Tag Archives: Augustine

Skepticism-the healthy and unhealthy kinds; a poem by Howard Nemerov; and the Lessons for Sunday, August 27th

TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 51:1–6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1–8
Matthew 16:13–20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

It seems that we are living in an era of skepticism. Don’t misunderstand me; a degree of healthy skepticism is not such a bad thing. Learning requires a critical approach to all truth claims, even those we are invited to take on faith. Attempts to “protect” faith from the challenge of learning are misguided. The deeply conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation in which I was raised harbored deep suspicion toward secular colleges and universities, fearing that the teaching of evolutionary biology, astronomy and comparative religion would undermine the faith of its young people. For that reason, our pastor did his best to steer us toward one of the many Missouri Synod schools where he imagined our faith would be shielded from these corrosive influences. That, however, is a losing strategy. Sooner or later, a young person will be forced to confront the challenge of responding faithfully to a growing body of knowledge forcing one always to re-think and reformulate his/her faith. Good Christian education does not seek to protect “childlike” faith by surrounding it with a solid wall of unquestioned dogma against the rising tide of knowledge. Instead, it attempts to provide the believer with conceptual tools required to engage that tide in lively and transformative conversation which, in turn, will grow a mature and robust faith.

Skepticism, however, also has a dark side to it. Taken to extremes, skepticism degenerates into a cynical denial of truth’s very existence. The Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, maintained that neither our sense-perceptions nor our views, theories and beliefs tell us the truth. He insisted that a person should be without views and unwavering in his/her refusal to choose between truth and falsehood, maintaining about every single assertion that “it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.” Beckwith, Christopher I, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (c. 2015, Princeton University Press) pp. 22–23. Such skepticism paves the way to indifference toward moral, philosophical and religious truth claims.  Ultimately, it produces contempt even for simple factual claims. Who can forget how, in the  face of clear photographic evidence to the contrary, President Trump stubbornly maintained that the crowd gathered for his inauguration was the largest ever for any inauguration. When confronted with the president’s claim and the facts belying it, Counselor to the President, Kelly Anne Conway blithely replied that the president’s inaccurate assertion about the size of his inauguration audience was an “alternative fact.” You have your facts. I have mine. Because there is no such thing as “truth,” it doesn’t really matter whose facts are accurate. Believe whatever suits you.

Saint Augustine maintained against his own skeptic antagonists that truth both exists and is knowable. In this he was thoroughly consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Because our bodies and their senses are the product of a good Creator God, our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell can be relied upon to convey accurately and truthfully the world we experience through them. Because our human ability to think and reason reflects the Creator’s own inventive mind, we can trust our minds to arrive at reliable (if not infallible!) conclusions.  Conversely, our refusal to believe what our senses tell us, or our rejection of reasonable arguments from undisputed facts merely because they are upsetting or disagreeable, is worse than ignorance. Such cynical skepticism renders us subhuman and incapable of learning, reasoning and communicating. It leads invariably to public indifference toward a government that lies regularly, repeatedly and with absolute impunity. Where there is no belief in truth or the independent existence of facts, how can you call anything a lie?

Of course, our capacity to learn and the knowledge we acquire is limited, fallible and always subject to growth, revision and obsolescence. Moreover, as Augustine points out, there are matters beyond human understanding that only faith can comprehend. Thirty-four years ago I stood before a congregation of family and friends promising Sesle that I would love her, be faithful to her and join with her in all that was to come. She promised to do the same for me. We both believed and trusted in those mutual promises, though it seems a little preposterous to make or believe promises like these with someone you have known for little over a year. How well can you really know someone in so short a time? How can you make such bold promises when you have no idea what the years ahead hold for you? Truth is, neither of us really understood what we were doing at that point. We could not be certain whether this love we thought we had for each other was durable enough for the long haul (if long it was to be). We had no idea how our resolve to keep our wedding vows would be tested. Now, thirty-four years later, I am a good deal more confident about our marriage and thankful for our having resolved to enter into it. I am confident that our marriage is solid. Still, my confidence does not equate with certitude. We are not yet at the end of this journey. Our lives are all the more vulnerable to tragedy and pain, being now parents, grandparents and a good deal closer to the last frontier. It’s not over until it’s over. Nonetheless, I am more convinced now than ever before that this ship is seaworthy and equal to the storms that lie ahead. I would not have that knowledge, however, had I not initially trusted Sesle’s untested promises. Some things you have to believe and live into before you can know they are true.

I don’t know what was going through Simon Peter’s head when Jesus first called him and brother Andrew to leave their fishing nets to follow him. Peter is credited with having “little faith” according to Matthew’s gospel. Yet his faith was enough to enable him to answer Jesus’ call to follow. It was strong enough to get him out of the boat and onto the surface of the sea, if not strong enough to sustain him there for long. Peter has the insight to recognize in Jesus the promised Messiah, though the true meaning of Jesus’ messianic mission is beyond his grasp. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, will fail Jesus at his time of greatest need. Yet he will learn that, even in the shadow of his greatest failure, the one he abandoned to death appears to him alive and ready to extend yet another opportunity for discipleship. Over time, Peter’s fear, doubt and skepticism will be overcome by repeated expressions of Jesus’ faithfulness. He will learn, step by step, that a life surrendered to Jesus’ call is a life saved from bondage to fear and pointless selfishness. Because Peter believed and trusted Jesus’ promises-gingerly at first, but with growing confidence-he came to know that they were trustworthy and reliable.

Each day presents new challenges, growth in knowledge and understanding that force one to question one’s faith, test one’s understanding of the scriptures, embrace fresh understandings and abandon long held beliefs that no longer seem credible. Yet over time and experience, the voice of Jesus becomes more familiar and reassuring. Having weathered any number of storms with Jesus, the waves don’t seem as dangerous and threatening anymore. Having survived a few devastating losses with Jesus at our side, it becomes easier to believe that the ultimate loss we most fear, the loss of our very being, is something that Jesus can get us through. We began by believing the witness of the saints that have gone before us. Now we are on the way to knowing.

Here is a poem about learning, knowing and the limits of both by Howard Nemerov.

Learning the Trees
 
Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors,
Out of a book, which now you think of it
Is one of the transformations of a tree.

The words themselves are a delight to learn,
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.

But best of all are the words that shape the leaves—
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform—
And their venation—palmate and parallel—
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate.

Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.

Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”

Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three
Around the stem; the one in front of you
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;

Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.

Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does
And how it does it, cutting across the world

Not always at the joints, competing with
Experience while cooperating with
Experience, and keeping an obstinate
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.

Think finally about the secret will
Pretending obedience to Nature, but
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,
Dividing up the world to conquer it,

And think also how funny knowledge is:
You may succeed in learning many trees
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.

Source:  The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (c. 1977 by Howard Nemerov, pub. by The University of Chicago Press). Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He also won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize. Nemerov was raised in New York City where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School. He later commenced studies at Harvard University where he earned his BA. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the United State Air Force. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant and thereafter returned to New York to resume his writing career. Nemerov began teaching, first at Hamilton College and subsequently at Bennington College and Brandeis University. He ended his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was elevated to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov’s poems demonstrated a consistent emphasis on thought, the process of thinking and on ideas themselves. Nonetheless, his work always displayed the full range of human emotion and experience. You can find out more about Howard Nemerov and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 51:1–6

This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

Following several other commentators, Professor Claus Westermann holds that this section of the text has become disordered in the course of transmission. He would reconstruct it, working the verses from our reading into various surrounding sections of text. The finished product reads as follows:

[Isaiah 51:1a] Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.[Isaiah 50:10-11] Who among you fears the Lord  and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God? But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands. Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.

[Isaiah 51:4-6] Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.

[Isaiah 51:7a] Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; [Isaiah 51:1] Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. [Isaiah 51:7b-8] do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.

Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) pp 232-234. This arrangement has the virtue of solving several other perceived problems with other sections of the Isaiah text, forging them, along with fragments of our lesson, into a nicely balanced three strophe poem. With all due respect to Professor Westermann, I am suspicious of employing any interpretive tool, including form criticism, for no better purpose than to make the text more “intelligible.” Just because something is difficult to understand does not mean that it is void of meaning. Perhaps the language is obscure because the matter at hand lies at the border of mystery. If that is the case, deconstructing the language is probably the last thing you want to do. Furthermore, it is to my thinking entirely unjustifiable to break up a passage that makes perfectly good sense standing alone in order to solve problems elsewhere in the text. Accordingly, I will take the lesson as we have it.

