Tag Archives: Baptism

What is “eternal life?” A poem by May Swenson; and the lessons for Sunday, May 13, 2017

See the source imageSEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” I John 5:11.

In common parlance, “eternal life” is taken to mean life that never ends. But that is misleading on a couple of fronts. In the first place, no life that has a beginning can be considered eternal, even if stretches on indefinitely. Life that is eternal has no beginning just as it has no end. Thus, even assuming that we could somehow achieve immortality, we would not be in possession of eternal life.

Second, life that is merely an extension of our present existence is not “life” in the sense John uses it here. The “life” which is eternal is more than mere existence. It is life in God’s Son. The previous chapters of John’s letter and the parallel readings from John’s gospel have been emphasizing the relationship between “abiding” in Jesus and the commandment for the disciples to love one another. The two are actually one in the same. One knows love through the self-giving of Jesus who first loves us. I John 4:10. Reciprocal love for God on our part is expressed toward our sisters and brothers. I John 4:11-12. This love is eternal because it is grounded in the Trinitarian life of love between Father and Son. John 17:21. To have this eternal life is to abide in Jesus. In sum, it is quality, not quantity that distinguishes eternal life from life that is not eternal.

Eternal life does not lie somewhere in the distant future. It is present in the here and now where self-giving love is practiced among disciples within the church and beyond as those disciples are consecrated and “sent” into the world just as Jesus was consecrated and sent into the world. John 17:21. It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that Trinitarian love is released into the world and abides there through the church and its mission. When we live in the confidence of God’s love and forgiveness, we are living eternally. When we pour out our lives in service to our neighbors, we conform our existence to the eternal nature of God, which is love. I John 4:8.

None of this is to say that eternal life lacks a future dimension. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s pledge that life in him cannot finally be extinguished. Yet precisely because the “fruit that lasts” grows from life rooted in Jesus Christ (John 16:16), it is critical that each moment be lived in relation to Jesus. Otherwise, it is eternally lost. Thus, a robust belief in eternal life does not produce indifference toward the present in favor of “pie in the sky.” To the contrary, it impresses upon us with ever greater urgency the eternal significance of the present moment. To “have eternal life” is to be acutely focused on what matters eternally, that is, love.

Once again, the love of which the evangelist speaks is not to be confused with mushy sentimentality or a generalized good will toward humanity in the abstract. Love takes the concrete shape of our neighbor’s need, not our own craving for affection. Such love can be difficult, painful and disappointing. Sometimes it requires sacrifice. It might even require the surrender of life itself. But love is never wasted, even when it does not appear to produce results. Even when unrequited, genuine love brings joy because it unites us to the eternal nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Love, it turns out, is the one thing that matters.

Here is a poem by May Swenson about what matters.

What Matters

It may be that it doesn’t matter
who or what or why you love.
(Maybe it matters when, and for how long.)
Of course, what matters is how strong.

Maybe the forbidden, the unbelievable,
or what doesn’t respond—
what grabs all and gives nothing—
what is ghoul or ghost,
what proves you a fool,
shrinks you, shortens your life,
if you love it, it doesn’t matter.
Only the love matters—
the stubbornness, or the helplessness.

At a certain chemical instant
in early youth, love’s trigger is cocked.
Whatever moves into focus
behind the cross hairs, magnifies,
is marked for target, injected with
magic shot. But the target doesn’t matter.

Source: Poetry, February 1988. May Swenson (1913-1990) was born in Logan, Utah. She attended Utah State University, Logan, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1934. In 1935 she relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her life. Swenson has authored dozens of poetry collections for adults and children. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She was honored with the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read more about May Swenson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation Website and Poets.org.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

For those of you who will be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of June 1, 2014 for the appointed texts and my comments on them.

