalm 119, praises God’s law. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe, along with other commentators, that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. See, e.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86.
The term “glory” as used in the Psalms refers to God’s self-revelation in all its splendor. Such revelation naturally inspires awe. The “vault of heaven” or “firmament” held back the waters thought to weigh over the earth. Genesis 1:6-8. Only the merciful and creative Word of God keeps these waters and those beneath the earth from rising up and breaking through the barriers within which God keeps them and enveloping the earth such as almost occurred in the Great Flood. Genesis 7:11-16. The stars inhabiting the firmament, though not gods, nevertheless give praise to God in their silent adherence to their courses and faithful discharge of light. Vss. 2-4. During the day this firmament forms a “tent” for the sun, poetically compared first to a bridegroom emerging from his tent and then to an athlete taking the field. Vs.4b-6. Just as the articulate silence of the stars speaks volumes about God’s creative handiwork, so the regular journey of the sun across the sky testifies to God’s constancy. Though none of these wonders are divine, they are far from inanimate objects. All of them derive their being from their Creator and so cannot help but magnify God’s glory.
Beginning at verse 7 the focus turns from God’s glory reflected in the natural world to God’s perfection made known through the Torah. Vs. 7. We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Attention to Torah “makes wise the simple” (Vs. 7), it rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. Vs. 8. The wise and understanding crave Torah as one would crave honey and desire it as a lesser mind might yearn for wealth. Vs. 10. Yet Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to learning and practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Vs. 11. Mechanical obedience, however, is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14.
This beautiful prayer paints a portrait of faithfulness acquired through a lifetime of attentiveness to the miracle of the universe and the witness of the Scriptures. Both the Word and the world it has called into existence bear witness to the glory of God. Neither witness is complete without the other.
This is perhaps the most profound piece that Paul ever wrote. Why is the cross “folly” to those who are perishing? How is it “power” to those of us who are being saved? The cross is the power of God to refrain from retaliating against us, to forgive us and to continue loving us in spite of our rejection and murder of God’s Son. It is, as I said last week, the power of the glue holding the Trinity in unity over our own sin and the devil’s wiles that would pull it apart. To all who view power in terms of coercive force, the power to forgive and the refusal to retaliate appears as weakness. That is why there really is no substantial difference between militarists who view violence as the primary means of dealing with opposition and so-called Christian realists who accept it only as a tragic last resort. It is only a matter of degree. Both maintain that when it comes to dealing with Hitler, ISIS or any other like tyrant, raw coercive power is the only sure bet. To think otherwise is naïve and unrealistic.
The trouble with Christian realists is that they focus on the wrong reality. Jesus’ resurrection redefines reality. The resurrection, as I have said before, represents a divine turning of the other cheek. It is the paradigm for a disciple’s response to violence. It is tempting to invoke here the success of non-violent movements such as those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to bolster the case. It is a temptation, however, that I think must be resisted. At best, these movements suggest that non-violent resistance can be successful. They do not, however, negate the converse. In some circumstances, non-violence may not “work.” The movement might be crushed. For every Selma there is a Tiananmen Square. Does that not bring us back again to the very “realism” we have rejected? Yes, of course we should begin with non-violence and exhaust all avenues of non-violent resistance. Then what? Pull out of our hip pockets the revolver we have been keeping at the ready all the time just in case the police start using real bullets instead of tear gas and fire hoses? Again, the difference between such conditional commitments to non-violence and frank acceptance of violence as a permissible means to a just end is simply one of degree.
As I read Paul and as I read the gospels, the measure of our commitment to Jesus’ way can never be based on some estimate of its potential effectiveness. The cross, by any reasonable measure, is hardly an effective means to any just end. If ever there were a time when violence might have been justified, it would have been in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest. If Peter was forbidden to strike with the sword in order to save God’s only begotten Son from torture and death, when in God’s name (literally!) is it ever acceptable to strike with the sword? To follow Jesus in this way under the shadow of the Third Reich seems like “folly” from the perspective of geopolitical realism. But if Paul is speaking the truth, then this very folly is the power and wisdom of God.
I believe that Paul’s message here is more urgent than ever before. Ours is a world on the brink of violent collapse. I am not referring here to the obvious, i.e., terrorism; school shootings; police brutality; hate crimes and the like. I am speaking of the subtler forms of violence that inhabit our civil (uncivil!) discourse; predatory commercial practices; exploitation of workers with the double edged sword of longer hours and decreased compensation/benefits; coercive and authoritarian management techniques whether at Wall Street firms or church council meetings. Wherever power is understood as the ability to force others to do what we want (or think in our heart of hearts is what they ought to do), the seeds of violence are already sown. Whenever we delude ourselves into thinking that the ends will justify the means, we set ourselves up for the unpleasant discovery that violent means contaminate the ends we seek.
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who place Jesus’ cleansing of the temple near the end of his ministry, John places it at the very beginning. This visit to the temple in Jerusalem takes place near the feast of Passover. It is one of three Passovers mentioned in the gospel, the others being John 6:4 and John 11:55. We are told that Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. That is confusing to us moderns of the northern hemisphere because Jesus was actually traveling south from Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea. We would therefore say he was going “down” to Jerusalem. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, however, one always goes “up” to Jerusalem from whatever direction s/he is proceeding.