“You who pursue deliverance” in verse 1 refers to the Babylonian exiles. Just as the Israelite slaves cried out for deliverance in Egypt, so now the exiles seek deliverance from their captivity. The prophet chooses his words carefully to evoke precisely this parallel. Throughout his/her oracles, Second Isaiah likens the return from exile to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. E.g. Isaiah 43:1-7Isaiah 43:15-17. But in the next verse, the prophet reaches back even further in Israel’s history to the age of the matriarchs and patriarchs. “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and blessed him and made him many.” Vs. 2. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Scriptures outside of Genesis referencing Sarah. Second Isaiah is filled with feminine metaphors for God’s faithfulness to Israel. Isaiah 42:14Isaiah 46:3Isaiah 49:1, 5, 15Isaiah 54:1. Thus, it is not surprising that s/he should include Sarah along with Abraham in this instance.

The prophet is addressing the group of exiles that have been receptive to his/her call to make the journey back to Palestine from Babylon. In all probability, this was a small congregation. Yet the prophet is not dismayed by the meager response of the people to his/her challenge. After all, when God called Abraham and Sarah, they were but two individuals. Moreover, we also know that they were childless and past child bearing age. The prospects for fulfilment of the promise that their descendants would outnumber the stars seemed remote, to put it mildly. Yet just as God raised up the people of Israel from this unpromising beginning, so God will make of this little band of exiles a new people in that ancient land promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago. With God, size doesn’t matter, but only faithfulness.

In verses 4-5 the prophet promises that God’s “deliverance draws near speedily.” Significantly, however, that salvation is described as “a law” going forth from God. The word for law here is “Torah,” a term that means so much more than our word “law.” Torah is “teaching,” a constellation of faithful disciplines and precepts, the study and practice of which leads to wisdom, understanding and communion with the God of Israel. See Psalm 119. It is through the faithful obedience of Israel to Torah in the land of promise that God’s salvation will be made known to the ends of the earth. Simply by being God’s people, Israel will forward God’s salvation.

I believe that the church in America is only beginning to discover (or re-discover?) the insight revealed in Second Isaiah and more specifically throughout the new Testament, namely, that the proper mission of the church is first and foremost being the church. We are moving away from a 1950s and 1960s vision of the church as a union of faithful congregations supporting mission and ministry done by professionals and specialized agencies. No one is looking anymore for a church that will give them spiritual resources to cope with the demands of 21st Century life. Churches still selling this useless snake oil are in decline-and deservedly so. The new model of church where I see most energy, creativity and enthusiasm for ministry is among intentional communities of faith that embody an alternative to life under late stage capitalism dictated by the schedules of public school activities, the demands of the work place/profession and that illusive nirvana, “financial security.”

For example, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, California seeks to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing their homes, resources and friendship. Though not maintaining that their lifestyle is absolutely required for committed discipleship, the Sojourners find that such common living provides them with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood, thereby helping them to grow into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.” So too, Reba Place Fellowship began in 1957 as three people sharing life and possessions in one house just north of Chicago. Since then, it has grown into several communities.  Today members of Reba live in an urban “village” in Evanston, and in its communal offshoot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.  Both branches have a mix of apartment buildings, single family houses, and commercial buildings sheltering a variety of cooperative ventures. Perhaps the most fascinating and exciting example of this model is Koinonia Farm. Established in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, Koininia is a Christian community located in Americus, Georgia. Sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship, residents seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing.

The above communities are few and far between, but they are growing and inspiring the development of other such communities. Hewn as they are from the rock of faithful patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and apostles, I have no doubt that God will use them mightily to carry on the church’s mission into the future. As for the rest of us, “the kingdom of God will come without our prayers” or anything else we have to offer. So says our Catechism. But I pray that it may come also among us mainliners; that we will rediscover our radical roots in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; that we will find ourselves “in that number when the saints go marching in” rather than sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.

Psalm 138

Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.

The psalmist boldly declares that, though s/he walks “in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life.” Vs. 7. Taken alone, this verse might be understood to mean that God will shield the psalmist from all adversity giving him or her a charmed life. But God promises nothing of the kind and the psalmist is well aware of that. The psalmist knows that his/her life is wholly God’s possession. As such, it finds fulfillment in God’s purposes, not the hopes, dreams and expectations of the psalmist. Hence, the declaration of faith in the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.

Romans 12:1–8

Verses 3-8 deserve special attention because they distill in concrete practice what Paul has been speaking about for the last eleven chapters. Because all are under the sway of sin and all are liberated by God’s gracious act of mercy in Jesus Christ, no one is in any position to boast over against any other fellow disciple. In light of this reality, “sober judgment” leads to but one conclusion: we are no longer individuals with conflicting rights to be carefully balanced and adjudicated to maintain justice and peace within our community. We are members of one body belonging to Jesus and existing to serve him as head. Accordingly, whatever our gifts may be, they are precisely what the Body needs and are to be exercised in his service.

This vision of community is seldom reflected in our churches which, both on the congregational and denominational levels, operate under corporate, hierarchical models. I used to follow (at a distance) a Facebook page for Lutheran clergy and have discovered that issues of “power” and “who is in charge” come up with depressing regularity. Resort to the congregational constitution seems to be the default strategy for resolving conflict. I am so weary of congregations complaining that their rights have been violated and denominational leaders complaining that their authority is not sufficiently respected. I can hear the exasperated and unheeded voice of St. Paul in the distance: “Do not be conformed to the world…” vs. 2.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Vs. 2. One reason we fear terrorists so much is that we know they have no fear of death. How do you fight an enemy that is not afraid to die? A man willing to sacrifice his body by strapping on a bomb and blowing himself up to take out the enemy is not likely to be detoured by the death penalty! That, too, is why the Roman Empire was so fearful of the church. Disciples of Jesus didn’t cower when threatened with death. They could not be intimidated by torture. They turned the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror, into a sign of victory! The more forcefully Rome employed its imperial might against the church, the more obvious its impotence became. The shock and awe strategy failed spectacularly as the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. If only Christians had the faith of terrorists! If only disciples of Jesus were as ready to sacrifice their lives in the service of the poor, in reconciliation of enemies and in practicing radical hospitality to the homeless as terrorists are ready to die in battle!

Matthew 16:13–20

The focus on Jesus’ Messianic identity, which began at Matthew 13:54 where Jesus is rejected in his home country, comes to its climax in our lesson for Sunday where Peter makes his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Vs. 16. Jesus asks his disciples who they believe “the Son of man” to be. The disciples’ response indicates that they must understand Jesus to be speaking of himself in the use of this term. They note that some think Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. Herod has already expressed this belief. Matthew 14:2. They also point out that others believe Jesus to be Elijah, whose possible return was left open by his assumption into the heavens. II Kings 2:9-12. By the time of the prophet Malachi, the return of the prophet Elijah was a standard expectation. Malachi 4:5-6. Jeremiah is mentioned, principally as a representative of the latter prophets believed to have returned under Jesus’ identity. Perhaps this is because Jeremiah, more than any other Hebrew prophet, experienced consistent persecution and rejection. In any event, these persons all serve in a negative manner to specify for the reader who Jesus is not.

Unlike the response given by Peter in Mark, Matthew has Peter confessing Jesus not merely as Israel’s long awaited Messiah, but as the Son of the living God. Vs. 16. This statement is not the fruit of Peter’s own deductive reasoning. It comes to him by revelation. Vs. 17. Peter’s confession answers the question of Jesus’ fellow countrymen in Matthew 13:54 (“Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”).

The Greek word “Christos” is used for the Hebrew term “Meshioch” transliterated “Messiah.” It means “anointed one,” frequently referring to a king, though it was also used to designate the patriarchs, a prophet or a priest. (See Psalm 105:15I Kings 19:16Psalm 133:2). By the 1st Century, the term was commonly used to denote a successor of King David who was expected to restore the fortunes of Israel, though this was by no means the exclusive expression of messianic hope. Thus, while Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah is correct, the nature of Jesus’ messiahship will not become clear until after his suffering, death and resurrection.

“Son of God” is a term used for Israel’s kings as evidenced by the enthronement hymn, Psalm 2. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. As will become evident in Matthew’s Transfiguration account, the term means much more than this as applied to Jesus. Matthew 17:1-8. Here, too, Matthew will unpack the full meaning of this title in the action to come.