How does the church go about selecting an apostolic leader? The method chosen for the replacement of Judas appears to be a combination of communal judgment and a coin toss. Two capable leaders, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, were put forward, presumably after some deliberation. But rather than choosing one of these two men by vote, the disciples proceed by casting lots. There is, of course, precedent for this means of deciding matters in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Leviticus 16:8Number 26:55. Still, I find its use puzzling in this context. If God can be trusted to choose between the two finalists, why can’t God be trusted to select the right leader in the first instance? Why not place the names of all the disciples in a hat and hold a drawing? That would give God a much wider selection.

I suppose this episode reflects the uncertainty that is always involved with making choices like these. In the first instance, we make our best judgment. But judgment only takes you so far. A friend of mine who is involved in admissions for a fairly prestigious college once confided in me her discomfort with the selection process. “It’s easy to spot the truly brilliant applicants,” she said. “It’s also easy to weed out the bad apples. But after that, you are left with a large stack of applicants with high SAT scores, good grades and glowing recommendations. We can accept maybe a fourth of them. At this point, the selection process is pretty arbitrary.”

So it is for the church. I do my best to identify young people who I think might be called to ministry in the church. Seminaries and credentialing committees do their best to assist aspiring ministers in discerning their calls and to screen out persons clearly unfit for leadership in ministry. Congregations and pastors struggle in the call process to determine whether there is in fact a call to ministry for a particular individual to a particular church at a given point in time. But when all is said and done, we don’t really know what we are doing. The process can become arbitrary and sometimes grossly unfair. I have seen some promising leaders rejected by credentialing committees and congregational call committees that have gone off the rails. Similarly, I have seen more than a few persons sail through the process with flying colors only to crash and burn in ministry settings. When it comes to selecting our spiritual leaders, we have not come very far since the selection of Matthias to replace Judas.

We don’t hear anything about Matthias in the New Testament after he was enrolled with the apostles. The traditions about him are scarce, conflicting and, in my view, unreliable. That is unfortunate because I would love to know how he made out. Was he accepted as a full partner? Or was he treated as a second class apostle, given that he was not actually selected by Jesus himself? Where did he go and what did he do? Was he the “right” choice? Or would the disciples have done better selecting Joseph Barsabbas?

I suppose that, at the end of the day, we are always standing at the precipice of our ability to discern the will of God. When push comes to shove, we can only do our best and trust the Spirit to guide us and help us clean up the mess when we misread the signals. Thankfully, the Spirit has done that for us faithfully and well. The church has often chosen fools and scoundrels to lead us and has sometimes passed over fine and gifted people who might have contributed much. Nonetheless, the church has muddled along over the centuries managing to preach good news to a broken world and care for the souls of the faithful. That is comforting for me, particularly on those days when I doubt my own calling and wonder whether I am really where I belong. At times like that, it is good to know that I can pray, “Lord, I might be ill equipped, wrongly motivated and unsuited for ministry in this parish. But somehow or another, I wound up here and until you replace me, I’m all you’ve got. So help me out here!”

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.

Ascension faith asserts that God accomplishes judgment through Jesus, who is God’s right hand. Consequently, we must reinterpret the nature and meaning of divine Judgment through the lens of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. To employ Johanine terminology, the promised Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  John 16:8-11. It is impossible to understand what sin is apart from the world’s rejection of Jesus. So too, it is impossible to know the heart of the Father without recognizing that this rejected one is the one sent by the Father to give life to the world. The “ruler of this world” or Satan is overcome through the forgiveness of a God that will not be sucked into the vortex of retributive justice.

1 John 5:9-13

The Greek word for “testimony” found throughout this passage is “martyria,” from which we get our word “martyr.” From very early in the church’s history, testimony to Jesus as Lord included a willingness to die for such loyalty. Martyrdom in the early church demonstrated the depth of a disciple’s commitment to Jesus and so lent credence to his/her witness. Thus, if the community is strengthened by the witness of its own who have suffered for their testimony, how much more should the community be strengthened by the witness of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. It is in the sending of the Son and the Son’s willingness to die that God “witnesses” or “testifies” to the depth of God’s love for us. Our own suffering as a consequence of our witness is but a pale reflection of God’s sacrificial love. Yet in so testifying to Jesus, the believer “has the testimony in himself.” Vs. 10. Disbelief in the testimony of God to Jesus is not simply the denial of a doctrinal principle. It is a refusal to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and God’s deep love for the world. Such refusal makes God a “liar” and God’s promises unworthy of our trust. Vs. 10.

