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“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it; a poem by Ellery Akers; and the lessons for Sunday, December 17, 2017
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Beloved, pray for us.” I Thessalonians 5:25.
In tweets responding to “thoughts and prayers” directed to the victims of the recent church shooting in Southerland Springs, Texas by the likes of President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and many other political leaders, Washington Post correspondent Karen Tumulty remarked, “thoughts and prayers for people who were mowed down in a church sounds especially hollow.” Singer and song writer Rosanne Cash noted that “[the shooting victims] were in a church that was full of prayers. They need a government who will enact common sense gun laws.” Actor Michael McKean observed that “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.” I fully understand these sentiments. So does the Apostle James:
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:16.
Just as this mock benediction from the Epistle of James rings hollow to persons who are homeless and hungry, so also “thoughts and prayers” from government officials entrusted with protecting their citizens from violence come across as empty, hypocritical and impotent to citizens whose loved ones have died as a result of their willful neglect. If the Republican controlled congress loved their citizens half as much as they crave the endorsement of the gun lobby and its lavish gifts of cash to their campaigns, there would be no need for them to console the Southerland victims with empty platitudes. For more on that, see my post of October 4, 2017.
The prayers Saint Paul asks of the church in Thessalonica, are of an entirely different order. His plea for prayer comes not from some far of executive seated in a distant corner office issuing Hallmark platitudes on company stationery, but from a pastor who has labored among and prayed fervently for the people whose prayers he now seeks. This is a church immersed in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness.” I Thessalonians 1:3. Paul’s prayers for this faithful church and the prayers he seeks from them grow out of their shared baptismal commitment to the reign of God. They are not a pious substitute for meaningful action, but a plea for God’s inspiration, support and strength for the work in which they are already engaged. Furthermore, Paul is not looking for prayers addressing his own personal needs. He is urging the Thessalonians to pray for his mission to the world, his ministry among his many congregations and the spread of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Paul, prayer is part and parcel of the church’s struggle to live faithfully under the reign of God in a world fiercely resistant to that gentle reign. Divorced from this sacred context, prayer becomes little more than a bland expression of good intent or a laundry list of personal favors. “Thoughts and prayers” is religious short hand for “good luck.”
Of course, I don’t fault politicians or anyone else for expressing sympathy to the Southerland victims’ families. Nor do I fault them for the seeming soullessness of their well wishes. Who of us can ever find words that bring true comfort in the face of such horrendous tragedy? Sympathy, however, is not enough. Words unaccompanied by action are worse than silence. Mass shootings should not be happening (and in most other industrialized nations do not happen) with regularity. It is the job of government to protect its people from systemic violence of this kind. Expressions of sympathy from governmental leaders for victims of gun violence who have not and do not intend to take any steps to eliminate it might well be sincere, they should not be confused with genuine prayer. Moreover, such sentiments are clearly not enough. Just as “faith without works is dead,” so prayer for an outcome you are not prepared to live for, sacrifice for and, if need be, die for is just sanctimonious hot air.
Here’s a poem by Ellery Akers speaking to that fragile word that is prayer and suggesting how the answer to prayer might be closer than what we think.
The Word That Is a Prayer
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you:
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
Source: The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, c. 2010 (Poem originally copyrighted by Ellery Akers, 1997). Ellery Akers is a poet, children’s writer and naturalist living in Marin County, California. She earned a BA at Harvard University and studied at San Francisco State University where she got her masters. She is the author of two poetry collections. She has been honored with the Poetry International Prize, the John Masefield Award, the Paumanok Award and Sierra magazine’s Nature Writing Award. You can learn more about Ellery Akers and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.
Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of April 9, 2017.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.
The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10; Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.
“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.
The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?
Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human well-being and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.
Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).
Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.
“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.
“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.
This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.
Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.
Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.
Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!
“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.
As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid.Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.
That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).
When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.
Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.
Good news that isn’t newsworthy; a poem about the ordinary; and the lessons for Sunday, December 10, 2017
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness seemingly out of nowhere in Mark’s gospel. Luke tells us that John the Baptist did his growing up in the wilderness. I am not sure exactly what that means. Did he spend his childhood and young adulthood in some small settlement on the outskirts of the civilized world? Or did he literally make his home in the wilds like one of the desert fathers? Whatever else it might mean, it is obvious that John was far removed from the doings of history’s movers and shakers, some of whom we meet in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel. It is doubtful that John was following the stormy conflicts between the Roman Emperor, Tiberius and the Roman Senate. He was probably unaware of the intrigue and power struggles between the likes of Philip, Lysanias and Herod. If he was aware that Caiaphas held the office of high priest under the imposing shadow of his much more powerful father-in-law, Annas, we have no indication that this was of any interest to him. When you live in the wilderness, you find yourself in much closer proximity to forces of nature that are far more determinative for human well-being than the antics of kings and emperors. It is much harder to entertain grandiose delusions about your power, prestige and importance when you are surrounded by animals superior in strength, speed and wilderness survival skills. Standing alone under the cloudless canopy of the heavens has a way of putting you in your place and reminding you that you are, after all, only a small, fleeting piece of a universe that existed countless eons before you and will go on long after even your headstone has forgotten your name.
The wilderness seems to have taught John that the way of the Lord does not come forth from the decree of emperors nor is it prepared by the campaigns of armies. God speaks from the wilderness, that is, from the margins of human society. The news Luke’s gospel brings is not being made in Jerusalem, Rome or any other metropolitan hub. It is happening in the back waters of the backwaters of the empire: in the hills of Judea; in unknown hamlets like Nazareth; and in the darkness of a stable where a homeless couple gives birth to a child. If CNN, Fox News or any of the other big networks had been around in the First Century, I doubt they would have bothered covering John or the events he proclaims. Then, as now, they would be covering what we deem newsworthy. That surely does not include an unknown preacher from the hinterlands.
The trouble with us is that we don’t know what the real news is. We think the news is made in New York, Washington D.C., Brussels or some other metropolitan center that is the hub of political and commercial activity. We think that history is made by great men wielding great power. We imagine that the lines on the map demarcating the borders of nation states are real. We think the important things are what the headlines say they are and that what matters is whatever happens to be trending. It never occurs to us that the birth of a baby in Zimbabwe or the graduation of a young girl from high school in Appalachia might turn the course of human events far more significantly than any act of Congress. It doesn’t cross our mind that the graduate student working late in the lab might move the world more profoundly than any election, war or revolution ever could. Life in the wilderness reminds us that we are at the mercy of powers far greater than ourselves, that we no more drive the currents of history than a boat drives the currents that carry it across the sea, that truly world shattering events are hidden within the small, the ordinary and routine. That is where “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:6.
Here’s a poem that captures the holiness and significance of the ordinary, obscure and hidden.
In Search of Prime Residential Real Estate
I’d like to live in a place
Where you can get a cup of coffee
Without having to specify,
Large, very large, jumbo,
Mocha, Columbian or Java.
Let me make my home
In a place so far from
The nearest metropolis
That you can’t get reception
For network stations
Without a computer
And that with difficulty
As there’s no broadband access.
Let history’s great moments
Make their way to me
Through the lens of local news
And humbly take their place
Beneath those truths
That are timeless,
Real and unchanging.
I want to live on open land
Where nothing obstructs my view
Except the sky.
And let that sky be so wide
And so chuck full of stars at night
That nobody looking up into the heavens
Will ever be able to imagine
That he’s any more important
Than a Spring tulip that’s long gone
Before the end of May.
I want to live among simple folk
Who, like that tulip,
Grow strong and beautiful in their season,
Toil at honest labor till it ends,
Fade with grace when it passes,
And expect nothing in return.
Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
Nachmu, Nachmu, ami omar elohachem or “Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God. This heading inspired the title, “Book of Consolations” for Isaiah 40-55. As noted above, most of this section of the book was composed sometime in the 500s-two hundred years after the time of the prophet whose oracles are found in Isaiah 1-39. Having been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem was now little more than a heap of ruins. The prophet’s commission to cry out words of comfort and consolation to this broken and uninhabited city is reminiscent of God’s command to Ezekiel in chapter 37 of that book to prophesy to the valley filled with dead bones. In both cases, speaking would appear to be a futile exercise. Yet because the prophet speaks the life giving word of God, even the dead cannot remain unmoved. John’s Gospel builds on this understanding by characterizing Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” God is not merely “as good as his word.” God is God’s word. John 1:1.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.” Vs. 2.
It is not the case that sin can be quantified and erased by a proportionate punishment. Rather, the point is that the Babylonian conquest and subsequent Exile has done what God intended for it to do. Israel is now in the same position she was while in Egypt and God now promises a new act of salvation similar to the Exodus.
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Between the City of Jerusalem and the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where the exiles were living stands a vast desert of rocky hills where the temperatures soar into the triple digits and virtually no water is to be found. Yet just as God once prepared a way through the sea for the Israelites to escape from the armies of Pharaoh, so now God is preparing a way through this forbidding desert for the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ vs. 6. It is important to keep in mind that there were no quotation marks in the Hebrew text. Those appearing in the English translation represent the judgment of the interpreter. Many scholars feel that the translators have misplaced the quotation marks in this chapter. Rather than placing the end of the quote after “what shall I cry?”, many scholars believe that the quotes should close at the end of verse 7. In that case, the key verses read as follows:
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry? All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.’
[The voice responds, ‘Yes, it is true]
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
[Therefore,] Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
In my view, this placement yields a more coherent reading.
“Surely the people are grass.” Vs. 7. Many Hebrew Scripture scholars believe this fragment to be the gloss of a later editor. Be that as it may, it fits perfectly the historical and canonical contexts. The remnant of Israel is indeed as frail as grass. The exiles have been living for a generation in a foreign land. They are losing their language. Their young people, who have no memory of Jerusalem’s glorious past, are neglecting worship and perhaps even deserting to the gods of Babylon. Israel is a dying culture of graying heads. Nevertheless, it is not the strength and vigor of the people, but the word of the Lord that will accomplish the miraculous second exodus from Babylon to Judah. Unlike the legacy of nations, tribes and civilizations that flower and fade, the word of the Lord remains forever.
“herald of good tidings” In stark contrast to the prophet Isaiah whose ministry took place during the Assyrian period under Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, this prophet brings no word of warning or judgment. His or her word is strictly one of good news and glad tidings.
“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” vs. 10. Throughout his ministry, the prophet Isaiah of the 8thCentury (Isaiah 1-39) hoped for a descendent of David that would live up to the high calling of Israel’s king. He was repeatedly disappointed. It is noteworthy that there is only one fleeting reference to David in the Book of Consolations (Isaiah 55:3) and no thought of restoring the line of kingship in Israel. Although some biblical sources portray the Davidic line as a gift from God to Israel, Israel itself was always deeply ambivalent about the office of the king. The prophet Samuel saw Israel’s move toward monarchy as a blatant rejection of God as Israel’s one and only king. See I Samuel 8 & I Samuel 12. The prophet of the Book of Consolations appears to be of the same mind. The only king to which s/he ever refers is God. See Isaiah 44:6.
Clearly, these words of comfort strike a joyous chord for a people that has heard too little comfort. Indeed, I find too often that, rather than being the joyous message of good news, my preaching only unloads additional burdens. “You are not compassionate enough toward the poor; you are not culturally sensitive enough; you are not a welcoming community; you do not give enough;” etc. While all of that might be true, it does little to motivate and much to discourage. The good news is that God bears the burden of bringing about a radically new state of affairs. That burden does not lie upon our shoulders. We are invited (not compelled, or “guilted”) to participate in God’s redemptive purpose for all creation. That puts everything in a new light!
This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
This psalm begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past.
Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety.
The Second Letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was probably composed well into the 2nd Century. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16). The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.
The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.
Sunday’s lesson dove tails very nicely with the gospel in which Jesus encourages his disciples to stay awake and “watch.” As I have said as recently as last week, I do not believe in the “crisis” experienced in the early church due to the alleged “delay of the parousia” (coming of Jesus in glory). I do believe nonetheless that, in the apostle’s day as now, we grow weary of not knowing what time it is. The church tends to veer between the extremes of apocalyptic certainty that the end is just around the corner or even on an ascertainable date on the one hand, and a demythologized confidence in the purely metaphorical meaning of these passages that renders them harmless and irrelevant. Whether one prefers to believe in a date certain for the end, or whether one prefers a humanistic confidence in the inevitable march of human progress, it amounts to the same thing. It locates our place along a continuum thereby answering that vexing question, “are we there yet?”
The apostle does not give us any such satisfaction here. On the one hand, like Jesus, he insists that the universe as we know it is destined to pass away. Until that process is complete, we wait. Vs. 12. Our waiting is not passive, however. Knowing what we do about the end, we need to be asking ourselves “what sort of persons ought we to be in lives of holiness and godliness.” Vs. 11. If you know the future of creation is Jesus, then your life should conform to Jesus in the present age-even if such a life takes the shape of the cross. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in God’s future now.
This new church year takes us back into the Gospel of Mark. Because Matthew and Luke both relied upon Mark in composing their own gospels, it is possible to examine how each of them made use of Mark’s material and so get a glimpse into their own theological outlooks and purposes. There is no such baseline for Mark, however. Or, to put it another way, Mark is the baseline as far as gospels are concerned. There were no gospels before him as far as we know and scholarly opinions about his source material are, in my humble opinion, speculative at best. So we must take Mark’s gospel as we find it.
One striking thing about Mark’s gospel is its brevity in comparison with Matthew, Luke and even John. Matthew and Luke each have a nativity story. John’s gospel opens with an eloquent poem about the Incarnation. Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth, lineage or place of origin. We hear simply that Jesus came up from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John. Vs. 9. Significantly, when Jesus comes up from the river Jordan after his baptism, he sees the heavens rent apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. Vs. 10. Granted, the “he” could refer either to John or to Jesus. But since John has no reaction to this remarkable event and says nothing about it thereafter, it is more likely that Jesus is the only witness to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice proclaiming him God’s Son. Of course, we readers already know this because we have been told in verse 1 that Jesus is both Messiah and Son of God. This information is hidden from most other observers at this point and will remain so throughout the gospel narrative.
A passage from our Hebrew Scripture reading in Isaiah is cited to explain the role of John the Baptist. Like the prophet to the exiles, John is a voice proclaiming liberation and an Eden-like path homeward. Repentance, as used in common parlance, is too much associated with remorse, regret and guilt. While these feelings might very well be associated with repentance, they are minor players. Literally translated, “repentance” means “to turn around.” It is an opportunity to abandon the path of self-destructive sinfulness and pursue a different, life-giving way. You don’t have to repent. You get to repent.
One might wonder why the “Son of God” should need repentance. Again, the problem is that we typically think of repentance only in a negative sense. But as noted previously, to repent means simply to “turn around.” For us, this necessarily means turning away from sin, but that is not the whole story. More importantly, repentance is turning toward an invitation to new life from a gracious and compassionate God. As we will discover throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ life was one of turning always toward the will of his heavenly Father against all efforts by the devil, his enemies and even his own disciples to turn him in other directions. Consequently, it is possible to say that Jesus’ life was one of constant repentance.
The mood, then, for this gospel is one of joy, hope and anticipation. John has identified for us the “highway of salvation” proclaimed by the prophet in the Book of Isaiah. Mark’s gospel invites us to keep our eyes on him and watch him closely. For salvation will turn out to be nothing like what we think it is!
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.