Many trees have been felled and much ink spilt over the interpretation of verses 18-21. Just as the Roman church has insisted that Jesus’ declaration: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” establishes the primacy of Peter and the doctrine of apostolic succession, so protestants have for the most part maintained that the “rock” upon which the church is built is Peter’s confession of Jesus, not Peter himself. The passage does not fully support either position. It is clear from the word play at work “Petros” (Peter) and “petra” (rock) that Jesus is referring to Peter himself as in some way foundational for the church. Yet Matthew, like Mark, employs Peter as the spokesperson for the rest of the disciples. So, just as his remarks to Jesus represent the questions of the twelve, Jesus’ response must also be seen as directed to all of them. The church, then, is founded upon the witness of the Apostles; however, the case for the primacy of Peter among them is wanting in my opinion. This passage is silent about matters of apostolic succession. That is not to say a biblical case cannot be made in its favor, but only that one who would make it must look elsewhere in the scriptures for support. I think that commentator John Nolland sums it up best:

“The attempt to draw form Mt. 16:18 conclusions as to whether Peter has successors is doomed to failure. It is to press the imagery too hard to assign an exclusive foundational role to Peter. Peter has the privilege of being named in this role, but others participated with him in all that he did and was. In addition, in every new situation there will be those who play a foundational role for Jesus’ building of his church. But sharing the role produces too many partners and successors. On the other hand, the apostles are clearly called upon to play an unrepeatable role, and Peter clearly has some kind of primacy among them. Here there is a genuine claim to exclusivity, but not one that allows any specific place for a successor. But this is not to say that this tradition about Peter should not have inspired the church to focus on its fidelity to the foundations of the faith in terms of a Peter figure from generation to generation.”Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 670.

Matthew is the only gospel that uses the term “ekklasia,” the Greek word our English Bibles translate as “church.” The word means “gathered group” or “assembly.” Matthew’s understanding of the church is fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Matthew 23:1-12. Thus, whatever leadership role is given to the twelve in this passage must be exercised in a way consistent with this vision. One of Jesus’ chief criticisms of the religious leaders in his day is set forth in Matthew 23:13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men…” The keys to the kingdom are given to Peter precisely so that the kingdom may be opened to all people. Thus, however one might interpret the power to “bind” and “lose” given to Peter in verse 19, it cannot be understood as license to blockade the kingdom. Even when the church finds it necessary to excommunicate and treat a former member as a “gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), one must keep in mind the manner in which Jesus consistently reached out to gentiles and tax collectors. To excommunicate a member is therefore to assume enhanced responsibility and concern for that member.

 

Sunday, September 4th

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1–21
Luke 14:25–33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“The power of choosing good and evil is within the reach of all.” Origen

My strict Lutheran upbringing causes me to wince at Origen’s bald statement, as well as Moses’ call to “choose life” and the Psalmist’s insistence that one must choose between the life of righteousness or wickedness. I grew up confessing each Sunday that I was a “poor miserable sinner” and that I was incapable of performing any truly good work. I still believe that to be true in this sense: I am convinced that my most noble acts are tinged with self-interest and always motivated to some degree by greed, need for approval or some other unworthy impulse. Knowing that helps to keep me humble and self-critical in a healthy way. That is particularly important for clergy types like me for whom messianic delusions are an occupational hazard. I need to be reminded that my view of God’s will in every situation is myopic. My judgment is fallible and my good intentions are often misguided. Of course, no good work on my part can be employed to win God’s favor. God’s grace, mercy and goodness are gifts freely given apart from however good or evil my actions might be.

That said, there is a dark side to this doctrine of original sin. Belief in the pervasiveness of sin and its tendency to infect our motives and cloud our judgment can easily become an excuse for inactivity, evasiveness and a tacit acceptance of the status quo. We have seen how much damage has been done by religious fanatics whose moral crusades leave behind a trail of blood and ruin. We know all too well the dangers of pride, self-righteousness and spiritual snobbery that can grow out of movements aimed at living the Sermon on the Mount. Far better, therefore, to forsake these religious pretensions, accept one’s limits and live a flawed, but forgiven life at peace with the secular world. Grace, then, becomes mere permission to settle for good citizenship rather than pursuing holiness. Discipleship, like politics, becomes the art of the possible. Christians are not better people; they are just forgiven-which means that their lives are no different from those of anyone else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously unmasked this misconstruction for what it truly is: “cheap grace.” There is a difference between the student, on the one hand, who studies diligently, receives a less than satisfactory mark but is nevertheless given a pass to the next grade; and the student on the other who never bothers to attend class or complete any assignments yet shows up for the first time on the last day of school seeking the same favor. However poorly the Corinthian church of the New Testament may have embodied Christ, it understood nonetheless that its calling was to be the Body of Christ. At the very least, we can see in the contours of its failure what it was trying to become. By contrast, I often wonder whether anyone can tell by looking at the typical American protestant church exactly what it is trying to be. Is it a fund raising unit for disaster and famine relief? Is it a civic organization providing social services for the surrounding community? Is it a social club of like minded individuals who share the same religious/philosophical/cultural outlooks and artistic tastes? Is any of this even mildly interesting for a culture saturated with opportunities for charitable work, volunteer experiences, socialization and youth educational and entertainment programs-to say nothing of a cornucopia of quasi-religious options? Whatever the church might have to offer, you can get it better and cheaper somewhere else. So why join the church? Is it worth sacrificing a leisurely Sunday morning out on the porch with a bagel & cream cheese, a good cup of coffee and the Sunday edition of the New York Times?

The early church was hardly perfect, but it understood that it was called to an existence radically different from the surrounding culture. It understood that Jesus was offering it a better life than the dominant society could provide. It also understood that this new life inevitably took the shape of the cross in a world dominated by greed, injustice and violence. Moral choices had to be made on a daily basis and these choices were a matter of life or death. They were often costly. Joseph H. Hellerman tells the story of a small congregation in Northern Africa during the third century facing just such a costly life or death decision. (Full article published in Called to Community, edited by Charles F. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House, c. 2016) pp. 26-30. A young actor expressed a desire to be baptized and join the church. Acting in the third century was not the craft of pure entertainment we know today. It was employed exclusively for the celebration of pagan festivals featuring plays depicting overt violence and explicit sexual immorality. Accordingly, the young man was required to renounce his profession and he did so. Subsequently, after his baptism, the young man started his own school to train actors for the very profession he had given up. When confronted by his pastor, he pointed out that he needed still to make a living to support himself and that, because he was no longer involved with the actual plays, he didn’t feel that he was violating his baptismal vow to follow Jesus.

At a loss for how to handle this unique situation, the pastor sought advice from his bishop, Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian’s response was clear and uncompromising. Participation in pagan religious productions, whether as an actor or as an acting instructor, is inconsistent with the church’s faith and witness. The young acting instructor must again be called upon to abandon his profession. That might sound harsh and it is. But there is more. Cyprian went on to say that the congregation should provide support and sustenance for the young man for as long as he needed it to make his transition to another trade. Furthermore, Cyprian offered the support of his own church in the event this responsibility proved too great for the little congregation. Thus, Cyprian was not a puritanical judge determined to cleanse the church of sinners. Rather, he was the caring pastor of a church community whose members were dedicated to helping one another turn from sin to the better life Jesus offers. This is a classic example of what Saint Paul calls “bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.

In my own Lutheran tradition we tend to identify a person’s calling or vocation with his or her profession, trade or job. We call this the “priesthood of all believers.” After all, the work that we do in society for the sake of our neighbors is no less holy than the work of ministry within the church. That sounds good, and it works well enough when your employment fits your temperament and contributes to the well-being of society. But more and more I am finding young people employed by companies demanding more time, more energy and more tangible results while offering less security and compensation. Through the cellphone and the internet, the office seems to be worming its way into evenings at home and family vacations demanding availability 24/7. Unskilled heads of families find it necessary to hold down two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for family, church and community. Attorneys find that, so far from advancing the rule of law and justice, their hours are consumed with assisting insurers in denying the claims of sick and injured people. Doctors find their care of patients increasingly dominated by the cost cutting measures of insurers and HMOs. Many folks I know have deeply ambivalent feelings about their jobs-such as a young woman who works for a manufacturer of automatic fire arms sold to civilians. Work that exploits, overreaches, enslaves and compromises is anything but holy. It is hard to view it as a calling to serve God. I think that many folks caught up in these dehumanizing roles would welcome an opportunity to free themselves from this way of death and embrace Jesus’ life-giving alternative. But that is a lot to expect from an individual.

Maybe this is where the church comes in. Perhaps we need to become a community that does more than call upon people to choose life. We need to be the kind of community that helps people choose life by supporting them every step of the way-as did Cyprian. We are similar in this respect to a twelve step community of addicts trying to help one another achieve and maintain sobriety. We are all struggling to break away from ways of death that threaten to destroy us and embrace Jesus’ way that leads to life. To be sure, Christians are not better people, but we are people who believe in a better way of being human. We are sinful people, but people who are nevertheless capable of making good, faithful and life-giving choices-especially when we support, strengthen and encourage one another. We are a people in which the Holy Spirit is at work forming the mind of Christ. When that happens, the Body follows suit.