“This is the testimony, that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Vs. 11. Again, “eternal life” refers to more than just life’s duration. Life that is eternal is based on love grounded in the unity of the Trinity. It is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. Consequently, the disciples who live together in love such as the Father has for the Son are already experiencing “eternal life.” It bears repeating that such love is not an abstract principle or an inward disposition. It is expressed concretely in the person of Jesus-so much so that one who is without the Son is without eternal life. Vs. 12. Jesus is not an illustration, metaphor or example of eternal life or love. He is eternal life and love.

The whole point of John’s letter is to make his readers “know” that they have eternal life. Vs. 13. This “knowing” is relational. It has to do with knowing Jesus rather than knowing and accepting doctrines about him, though the latter have their place. It is finally through our relationships that we are shaped and transformed. To “abide” in Jesus is to know Jesus, to be a “friend” of Jesus as our lesson from the gospel would have it. According to John, we are ever “living into” Jesus, deepening our trust in him and our understanding of his very simple yet demanding command to love one another.

John 17:6-19

To get the full impact of this passage, it is essential that you read all of John 17. This chapter comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Beginning with the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs his disciples how they are to live together in the same Trinitarian love that exists between the Father and the Son. This love that will animate the community of disciples is the Holy Spirit, the presence of the resurrected Christ within the church. Chapter 17 concludes this discourse with a prayer that this Trinitarian unity will find expression in the disciples’ love for each other. Jesus prays that they may be one “even as we [Father and Son] are one.” Vs. 11.

Some might object to my use of the term “Trinity” in commenting on this text. But if I seem to be imposing Augustinian Trinitarianism on the text, it is because I think Augustine got this right. It is so that the disciples might know the unity of the Father with the Son that Jesus was sent into the world. Vs. 11. The Spirit, which is sent to bind the community together and draw the disciples deeper into their relationship with Jesus and love for one another, does no less than offer to the disciples “all” that was given to Jesus by the Father which, in turn, is “all” that the Father has. John 16:13-15. The gift of eternal life to a dying world is the Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and unites the community of disciples. It is through this unifying Trinitarian love that the world will come to know that the Father loves the Son who was sent into the world. John 17:21. Moreover, the world will finally understand the depth of God’s love for it when it witnesses the continued sending of the Son into the world through the disciples’ ministry, notwithstanding the world’s rejection.

The disciple’s loyalty to Jesus will provoke the same hostility that Jesus himself provoked:

“This community of Christians will be hated by the world, but Jesus does not wish to have them spared this hostility. So that the depth of his love might become apparent, Jesus himself could not leave the world without facing the hostility of its Prince (xiv 30-31). Similarly each of his followers must face the Evil One (xvii 15; cf. I John ii 15-17 on the allurements of the world) if eventually he is to be with Jesus.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 764.

Many commentators suggest that this anticipated hostility reflects the growing animosity between the Jesus movement and the Jewish Sanhedrin constituted at the end of the First Century:

“Thus the Fourth Gospel affords us a picture of a Jewish community at a point not far removed from the end of the first century. As we get a glimpse of it, this community has been shaken by the introduction of a newly formulated means for detecting those Jews who want to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate such Jews from the synagogue.” Martyn, J. Louis, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd Ed. (c. 1979 by J. Louis Martyn, pub. by Abingdon) p. 62.

However that might be, I believe that John understood the opposition faced by Jesus to be grounded not merely in the church’s dispute with the synagogue, but in a larger struggle against “the ruler of this world.” John 16:11. What transpires within the Jewish community is simply a microcosm of the cosmic battle with the evil one who coopts not merely the religious leadership but the imperial authorities as well. It is “the world” that finally rejects the Word by which it was made and that Word’s incarnation as the Son who is sent to give it life. It is the world also that is the ultimate beneficiary of the Son.