This drama took place in the outer court of the temple. The oxen, sheep and doves were being sold to worshipers coming to offer sacrifice. Because imperial coins used in ordinary commerce had images of Caesar on them, they were in violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images. Accordingly, these coins were unfit for payment of the temple tax referred to in Matthew 17:24-27. The much maligned “money changers” therefore provided a necessary service in exchanging this currency for money acceptable for commerce in the temple. Of course, there was an exchange fee involved!
The whip of cords fashioned by Jesus in verse 15 was probably made out of rushes used by the animals for bedding. As such, it was not suitable nor intended as a weapon and does not appear to have been used in this way. The objective appears to have been to clear the temple of the animals and their handlers which would have been accomplished by driving the animals out with the switch. This, at least, has been the understanding of the church from its earliest days as evidenced by the following story recounted by Cosmas Indicopheustes about Theodore of Mopsuestia who lived in the 5th Century C.E.
“Rabbula previously showed much friendship toward the famous interpreter (Theodore) and studied his works. Yet when, having gone to Constantinople to attend the Council of the Fathers (381) he was accused of striking priests, and he responded that Our Lord had also struck when he entered the temple, the Interpreter arose and reprimanded him saying, ‘Our Lord did not do that; he only spoke to the men, saying “take that away,” and turned over the tables. But he drove out the bullocks and the sheep with the blows of his whip.’” Wenda, Wolska, La Topographie de Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 1962 by Presses Universitaires Francaises) p. 91 cited in The Politics of Jesus, Yoder, John Howard (c. 1972 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 51.
However one understands the text, it is surely a slim reed on which to build a case for violence based on Jesus’ ministry. As Yoder points out, Jesus was fully in control of events following the temple’s cleansing. It would have been an easy thing for him to exploit the confusion in the temple and the crowd’s enthusiasm for an assault on the likely unsuspecting Roman fortress next door. Jesus did no such thing. Clearly, Jesus could hardly have been perceived as potentially violent given that his opponents felt free to engage him in conversation and question his authority. Rather than threatening violence, Jesus made himself vulnerable to the violence of his adversaries who he knows will “destroy” him. Vs. 19. See Yoder, supra at 51-52.
There is a play on words here between “house of prayer” which the temple was designed to be and “house of market” or “house of trade” which it had become under the current religious establishment. Vs. 16. It is important to keep in mind that the temple in Jesus’ day was constructed by Herod the Great, the non-Jew appointed “King of the Jews” by the Romans. The Romans took a generous share of the considerable profits generated though temple operations, financing for which fell heavily on the backs of the poor. Thus, so far from being a house of prayer, the temple had become an instrument of commercial exploitation.
“Zeal for thy house will consume me.” Vs. 17. This is a citation to Psalm 69:9, a personal prayer for deliverance from enemies. There is some indication that this prayer may have been edited to fit circumstances during the period when the temple was in ruins following the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E. The psalmist laments the state of affairs. Perhaps s/he is one who, like the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was eager to see the temple rebuilt, but faced opposition from his/her own people who had other priorities, from Samaritans opposed to the rebuilding project or both. Just as the psalmist’s zeal for rebuilding the temple has earned him or her opposition, so too, Jesus’ determination to cleanse the temple is now bringing him into conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
“What sign have you to show us for doing this?” vs. 18. Jesus’ warrant of authority has already been given by Jesus in his referring to the temple as his Father’s house. Vs. 16. But the “Jews” now seek from him a “sign.” It is critical to recognize that the term “Jews” refers collectively to the religious leadership governing the temple. It specifically does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole. The temple authorities quite understandably feel that Jesus’ radical action requires a convincing show of authorization. This they will receive in due time. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Vs. 19. In near Clintonesque fashion, everything turns on what “this” means. Jesus’ opponents assume that “this temple” means the structure in which they are standing. Vs. 20. Jesus, we are told, is speaking of his body which will replace the temple as the locus of worship. Vs. 21. More will be said about this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. John 4:19-26. As with so much else in John’s gospel, the full significance of this event in the life of Jesus will become clear only after he has been raised from death. Vs. 22.
Prophetic attacks upon the temple cult in Jerusalem were not new at the time of Jesus. Jeremiah famously predicted (accurately as it turned out) that the temple would be destroyed as it had become “a den of robbers.” Jeremiah 7:8-15. Indeed, the prophet Micah had given the same prophetic warning a century before. Jeremiah 26:18; Micah 3:12. The temple was thus an ambiguous symbol throughout Israel’s history. At its best, the temple was a reminder of God’s abiding presence with and for Israel, a sacred space for worship, praise, lament, forgiveness and thanksgiving. At its worst, it promoted a magical view of God as subject to Israel’s control and manipulation through sacrificial rites and liturgies. As noted earlier, the temple became an instrument of Roman exploitation in the time of Jesus.