Here’s a poem by Louise Gluck about choosing life.

Odysseus’ Decision

The great man turns his back on the island.
Now he will not die in paradise
nor hear again
the lutes of paradise among the olive trees,
by the clear pools under the cypresses. Time
begins now, in which he hears again
that pulse which is the narrative
sea, at dawn when its pull is strongest.
What has brought us here
will lead us away; our ship
sways in the tinted harbor water.
Now the spell is ended.
Give him back his life,
sea that can only move forward.

Louise Glück is an American poet. She was born in 1943 in New York City and grew up on Long Island. She attended both Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. She is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Academy of American Poet’s Prize. You can read more about Louise Gluck and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”

That injunction to “choose life” has picked up a lot of distorting overtones from the so-called culture wars in recent years. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. It is, of course, hard to disagree with this statement as a general proposition. But then again, general moral propositions are usually quite palatable. It is their specific application that often catches in our throats. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I can’t say I entirely disagree. Few things strike me as more violent than the removal of a fetal human life from the womb with the purpose of terminating it. (Whether a fetus ought to be considered a “person” in contemplation of law and thus entitled to the consequent legal protections is, of course, an entirely different question.) I cannot help but notice, however, the roaring silence of these same conservatives when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor, brought into even sharper focus by his successor, Pope Francis. I guess that for them, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.

But I digress. Such discussion risks leading us dangerously off the mark. In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. “Deuteronomy is not general moral law…but instruction for a specific covenant people, with a particular history that reaches back to the time of Abraham.” Achtemeier, Elizabeth, “Plumbing the Riches of Deuteronomy for the Preacher,” published in Interpretation, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1987, p. 270. As another commentator has noted, “every act of Torah-obedience finds its motivation, its purpose, and its criterion of appropriateness in Israel’s love for Yahweh.” Janzen, Gerald J., “The Yoke That Gives Rest,” published in Interpretation, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1987, p. 256.  The covenant gives concrete shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. Israel is to worship only the Lord who “give[s] justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain[s] the right of the afflicted and the destitute…rescu[ing] the weak and the needy.” Psalm 82 3-4. They are not to worship the gods of the nations who typically champion the cause of their imperial patrons and “judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked.” Psalm 82:2.  Unlike the hierarchical regimes of the empires that are indifferent to the plight of the poor in the land and are built on the backs of slaves, Israel is ruled by the God who commands that there be no poor in her midst. Deuteronomy 15:7-11. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.

Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life” and that choice involves not subscription to a moral template or party platform, but to live as God’s covenant people Israel, and as church, to live as faithful members of the Body of Christ where the mind of Christ is formed in us individually and communally.

The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” is for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. Pro see Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 16; contra see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 102.  In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and, as such, makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning of the Psalter “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Vs. 3. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. Vs. 4. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Vs. 5. Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Philemon 1:1–21

This brief letter from Saint Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus or Caesarea. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.

In the pre-Civil War south this letter was frequently invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this, they argued, we must conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.

First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.

Luke 14:25–33

This is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I.,Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?

I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.

The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.

Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.

Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.

So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c 1972 William B. Eerdmans Co.).  Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.

Sunday, June 15th

THE HOLY TRINITY

Genesis 1:1—2:4a
Psalm 8
II Corinthians 13:11–13
Matthew 28:16–20

In the congregation where I grew up, we observed Trinity Sunday by reading in unison the Athanasian Creed. For those of you who might not be familiar with this statement of faith, it is one of what we Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and a good many other faith communions call “the three chief symbols.” The other two symbols are the more familiar Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. The origin of the Athanasian Creed is uncertain, but it is quite certain that it was not composed by the great theologian of the Fourth Century after which it is named. Scholarly consensus dates it from the Fifth or Sixth centuries based on its language and doctrinal foci.

The practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed in public worship has long been abandoned in most churches and for good reason. It is long, repetitive and filled with abstract language hard to digest in a single reading. Most disturbing of all are the dire warnings at the beginning and end of the creed to the effect that “whoever does not keep [the catholic faith] whole and undefiled will without doubt perish for eternity.” Athanasian Creed printed in The Book of Concord, translated by Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 19. I don’t feel at all comfortable declaring the doubtless condemnation of anyone for any reason. That decision is far above my pay scale.

Nevertheless, I don’t advocate discarding the Athanasian Creed or even excising from it that troubling condemnation language. Though I might wish that it had been phrased differently, the creed quite properly lets us know that it matters what we believe about God. People do sick and twisted things for the gods they worship. Shooting little girls in the face for reading books, bombing Planned Parenthood Centers and disrupting funeral services with angry and hateful protests are only the more extreme acts of faithful obedience to perverse and cruel deities. More common are the cases of individuals burdened with self-hatred and guilt because they have been raised to worship a god who cares more about rules than people. I cannot tell you how many people I have met over the years who left the church because the god they met there was angry and judgmental, cold and distant or just too silly to warrant serious consideration.

A good deal of religion seems designed merely to perpetuate and justify the status quo for those in power. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it said that the church’s job is to uphold public morality and decency. Nowhere does the Bible say anything remotely like that. That, however, was largely the role of Babylonian religion as we will see in our exploration of Sunday’s reading from Genesis. Sadly, religion bearing the Christian trademark has also been used to that end as well. We have mistaken middle class morality for the righteousness to which Jesus calls us. As a result, the church has found itself on the side of racial segregation, disenfranchisement of women and numerous other societal movements that are contrary to the righteousness to which Jesus calls us in the Sermon on the Mount. Make no mistake about it, religion can mislead, deceive and even kill. You are destined to become what you worship, so you need to be careful about who you worship.

That is why it is important to understand that God is Triune: the lover, the loved and the love between them. It is important to understand that the eternal love between Father and Son spills out over the formless deep calling nothingness into being, making time for us in eternity. It is important to understand that there is no hierarchy in God; no domination; no compulsion; no rivalry. It is important to understand that God does not ordain oppressive governments that exploit and neglect their people. It is important to understand that each human being bears the indelible image of his/her Creator and that the greatest blasphemy against the Triune God lies not in the desecration of shrines and sanctuaries or in the mockery of stand-up comedians and situation comedies but in violence, abuse, neglect and insult to human beings. The only God worthy of worship is the God who has made us capable of sharing the love known within God’s Triune self from eternity.

For these reasons, it is important that the church roundly condemned and rejected doctrinal formulae that denied the Triune nature of God; subordinated the Son to the Father; minimized or denied the incarnation. It is important that the church stood firm against attempts to introduce into our creeds the structures of hierarchy, domination and injustice that characterize human civilization in every age. It is also important that the creed makes clear how what we say about God is not a matter of irrelevant abstractions. You are what you worship so be careful who you worship.

Genesis 1:1—2:4a

This marvelous poetic portrayal of creation is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch constituting the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?

As discussed last week, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.

Our reading from the first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.

The command to “fill the earth and subdue it” has spawned some unfortunate misunderstanding about human responsibility in the realm of creation. I am not convinced that this verse, much less the Biblical witness as a whole, can be saddled with the responsibility for global warming. I believe rather that ideologies spun out of the Enlightenment extoling the power of reason and desacralizing the natural world are chiefly responsible for that and other ecological woes. Nonetheless, this verse has often been lifted out of its context and employed to give religious sanction for ruthless exploitation of the earth and its resources. One popular commentator recently remarked, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Colter, Ann, If Democrats had any Brains They’d be Republicans, (c. 2007 by Crown Forum) p. 104.

In all fairness to Ms. Colter, the Hebrew text actually does support her literal interpretation. The Hebrew verb for “subdue” is “CABAS” meaning “to tread down, beat or make a path or to subdue.” In at least one instance, the Bible uses this word to connote rape. Esther 7:8. The word can also mean to “enslave.” Jeremiah 34:11. For the most part, however, it is used to describe the conquest of Canaan and its inhabitants by Israel. Numbers 32:22; Joshua 18:1; I Chronicles 22:18. This is important because the land of Canaan was given to Israel in trust. Very specific provisions were made for care of the land, including a year of rest from cultivation each seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. Israel’s reign over the land of Canaan was to mirror God’s gentle and gracious reign over creation. This in marked contrast to the Babylonian empire’s brutal domination of the Near East reflecting the violence and brutality of the gods it worshiped.