These lessons from John can help us focus on the significance of Jesus’ being at God’s right hand or, even better, being the right hand of God. We can dispel the notion that Jesus has gone away somewhere beyond the blue to return only in the distant future by pointing out that Jesus’ ascension makes him more intimately present to his church. Jesus is now God’s way of being in, dealing with and reigning over the world. The Incarnation is irreversible. God is and will ever remain human so that we might be made genuinely human.

Seeing the Parent in the child; a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera; and the lessons for Sunday, May 6, 2018

See the source imageSIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” I John 5:1.

One of the many memories that haunts and accuses me took place in the middle school lunch room on a cold, dreary spring day like this one. I was sitting alone at the opposite end of a long table from Candice. Candice was a short, shy, withdrawn girl who was more than just a little chubby. We had gone through elementary school together so I knew her well enough at least to say hello when I passed her and she would sometimes smile faintly and wave. On this particular day, a group of 8th Grade girls stopped by to inform Candice that she was ugly, fat, would never have a boyfriend and unloaded lots of other mean girl stuff besides. Candice was used to this sort of thing. She went on with her lunch as though her tormentors were not even present, though I am sure she was crying inside. Failing to get a response out of Candice, the girls lost interest and moved on. I remember watching all this through my twelve year old eyes, my stomach in knots, knowing I should be doing something to help, but not quite sure what. I felt much the same way watching comedian Michelle Wolf making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sander’s appearance at the White House correspondents’ dinner as Ms Sanders sat in full view of the audience just a few feet away.

Yes, I understand that there is a distinction to be made between Candice, who wanted only to be left alone to eat her lunch in peace, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an intelligent, articulate and attractive women who voluntarily thrust herself into the public eye. Nobody put a gun to Sanders’ head and compelled her to become the public face of Donald Trump. Understand that I don’t pity her for being criticized, mocked and lampooned for bobbing, weaving and feinting before the press. I have little sympathy for the loss of credibility she has suffered from defending the most indefensible statements and conduct of her boss. She knew very well what she was getting herself into when she signed on with the Donald. But it seems to me that mocking her personal appearance goes well beyond legitimate criticism and even political satire. That’s personal. It is designed to insult, hurt and humiliate. These remarks made about Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Ms. Wolf’s performance should be beneath us all. That Ms. Sanders has defended far more egregious and offensive remarks made by her boss and his cronies does not mitigate my view one wit. The high road is still the high road no matter how deep into the cesspool the low road might take you.

We have seen plenty of lows since the 2016 presidential campaign. We have seen the election of a man who mocks people with disabilities, makes openly racist remarks, brags about fondling women without their consent and lies with impunity. It is maddening to see day after day scandals that would have felled any president before him make not a single dent in the presidency of Donald Trump. I sometimes want to scream at the top of my lungs: “Are you people all just bloody stupid!” But in fact, as annoying as is Sarah Huckabee Sander’s dogged defense of her boss-who is beyond merely annoying-she is one of God’s children, a sheep for whom Jesus died. “To love the parent is to love the child,” Saint John tells us. This holds true even when the child has a name like Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Donald Trump.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the love of which Saint John speaks requires us to overlook or acquiesce in the evil works a person does. People who practice injustice, violence and cruelty need to be confronted and called to account. How much more those who propagate “lies of tongue and pen,” and “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” “O God of Earth and Altar,” by Gilbert K. Chesterton, Lutheran Book of Worship (c. 1978 by Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) # 428. Nonetheless, those of us who follow Jesus must know that we cannot afford to lose sight of the humanity of the people whose works we oppose. When we can no longer recognize ourselves and the image of Christ in a person, that person ceases to matter. When we no longer matter to each other, nothing matters, nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred. There is no longer any limit to the cruelty we can inflict on one another or to the lengths to which we can go to achieve a “win.”  We are in danger of being consumed by this new ruthlessness that has infected our politics, our entertainment and, sadly, our religion. We are in danger of becoming the mirror image of what we most hate in one another.