It might be worth considering the extent to which our sanctuaries, programs and institutions throughout the church function in destructive and self-serving ways rather than in ways that are life giving. A leader in my own Lutheran Church remarked recently that when a congregation is strapped for cash, the first to go is the organist/music director; then the pastor; and, last of all, the building. Once the church can no longer support the building, it folds. These priorities are, as any sensible middle schooler would put it, “Bass Ackwards.”
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
For what are you willing to die? Answer that question honestly and your answer will tell you a lot about yourself. The operative terms are “honestly” and “you.” Political leaders compete with each other in heaping praise on fallen soldiers and the virtues of the nation for which they died. But that rings hollow coming from men who managed to shirk their military service through fabricated medical conditions or appeals to high level government connections. Patriotism comes a bit easier these days now that we have a soldier class willing to do the fighting. It was different back in the days when the duty of national defense fell upon the whole citizenry (ideally at least) and we understood that the next young man coming home from Vietnam in a flag draped coffin could very well be our brother, father or friend. Under these very different circumstances, we were compelled daily to ask ourselves whether the objectives of this war were worth the human cost.
By contrast, we are now into the fifteenth year of America’s longest war and most of the time we are only peripherally aware that it is going on. That is because the tab for the human cost is being picked up by someone else. Because a group of volunteers are sending their children to fight and die, I needn’t send my own. It is enough that I show up each year at the Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day celebrations to wave my flag and listen to an inspiring speech or two. It is much easier to pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands without asking whether that allegiance is merited or worth the cost when I know in my heart that it will never cost me anything. Give me a free car and I will take it with thanks. But if I have to buy it, you had better believe I’ll take a much closer look under the hood and think long and hard about what I will have to give up in order to make the purchase. In all likelihood, I will decide to hang onto my money and my old clunker. How much more my life!
So what are you willing to die for? I guess we never know the answer to that question until we have to face it. Whenever there is a shooting, fire or some other disaster in a public building, there are those who run in blind terror for the door and a few who confront the danger, risking their own lives to save others. I don’t know that any psychiatric/sociological studies have been done to determine what makes these people we call “heroes” different from the rest of us. But I suspect this difference is rooted in a deeply imbedded commitment to something bigger than oneself that compels one to sacrifice everything-even life itself-in the service of that something. One does not become a hero in the heat of the moment. A hero is often indistinguishable from the rest of us until the crisis arrives that reveals him/her for who s/he is.
I think our admiration for heroes is more than a tribute to their individual courage. I believe we are secretly envious of what they have and what we often lack, namely, something so beautiful, true and good that it is worth dying for. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A man who has nothing he’ll die for has nothing to live for.” Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35. Disciples of Jesus believe that the kingdom of God is worth living for. Reconciliation among nations and people, peace with God, peace within the human community and peace between ourselves and our planet are visions worth living for, sacrificing for and even dying for.
Like many of you, I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I can only imagine how many countless hours of practice, how many sprained muscles and bruised limbs, how many disappointments and setbacks the young athletes standing on the podium must have experienced on the long road to receiving their medals. Yet I doubt that any of them regrets a single minute of that difficult journey. At that moment, they are not thinking about the hours of sleep lost, the parties they did not attend or desserts they had to forego along the way. All of these sacrifices pale in comparison with the satisfaction of finally achieving the dream that inspired them. Surely life under the gentle reign of God into which Jesus invites us is worth at least the same level of dedication, loyalty and sacrifice-and promises us so much more!
Those of us, like myself, who have grown up relatively privileged and know nothing of discrimination, poverty, persecution and alienation often find it difficult to relate to Jesus’ call to take up the cross. We often trivialize this call, equating the cross with some hardship we experience in the midst of an otherwise untroubled life. We say of a difficult relative, a sore back or an unsatisfying job, “this is my cross to bear.” No. The cross is the shape God’s reign takes in a world that is hostile to it. It is the inevitable friction that comes with living the values of the Kingdom in a culture that rejects them. I think that few people understand the fullness of that kingdom and the cost of loving it better than Black Americans whose lives have so often been the very antithesis of God’s reign, yet who desire it, seek it and struggle for it so insistently. It is to the poetry and spirituality of Back poets that I think we can turn to recapture the meaning of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. It is for that reason that I feature the excellent poem of Margaret Walker in this week’s post.
For My People
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;
For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
Miss Choomby and company;
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
people who and the places where and the days when, in
memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
were black and poor and small and different and nobody
cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs
and societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
Source: This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (c. 1989 University of Georgia Press, 1989) Margaret Walker (1915 –1998) was an American poet and writer. She was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago, known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966). She was born in Texas, Alabama to a minister who, along with her mother, taught their daughter philosophy and poetry as a child. The family moved to New Orleans when Walker was a young girl. She attended school there, including several years of college, before she left home and moved north to Chicago.