Thus, I believe that the poet of Genesis 1 was using the term “CABAS” to undermine the imperial model of world domination in much the same way Paul employed images of weaponry to undermine the militaristic reign of Rome. Just as Paul points out that the weapons of the church are the good news of the gospel, prayer, faith and peacemaking (Ephesians 6:14-18), so the poet makes clear that God overcomes and rules the world by God’s exercise of patient, faithful and everlasting compassion. That is how God subdues us and that is the means by which God’s people subdue the world. Thus, if I were to forego preaching about the Trinity this Sunday, I might consider talking about the mythological framework behind the national and corporate empires of the Twenty First Century. Imperial power is as tyrannical today as it was in Sixth Century and even more destructive to the earth and its ecology. Is the assertion of personal property rights, national self-interest and territorial sovereignty consistent with the claim that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”? Psalm 24:1.

In addressing Trinity Sunday, it is worth observing that the term “Trinity” is nowhere found in the scriptures. That is not to say, however, that the doctrine lacks scriptural support or that it is inappropriate to speak of the Triune God in understanding this text. I do not share the strict historical critical assumption that the meaning of a biblical text is arrived at through stripping away all residue of the church’s interpretation and applying objectively the tools of text criticism, source criticism, redaction analysis, form criticism, literary criticism and whatever else I left out. This is not to say that these individual components of the method are not useful in some measure to critique and correct our interpretations. They are clearly important, but they are not the key to preaching the text. I believe that at the end of the day, the Bible is the church’s book and it cannot be read faithfully (by Christians anyway) apart from the Church’s confession that Jesus is Lord. So be warned that I confess unashamedly to reading and preaching the scriptures through the lens of the church’s Trinitarian faith. Historical critical tools are sometimes helpful to that end, but they don’t get to drive the bus.

At the very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures we are told something very important: that God speaks. It is only because God speaks that it is possible for us to speak of God at all. God initiates a conversation within God’s Triune self through which all things are spoken into existence. As creation progresses, God’s speech spills over to address the creation. The earth is commanded to bring forth vegetation, the lights of the firmament are commanded to give light to the earth, the waters are commanded to bring forth swarms of living creatures, the earth is commanded to bring forth living creatures. Creation can respond with praise, prayer and thanksgiving because and only because God gives it a word to which it can respond. Then in verse 26 for the first time we overhear the Trinitarian deliberation and dialogue concerning our own creation. We learn that we are uniquely created in the image of our Creator.

Much ink has been spilt pondering what it means for us to be made in God’s image. I am not convinced that the poet in Genesis gives us much in the way of an answer to the inquiry. That is not surprising given that poetry is always more suggestive than definitive. We may infer, as I have already said, that humanity’s reign over the earth is to reflect God’s gracious reign over all creation. Yet the shape of both reigns must await further development as the scriptural narrative progresses. The call of Abraham from the wastes of Babel, the sojourning of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the liberation of Israel from bondage will dramatize both God’s judgment on dehumanizing ways of existence and God’s promise of an alternative way of being human. The shape of human existence in obedience to God is spelled out in God’s covenants wherein God’s faithfulness is demonstrated and the promise of true humanity is held out. Israel is ever in the process of becoming human precisely so that by its light the world may finally learn the proper way of being the world.

The image of God is finally realized in Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” More than any of the other gospels, John’s narrative illustrates both the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God. We can say that humans are created in God’s image precisely because, as St. Augustine reminds us, we “are capable of Him, and can be partaker of Him; which so great a good is only made possible by [humanity’s] being His image.” Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, Book 14, Chapter 8:11 (c. 2012 by Fig-books.com) p. 372. In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, keep them in my name which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:11. It is through this perfect oneness in love that the world will know the love of the Father for the Son reflected in the disciples’ love for one another. John 17:23. Moreover, this love will spill out into the world for which Jesus died to all those who believe through the disciples’ witness. John 17:20. Jesus has sheep that are not yet of his flock and who must also be embraced by the Father’s love. John 10:16. In short, Jesus is the only one ever to be truly human and our becoming fully human depends on our unity with him. God is never more truly God’s self than when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. In this way, the final yearning of God expressed in the Book of Revelation is satisfied. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.” Revelation 21:3.

Psalm 8

This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.

The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.

As noted in my remarks on the Genesis reading, it is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth] look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!

Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.

II Corinthians 13:11–13

The only reason for lifting up these final words of farewell from Paul’s Second Letter the church at Corinth appears to be that they contain one of only two full Trinitarian invocations in the New Testament. The other such invocation is found at the end of our gospel lesson from Matthew. The Trinitarian order is significant. The Grace of Christ inspires the love of God which is actualized through the Spirit producing fellowship in the church. A better translation than “fellowship” as set forth in the old RSV might be “participation in” or “communion of,” as the NRSV has it.

Matthew 28:16–20

There is plenty to talk about in this story of the Great Commission. The commission occurs at Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples as a whole. According to Matthew, only the women who came to the tomb saw Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus sent them back with instructions to the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Matthew 28:10. The disciples follow these instructions and encounter the resurrected Christ who announces that all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to him and that on his authority they are to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the Triune name. The gospel ends with the assurance that Jesus will be with his disciples until the end of the age.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Perhaps this is another way of saying, as did Luke, that Jesus is henceforth the right hand of God at work in the world. It certainly does not suggest that Jesus is simply delegating a task that he is unable or unwilling to do himself. Jesus’ continuing presence with his disciples is reaffirmed. The dialogical relationship between immanence and transcendence is at work here.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Jesus’ instruction to “make disciples” of all nations-not church members or converts. “Of all nations” does not mean that nations themselves are to be converted or drawn into the cultural orbit of Christendom. Rather, it means that disciples are to be made and churches planted “within” all nations that the gospel may be preached to the ends of the earth. One dreadful mistake we mainliners have made over the centuries is marketing to consumers instead of seeking, as the U.S. Marines would say, “a few good people.” Consumers, of course, consume. They are a demanding crowd that invariably requires more attention, more programs and more benefits than the small but committed core of disciples can meet. Consequently, they leave again disappointed that their needs have not been met. Thus, even when mass marketing is successful, it fails. Matthew’s gospel challenges the church to focus not on membership rolls, but on making disciples. Better one new disciple than twenty new members! At least that has been my own experience.

I am sure that the lectionary’s motivation for including this text was the Trinitarian baptismal formula at verse 19. I don’t know what more there is to say about this other than that it appears the church was using this Trinitarian formula from at least the 80s-90s where scholarly consensus places the writing of Matthew’s gospel. For my thoughts on the rather baseless claim that this formula was a later addition to the gospel, see my post of May 4th.

Sunday, March 30th

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

1 Samuel 16:1–13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8–14
John 9:1–41

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Because you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” Jesus of Nazareth, John 9:41.

What do you do when you run into two irreconcilable facts? Our brains don’t handle that very well. Psychologists call it “cognitive dissonance.” We have a need for order and intelligibility. When that order is challenged by data that conflicts with what we know and believe, it causes us psychic discomfort. That seems to have been the problem for the religious authorities in our lesson from John’s gospel this week. They have right in front of their noses a miraculous sign they cannot deny-a man born blind restored to sight. He insists that Jesus is the one who restored his sight. But the authorities know that Jesus is a sinner. He violates the Sabbath, he disrupts worship in the temple and teaches the people without proper credentials. How can a man who is a sinner open the eyes of the blind-an act requiring divine power?

I remember something of that same discomfort from my middle school years when, fascinated with biology, I first read about the theory of evolution. I had been brought up on the biblical account of creation in which all things come to be at the command of God. But now I was confronted with a very convincing explanation of our origins that worked fine without God. There were two options: I could simply dismiss science altogether and tell myself, “I don’t care what any wise guy in a white lab coat tells me. I believe the Bible and that’s that.” Some believers have resolved their cognitive dissonance in precisely that way. Of course, that position has become more difficult to maintain over the years as advances in biological research and technology continue to substantiate evolutionary theory and assume its basic tenants going forward. Denying evolution outright is becoming a little like denying that the earth revolves around the sun (which the founder of my church, Martin Luther, actually did).

My other option was to harmonize the two opposing truths in some way. That is the course I chose, but I cannot say it was an easy one. For a lot of years, I had to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. I was forced to hold two seemingly mutually exclusive propositions in my head as I struggled to arrive at an understanding big enough to accommodate both. I needed to learn different ways of reading the Bible. I also discovered that the evolutionary account of our origins was not as complete an explanation as it first seemed. As near as I could tell, evolutionary theory had little to say about the “why” of our existence. Perhaps there are people for whom such a question does not matter, but I am not one of them. So I turned to the scriptures for that “why” and learned that there are ways of “knowing” that do not involve empirically verifiable observations. There is truth that can only be recognized by the heart. What is true, what is beautiful and what is good cannot be measured by objective observation or experimentation alone. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is beautiful not merely because of its ingenious composition, but because it touches something deep within that defies objective definition. Some truths can only be grasped by the imagination.