The church is called to be a community recognizing the holiness of persons. Disciples of Jesus know that the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of everyone encounter. Recognizing and serving the neighbor is the only way to honor God. To injure the soul of another human being-any human being-is to blaspheme God. Here is a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera calling upon us to recognize in the midst of these most brutal and unsettled times the humanity of all involved, victim and perpetrator alike.

@ the Crossroads-A Sudden American Poem 

       RIP Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police
officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith,
Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—and all
their families. And to all those injured.

Let us celebrate the lives of all

As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths

Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace

& chanted Black Lives Matter

Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect

Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,

Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke

Before we return to the usual business of our days, let us know their lives intimately

Let us take this moment & impossible as this may sound—let us find

The beauty in their lives in the midst of their sudden & never imagined vanishing

Let us consider the Dallas shooter—what made him

what happened in Afghanistan

what
flames burned inside

(Who was that man in Baton Rouge with a red shirt selling CDs in the parking lot

Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm

& a continent-shaped flood of blood on his white T who was

That man prone & gone by the night pillar of El Centro College in Dallas)

This could be the first step

in the new evaluation of our society    This could be

the first step of all of our lives

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 10, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets. (c. 2016 by Juan Felipe Herrera.)  Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948) was born in Fowler, California. His parents were migrant farmers who lived in trailers or tents along the roads of the San Joaquin Valley as they followed farm work throughout Southern California. Herrera graduated from high school in 1967, and attended UCLA on an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship. There received a BA in Social Anthropology. He received a master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Stanford in 1980, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990. Herrera is the author of many collections of poetry as well as books of prose for children.He has received fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, he received the L.A. Times Book Prize’s Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. You can find out more about Juan Felipe Herrera and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 10:44-48

This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord.

The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s scruples are resolved by an act of God filling his gentile hosts with the Holy Spirit enabling them speak in tongues. Vss. 44-46. His seemingly rhetorical question echoes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in or lesson from last Sunday: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Vs. 47; cf. Acts 8:36. A couple of things are noteworthy here. In the first place, the filling of the Holy Spirit precedes rather than follows baptism. Our theology of baptism has it quite the other way around-and rightly so. Baptism is given as God’s pledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us-even when there are no outward manifestations or inward feelings to substantiate it. As such, it is a great source of comfort. Nevertheless, God does not need baptism to impart God’s Spirit. We need baptism to remind us that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. Thus, baptism was quite properly administered to these newly Spirit filled believers to serve as God’s witness and vow that the Spirit they had just received would never leave them.

Second, this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon outsiders follows the trajectory established in the first chapter of Acts where the ascending Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. The church, however, seems reluctant to take the good news of Jesus so far so fast. I am sure that the leaders back at synod headquarters would have preferred to conduct a lengthy study into the theological basis for mission to the gentiles followed by a mission viability survey and vote at some subsequent synod assembly. But the Spirit will have none of that. The Spirit continues to push, prod and needle the church into action. Throughout the Book of Acts it seems the church is forever racing frantically to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Then as now, disciples of Jesus are frequently dragged kicking and screaming into God’s future. We are not in charge of the church’s mission-and a good thing that is!

Psalm 98

This is a psalm of praise celebrating a great victory won for Israel by God’s might. This victory might refer to the Exodus, the Return from Babylon or some other great act of salvation experienced in Israel’s history. Rogerson and McKay are probably right in saying that we cannot determine with certainty which of these events is intended, if any of them. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 226. Saint Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480.

“Newness” (as in “Sing a new song” vs. 1) is a recurring theme in the prophets, particularly in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55): “Remember not the former things; behold, I do a new thing…” Isaiah 43:18. So also in the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5. Notice also the refrain of “victory” or “yeshuath” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The word is actually from the root “yeshua” or “salvation,” root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vss. 4 and 9. Yet Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory.