Walker received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Northwestern University. In 1936 she began work with the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Progress Administration created under the Roosevelt administration. During that time, she was a member of the South Side Writers Group, a circle of influential African-American writers and poets formed in the 1930s in Chicago. In 1942 she received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In 1965 she returned to that school to earn her Ph.D. Walker married Firnist Alexander in 1943 and moved to Mississippi to be with him. They had four children together.
You can read more about Margaret Walker and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website. You may also want to explore the profound work of other Harlem/Chicago Renaissance poets featured on the website in recognition of Black History Month.
As observed last week, “Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention.
As noted last week, Genesis 1-11 forms the backdrop for Israel’s story. It paints the picture of a Creator deeply in love with his creation, though deeply grieved by the evil and brokenness that have infected it. Chiefly is this Creator God grieved by the violence of human beings made in God’s own image. Because of humanity’s crimes, the earth lies under a curse. Humanity is at odds with its Creator, at odds with the earth from which it was taken and at odds with itself, being divided into nations, tribes and clans separated by language and culture. In Genesis 12:1-3 God begins to undo the curse by calling Abram to follow God’s leading into a land where God will make of him “a great nation” so as to “be a blessing.” It is by Abram, Sarai and their descendants that God will bring blessing to a world lying under the curse of sin. It is therefore not too far a stretch to call the Book of Genesis “a book about dysfunctional families and the ways in which God seeks to use those families as agents of divine grace to ‘all the families of the earth,’” as one commentator has done. Mann, supra, at 341.
This Sunday’s lesson takes us deeper into God’s covenant with Abram. It is part of a larger narrative comprising all of Genesis 17 in which circumcision is introduced as a definitive mark of the covenant people, so much so that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:14. The people of God are to be distinguished from all other nations and tribes by an irreversible physical sign. Precisely because it is irreversible, circumcision makes it impossible to deny affiliation with Israel. Moreover, this is a sign normally imposed shortly after birth and so is hardly a matter of choice.
If the whole of this chapter were included in the reading, it might be worth pondering how indoctrination into faith squares with our modern emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. The famed scientist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins recently remarked, “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.” Daily Mail, April 22, 2013. In a culture where protestant Christianity is so thoroughly integrated into our notions of respectable citizenship, Dr. Dawkins’ assertion comes across as rather preposterous. Yet I think he puts his finger on something important. Our laws are shaped by public consensus on what constitutes responsible behavior. As recently as when I was a child (alright, maybe that isn’t recent!), spanking was an accepted form of discipline. While my parents limited the practice to an occasional front hand swat on the rump, it was not uncommon for fathers to “take the belt” to their children. No one would have considered reporting that to the police and I doubt the police would have intervened if they had. Discipline of children, within reasonable limits, was the prerogative of parents.
Of course, our understandings of “reasonable limits” change and evolve with time. We now understand (or at least we should) that physical punishment is at best ineffective and, at worst, damaging to child development. Accordingly, our laws governing child protection now deem abusive many practices that were common place in my childhood. That, in my view, is a welcome development. But in what direction might our laws evolve should societal consensus conclude that religious indoctrination is harmful? If one assumes that faith, morals and values are matters purely of individual choice, that children should be raised in environments of intellectual neutrality toward competing religious claims so that their choices in that realm are free and uncoerced, where does that leave circumcision? Infant baptism? Catechetical instruction? Is it perhaps time to consider whether our fierce loyalty to individual freedom is not misplaced? Is freedom to be equated with individual autonomy? Is critical thinking necessarily incompatible with being raised as a member of a faith community? Is not raising a child in an environment of strict religious neutrality also a kind of indoctrination? Some of these questions are addressed in a fine article by Michael Brendon Dougherty published in The Week.
But I digress. My point is to draw out the tension in this entire chapter between the promise to Abram and Sarai that they will be parents of “many nations” and the mark of circumcision that singles out the particular nation of blessing. While the Book of Genesis makes much of the line of blessing traced through Abram (and not Lot), Isaac (not Ishmael) and Jacob (not Esau), we see repeated instances where this special people becomes an agent of blessing to those outside of the covenant. Abram pleads with God to spare the righteous in Sodom resulting in the rescue of Lot and his family. Genesis 18:22-33. Jacob’s service to his uncle Laban brings about a substantial increase in Laban’s flocks. Genesis 30:29-30. Through Joseph, God spares Egypt from the ravages of a seven year famine. Genesis 45:4-15; Genesis 50:19-21. This tension between the uniqueness of Israel among the nations and its mission to the nations finds expression throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. If the books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent the extreme in guarding Israel’s unique identity among the nations, perhaps the prophetic oracles of Isaiah 40-55 best articulate Israel’s mission of blessing to the nations.
This tension is perhaps helpful for the church in rethinking her own mission to the world. To a very large degree we have accepted uncritically the premise that the Christian mission to the world is to make everyone a Christian. We have assumed that the command to “make disciples of all nations” means to make all people of every nation into disciples. The job of a witness, however, is not that of the prosecutor or the public defender. Witnesses do not persuade. They witness to what they have seen and heard. The witness will be made passionately, forcefully and convincingly. But the work of persuasion is left to the Holy Spirit to call into the church those whom Jesus has chosen.