When doing good doesn’t do any good; a poem by Julia Spicher Kasdorf; and the lessons for Sunday, November 26, 2017
CHRIST THE KING
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
One of my favorite hymns begins with a question: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?” See Lutheran Worship, (C. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. By Augsburg Fortress Publishers) Hymn # 431. The question is difficult on a number of different levels. As an American, I chafe at the very idea of having a king. After all, didn’t we fight the revolutionary war to rid ourselves of a king? I don’t fancy being governed by a leader whose authority cannot be questioned, who cannot be voted out or impeached and who calls me to lay down my life for the kingdom. Our attitude toward kingly authority is perhaps best expressed by the sentiment I have recently seen expressed on so many toddler tee shirts: “You’re not the boss of me.” Nothing stimulates the testosterone quite like having somebody else try to tell us what to do with our lives. Yet that is precisely what Jesus does. Our lives, he tells us, are not our own. They belong to our heavenly Father and they can never be lived well until reconciled to his will. We prefer Burger King telling us that we can “have it our way,” to Christ the King who tells that our way leads to self-destruction.
More difficult than getting past the very idea of a king is coming to grips with the kind of king Jesus is. His life and ministry was anything but kingly. Kings get things done. That’s one advantage of being ruled by a king. King’s don’t have to bother with congress or worry about courts striking down their orders. Because they don’t stand for election, they don’t have to take the temperature of public opinion before they act. They can build bridges, drain swamps, fight wars and make the trains run on time in whatever way they see fit. Of course, there is a price to be paid for autocracy. As the lesson from Ezekiel demonstrates, kings frequently put their own interests above those of the people. They abuse their power. They can be cruel, ruthless and unjust. But what if you could find a king that really does love his people, who puts the common good above his own interests and who rules with justice and equity? What if you found a person with integrity so deep seated that s/he could not be moved by any bribe, threat or self-serving interest? If such a person were to exist, wouldn’t you gladly accept them as king?
In many respects, Jesus seems to fit the bill. Yet when offered the opportunity to reign as king, not merely over Israel but over the whole world, Jesus rejected it. Putting to one side the fact that the offer was made by the devil, wouldn’t it have been better for all of us if Jesus had accepted it? Think of how much good could be accomplished with Jesus controlling the levers of power rather than the likes of Emperor Caligula or Donald Trump! Jesus, however, will not take up the sword of empire, not even for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. The only weapons Jesus employs are words of liberation, healing, compassion and forgiveness. His only military strategy is victory through reconciliation. His only plan for achieving peace is peace itself. These methods usually are not politically effective. In fact, they might undermine our political efforts to affect needed social change. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Truth is often the first casualty in the political process. The language of diplomacy requires “incidental falsehoods.” For example, it may well be essential to American strategic alliances and to such noble objectives as achieving peace in the middle east to avoid official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Don’t the lives and wellbeing of people today trump recognition of people who have been dead 100 years? Can’t we find a way to honor the Armenian victims “under the table” while ignoring them-for strategic and humanitarian purposes-in the room where the sausage is made? Perhaps the day will come when the whole truth can be told-but not today.
Jesus will not settle for a peace that buries the truth. He won’t tolerate false narratives and he will not give way to the Nieburian siren song promising that the ends will justify the means-a rationalization we are all too prone to adopt. We can mock the Trumpian evangelicals all we want for supporting a pedophile like Roy Moore and a molester like Donald Trump because, after all, they support their moral agenda (which evidently does not include protection of women and girls from predatory males). But their rank hypocrisy only illustrates the end stage of the same path we so called progressives take when we turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of our allies in the struggle against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. The desire to accomplish a great good and to see it done within one’s lifetime is hard to resist. That is why pastors and congregational leaders turn to coercive techniques when they are desperate to get programs off the ground or projects completed. It is also why Christians who seek to shape law and policy for the better frequently find themselves morally compromised. We can’t resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and use them to make history come out right. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot bear to watch evil prevail and do nothing. Yes, turn the other cheek, but not now! Not under these extreme circumstances! The greater good of preventing such a travesty of justice as Jesus’ arrest excuses the limited use of the sword.
I don’t think this means necessarily that disciples of Jesus cannot engage in politics. I do think, however, that we might find we are not very good at it. It seems to me that a believing politician has to be willing to lose an election that, with the backing of a little money in exchange for an inconsequential vote or two, s/he might otherwise win. A Christian legislator may have to let a proposal for hunger relief, protections for civil rights or some other very worthy cause go down in defeat-if the cost of success means voting once again to bury the Armenian Genocide. A disciple of Jesus must never forget that no end, however noble, can justify unjust means for achieving it, but that the means always shape the ends in ways we cannot foresee. Following Jesus in the realm of politics is a daunting task requiring much integrity, honesty and humility. No wonder Martin Luther once remarked that a good prince is a rare bird.
Discipleship, in any area of life, means accepting the cruel fact that doing good might not do much good-but we do it anyway because it is what Jesus would have us do and it readies us for life under God’s reign of peace-whenever in God’s own good time it comes. Disciples of Jesus understand that while they must witness to and live under God’s gentle reign, none but God can bring it about. God does that very thing through patient, suffering love that will not allow for any shortcuts. That is the only weapon King Jesus wields and the only one with which we are armed. Following Jesus, then, most often means doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, justice and peace on a day to day basis without stopping to consider whether it is accomplishing anything. It means taking up the cross and leaving the resurrection to God. Here is a poem by Julia Kasdorf that speaks of faithful discipleship, its challenges, costs and rewards.
We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets.
Like Jesus, the servant, we wash each other’s feet
twice a year and eat the Lord’s Supper,
afraid of sins hidden so deep in our organs
they could damn us unawares,
swallowing this bread, his body, this juice.
Growing up, we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned.
We love Catherine the Great and the rich tracts
she gave us in the Ukraine, bright green winter wheat,
the Cossacks who torched it, and Stalin,
who starved our cousins while wheat rotted
in granaries. We must love our enemies.
We must forgive as our sins are forgiven,
our great-uncle tells us, showing the chain
and ball in a cage whittled from one block of wood
while he was in prison for refusing to shoulder
a gun. He shows the clipping from 1916:
Mennonites are German milksops, too yellow to fight.
We love those Nazi soldiers who, like Moses,
led the last cattle cars rocking out of the Ukraine,
crammed with our parents–children then–
learning the names of Kansas, Saskatchewan, Paraguay.
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be? why we eat
‘til we’re drunk on shoofly and moon pies and borscht.
We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
Sunday’s passage is part of a larger section constituting all of Chapter 34. In verses 1-2, Ezekiel launches into a diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel.” The reference is to the Kings of Judah and Israel whose oppressive, self-centered and short-sighted policies lead to their nations’ demise. These kings/shepherds have put their own interests ahead of the flock, feeding their appetites as the sheep starve, wander away and become scattered. The prophet would have the exiles know that, as far as God is concerned, “enough is enough.” “I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Vs. 11. God will bring the people of Israel back from all the places to which they have been exiled. God himself will feed them and give them security from their enemies. Vss. 12-16. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!
The kings are not solely responsible for Israel’s plight, however. In the absence of proper leadership and oversight, covenant life within the Lord’s flock has given way to the law of the jungle. The oppression of the monarchy is reflected in the oppression of the weak by the strong. Thus, God addresses the flock as well. “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Vss. 20-22. For reasons known only to the inner circle of the lectionary makers, Verses 17-19 have been omitted from our reading. They expand further on this same theme.
In verses 23-24 God announces that he will set up over the people “my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Vs. 20. This is a little confusing. God has only just announced that God himself would be Israel’s shepherd, whereas now God announces that David (presumably a descendent) will have the job. These two notions are not necessarily contradictory, however, “for in the theology of Jerusalem the Davidic kings were an extension of Yahweh’s kingship.” Lemke, Werner E., “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future,” Interpretation, (Vol. 38, 2, 1984) p. 174. In addition to the term “shepherd” Ezekiel refers to the new David as a “prince” (Hebrew=nisi). The literal translation of this word is “exalted one,” a term that originated in the ancient Israelite tribal league existing prior to the rise of the monarchy. Ibid. Perhaps Ezekiel is deliberately avoiding the use of the Hebrew word for “king” (melech) because he wishes to make clear that this new David is not to be thought of as just a continuation of the dismal performance of his predecessors.