“His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” Vs. 2. This is a figurative reference to divine power which alone is responsible for Israel’s victories. Ibid. It is worth remembering that when we confess that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, we are asserting that Jesus is that power through which God exercises God’s reign. The power of God is God’s patient suffering, refusal to resort to retaliation and determination to love us in the face or our stark rejection.

“[God] will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Vs. 9. As Professor Anderson points out, “[t]he verb ‘judge’ means much more than the English word suggests. It refers to the power to obtain and maintain justice and proper order-power which human rulers should have (“Give us a king to judge us,” I Sam. 8:6) but which, in the biblical view, is vested supremely and ultimately in God.” Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c.1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 179.

1 John 5:1-6

Saint John’s argument is maddeningly circular. First he tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” I John 4:12. This week he tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Vs. 2. It seems we cannot know and obey God without loving one another and we cannot love one another without loving and obeying God. It is similar to the impossible conundrum faced by so many college graduates: You need experience to get the job; but you also need the job to get experience. This is a lot like trying to shimmy up a greased pole!

Upon further reflection, though, I don’t believe it is a question of the starting point. We don’t necessarily find God in love for one another. A lot of what goes under the name of love is really lust, desire for control, need for self-affirmation and codependency. Most violent crimes occur within the context of domestic abuse. Much of what goes under the rubric of loving our children has more to do with living vicariously through them. Love of one’s own family, tribe or nation often has as its flip side distrust or outright hatred of outsiders. Love, as John points out, is not an abstract principle or mere sentiment. It is concretely exercised by God toward us in the sending of God’s Son. I John 4:10. Jesus is the shape love toward our sisters and brothers in Christ must take. Moreover, this community of love is sent into the word for which Jesus died, just as Jesus himself was sent. John 20:21-22. Thus, the relationship between believing in Jesus and loving your sisters and brothers is dialogical. Love becomes concrete or “incarnate” within the community of disciples, but is refined by the abiding presence of Jesus through whom repentance and forgiveness is freely offered.

The difficulty in preaching this text and that of the gospel which follows lies in the word “love,” a vacuous word in our language. How much meaning can any word have when I can use it interchangeably to describe both my feelings for my wife as well as my fondness for rum raison ice cream? Saint John, as I have said, anchors love in God’s sending of the Son and the Son’s sending of his disciples. This countercultural love transcends and supersedes all other social, familial and nationalist loyalties grounding itself in the One who was sent for the life of the world. In so doing, it undermines all systems of domination, whether tribal, patriarchal or nationalistic. Faith in Jesus thereby “overcomes the world.” Vss. 4-5.

John 15:9-17

The gospel reading builds on the lesson from the First Letter of John. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Vs. 9. Love is grounded in the Trinity. The love binding the community of faith together is not based on common interests, family ties or cultural heritage. It is the love that is the unity of the Trinity. God’s love for the Son is bound up with the sending of the Son, the beloved. So deeply did God love the world. John 3:16. The disciples are now invited to abide in that same Trinitarian love.

It is the nature of Trinitarian love that it “goes out” from itself. As the hymn has it, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” Lutheran Worship,(c. 2006 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 412. Just as love made room for the universe of space and time, so the sending of the Son makes space within the universe for that same pulsating Triune love. Love is not merely a human emotion or a humanly discerned philosophical/moral concept. It is the defining characteristic of the Holy Trinity pre-existing time itself. The same cannot be said of hatred, prejudice, jealousy, greed or any other vice. In fact, it cannot really be said of any other virtue either.

Trinitarian love is not hierarchical. Though I am hardly a student of doctrinal history, it seems to me that most, if not all, the heretical understandings of the Trinity rejected by the church have at least one thing in common: they created a hierarchy within the Trinity. It is surprising to me that a church that had become so rigidly hierarchical and so thoroughly patriarchal nevertheless rejected so many doctrinal models of the Triune God that subordinated the Son and/or Spirit to the Father in some way. Given the influence of the Empire over the Trinitarian disputes, this outcome is all the more remarkable. Perhaps we must simply attribute the church’s insistence on the unity and coequality within the Trinity to the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of rather than because of the church! Jesus makes clear that his relationship to his church is not a master/slave arrangement. It is through friendship that Jesus exercises his lordship over his disciples and will one day exercise it over all creation. To use Paul’s language, we are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation extending friendship with God to the world. II Corinthians 5:20. This is the “fruit that will last” about which John speaks. Vs. 16.