It is important to keep in mind that this “election” is not “selection.” The call to discipleship, like the call to Abram, is one of service to the world for the sake of the world. God is not snatching a few select souls from a sinking ship. God is commissioning a people to bear witness to God’s stubborn determination to save the entire ship! To be chosen is to be elected for the purpose of reconciling the world to the gentle reign of God.
There is a seemingly bitter irony in the change of name from Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, meaning “Father of a multitude.” The man is ninety-nine years old and childless at this point. Equally implausible is the change of Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning “princess.” That this barren Bedouin couple should be declared progenitors of a people who one day will possess and rule the land where they now live essentially as illegal aliens seems like a cruel joke. No wonder that the promise invoked bitter laughter from Sarah in the very next chapter! Genesis 18:9-15. The stage is set for the God of Israel to do exactly what God does best: “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:7-9.
“[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at vs. 23. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
In this snippet from Paul’s Letter to the church at Rome, Paul lifts up Abraham as an example of saving faith. It is important to emphasize that Paul understands “faith” not as subscription to creedal or doctrinal formulae, but as trust in God’s promises. In Abraham’s case, the promise was to give him an heir and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. As we have seen, the promise was problematic due both to the Abraham and Sarah’s advanced age and their infertility. The biological clock had ceased ticking for both of them ages ago. But for Abraham, age and infertility did not enter into the equation. God had made a promise and would keep the promise. It was up to God, not Abraham, to figure out how to make it all work.
Of course, we know that Abraham was sometimes less than trusting. He even tried to “help God out” by resorting to what amounts to surrogate parenting. He took Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, as a concubine and managed to father Ishmael with her. But God did not need Abraham’s help and insisted that the covenant promises would be kept through a child of Sarah. This takes nothing away from Paul’s point. However shaky and imperfect Abraham’s trust in God may have been, God’s faithfulness never wavered. That is why Abraham “grew strong in his faith.” Vs. 20. The implication is that his faith was not so strong to begin with. God’s faithfulness precedes our faith and makes that faith possible. It is because God raised Jesus from death that we dare to trust that the reign of God Jesus proclaimed is a present reality despite all evidence to the contrary in the world around us. Because God faithfully returned to Jesus the life Jesus trustingly commended into God’s hands, we can entrust our lives to God knowing that we will receive them back again restored, sanctified and made new.
Paul also makes the point that children of Abraham are those who share the faith of Abraham-not necessarily those who share his genes. Again, Paul appeals to the missional aspect of Israel’s existence expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Paul is not suggesting that the church displaces Israel as God’s people. Recall that Paul is writing at a time when the Jesus movement was understood and understood itself as existing within the larger tradition of Judaism. Paul’s argument is that Abraham is the father not merely of Israel but of many nations and of all who share his faith in Israel’s God through baptism into Jesus Christ.
This is the first instance in Mark’s gospel where Jesus speaks specifically to his disciples about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. This speech comes immediately following Peter’s declaration of faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. Peter is understandably confused and upset. The messiah is supposed to liberate Israel. How can his rejection, suffering and death accomplish anything along the lines of salvation? We might expect Peter to wonder a bit about Jesus’ resurrection and what that might mean, but it seems he cannot get past Jesus’ suffering and death. So Peter does what any good friend would do for a buddy who talks about being rejected, persecuted and dying. He gives him a pep talk! “Come off it Jesus! Don’t be such a Debbie Downer. They’ll love you in Jerusalem just like they do everywhere else!”
This pep talk earns Peter a rebuke-a harsh rebuke. To be sure, Peter was missing the whole point of Jesus’ mission and ministry. But was it really necessary to call him the devil? That seems a little over the top. Yet as we saw last week, Jesus was driven into the presence of Satan immediately following his baptism. There God declared Jesus to be God’s Son. Jesus, and by extension his church, is never in greater danger of Satanic influence than when Jesus’ identity and mission are misconstrued. While we cannot know what Peter had in mind when he declared Jesus to be God’s messiah, a couple of things are obvious. First, the cross had no place in Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ mission. Whatever Peter’s understanding of God’s Kingdom may have been, he was convinced it could be ushered in without the cross-the very argument advanced by Satan according to Matthew and Luke and implicitly in Mark as well.
Second, as will become clear from the story of the Transfiguration to follow, Jesus is more than Israel’s messiah. He is more than even Moses and Elijah. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Peter should listen to him rather than insisting on advising him. At this point, Peter’s understanding is moribund, limited to what is humanly achievable. Whatever his notion of salvation may have been, it was too small. Satan knows too well that he cannot deter Jesus by tempting him with what is evil. So he tempts Jesus with something that is merely less than the highest good. Listen to Peter. Don’t do anything rash. Stay out of harm’s way. Dead men cannot preach, heal and cast out demons. Peter’s is the voice of reason, but as Martin Luther once said, reason can easily become the devil’s whore.