In the end, I came away with a deeper faith and a more profound respect for the capacity of science to help us understand our world. I can’t say that everything is harmonized. I still find that my natural scientific inquisitiveness questions my faith. So also my faith informs and reframes the questions posed by science. That’s OK. A little bit of cognitive dissonance is required for a healthy, growing faith. The religious authorities in our gospel might have overcome their blindness if they had had the patience to live with a little cognitive dissonance for a while, look at the scriptures in a different light and spend some time actually listening to Jesus instead of just thinking up arguments to refute him.

We dare not assert that “we see.” What we see, the way we understand and what we believe is too often skewed by prejudice, self-interest and fear. Our judgments are superficial; our perceptions limited and our convictions clouded. Like the man born blind, the disciples and the religious authorities in our gospel lesson, we need Jesus to open our eyes. All of our lessons for Sunday speak in some fashion of knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, blindness and sight. In our gospel lesson, the religious authorities cannot see past Jesus’ Sabbath violations to recognize him as the one sent by God, but a man born blind worships him for who he is. Samuel learns how inaccurate human judgments about people can be and that God alone knows a person’s heart. Paul challenges the church at Ephesus to walk in the light of Christ and the psalmist confesses his/her confidence in God’s readiness to sojourn with him/her into the valley of the shadow of death. These words remind us that however prone to blindness we might be, in Christ “there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 815.

1 Samuel 16:1–13

Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of kingship. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king only reluctantly. He warned the people that their demand for a king to rule over them “like other nations” would come back to bite them one day. I Samuel 8:10-18. In the view of this particular biblical narrative, the election of a king to rule Israel was idolatrous. It amounted to a rejection of God as King. I Samuel 8:7. This, however, is not the only voice in the Hebrew Scriptures speaking to the matter of kingship. Some of the Biblical authors recognize the rise of the Davidic monarchy as another of God’s saving acts on par with the Exodus, God’s leadership throughout the wilderness wanderings and the conquest of Canaan. Psalm 78 is an example of that sentiment. The psalm recites Israel’s repeated failures to live up to its covenant responsibilities and the dire consequences that followed. But it concludes on a triumphant note with the rise of David to be “the shepherd of Jacob.” “With an upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skilful hand.” Psalm 78:70-72.

These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a lose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.

The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings had come true with a vengeance. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.

The reading from this Sunday comes from the later anti-monarchy source. God chides Samuel for grieving over God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship and directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem for the anointing of a king God has chosen to replace Saul. Samuel is reluctant to take on this errand, fearing that Saul might find out his purpose and kill him. In order to avoid arousing suspicion, Samuel takes with him a heifer and goes to Bethlehem on the pretext of offering a religious sacrifice. It was probably well known to the people of Bethlehem that there had been a falling out between Saul and Samuel (I Samuel 15); hence, their fear. The last thing these villagers wanted was to get caught in the crossfire between these two powerful personages. Vs. 4.

There seems to be a deliberate contrast between this Sunday’s lesson and the acclimation of Saul as king in I Samuel 10:20-24 (also from the later source). In that narrative, Samuel presents Saul to the people and the writer notes that “when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upwards.” Vs. 23. Samuel declares, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” Vs. 24. In Sunday’s lesson, Samuel looks upon Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, and declares “surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” Vs. 6. But the Lord rebukes Samuel warning him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” Vs. 7. “[F]or the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Vs. 7. This rebuke to Samuel will become a constant theme throughout the books of I Kings and II Kings where each individual monarch is judged by the degree of his faithfulness to the covenant.

The theme of God’s choosing the younger son over the elder is a persistent one throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Jacob over Esau, Genesis 27; Ephraim over Manasseh, Genesis 48:8-22). God’s proclivity for favoring the younger sibling is altogether contrary to the cultural and legal traditions strongly favoring the eldest son. One can perhaps hear an echo of this refrain in Jesus’ parables (i.e., The Prodigal Son; The Two Sons). The greater lesson here is that God seems to delight in irony. God chose Sarah and Abraham, the infertile couple, to be the parents of his people Israel. He chose Moses, the fugitive murderer, to deliver the Ten Commandments. It should come as no surprise, then, that God should choose the runt of Jesse’s litter as Israel’s king. As Moses reminded the people of Israel when they drew near to the promised land: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it was because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. Saint Paul sums it up nicely by pointing out to the Corinthian church that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” I Corinthians 1:27-29.

Psalm 23

What can I say about the 23rd Psalm that has not already been said? Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.

“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more, it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?

“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, this affirmation does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” To the contrary, Jesus warns us that we can expect no better treatment from the world than he himself received at its hands. John 15:18-21.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” In a death denying culture such as ours, even these comforting words bring a chill. We seldom use the “D” word in polite conversation. We say, “she passed on,” “he left us,” “she has gone to her reward.” While no one can doubt that the so called enlightenment has given us many important conceptual tools for understanding the universe, post modern thinkers correctly point out that it also represents a colossal failure of imagination. Our commitment to empiricism has imprisoned us in a world no bigger than what can be proven through objective experimentation. Too often, theology has capitulated to this limited world view paring down the bold proclamation of resurrection and eternal life to fit within the confines of “authentic existence” (whatever that is). Small wonder, then, that fewer people are attracted to worship in mainline churches. Who would give up a bagel with cream cheese, a good cup of coffee and the New York Times on Sunday morning for “authentic existence”?

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?

Ephesians 5:8–14

Sunday’ lesson from Ephesians is yet another exhibit tending to substantiate my suspicion that the lectionary was put together by chimps with scissors. Not only have they severed the verses in our text from their context, but they have also sliced the very first verse in half! Before reading the lesson proper, one needs to read the introductory verses 1-2 of chapter 5. These sentences are the lens through which the rest of the chapter must be read. We are admonished to be “imitators of God.” How is this done? “By walk[ing] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This is what it means to “walk as children of the light.” Vs. 7.

It is critical to understand that the light spoken of here is the “light of Christ.” Not just any light will do. Exposing darkness is not simply muckraking. For example, you don’t necessarily expose the darkness or bring any truth to light by revealing that your neighbor was once convicted of a felony-particularly if you fail to mention that the crime was committed when your neighbor was very young, that she has since made restitution to her victims, become a productive member of society and an example to other people attempting to change their destructive behaviors. Facts that are taken out of context and blown out of all proportion so that they distort the whole truth are no different than lies. Consequently, when exposing the sins of ourselves or others to the light, it must be the Light of Christ that embraces the sinner, forgives the sin and reflects the infinite love of God.

The final verses of our lesson contain what appear to be the lines of an ancient Christian hymn celebrating the resurrection. Sullian, Kathryn, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Philippians, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1960 Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 69. It is interesting to note the metaphors of sleep for death; waking for resurrection; Christ for light. Though the resurrection is an event for which the believer hopes and to which s/he looks forward, it is also an event that occurs in the here and now. The proclamation of the good news creates a new reality: life in the light of Christ. It is this light which illuminates and transforms domestic life in the household into opportunities for “imitating God” through walking in love.

John 9:1–41

There is far too much content to unpack in these verses on a blog such as this. As Saint Augustine observed in one of his homilies on this text: “We have just read the long lesson of the man born blind, whom the Lord Jesus restored to light; but were we to attempt handling the whole of it, and considering, according to our ability, each passage in a way proportionate to its worth, the day would be insufficient.” Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo published in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (pub. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 245. Needless to say, if Augustine cannot exhaust these verses in the course of a day, I can hardly expect to make a dent in them with a single post. So my remarks will necessarily be scattershot and incomplete. Still, I hope that they will be somewhat helpful.

What I found compelling in my most recent reading of this text is John’s ingenious use of “darkness” and “light;” “blindness” and “sight.” The story begins with the disciples asking a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question. Was a blind beggar’s blindness brought about by his own sins or those of his parents? There is a kind of blindness here on the part of the disciples. They see not a suffering human being, but a theological riddle. Their reaction to the man’s blindness is not compassion, but theoretical speculation. I often think that my church’s years of discussion focused on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular ran amuck for the same reason. We find ourselves engrossed in theoretical doctrinal disputes over abstract principles ignoring altogether the real flesh and blood people impacted by these discussions. Jesus looks past the theoretical issues with compassion for the person. He is, after all, the Word made flesh.