“…so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” vs. 16. Taken out of context, this promise is problematic. God does not give us everything for which we ask-nor should he. Half the time we don’t have any idea about what we really want. Seldom do we have the sense or courage to ask for what we need. If God were to start writing blank checks in response to prayer, I suspect we would very soon find ourselves living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Nothing is more dangerous to us than our desires. It is therefore critical to read this promise in light of Jesus’ commission to “bear fruit that lasts.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them all they need to bear faithful witness to the reconciling love of God in their midst and for the world.

Finally, Jesus’ admonition in verse 17 is worth raising up. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Much of the time the church has gotten that directive backwards. Rather than putting the commandments in the service of love, we have made our love and acceptance of people contingent on compliance with the rules. While the commandments are to be observed and obeyed, obedience to any single commandment is shaped by the greatest commandment to love one another.

The Bible on Earth Day; a poem by Jane Yolen; and the lessons for Sunday, April 29, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

In addition to being the fourth Sunday of Easter, yesterday was Earth Day. This international observance began when I was in the 8th Grade. I recall vividly my science teacher, Mr. Freeze, writing the word “ecology” on the blackboard and asking us if we knew what it meant. None of us did. Of course, everybody now knows (or should) that ecology is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. The word is actually a combination of two very biblical words, οἶκος, meaning “house, household or sanctuary” and λογos which means “word or message.” If you go back to chapter 14 of John’s gospel, you discover that when Jesus promises his disciples that “In my father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2), the Greek word οἶκος is used. Jesus uses the word to describe the temple in Jerusalem in John 2:16. Of course, λογos appears in John’s prologue as the “Word” which was in the beginning with God and…was God…and became flesh.” John 1:1-14. This week’s gospel further describes the οἶκος of God as a grape plant for which Jesus is the sustaining vine and God the Father is the tender of the vine and master of the household who prunes the branches in order that they may grow and produce fruit. The well-being of the branches depends on their connection to the vine and the care of the gardener.

Jesus frequently employs metaphors from agriculture and the natural world to speak about the mysteries of the kingdom. Such use presumes a solid understanding on the part of Jesus’ audience of the interrelatedness and interdependence of living things with their environment. The importance of this balance is reflected in Genesis where the first and only job given to the newly created earth creature, Adam, is that of tending God’s garden. Genesis 2:15. “The earth is the Lord’s,” declares the psalmist. Psalm 24:1. We are just the gardeners. Though the command given to the human race in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” has been the source of much mischief, we need to recall that the Hebrew word “CABASH” translated in Genesis 1:28 as “subdue” is the same word employed in God’s command for Israel to subdue the land of Canaan. Numbers 32:22; Numbers 32:29; Joshua 18:1. The subjugation of the land meant more than merely driving out Israel’s enemies. Very specific commands were given to Israel directing the people to care for the land and its non-human inhabitants. For example, trees were to be spared from the ravages of war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20. Egg producing birds were to be spared from slaughter. Deuteronomy 22:6-7. The sabbath rest mandated for all human beings, from king to servant, extended also to animals. Exodus 23:12. Moreover, the land itself was to be given a year’s sabbath rest from cultivation every seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. God was worshiped not only as the provider for human beings, but for all living creatures. Psalm 104:10-23. The Bible is big on ecology. In fact, insofar as the New Testament declares that God’s goal for the universe is the reconciliation of the world in Christ (II Corinthians 5:19), you could say that the Bible is all about ecology.