Ultimately, Peter is seeking to make an end run around the cross. That is why Jesus must make it clear that all who wish to follow him must embrace the cross. This is not an abstract metaphor. The cross was Rome’s ultimate instrument of terror. Execution by crucifixion conformed to a morbid ritual in which the condemned person was required to carry his/her own cross bar to the place of execution, which was always a public area. The condemned was then stripped naked and fastened to the cross by nails through the hands or wrists and through the feet or above the heels. Held immobile for every passersby to see, the crucified was unable to cope with heat, cold, insects or care for his bodily needs. Perker, Pierson, “Crucifixion,” The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 747. Crucifixions were common events throughout Galilee and so Jesus’ hearers knew he was not referring to an aching back, a nagging in-law or any of the other annoyances bandied about in common parlance as “my cross to bear.” As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was … the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129.
In sum, God’s reign has come. It is present, not future tense. Nevertheless, the reign of God is being asserted in a world where other powers claim supremacy. Cultural norms, societal expectations and civil obligations make demands upon us that are contrary to the claim of Jesus, the shape of which is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It is for this reason that loyalty to Jesus brings us into conflict with the world around us. In such a world, God’s reign necessarily takes the shape of the cross.
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” Psalm 25:7.
Perhaps it is a function of age that makes this particular line from the psalm strike me with such poignancy. The past is fixed and you can only look back on it with a sense of thankfulness, nostalgia or deep regret. You can’t alter it. It is what it is. Though I am hardly without sins of commission, the most painful sins of my youth are those of omission. These include the friendships I let die from neglect; the opportunities to offer help and comfort for which I was too busy; my shameful lack of generosity growing out of an unfounded fear that I did not have enough for myself and my loved ones; my failures to express thanks to the many people whose lives have enriched mine; the times I remained silent when I know in my heart I should have spoken up; my indifference to the suffering of the poor and oppressed around the world and around the corner. I have lived a privileged life with a great measure of wealth, opportunity and security. But having been given so much, it seems I have contributed so little.
Perhaps the biggest regret I have is that Sesle and I never took in any foster children. I always had in my mind the strong belief that being foster parents is something we ought to do. Every child deserves a stable and loving home. We had such a home and we could easily have opened it to children in need. Of course, there were many reasons we never got around to it. We had three children of our own, one with a chronic medical condition that required a substantial commitment. Sesle was very ill for over a decade in our younger years which would have made taking on additional responsibilities difficult. We were stretched financially at times-or thought we were. Nevertheless, despite all of these excuses, the fact remains that we could have opened our home to more children and I have no doubt we would have been blessed beyond whatever hardships came with them. If I had only looked to the enormity of God’s generosity and the wealth of God’s promises rather than to my own perceived lack of time, money and stamina, I would have ordered my life differently-or so I tell myself.
This coming Wednesday I will receive on my forehead, along with millions of other Christians, the sign of the cross in ashes. This is a graphic reminder that so much of what we plan, hope for, value and prize turns out to be only ashes and dust in the end. We are confronted with all that might have been if only our lives had been inspired by faith rather than driven by fear. For those of us whose lives are mostly behind us, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Nonetheless, it is the pill that frees us. It is the truth that makes us free and the truth, bitter though it sometimes is, can be borne because we worship a God who is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This God does not judge us according to all that we have done and failed to do. This God judges us on the basis of God’s own steadfast love and faithfulness. However late the hour, it is not too late. “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Joel 2:1.
The past cannot be changed, but we can decide what it will mean for us going forward. The past can be the enslaving power that shapes our future into its own perverse image or it can be that from which we turn away for the sake of a new future. Yesterday can be the negative in the dark room that produces a bright and colorful new image. The ashes remind us that we are dust; but they also remind us of the God who at the dawn of time breathed life into lifeless dust to create a living being. The disciplines of Lent offer us a path toward healing the past precisely because God’s compassion is deeper than the sins of our past and is able still to make something beautiful with our remaining days-however few they may be.
Here is an interesting poem by Louis Untermeyer juxtaposing the solemnity of Ash Wednesday with something of the giddy joy of Easter Sunday.
Shut out the light or let it filter through
These frowning aisles as penitentially
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair,
Performs a parody of the divine.
The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm;
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth
To find a lonelier and darker height.
The church grows dingy while the human swarm
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth.
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light.
And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.
He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.
Source: Untermeyer, Louis, Burning Bush (New York: Harcourt, 1928). Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) was the son of a New York jeweler. His interest in poetry led to friendships with poets from three generations, including many of the century’s major writers such as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. In addition to children’s books and anthologies, Untermeyer published collections of his own poetry. You can find out more about Louis Untermeyer and sample more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are best understood as an “overture” to the biblical story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-3. There God calls Abram to leave everything behind and follow God’s leading into a land that will one day belong to his descendants. More importantly, Abram’s descendants are to become a nation by which all nations will find blessing. As Professor Terence Fretheim points out, “[t]he first eleven chapters of Genesis explain in advance why all the families of the earth need the blessing of God. [They] define the universal condition of sin that explains Israel’s particular history. Why God chose Israel, the election of the people of Israel, has meaning only against this universal background. Israel can make sense of her own history only in relation to God’s creation, judgment, and preservation of all mankind.” Fretheim, Terence, Creation, Fall, and Flood, Tower Books, (c. 1969 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 17-18. These themes of creation, judgment and preservation are introduced and interwoven into the opening chapters of Genesis. It is important to understand from the start that judgment always serves God’s larger aims of creation and preservation. Even that most terrible of all judgments, the Great Food, serves in the end to preserve the earth through the establishment of a new covenant between God and God’s creation.