Ezekiel strikes a resonant chord. The blind embrace and elevation to leadership of known sexual predators to the highest offices in the land speaks both to the sickness of our governmental institutions and the perversity of the angry, white mob that is working hard to dismantle them. Somehow, we ended up with a president that is so mentally unstable that his generals are actually discussing how to handle the eventuality that he might fire off a nuke in a fit of pique as casually as he does his ill-considered tweets. The inability of our current leadership to govern, to unite the country or enact a coherent policy agenda comports with Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s self-serving “shepherds” whose inept leadership has impoverished and scattered the sheep.
Nonetheless, we cannot lay the blame of all our woes on our leadership. Unlike the unfortunate people of North Korea who inherited their bellicose, narcissistic, man-baby, we elected ours. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. When we continue to vilify the establishment, characterize career politicians as crooked and dishonest, should it come as any surprise that fewer and fewer honorable people are seeking public office? When honorable people are so repelled by public service that they avoid or resign from it, who is left? Exhibit A can be found in Washington, D.C.-when he is not in Mara Lago. We must accept the fact that Donald Trump is in large part the product of our own selfishness and cynicism.
There are two observations I would make in this connection. The first has to do with the limits of human capacity for wise leadership. Few can bear the weight of the crown without being corrupted by it. Even fewer have the maturity, insight and moral courage to envision a good larger than their own parochial interests. That is why, I believe, Israel’s hope for salvation eventually turned away from reliance upon human leaders. The crown belongs to God alone. The Christian faith confesses that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and received that crown to which every knee must finally bend. Yet this king will not have us bend in terror or under duress. He seeks obedience from the heart-something that must be won not through force of arms, but through faithful, suffering, enduring love that outlasts our distrustful resistance.
That leads me to the second observation. We are not yet a people capable of being led. The image of ourselves as sheep under the care of a shepherd does not play well in a culture of individualism like our own. We value our right to be our own person, make our own decisions and believe what we choose. While I have no problem with the state affording us these prerogatives, I am not convinced that we can hang onto them as we enter into the Body of Christ. It seems to me that the language of rights is foreign to and inadequate for defining life under our baptismal covenant with Jesus in the church. I believe one of the major flaws in American Protestantism is our penchant for organizing ourselves, whether nationally or as congregations, by means of constitutions that speak the language of rights rather than the language of covenant. We are, after all, a people who follow a king who reigns through laying down his kingly prerogatives and refusing to exercise his rights to self-defense, retribution and self-determination.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 (not in our lesson) refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church year draws to a close, we prepare to begin anew the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection through the eyes of Mark’s gospel. This story, as it is enhanced and enriched through the prism of our weekly readings, illuminates and informs the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of the disciples as they follow Jesus and finally betray, deny and abandon him. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
For a brief introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians, see Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the lectern without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. It is therefore appropriate for the celebration of the reign of Christ. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, James Carroll wrote: “Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.
“Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.” James Carroll, “Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, November 7, 2014.
What Carroll has said here about the Roman Catholic Church is every inch as true for American Protestant denominations. We are nothing if not “institution-protecting.” The precipitous decline in membership and support we have experienced in the last two decades (and before if we had been paying attention) has only exacerbated and raised to panic level this self-defeating behavior. In some respects, this takes us back to the whole question of leadership raised by our lesson from Ezekiel. The leader we desperately need is one that can point us beyond our angst over institutional decline to the figure of Jesus. Jesus alone can give us the courage to die and, paradoxically, the promise of life.
Professor Nolland suggests that the reading for Sunday was originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people, but has been progressively allegorized by the early church to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment rather than a parable. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2008 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1024. I trust there is no need for me to repeat my skepticism about scholarship seeking the so-called “Historical Jesus” behind the gospel witness as we have it. I nevertheless agree with Nolland’s literary judgment that this story is not a parable. It is, as he points out, the climactic conclusion to the parables of the Ten Maidensand The Talents. Ibid. at 1022. Whereas the preceding parables stressed preparedness and faithfulness, the story of the final judgment paints in stark relief that for which the disciples must prepare and the shape their faithfulness must take.
The image of the Son of man separating the people of the nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats faintly echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. As the reign of the new David in Ezekiel was to be an extension of God’s just and merciful reign, so also the Son of Man is an extension of God’s presence in judgment and salvation. A shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in his flock for any number of reasons, one being that goats need protection from cold at night not required for sheep. Ibid. at 1026. It would be a mistake, however, to read more into the shepherd’s reasoning than is required to make sense of the story. It is enough to know that such separation was common and so a useful image for the separation to be made finally of those recognized by the Son of Man from those not so recognized.
The point of the story turns on the failure of both the sheep and the goats to recognize the significance of their actions/inactions. The story is both a judgment on the nations of the world for whom divinity is wrapped up in imperial might and worship given to the symbols of Roman power as well as encouragement to the church whose acts of compassion toward “the least” is in fact the highest possible service to the one true God. The way of patronage that advances one upward through the hierarchical strata of Roman society turns out to have been tragically misguided. When the true “king” arrives, the contacts required to win his favor will turn out to have been the very folks we go out of our way to avoid: the homeless, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned and abandoned.
My Lutheran associates often get hung up on this text because it appears to advocate salvation by works rather than by God’s grace. Caring for the poor and hungry becomes the basis for salvation rather than faith in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the case. If works had been the basis of their salvation, the sheep would not have been so clueless about their acts of kindness to the Son of Man. Because they have been shaped by their friendship with Jesus in the baptismal community called church, their works are not their own. They simply flow from their living relationship to Jesus as naturally as breathing. Their left hand knows not what their right hand is doing. See Matthew 6:3.
Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether this story is not as much a rebuke to the sheep as to the goats. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need our help rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers).
Perhaps the sheep could use some help recognizing their King in the faces of those for whom they are caring. Acts of charity can be and are done by Christians and non-Christians alike. Anyone can feed the hungry, but only the church can invite them to the messianic banquet. Anyone can show genuine compassion to someone in need. But only a disciple of Jesus can recognize in such a person the presence of Jesus. It is just this recognition that “the least” are not “social problems” needing a solution, but rather “the treasure of the church,” as St. Lawrence would say, that distinguishes friendship with the marginalized from toxic charity. The “least” are, in fact, priceless invitations to deeper intimacy with Jesus.
On this Sunday of Christ the King, we are asked what it means for us to be subjects of a King whose nearest associates are the hungry, the poor, the naked and the imprisoned. Taken seriously, discipleship as Matthew envisions it turns our social/economic/political world on its head.
Blessedness of dying broke; a poem along the same lines; and the lessons for Sunday, November 19, 2017
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I was afraid.” Matthew 25:25
At first blush, the parable of the talents in today’s gospel strikes us as rather severe. Three servants each receive a sum of money to be held in trust. Two of them invest and double their master’s wealth and are richly rewarded. The third keeps it safe and returns it to the master with neither profit nor loss-and is severely punished. But how much of this is really the third servant’s fault? No one can predict a bull market. That is why investments that promise a high return are considered risky. What if this parable had taken place in the fall of 2008? What if the first two servants had come back with only a tenth of their original trust? Would the master then have said to the third servant, “Well done good and faithful servant! You dealt with my money carefully and prudently”? Would he have punished the first two servants for taking imprudent risks? Doesn’t the parable place upon the servants responsibility for matters well beyond their control?
No. To read the parable in this fashion is to miss the point. The first two servants were not rewarded for their investment successes and the third servant was not punished for fiscal incompetence. The first two servants are commended for being “faithful.” Nothing more is required of them. Success is God’s concern. The servants don’t have to worry about that. They need only use the resources given to them faithfully and God will accomplish whatever it is God intends to accomplish through them. Whether the result looks like success or failure to them in the end is immaterial. Freed from the crippling fear of failure, the servants can go about their work with hopefulness, joy and expectation. That is what faith looks like.
The opposite of faith is fear. “I knew that you were a hard man,” says the third servant, “and I was afraid.” But was that really the case or was it merely the servant’s perception? If the servant believed his master to be a “results oriented” boss with an eye only for the bottom line, then his decision to “play it safe” makes sense. Investments that require innovation, risk taking and novelty often do not pay off until years later-if at all. They are not an attractive option when your annual review is coming up in six months. That is why a management plan rewarding short term success and punishing failure has been shown again and again to be a failed business model. Fear and innovation don’t mix.