Jesus assures his disciples that sin has nothing to do with the beggar’s blindness. The beggar was born blind so that God might be glorified through him. One commentator notes that Jesus’ explanation is no more “acceptable to modern humanitarianism” than the disciples’ attribution to sin. Smith, D. Moody, John, Proclamation Commentaries, (c. 1976 by Fortress Press) p. 34. True, but who gives a flying fruit cake for modern humanitarianism? It has been a peculiar ailment of human nature from the beginning to imagine that we are at the center of the universe and that everything exists to make us content. From such a myopic standpoint, it is impossible to imagine a purpose more important than one’s own personal self fulfilment. A good part of our blindness to what is true, beautiful and good results from our inability to get ourselves out of the center. So, I believe, St. John would say.

The miracle is performed with the use of clay and spittle. A similar use of spittle is found in the healing of the deaf mute at Mark 7:31-37. Some commentators see in this an echo of Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7. See, e.g., Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. Pelican Books Ltd.) p. 378. However that might be, it is also the case that, at least in John’s narrative, these materials are essential to the plot. Jesus is accused specifically of making clay on the Sabbath. He is not charged with healing on the Sabbath precisely because his adversaries maintain that he is not truly responsible for the blind man’s recovery of sight. If they were to accuse him of performing such a miracle on the Sabbath, they would be conceding that Jesus had in fact done something unheard of “since the world began.” Vs. 32. The man is told to wash in the pool of Siloam, meaning “sent.” This is an echo of Jesus’ repeated claim that he has been “sent” by the Father. See e.g., John 3:16. In a larger sense, the blind man is being “sent” to the religious authorities before whom he will give testimony to Jesus.

Upon learning that the blind man has received his sight, the people who know him bring him to the “Pharisees.” Again, it is worth pointing out that the gospel of John was written at least two decades after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees and the chief priests who were principally responsible for Jesus’ arrest and deliverance to Pilate are no longer a factor in the life of the church. The principal antagonist in John’s time is not the temple establishment, but the synagogue which replaced the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship. The ferocity of Pharisaic opposition to Jesus in John’s gospel is therefore reflective of this later stage in the church’s history and not so much the time of Jesus’ ministry. It appears that disciples of Jesus were initially participants in the life of the synagogue and all other aspects of the Jewish community. Indeed, they considered themselves to be Jews and understood their discipleship as a movement within rather than against Judaism. By the time John’s gospel was written, however, the relationship between the church and the synagogue had deteriorated to such an extent that followers of Jesus were threatened with being “put out of the synagogue.” Vs. 22. This was tantamount to excommunication. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 374. Disciples in John’s faith community were therefore placed in the position of choosing between confessing Jesus and facing formal exclusion from Israel or denying Jesus in order to remain in good standing with the synagogue. As the gospel demonstrates, there were some who sought to have it both ways by keeping their belief in Jesus secret. John 12:42-43.

Throughout the dialogue between the formerly blind man and the religious authorities we see both the growth of sight and deepening blindness. The blind man receives his sight and declares that “the man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes.” Vs. 11. When he is first called to testify before the authorities, he says of Jesus, “he is a prophet.” Vs. 17. In his second appearance before the authorities, he testifies that Jesus is “from God.” Vs. 33. In the end, he worships Jesus as the “Son of man.” Vss. 35-38.

By contrast, the authorities become increasingly blind in the face of this remarkable sign they cannot deny. Though the blindness of the man from birth is attested by his parents, his sight is attested by the people who know him, and the attribution of this sign to Jesus is supported by all of the evidence, still the authorities stubbornly persist in their unbelief. The reader is left with the implied rhetorical question: Who is really blind here? Ironically, it is those who insist that they can see. Vs. 40.

John also employs the interplay between darkness and light. Jesus notes that “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” Vs. 4. The gathering darkness of the cross is foreshadowed here and, more immediately, the growing blindness and opposition of the authorities to the sign that Jesus is about to perform. Yet in the midst of this gathering darkness, Jesus is the light of the world (vs. 5) who is even now banishing the darkness through the miracle of restored sight and, even more, though the faith of the man whose eyes are opened.

Similarly, there is a battle of the “knows” going on. The man whose sight was restored speaks of what he knows: I was blind; Jesus put clay on my eyes and told me to wash; I washed and now I see. The authorities speak insistently of what they know: Jesus does not keep the Sabbath; Jesus is a sinner. There is one thing, however, that the authorities confess they do not know, namely, where Jesus comes from. “[A]s for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” No doubt they intended this inadvertent admission as a slight to Jesus and an insult to the man before them: How can you believe in a self-proclaimed teacher from the back woods of Galilee who has no teaching credentials? Unbeknown to them, they have revealed the fatal flaw in their position: their failure to recognize Jesus as the one “sent” from God. They know the Scriptures, but not the One to whom the Scriptures testify. See John 5:39.

This lesson, about which volumes more could be said, reinforces the central theme of John’s Gospel: that sight, light, knowledge of God, salvation and eternal life all grow out of one’s “abiding” in Jesus. If you take the time to read this marvelous gospel from beginning to end, you discover that all of the themes, images and metaphors used throughout the first twelve chapters of John are woven together in the “farewell discourse” in chapters thirteen to seventeen. These chapters unpack John’s vision of the love between Father and Son spilling out into the world through the Spirit of God poured out upon the disciples and reflected in the disciples love for one another.

Sunday, September 8th

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1–21
Luke 14:25–33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I was one of the many students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota to have been under the instruction of Professor Sheldon Tostengard. Professor Tostengard taught “homiletics” which is a fancy theological term for preaching. He took the task of preaching seriously and had very little patience for anyone who didn’t. Professor Tostengard never tired of reminding us that preaching should proclaim the biblical text-good, bad or ugly. “Never apologize for the Bible,” he used to tell us. “You didn’t write it. It isn’t your job to edit it, soften it or protect people from it. Your job is to say it and let the chips fall where they will.” Nothing made Professor Tostengard more livid than efforts to “domesticate” Jesus. “Don’t you dare ever preach a sermon in this class about what Jesus really meant,” he used to tell us. “Jesus meant what Jesus said. If you don’t have the stomach for it, then get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who does!”

I wish Professor Tostengard were still among the quick, because I would love to know how he would have handled this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus tells us that no one who does not “hate” parents, spouse and children can follow after him. That is mighty hard to stomach. I could deal with being told that I must love God above all other loves-though that is no small feat either. But does discipleship entail hating the people nearest and dearest to you? I consulted the Greek text of the New Testament and my lexicon in hopes of finding a loophole. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?

As Professor Tostengard is no longer around to be consulted, I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Yes, he is dead too, but he left behind a treasure trove of his theological reflections. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.

The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.

Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.

Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.

So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”

That injunction to “choose life” is loaded with many political overtones. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I cannot help but notice, however, their roaring silence when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor. I guess that for these social conservatives, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.

In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text, however, as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. The covenant gives shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. It is precisely for this reason that Israel is commanded to ensure that there are no poor in her midst, that the orphan, widow and resident alien are treated with justice and compassion. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.

Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life.”

The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the new bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” would be for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Philemon 1:1–21

This brief letter from St. Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.

In the pre-Civil War south this letter was invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this we conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.

First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.

Luke 14:25–33

As indicated in my opening remarks, this is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. For my take on that, see the introductory remarks.

The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c 1972 William B. Eerdmans Co.).  Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.

Sunday, May 26th

The Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day:  Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Trinity is the way disciples of Jesus think about God and the way we think about God matters. If you don’t think it matters how one thinks about God, then you should probably have a chat with the survivors of the 9/11 attacks or loved ones of Dr. George Tiller gunned down in the narthex of his church by an antiabortion activist or the parents of the 77 children murdered by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway two years ago in his campaign to preserve Christian culture in Europe. Wrongheaded thinking about God is lethal. So I think it is probably a good idea that we take a Sunday out of the church year to reflect on what we mean when we begin our worship in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Let’s start with dispelling some misunderstandings about the Holy Trinity.

God is not a committee. As child, I pictured the Trinity as an old man, a young man and a bird. I understood vaguely that these three were somehow the same and yet different, though I never quite knew how. (I can’t honestly say that the question interested me very much back then.) I can also recall a diagram like the one below from my Sunday School days.

While this diagram lets us know what cannot be said about the Holy Trinity, it doesn’t help us much in puzzling through what we should be saying. There are many extremely poor analogies that well meaning Sunday School instructors have used to help small children “get” the Trinity. I fear that by repeating them, I will only make myself complicit in perpetuating the misunderstandings they spawn. Suffice to say that I think it is perfectly acceptable to respond to questions children might raise about the Trinity by explaining that some things require years of thinking and growing to understand. When it comes to God, there is always more to learn. That is another reason why going to church must be a lifelong practice rather than one you leave behind along with middle school.