The Flood story found in Genesis 6-9:19 is a complex and layered narrative put together from two different and sometimes conflicting versions of the event. For some background on the composition of the first five books of the Bible generally, see the online article on the Documentary Hypothesis I have cited previously. Here it is enough to note that the full text is far too long for reading in a typical protestant worship service. That is unfortunate, because our lesson cannot be appreciated fully apart from an understanding of the larger narrative. The story begins with God’s observation that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. God was “sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Genesis 6:6-7. There are a couple of things worth noting here. First, though God’s grief is induced by human evil, God resolves to blot out not only human beings, but all other creatures as well. The animals appear to be “collateral damage.” Like non-combatants who, through no fault of their own, happen to be standing in front of a military target, the animals will be caught in the crossfire of God’s war on humanity. Tragic and unfair as it may be, this is war after all. Any good Niebuhrian realist would understand.
Second, there is one slight wrinkle. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Genesis 6:8. Surely Noah at least must be saved. Of course, because “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), it will not do to let Noah’s wife and children perish in the coming judgment. Furthermore, the animals are both partners and sustainers of Noah’s existence. So God commands Noah to build an “ark” to shelter himself, his family and two pairs of each animal (or seven, depending on the source) throughout the coming flood. If you read with care Genesis 6:14-22, you will discover that the “ark” Noah was commanded to build is definitely not a large ship. It was, as the term implies, a great enclosed box. That is precisely what was required under the circumstances.
According to the first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4, God placed the earth between two huge vaults of water, one “above the heavens” and the other “under the earth.” Genesis 1:7-9. So when we read in Genesis 7:11-12 about how the “fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened,” it becomes clear that the flood was not simply an abnormally heavy rainfall that covered the earth with water. God was dismantling the infrastructure of creation, allowing the waters to prevail over the earth and so returning everything to a “formless void.” Genesis 2:2. Obviously, a boat would have been useless in such a catastrophe!
But in the middle of God’s demolition project, something remarkable happens. “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. Where will Noah, his family and the animals be when there is no more being? How can they live without the creation which once sustained them? It seems God must choose between saving the last of his creatures and carrying out his design to blot out all that he has made. It is at this point that God drives the waters from the face of the earth with a wind, shuts up the fountains of the deep and closes the windows of heaven. Genesis 8:1-3. God turns away from God’s destructive intent. God reverses course and heals the creation. That is the context for Sunday’s lesson. God makes a covenant with the whole creation, promising “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9:11. Again, this is more than just a promise to limit the destructiveness of ordinary weather phenomenon. God is promising never to exercise the “nuclear option” against creation. That is why all of the Bible banging nincompoops threatening us with “Left Behind” type scenarios are chuck full of buffalo chips. At the dawn of history God lay down God’s bow and determined once and for all not to be the sort of angry, vengeful, mean spirited deity that most of humanity makes him out to be.
I have said many times that pacifism is not a tangential subtheme in the scriptures, inspirational for monks, nuns and starry eyed idealists but of no use to practical “worldly” Christians. To the contrary, God’s unequivocal rejection of violence is at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptural witness. It is founded in God’s refusal to be a God who reigns through the exercise or threat of violence. God will suffer violence rather than inflicting it upon his creation. You might say that here, in the very first covenant made with all creation, God first takes up the way of the cross. That way will be embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer full of all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. Just as in our lesson from Genesis God would not allow human sin to define God’s relationship to his creation, so by virtue of our baptism, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
For my more extensive comments on this section generally, see my post of Sunday, May 25, 2014. Sunday’s reading is one of the more obscure snippets of scripture. It is perhaps the only New Testament reference to Jesus’ descent into hell (or to the dead, if you prefer) referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. To begin with, I believe it is important to point out that “1 Peter 3:18 is not saying that Christ’s body died but his soul was resurrected; it is saying that although from a human point of view he was put to death, he was given life in and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the realm where death has no dominion. Though it may appear that the religious and civil authorities won, the real victory belongs to God.” Judith Jones, Professor of Religion, Wartburg College and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Waverly, Iowa on workingpreacher.org. The “angels, authorities and powers” made subject to Jesus are not mere abstractions. As pointed out by Walter Wink, the “powers and authorities” are embodiments of the “domination system” of oppression upheld by the myth of “redemptive violence.” Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress) pp. 57-62. In Jesus’ day and in that of the New Testament church, these powers consisted mainly of the Roman Empire and its bureaucratic/militaristic machinery. Today these authorities and powers are frequently embodied in the governments of nation states, in the corporate powers controlling health care, access to capital and exploitation of the earth’s resources and in a consumer culture dictating our values and priorities.