Fear is the author of many a poor decision. This week fans of ex-Fox commentator Sean Hannity began smashing their Keurig coffee makers because Keurig withdrew its advertising from Hannity’s show. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The only one you hurt by such a demonstration of disapproval is yourself. It’s rather like protesting a movie you don’t like by buying a ticket and not going in to see it. But people do stupid things when they are afraid and anger is, after all, just fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Fear inspires people to support political measures that are sure to hurt them economically, i.e., a southern border wall, trade wars and health care legislation limiting insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Fear seduces otherwise intelligent people to believe all kinds of nonsense, i.e., Barak Obama is a Kenyon born Muslim bent on implementing Sharia law; the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school never happened and are just an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the liberal media; Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster and opened up a child porn service out of a pizza parlor; the U.S. Air Force is concealing the bodies of extra-terrestrial aliens, etc. We (I at least) might be inclined to mock such incredulity. But none of us are our best selves when we are afraid. As nutty as some of these beliefs appear, they help make sense out of life for people whose world is coming apart and who cannot understand why. When you are convinced you are going under, you grasp at any flimsy straw within reach.
Too much of what our church does, both on the denominational and parish levels, is inspired by fear. And let’s face it, declining membership, dwindling financial resources and a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent to organized religion are all scary things. In a time when our existence seems to be threatened, we are less likely than ever to take risks, be innovative and embrace the cross. Our first impulse is to grasp, hang onto and depend on the things we know. We know how to run capital fund drives; we know how to erect sanctuaries; we know how to develop liturgies and plan worship; we know how to advertise. These are the things to which we turn as we try to save ourselves and preserve what we have. None of that is necessarily bad, but our reliance upon it for our salvation is misplaced.
If I am reading this parable correctly, saving ourselves and preserving what we have is the last thing we should be trying to do. What ought to concern us is not the possibility that we will lose all that we have. Rather, we should be concerned that the last day will catch us with money still in the bank. We should be worried Jesus will return to discover that we have not spent all that we are and have in the service of our neighbors and in witnessing to the gentle reign of God. This century may well see the death of the church as we know it. But that should not concern worshipers of the God who raises the dead. Better to have died in confident faith than to survive until the end with nothing to show for it other than unspent potential, wasted opportunities and unfulfilled intentions. Jesus challenges us to a life of faithfulness in which loss, failure and death are not determining factors. He calls us to live thankfully, faithfully and generously, knowing that in him all things are ours to be spent in his service-and after that, to arrive at the grave broke.
Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in squandering all for the sake of the kingdom and the reward that comes with it.
I own the golden sunlight
breaking over the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows that come to feed
at the seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!
Zephaniah is one of the twelve “minor” prophets, so called not because they constitute a minor prophetic league, but because their books are far smaller than those of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). According to the first verse of his collected writings, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. This king, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E., was credited in the book of II Kings for instituting in the latter part of his reign sweeping religious reforms and ridding the kingdom of idolatry. II Kings 23:1-25. The prophet’s sustained criticism of Judah’s religious infidelity suggests that he ministered in the earlier part of Josiah’s reign before the passage of his reforms. Zephaniah’s lineage is traced back to one called “Hezekiah,” but it is not known whether this Hezekiah is the Judean King by that name who ruled between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. during the ministries of the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Zephaniah’s oracles begin with the prophet’s warning of a catastrophic judgment of cosmic proportions that will sweep away not only Judah, but all of humankind. For more general information on the Book of Zephaniah, see Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
In this Sunday’s reading, Zephaniah delivers a scorching rebuke to his nation. Like Amos in last week’s reading, Zephaniah warns that the “Day of the Lord,” a common term for God’s hoped for salvation, would be nothing of the sort for the sinful nation of Judah. Significantly, in the omitted verses 8-11, the prophet directs withering criticism toward “the king’s sons” and “those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud,” but not the king himself. Josiah was only eight years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. II Kings 22:1. It is unlikely that he would have exercised any true political authority at this point (much less had any sons!). Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the “sons” of whom Zephaniah speaks are Josiah’s brothers, the sons of the former king, Amon. Like his father, Manasseh, Amon practiced idolatry and it seems that his sons continued in that vein. Zephaniah’s reluctance to criticize the king directly might well have been due to his reasonable fear of the consequences. It might also have stemmed from his hope that the boy king Josiah might yet prove himself made of better stuff than his father when he finally grew into the crown. The practice of “leaping over the threshold” mentioned in verse 9 appears to have been a pagan ritual upon entering a shrine. See I Samuel 5:5.
The agent of God’s judgment upon Judah will come from the north, entering by way of the Fish Gate at the northeastern wall. Vs. 10. It must be born in mind that this period of time was marked by geopolitical instability. The Assyrian Empire was fast disintegrating, leaving a power vacuum that King Josiah would later exploit to Judah’s temporary advantage. At this early point, however, the political future of the region was unclear. Restive nations now released from the yolk of Assyria were beginning to assert themselves. Like the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions in the 1990s following the decline of Soviet rule, the near east was spinning into chaos as Assyria’s power faded. The feared invader from the north could therefore have been any number of potential foes. According to most scholars, the most likely suspects are the Scythian tribes. In any event, the immediate threat against which the prophet warned seems not to have materialized.
Neither military might nor wealth will be able to deliver Judah from the coming judgment. Vss. 17-18. Israel’s trust in these things is vain as their power is illusory. Yet there appear to be people in Judah whose trust is so anchored. They are, to use a contemporary term, “practical atheists.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Vs. 12. The belief underlying this remark is that God does not get involved with human affairs. Other than worship, prayer or other religious activities, human conduct is of no concern to God. God is compartmentalized into the realm of the “spiritual” and has no place in the “real world.” Yet a God thoroughly removed from the economic, political and social realities in which human beings live might as well not exist. Belief in such a god is practically indistinguishable from belief in no god at all.
This reading does not portray our God as a kindly old over-indulgent grandfather. This is an angry God. In our modern 19th Century, rational, refined, ever white and ever polite protestant piety, a God of wrath and judgment is viewed as inconsistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Lately, though, we are learning that the real world is a good deal messier than our quaint Enlightenment rationalism once led us to suppose. Anger and love are not as far apart as we imagine. Most acts of violence are domestic. The bloodiest conflicts often take place between religious, cultural and racial groups that are closely related. The people we love most are those with the greatest capacity to hurt us. A God incapable of anger would be a god that didn’t care. A god that that never gets in the way of what we want would not be a God of love, but one of benign indifference. It is precisely because God loves us so passionately that God is so deeply grieved and so thoroughly outraged by our self-centered and self-destructive behavior. God’s judgment, severe though it may be, is another manifestation of God’s love seeking to save us from ourselves. Even the bad news is really good news.
This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. The attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.
However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.
Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.
Formally speaking, the psalm is in a class by itself, defying the categories of scholarly classification. Though it begins by praising God’s creative and eternal power, it is hardly a song of praise. Like a lament, this poem is decidedly dark, but the psalmist is not crying out for salvation from any threat of extraordinary danger or the prospect of a premature death. The psalmist is simply reflecting on the limitations of being a mortal creature in a perishable world. From dust we are made, to dust we return. Vss. 3-4. We are like the grass, flourishing in the morning and perishing before sunset. Vss. 5-6. But in one crucial respect we are not like the grass or any other non-human creature that is content to live its span and return to nourish the earth from which it came. We want more. Unlike Jesus and very much like Adam, we view godhood as “a thing to be grasped.” Philippians 2:5-6. Yet every time we reach out for the prize of god-like immortality, we run into our mortal limits. Each passing day reminds us that our bodies and minds are in decline.