One tempting but inadequate way of overcoming the “committee misnomer” is the “modalist” explanation for the Trinity. Quite simply, God is one, but reveals himself in three different modes: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This solves the problem of the three by denying their separate existence. You may be familiar with the example of the woman who is a mother, a doctor and a wife. Though she is a caregiver, a healer and a lover, she is one single person. In the same way, God creates as the Father, redeems as the Son and sanctifies through the Spirit while remaining one God. Though it has a surface logic to it and a humanizing appeal, this analogy is fatally flawed. First, though the woman in the analogy retains her personhood throughout her daily life, her roles dictate that she must relate differently to the people she deals with throughout her day. Clearly, moral and professional boundaries stand in the way of her expressing the kind of love she has for her husband to her patients.  Furthermore, if her husband or children were in need of medical care, she might well lack the objectivity required to provide that care despite her obvious competence. In a sense, this woman is required by her different roles to be a different person to each of the different groups of people in her life. I don’t believe we want to say the same about our God.

Another problem with this modalist outlook is that it obscures rather than reveals the true identity of God. After all, if the Father, Son and Spirit are nothing more than modes of the one God, they don’t really name God. If they are just modes through which God acts, we still do not know who God is. What is to stop us from supposing that there might be other modes of God? Furthermore, if the Triune invocation is merely descriptive of God’s functions, we could just as easily dispense with it altogether and replace it with more descriptive verbal nouns, such as creator, redeemer and sanctifier as some liturgies have in fact done. Clearly, the modalist path is not the one we want to follow. So forget the above analogy of the woman/doctor and delete it permanently from your memory drive.

In my own view, the most helpful expression of Trinitarian thought comes to us from St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine argued mainly against the notion that the Son, as begotten by the Father, was somehow inferior to the Father and so less than God. One of Augustine’s most potent counter arguments went as follows: God is eternal and God is love. For love always to have existed there must always have been a lover and a beloved. Therefore, the Trinity exists eternally as the Father (lover) who loves the son (beloved) and the Spirit (mutual love between lover and beloved).  On the Trinity, Book 8, ch. 10. The distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit lies not in their external acts, but in their dynamic relationship within God’s self. On the Trinity, Book 1 ch. 4. Augustine therefore also rejected the modalist notion that the persons of the Trinity can be differentiated on the basis of what they do. Indeed, we cannot speak of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit being solely responsible for any single external divine act. All of God’s acts are unitary acts of the whole Trinity. Even when the Scriptures attribute certain activities to one of the Trinitarian persons, the others are always present and equally involved. Jesus acts solely on the authority of the Father; the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and comes from the Father; the Father is known only through the Son who is in the bosom of the Father.

If you are still reading at this point, you must be wondering why any of this matters. It matters because the church has some definite things to say about God. God is not a question mark. While it is true to say that God is unknowable, God is not unknown. That is because God has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son to whom the scriptures bear witness. There is plenty about our God that remains a mystery to us, but the heart and character of God have been revealed. We are not blind men feeling up an elephant with no idea what we are encountering. (I am alluding, of course, to that perfectly ghastly poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe.)

Trinity matters because disciples of Jesus confess that self giving love for the other, loyalty, faithfulness and hospitality are not merely social conventions, evolved behaviors or even scriptural norms. They are virtues grounded in the very being and character of God where they are expressed perfectly within God’s Triune self. To be created in God’s image is to be capable of embodying the character of God, and this is no mere spiritual aspiration. It is concretely grounded in the reality of the incarnation-the Word of God made flesh in Jesus.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

I am not at all sure why this reading is included among the Holy Trinity lessons. It just happens to be one of the texts that the Arian heretics cited in support of their claim that the Son was a creature (albeit an exalted one) and in no sense true God. In this particular text, wisdom is not a pre-existent divine being distinct from God, but an aspect or characteristic of God who is poetically endowed with speech. Thus, it is largely irrelevant to the dispute between the Arians and the Orthodox Trinitarian believers. Still, it is a wonderful text testifying to the beauty and order of creation and the glory of its Creator.

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of poems and short sayings dating from as early as the tenth century B.C.E. to as late as the fourth century B.C.E. Unlike the Psalms which are for the most part expressions of prayer, praise, and lament within the context of worship, Proverbs is concerned with universal and pragmatic “wisdom” and the means by which it is acquired. Though clearly influenced by Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature, Israel’s understanding of wisdom has its own unique flavor. Though it shares with these foreign sources a humanistic focus on reasoned inquiry into the natural world, Israelite wisdom identifies the divine will and purpose as the ultimate human good wisdom reveals. Truth acquired through reason is open to the whole of humanity. Still, for Israel wisdom is subordinate to Israel’s God. It functions within the context of Israel’s covenants and the Torah.

In view of all this, it is not surprising that the particular poem in this week’s lesson affirms that wisdom, as wonderful as she is and though accessible to all willing to submit to her instruction, is nevertheless God’s creation. The human mind can do no more than appropriate what already exists by virtue of God’s creative activity at the dawn of time. Wisdom therefore necessarily takes the shape of Torah. It is not that Israel forsakes reasoned inquiry for blind adherence to law. Nor can it be said that Israel’s keen spirit of inquiry runs contrary to Torah obedience. Rather, Torah both shaped Israel’s questions of the natural world and informed her conclusions. Perhaps the clearest case of incorporation of wisdom into Torah is found in the very lengthy Psalm 119. Though the psalmist praises Torah as the source of all wisdom, it is obvious his/her own wisdom has been forged in the furnace of experience where Torah meets the challenges of every day life.

Psalm 8

This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.

The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware it when asking “what are human beings and their descendents that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.

It is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth]look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!

Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.

Romans 5:1-5

For Paul, the Holy Spirit is the animating force for the church which he regards as the Body of the resurrected Christ. As such, the Spirit’s primary concern is the health of that Body. Gifts of the Spirit given individually to members of the church are intended to “build up” the Body of Christ. Thus, it matters not at all which particular gift one has, but how one uses his or her gift. Whether one speaks in other tongues, prophesies, works miracles or exercises leadership, the net result must be that the church is strengthened. If leadership divides and alienates rather than unites or if miracles draw attention to the miracle worker rather than to the mercy of God in Christ, then these gifts become tools of Satan to break down the Body. Paul lays out all of this very succinctly in I Corinthians 12. Put differently, spiritual gifts must be exercised under the gentle reign of love. Of all the manifestations of the Spirit within the church, “the greatest of these is love” I Corinthians 13:13. That should help us understand what Paul is saying here in Romans.

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Vs. 5. Recall Augustine’s assertion that the Trinitarian character of God is revealed in the love between the Father and the Son which is the Holy Spirit. Genuine love, however, is not exclusive. It “overflows” the bounds of the relationships that give rise to it. Perhaps that is what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Love is ever seeking new objects. One of our more modern Trinitarian hymns contains the following line: “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412.  It is precisely because the one God is also three and because the relationship between the three is characterized by their mutual love and because love by its very nature makes room for the other, the Spirit of God, which is love, broods over the waters at the dawn of time seeking that other. The Word beckons the other into being and the Father blesses what comes to be. Again, this is not to say that the universe was the work of a committee. Rather, creation is a singular act of the Triune God which bears the stamp of that God’s innermost Trinitarian being.

It is perhaps clearer now why Jesus could say that the two greatest commandments are first to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Such love is grounded in the innermost being of God.

John 16:12-15

In this tightly packed paragraph from John, Jesus speaks of the interaction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and will lead them into “all the truth.” Yet the Spirit speaks not on its own authority, but on the authority of the Father. However, the Spirit imparts “truth” to the disciples by “taking what is mine [Jesus’) and declaring it to you.” The disciples are recipients of the Spirit who comes from the Father and whose sole job is to impart Jesus to them. Once again, the sending of the Spirit is a unitary act of the one Triune God by which the disciples are drawn into the heart of God’s Trinitarian life of mutual love. Not surprisingly, this section of John was a favorite of our friend Augustine on whom I have perhaps gone a little heavier than I should have.

Augustine’s Trinitarian arguments have often been criticized as mere word games. Yet I believe that there is a substantive basis for his insistence on the necessity of God’s being Triune. If God were merely one, could it still be said that God’s nature and character is love? Love needs an object. Consequently, if God were one and not Triune, love could not have preexisted creation as it would have had no object. The essence of God would then have to have been something other than love. Rather than being essential to God’s being, love would be only an acquired attribute.

While the above argument may not be fully air tight as a “proof” for the Trinity, it illustrates why a Trinitarian understanding of God is so critical to what we confess about God. God so loved the world precisely because God created the world out of an outpouring of love. God gave his only Son to save the world because that is what one does for a loved one. God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples enabling them to preach the good news of Jesus to the world because love always overflows its channels. What God does flows from who God is.