Our understanding of Jesus’ descent into hell therefore requires us to refrain from over spiritualizing. “Hell” is less a place of eternal punishment for disembodied souls as it is the position of all who find themselves victims of the domination system. It is the place of those branded “sinners” by the religious establishment; “unclean” by reason of sickness; “godless and ignorant” by virtue of their lack of access to education; “idle” because they are unable to find employment; abandoned by God as evidenced by their shameful and public execution under the laws of the state. These are the imprisoned ones for whom Jesus descended into hell in order to proclaim the good news of God’s triumph over the powers that enslave them.
I firmly believe that Jesus’ descent into hell belongs in the Creed. Moreover, I favor retaining the word “hell” rather than “descent to the dead,” notwithstanding the fact that a more literal translation of the Greek text favors the latter. “Hell” aptly describes what a high school boy often experiences when he discovers that he is gay and has no safe place even to talk about his feelings, fears and hopes. It describes the gut wrenching terror felt by the parent of a child with cancer whose insurance company denies coverage for life saving treatment. Hell is what returning soldiers experience when they discover that they cannot leave the horrors of war buried in the sands of Iraq or the caves of Afghanistan as they try to resume civilian life as usual. People who say there is no hell have never seen what a teenage girl can do to her body after being convinced by pop culture’s false notions of beauty that she is ugly. The bad news is that hell is real. The good news is that Jesus has descended into that godforsaken place to break its hold over the spirits imprisoned there.
Matthew and Luke both tell us in detail about the temptations Jesus faced. Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12. Mark tells us nothing more than that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. As we have already seen, Mark’s gospel has Jesus moving with urgency and breakneck speed. Jesus goes “immediately” from one place to the next, one confrontation to the next. Suddenly, in the midst of this maddening pace of his life and ministry, Jesus is driven out to live in the wilderness for forty days.
I don’t know, but I suspect that one temptation Jesus faced was to get himself out of the wilderness prematurely. Who can blame him? Forty days is a long time to be out in the wilds where there is no cell phone reception, no internet access and no hope of getting anything productive accomplished. I suspect that Jesus wanted some direction, some sense that he was getting somewhere, some idea of how far he had to go and how much longer it was going to take. But when you are in the wilderness, you can only take each day as it comes. You will get there when you get there-wherever “there” is. In the meantime, you have to adapt to whatever terrain you pass though, deal with whatever wild beasts come your way and be content with whatever you find along the way to satisfy your needs. That sounds like a heck of a way to live.
Yet it describes well the way many of us live for much of our lives. For many of us, grief is a kind of wilderness. If I have learned anything about grieving over the years it is this: grief takes a different shape for each loss and every individual’s journey through it is unique. I never say to a grieving person, “I know what you are going through” because, in fact, I do not. After more than six years, I still struggle with the loss of my parents. That grief was compounded by the death of my grandson three years ago. I am still not back to normal, whatever normal may be. I doubt that I ever will be normal again, if normal is the way I was before all of these losses occurred. There is a strong presumption out there in society that I ought to be “over” all this by now. If not, then I ought to seek counseling, therapy or something else to “fix” what is wrong with me and get me back up to speed. “It’s time to move on.” That is the common modern mantra. But people who live in the wilderness understand that life cannot be conformed to schedules, “to do” lists and strategic planning. They know that there are powers much greater than self in the universe and that they are as much driven as they are driving.
Mark does give us one small piece of information we don’t find in Matthew or Luke. We read that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Vs. 13. If you are going to spend any time in the wilderness, the true wilderness, you need to be comfortable with the idea of being always in the presence of wild, carnivorous beasts. That takes some getting used to, because our culture is geared toward fencing out wild beasts. We desperately want to live in a secure, gated neighborhood where tragedies don’t occur, where families never fracture, where people never die. That is why people on magazine covers, even the AARP bulletin, are young and vibrant rather than old and infirm. That is why sitcom families always manage to work out all their problems in sixty short minutes-less the commercials. That is why we treat sadness with a trip to Disney World, a shot of scotch or medication rather than embracing and trying to understand it. You have a right to be happy. It’s written into the Declaration of Independence. So if you are not happy, if you are not satisfied, if you are not content in your marriage, your job or your neighborhood, something must be wrong. Something needs to be fixed. You need to get yourself a life coach. You need to get out of the wilderness and back on track.
It is significant, I believe, that Jesus’ temptation comes hard on the heels of his baptism. To be told that you are God’s child is a mind blowing experience. It is not surprising that Jesus would need at least forty days to sort all of that out and decide what it means. Perhaps that is what baptism is like (or should be like) for all of us. We are ripped out of the fabric of our family, cultural and societal identities and reborn into this new regime in which God alone reigns. We spend the rest of our lives figuring out what that means. The Lenten journey affords us a good opportunity for reminding ourselves that we are in many respects still lost in the wilderness, still clueless about the kingdom and have much to learn from Jesus.