The psalmist understands and accepts (as our own culture frequently does not!) that such is life as God’s creature. There is no escape from mortality. So the psalmist prays that s/he might live wisely and well within his/her creaturely limits. How very contrary that prayer is to our fixation on youthfulness, our preoccupation with covering up the evidence of aging, our promethean dreams of indefinitely extending the length of human life through medical and technological advances! Yet it should not seem at all radical or unusual to disciples of a man who was misunderstood all his life, died violently in his youth and was abandoned by his closest friends and supporters in the end. Life need not be eternal to be eternally significant. Nor does life need to be long in order to be full and complete. If you follow Jesus, you know that the criteria by which our world measures the value of a human life are false and distorted. Not surprisingly, they lead us to despair.
As dark as this psalm is, it does not despair of human existence. Rather, it seeks wisdom to live faithfully within our human creaturely limits. In the final verse of the psalm (not included in our reading), the psalmist prays that God would “establish the work of our hands.” Vs. 17. It is, after all, only God who can endow our lives with true value and significance. It is only by commending our works into God’s hands that we can hope they will find any degree of permanence beyond the measure of our days. That we have the work of this psalmist’s hands enshrined in our scriptures testifies to the truth of his/her words.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my comments generally on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, see my post for October 22, 2017, See also Summary Article by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
Sunday’s reading is another one with a focus on “the day of the Lord.” As pointed out in my introductory remarks, this is a broad term that can be applied to any watershed time of salvation such as the Exodus from Egypt. But it is also used to denote the final triumph of God’s justice throughout creation. This latter sense is the one St. Paul intends in our lesson. One thing to keep in mind about the “Day of the Lord” is that it is about judgment as much as it is about salvation. You cannot have salvation of the righteous without judgment of the wicked. Finally, it must be said that we are never on shakier ground than when we presume we are wholly on one side of that divide and someone else is on the other. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every heart. Paul warns his church that the final judgment is already making itself felt in the present moment. Even now believers must shake themselves out of sleep (Vs. 6) and put on the armor of faith, love and hope. Vs. 8.
Though Paul reiterates what has been said in the gospels, that the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (Vs. 2), that should not be a cause for alarm. In contrast to the rest of the world, which assumes that the cosmos is on solid ground and will continue indefinitely along the lines established in the past, disciples of Jesus understand that the night will not go on indefinitely. The daylight is coming. Now is the time to begin practicing how to live and move in the light so that the Day of the Lord will come as a welcome and anticipated moment rather than as a blinding flash of light to eyes accustomed only to the darkness.
The Day of the Lord appears as a disruptive and disturbing event to a world alienated from its Maker. It is not the apex of gradual social evolution toward a better society. Neither is it the endpoint of a predetermined historical clock whose workings are buried in the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. The church is no more knowledgeable concerning God’s timing than is anyone else. But Jesus has delivered to his disciples God’s coming kingdom now. Church under the cross is the shape that kingdom takes in a world that is not yet ready for it.
Once again, the bottom line is comfort. Apocalyptic imagery used here by Paul and throughout the scriptures is not intended to scare the socks off people. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 9. Paul urges us “to encourage one another and build one another up” in this hope. Vs. 11.
This parable of the talents is also told in the Gospel of Luke, though with a few additional twists. Luke 19:12-27. As Professor Nolland observes, the master’s entrusting his slaves with money in this parable is unusual by 1stCentury Palestinian standards. One would normally make investment arrangements over a long period of absence in other ways. The slaves are thus being treated with unusual distinction. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 1013-1014. Though some commentators suggest that the talents represent a “business loan” of some sort, nothing in the parable supports such an interpretation. The money is not given to be used for the benefit of the slaves. Nor is there any suggestion that they are to share in the profits. The money is given to the slaves to be invested solely for the benefit of the master and his estate. That, of course, fits with the biblical understanding that “the earth is the Lord’s” and its human inhabitants but stewards. Psalm 24:1.
The term “talent” originally referred to a measure of weight on a scale. It then came to mean anything weighed and later to a specific weight of about thirty kilograms. Over time, it came to be used of money indicating the value of that weight of gold, silver, copper or whatever other precious commodity might be involved. It is the general scholarly consensus that silver talents are intended by Matthew. Ibid, p. 756. One talent, then, would amount to about six thousand denarii (Ibid), one of which constitutes a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer. Matthew 20:1-16. Thus, even one single talent amounted to a considerable chunk of change.
Upon his return, the master settles accounts with his three slaves. The first two mange to double their investment and are given the promise that their faithfulness with the “little” placed in their hands will be rewarded with responsibility over “much.” Vss. 20-24. The third slave took a different approach. Rather than investing the one talent he had been given, he buried it in the ground in a napkin to ensure its safety. This action was not commercially unreasonable. It was apparently an accepted means of keeping valuables safe. See, e.g., Matthew 13:44. But preservation is clearly not what the master was looking for. Instead of a glowing commendation, this third slave received a withering rebuke. Apparently, it was not enough for him to show that he had not pilfered or squandered the master’s goods. He needed to show that he had put them to productive use.
At a gathering of fellow clergy some years ago, I remember somebody remarking how he wished that Jesus had told this parable differently. He wished that at least one of the two successful slaves had both failed to earn interest and lost his principle. The master would nevertheless commend the unsuccessful but gutsy slave on his entrepreneurial spirit. So my friend would have had the parable end. But that proposed telling misses the point in a most obvious way. The two slaves are not rewarded on the basis of their success or their risk tolerance, but on the basis of their faithfulness. The operative words are: “well done good and faithful slave.” Where one is faithful to Jesus, his/her work will bear fruit. When one does the work of the kingdom, one cannot but succeed. Of course, success on God’s terms and for God’s purposes might not meet with our expectations of what success should look like, but that is a discussion for another day.
The problem, then, with the third slave was his lack of faith. He did not really believe in the mission with which his master had entrusted him. He thought it wiser to conserve than to invest. As far as he could see, there was no future in venturing all that had been given into his care. He could not comprehend Jesus’ warning that all who seek to save their lives ultimately lose them or his promise that those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them. The third slave was too fearful of losing his master’s money to make any good use of it. He thought that the only way to keep himself out of trouble was to preserve until the end what had been given to him. But God seeks missionaries, not custodians. That is a timely message for churches obsessed with maintaining their buildings, preserving their endowments and hanging on to ways of being church that no longer answer the call to make disciples of all nations.
In response to the latest outrage in Southerland Springs Texas, I am re-blogging the article I wrote after the Los Vegas shooting in October. Once again, I call on our bishops, pastors and teachers to address this country’s sick gun fetish with something more than preachy-screechy statements. There is no place in any Christian home for lethal weapons. None.
By now everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows about the Las Vegas massacre that took the lives of 59 people (thus far) and wounded five hundred others. That is news, but only because this shooting set a new record for American mass killings, beating the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando by ten fatalities. Mass shootings themselves are so common these days that they seldom make the headlines anymore. If we lowered the flag to half-mast for all of them, it would remain there for the better part of any given year. We have grown accustomed to gun violence. It is as American as the Pledge of Allegiance, baseball and apple pie.
I am not jumping into the gun control debate. There are far more people out there with a lot more expertise than me talking that issue to death. For the record, yes, I think some…
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Caught unprepared; a poem by Lizzette Woodworth Reese; and the lessons for Sunday, November 12, 2017
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The same reoccurring dream has haunted my sleep since college days. The end of the semester is drawing near. Exams will be held in a couple of weeks. But there is one class I have neglected. Somehow, I managed not to show up for class more than a few times. I have not kept up with assignments. I just never took the course very seriously. Now, just days away from the final exam, I realize that I am in deep trouble. There is virtually no chance that I can absorb sufficient knowledge and understanding to score high enough on the final to offset a semester of inattention and neglect. How could I have let this happen? What can I possibly do to remedy the situation? Of course, these are rhetorical questions. I know that I will simply have to face the final exam woefully unprepared. It is usually at this point that I wake up in a state of agitation.
I suspect that the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable felt much the same way when they discovered that their lamps had burned dry. How foolish of us! We should have seen this coming. What wedding doesn’t suffer a few snafus? When does the groom ever arrive at the church on time? It would have been so easy to prevent all of this simply by bringing a little extra oil. Now it seems there are no good options. We can’t expect our companions to put their preparedness in jeopardy to bail us out. They will tell us, and rightfully so, that a lack of planning on our end does not constitute an emergency on theirs. Running into town to purchase more oil is not likely to get us into the wedding procession on time, but it’s the only alternative left. Unlike me, the bridesmaids do not wake up in a cold sweat and discover, much to their relief, that the whole drama was just a bad dream. Instead, they arrive at the wedding hall to find the door locked.
Maybe it is because I have always been anal about getting things done on time, keeping my calendar up to date and planning for every conceivable contingency that few things frighten me more than finding myself unprepared at a critical time. And that fear persists because I know in my heart of hearts that there is no way to ensure that I will never find myself unprepared for whatever is to come. Through disciplined saving, sound financial advice and plain dumb luck, Sesle and I find ourselves now at that nirvana known as “financial security.” That is to say, we can retire comfortably without having to worry about finding ourselves destitute in our old age-assuming the world-wide financial system does not collapse, ecological catastrophe does not render much of the earth uninhabitable, someone does not decide to walk into our church and gun us down, my next visit to the doctor does not reveal an acute terminal condition, I do not become the victim of an accident on Route 208 during my daily drive from Midland Park to Bogota-you get the picture. There really is no such thing as security. There is no failsafe means of preparing for tomorrow. That is what my dreams are telling me.
Perhaps that, too, is the point of our lessons this week. The prophet Amos must warn the people of Israel that they are not prepared for “the day of the Lord” for which they hope. It has never occurred to them that their wealth might not be a blessing from God, but rather the foul fruit of unjust exploitation of the poor. They never dreamed that the “god we trust” stamped on their coins and who is worshiped as the patron god of the nation is, in fact, no god at all but the projection of their nationalistic fantasies. The people never dreamed that there was any conflict between being a loyal, patriotic citizen and a follower of the God of the covenant. And because they could not distinguish between the god of their imaginings and the God who liberates slaves from the house of bondage, champions the orphan and the widow and defends the poor, the “day of the Lord” turns out to be not a day of glory and salvation, but a day of judgment and calamity.
In our lesson from I Thessalonians, Paul writes to encourage a congregation that has all but given up on the day of the Lord. They have waited long enough and are beginning to wonder whether the way things are is as good as things ever will be. What is the point in preparing when the end for which you are told to prepare has been indefinitely, if not permanently, postponed? Truth is, we are not ready to meet the Lord, nor do we have what it takes to go the distance until Jesus is revealed in glory.
Of course, the good news is that, although we are not ready to “meet the Lord in the air” as St. Paul puts it, the Lord is ready to meet us. The lessons for this week, like my nightmares, are reminders that we will never be properly prepared. We will never manage to tie up all the loose ends in our professional lives, our relationships and our own hearts, even if we live past one hundred. In the end, we must leave to God the task of redeeming the world, bringing to birth a new heaven and a new earth and somehow weaving the frayed fabric of our lives into God’s glorious future. That very thing, Paul promises, God intends to do. So we can bring our unfinished business, the mess we have made of our lives and the incurable wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves to God in confession certain that all will be forgiven. Oddly enough, we find ourselves best prepared to meet the Lord once we recognize that we are unprepared and cannot possibly get ourselves prepared by way of our own stratagems. Only then does true preparation begin.
And there is still more good news. The end is not yet. As we look forward to the season of Advent, we are reminded that God gives us time for preparation, time for anticipation, time to turn away from what doesn’t matter to the things that do. There is still time to do important work for God’s kingdom. There is still time to work for justice, there is still time to make peace, there is still time for reconciliation and forgiveness, still time to witness to God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Each day we are given is holy and it matters greatly what we do with it. The works of compassion, mercy, peace and justice are eternal and will outlast the works of violence that seem to nullify them. In the end, our life and work fall into the hands of a God who, Paul tells us, promises to bring to completion what we can hardly begin.
Here is a poem by Lizzette Woodworth Reese. She speaks of faithful existence in much the same way as does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, illustrating a preparedness that calls for no preparation.
I am thy grass, O Lord!
I grow up sweet and tall
But for a day; beneath Thy sword
To lie at evenfall.
Yet have I not enough
In that brief day of mine?
The wind, the bees, the wholesome stuff
The sun pours out like wine.
Behold, this is my crown;
Love will not let me be;
Love holds me here; Love cuts me down;
And it is well with me.
Lord, Love, keep it but so;
Thy purpose is full plain;
I die that after I may grow
As tall, as sweet again.
Source: She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (University of Iowa Press, 1997). Lizzette Woodworth Reese (1856–1935) was born in Waverly, Maryland. Her father was a confederate soldier and her mother a German immigrant. She taught English in the Baltimore school system for almost fifty years. Reese published nine volumes of poetry, two memoirs and one autobiographical novel. She was named poet laureate of Maryland in 1931 and co-founded the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore, serving as its poetry chair until her death. You learn more about Lizzetta Woodworth Reese and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The prophet Amos had two strikes against him. First off, he was not properly ordained according to ecclesiastical guidelines. Second, he was a foreigner and we all know how people feel about them. Now to be perfectly clear, Amos was not altogether foreign to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to which he preached. He was a native of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Recall that Israel and Judah were both descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel that came up out of Egypt. They had once been a single nation under the reign of David and then Solomon. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom split. Thus, the north and the south, despite their political differences, shared a common ancestry, language and faith in Israel’s God. For more general information on the Book of the Prophet Amos, see Summary Article by Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
In our lesson for Sunday Amos delivers a scathing condemnation of Israel’s religious aspirations and practices. In verses 18-20 he mocks the peoples’ desire for the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” This term is common throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. From ancient times, it referred generally to a time of judgment in which Israel would be vindicated against her enemies. As such, the Day of the Lord was understood as a day of salvation. But the prophets, beginning with Amos, gave the term a whole new twist. To be sure, the Day of the Lord is to be a day for God to triumph over his foes. These foes, however, are not the enemies of Israel but Israel herself! To be sure, the Day of the Lord brings the establishment of justice-but that is hardly good news for an unjust people. Consequently, the peoples’ yearning for the Day of the Lord as deliverance from their enemies is misplaced. The Day of the Lord will not be what Israel hopes for and expects. It is, says Amos, “as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him.” Vs. 19. For an oppressive and unjust nation, the Day of the Lord is “darkness and not light,” “gloom with no brightness in it.” Vs. 20.
In verses 21-24 Amos, speaking in the voice of the Lord, takes the people to task for the emptiness of their worship. Israel was undergoing something of a religious revival at the time of Amos. The worship of Israel’s God, once driven underground and nearly eradicated under the reign of Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, was restored under the leadership of Jehu. II Kings 10:1-31. Under the prosperous reign of Jehu’s descendent, Jeroboam II, Israel’s fortunes took a turn for the better both commercially and militarily. While the people understood their newfound peace and prosperity as signs of God’s favor, Amos took a very different view. The peace was maintained by means of militaristic adventures and prosperity was unevenly spread. The royal and aristocratic classes accumulated wealth through unjust and oppressive economic measures that kept many if not most of the common people in desperate poverty. Thus, Amos chided the leading citizens with these words:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
Naturally, God is offended when these folks, who have enslaved their own people, come into the sanctuary singing hymns to the God of the Exodus, the God that liberated his enslaved people from Egypt. Such empty and hypocritical worship makes God sick to God’s divine stomach! Let the justice about which you sing find expression in your life as a people, says the prophet. Vs. 24.
As we approach the Thanksgiving Day holiday on which it is customary to give thanks for “all our many blessings,” we might do well listening to Amos rather than to the mythology of the Pilgrims, manifest destiny and the heresy of American particularism. What we characterize as “blessings” are more accurately described as “privileges” maintained at a terrible cost to the rest of the planet and its people. Does God really want credit for the horrifying geopolitical arrangements that keep one third of this world’s peoples in poverty in order to preserve “our way of life”? Does God’s divine stomach not turn when we invoke God’s name to mislabel our plundered booty as God’s blessings? Is not such thanksgiving a farce?
To further complicate matters, the line between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the generic god referenced on our money and in the pledge of allegiance becomes even more blurred on Thanksgiving than it usually is. Similarly, the distinction between God’s chosen people Israel and God’s church on the one hand, and the myth of America as somehow divinely established and favored on the other all but disappears. What arises out of this queer pagan nationalist mythology seasoned with a dash of Judeo-Christian imagery is rank idolatry. I cannot imagine that Amos (much less Jesus!) would sanction his peoples’ celebration of such a holiday. I am all for giving thanks to God for God’s many blessings. But I want to be sure that I am thanking the God and Father of Jesus Christ for the blessings promised in the Beatitudes we discussed in last week’s post. I am quite sure that our national holiday of Thanksgiving has little to do with either.
This psalm is practically identical to Psalm 40:13-17 discussed in my post from Sunday, January 15, 2017. This is one of those psalms that I find to hard pray-at least from a solely individual standpoint. I don’t have any enemies to speak of. There are probably a few people who don’t care for my company. I know there are a lot of people that might disagree with me on one thing or another. But I am not aware of anyone plotting to destroy me or who wishes me ill fortune. My life has been pretty much enemy free since middle school.
Not everyone is so fortunate, however, and I do not pray the psalms individually. I pray the Psalter along with the entire people of God. I pray along with the Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being murdered and dispossessed. I pray with women and children suffering sexual abuse. I pray with the hungry, the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless and the marginalized. These folks do have enemies and, to that extent the church includes these victims and the church is one Body, their enemies are mine also. I have a direct interest in their vindication in the sight of their enemies and, according to the Psalmist, so does God. The oppression of the righteous calls into question God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So the question is, can I pray this psalm consistent with Jesus’ command to love the enemy?
It is obvious that enemies inflict pain, sometimes permanent bodily and psychic injury. The resulting hurt, outrage and desperation must be given expression. Prayer that is less than honest about these very human realities is not genuine prayer. The psalms teach us to express our whole selves to God-the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of what we feel is rather ugly, mean spirited and unworthy of a disciple of Jesus. Yet leaving all of this stuff unexpressed, denying it and pretending that it does not exist only makes it more dangerous to us and to others. Better express anger, hatred and vengeful thoughts honestly to God in prayer than let them leak out through passive/aggressive behavior or explode into actual violence. When exposed to the light, our wounds can be healed.
But again, where does that leave us when it comes to loving our enemies? Perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we mean by “love.” If love is nothing more than an emotion-and “a second hand” one at that as Tina Turner would put it-one could not realistically expect a rape victim to love his/her tormentor. But I believe Jesus has in mind something a lot more substantial than emotion. For Jesus, love is grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and for that reason their lives are sacred. To love God is to love what is made in God’s image. To destroy or injure what is made in God’s image is to blaspheme. Vengeance, as St. Paul points out, belongs solely to God. Romans 12:19. God alone can be trusted to work out the intricacies of retributive justice-which is nearly impossible for those of us whose judgment is skewed by our often exaggerated sense of injury, righteousness and moral certainty. One can express to God anger and the desire for vengeance or retribution, but that is where it ends. If and when retribution is called for, God will deal with it. Instead, Paul counsels us to care for our enemy through concrete acts of mercy, regardless of how we might feel about him/her. Romans 12:20.
Paul is dealing with a pressing pastoral concern here. As I have noted previously, the biblical authors know nothing of an “immortal soul.” The Christian hope is grounded in God’s gracious promise to raise the dead sealed in Jesus’ own resurrection. In Hebrew thought, resurrection was never an individual event. It was the culmination of God’s saving acts at the close of the age inaugurating a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus’ resurrection was seen in just that way as demonstrated in Matthew’s gospel reciting the resurrection of the saints who appeared after Jesus’ crucifixion. See Matthew 27:51-54. That being the case, how is it that believers are still dying and what is their fate, seeing that they have died before the appearing of Jesus in glory?
Paul does not retreat from the Jewish understanding of resurrection. The new age has indeed been inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Vs. 14. Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection that will be complete when “the Lord himself will descend from heaven.” Vs. 16. Then “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Vs. 16. Those living at that moment “shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” This is one of the proof texts for the so-called “rapture.” Note, however, that there is no mention here of any “great tribulation,” “antichrist” or “thousand year reign.” In order to fill out the rest of the Left Behind scenario you need to pull a slew of scripture fragments out of their context from other places and cobble them together. Note well that Paul urges the church in Thessalonica to “comfort one another with these words,” not scare the socks off of each other.
The pastoral intent and tone of this section is further underlined by Paul’s concern that the members of his church not “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Vs. 13. Paul does not suggest that disciples of Jesus should not grieve over the loss of a loved one, but only that their grief should not end in despair. I have discovered that it is much easier and a good deal more edifying to preside at funerals taking place in the church surrounded by the symbols of font and altar where the descendant was a person of faith. There is, to be sure, plenty of weeping and sorrow at such funerals. But the tone is altogether different where the mourners are made up of believers and it is understood that we are going to the graveyard to plant a seed, not simply to dispose of a body. It makes all the difference in the world when the climax of the funeral service is the Eucharist celebrated with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There is grief here also, but it is grief in a major key.
This chapter contains three parables dealing in some way with readiness for the close of the age. This Sunday’s parable of the foolish and wise maidens and the third parable about the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46) are recorded only in Matthew’s gospel. The second parable about the servants and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is found also in Luke, but with an additional twist. Luke 19:12-27. The parable of the maidens is difficult to interpret largely because “we have little knowledge of the specifics of wedding customs among first-century Jews, and we do not know how fixed various patterns were.” Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1004. We know even less about the lanterns that Matthew might have had in mind in his telling of this story. Ibid. It appears most likely that the maidens were emissaries of the bride whose responsibility it was to meet the bridegroom and accompany him to the place where he would claim his bride. There the celebration would begin with all going in together to partake of the festivities.
Once again, the wedding feast is a common and powerful biblical metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. The focus is on the maidens with whom the disciples of Jesus are called to identify. The delay of the bridegroom in this story has frequently led some scholars to conclude that the parable is a product of Matthew’s church rather than the so-called “historical Jesus.” The rationale for this conclusion is that the church must have been struggling with the crisis of the delay in Christ’s second coming. E.g, Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 465. Since I believe neither that such a crisis ever occurred in the early church nor that there exists a “historical Jesus” lurking behind the New Testament witness, I take little interest in this sterile speculation. The parable calls the disciple to live simultaneously as though the Kingdom of Heaven might dawn at any instant or as though it might be centuries in coming. The temptation is to gravitate toward one pole to the neglect of the other.
The parable is a reminder that we really don’t know what time it is. End time speculation has demonstrated time and again our inability to discern any divine time table for cosmic history. Except within the last vestiges of American Protestant progressivism, our confident belief in the social evolution of the species toward a democratic world governed by reason has been dashed. It isn’t clear anymore where history is going, if anywhere. We truly know neither the day nor the hour when the kingdom of heaven will come and we can only be confident that it will come because Jesus has promised it. Our only alternative is to stay close to Jesus, being ever transformed within the community that is his Body so that when the kingdom comes, we will be the sort of people capable of embracing it with joy, people who will be recognized by God because God’s image is being restored in us.
What, then, is the fault of the foolish maidens? Only that they were misled by the clock. They wrongly assumed that they knew what time it was. It was not simply that they miscalculated. Their problem was that they thought they could calculate. They imagined that everything would go “as scheduled,” but the schedule turned out to be an illusion. The same error is made whenever the church thinks it has found its niche in society, or discovered God’s direction for history in some social/political/economic movement or ideology. This is not to say that God is not at work in the world outside of the church. To the contrary, God is very much at work. But apart from the church, I don’t have a clue what God is doing and I don’t have much faith in people who claim they do.