Ironically, the 19th Century, which gave us Darwin’s theory of evolution and ought to have made us even more sensitive to our interrelatedness and interdependence with all living things, brought instead a promethean confidence in technology to overcome any such dependence. The industrial revolution led to communities increasingly distanced from agriculture and segregated from the rest of the natural world. The earth came to be viewed as a ball of limited resources pitched against our unlimited thirst for greater wealth, power and control. Animals came to fall into three categories: food, pets and pests. Forests were felled to make way for civilization. Christian hope consisted in the salvation of one’s immaterial soul from the unnatural ravages of aging and death. The consequences of this disconnect were first recognized by a few lone voices in the mid 20th Century like those of Rachel Carson:

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species-man-acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world-the very nature of its life.” Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, (c. 1962 by Houghton Mifflin Company) pp. 5-6.

Since the publication of Ms. Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, the extent of environmental pollution has only increased across the face of our planet even as the danger it poses has become better understood. We find ourselves unable collectively to take the actions we know are necessary to avert future catastrophe. We are caught in a vortex of consumption driven by the profit motive of late stage capitalism. In the language of our liturgy, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” More than ever before, the Bible’s message of ecological redemption needs to be proclaimed. As Saint Paul points out, the creation waits with eager longing for the “revealing of the children of God.” Only so can it be set free from its bondage to decay imposed by human rebellion. Romans 8:19-25. Salvation in Jesus Christ is cosmic and inclusive of all creation or it is not really salvation at all.

Here is an earth day poem by Jane Yolen:

Earth Day

I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.
Each blade of grass,
Each honey tree,
Each bit of mud,
And stick and stone
Is blood and muscle,
Skin and bone.

And just as I
Need every bit
Of me to make
My body fit,
So Earth needs
Grass and stone and tree
And things that grow here
Naturally.

That’s why we
Celebrate this day.
That’s why across
The world we say:
As long as life,
As dear, as free,
I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.

Source: The Three Bears Holiday Rhyme Book. (c. 1995 by Jane Yolen, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jane Yolen (b. 1939) is a poet and writer of science fiction, fantasy and children’s literature. She was born in New York City. Yolen earned her bachelor’s degree at Smith College and a master’s in education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  She has honorary doctorates from Smith College, Keene State College, and the College of Our Lady of the Elms. Her work has been translated into almost two dozen languages. You can find out more about Jane Yolen and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 8:26-40

In our first lesson for this morning, Philip is instructed to “go toward the south…from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Vs. 26. This fits nicely with Luke’s overall story of the gospel’s spread from “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. Having begun in Jerusalem and having spread north to Samaria, the good news of Jesus Christ now travels south to meet a representative from the southern “ends of the earth,” namely, Ethiopia. As is common throughout Luke-Acts, this instruction to Philip comes from an angel of the Lord. Vs. 26. (See also, Luke 1:11-28Luke 2:8-21Acts 5:17-21Acts 12:6-17).

The Ethiopian Eunuch poses a seemingly simple question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” Vs. 36. But it’s not such a simple question at all. There are plenty of arguments to be made against baptism in this case. In the first place, this man is a eunuch. His testicles have been cut off, probably at birth, to make him fit for government office under the monarchy. That was a big problem for baptizing this Ethiopian into the renewed, Israel, the Body of Jesus. According to the scriptures, “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.” So says Deuteronomy 23:1. So there you have it. This Ethiopian fellow is a sexual deviant. He is an “abomination” and must be excluded. That the Ethiopian probably did not choose to be a eunuch is beside the point. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.

Of course, the Bible has more to say about eunuchs. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah declares:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,  I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”Isaiah 56:3-8.

Clearly, the Bible demonstrates changing views on “uncleanness,” “abomination” and who is included among God’s people. I cannot overemphasize that the Bible is a collection of many words, many voices and many perspectives. One cannot simply cherry pick the voice one fancies and ignore all the others. Moreover, the authoritative voice for disciples of Jesus is that of their master. Jesus Christ is the lens through which Scripture is read in order to hear properly God’s Word to us in the here and now.

The other obstacle to baptism is that this fellow is an outsider. Though he probably is of Jewish heritage (he wouldn’t be reading the Jewish scriptures if he weren’t), he was one of those “Diaspora” Jews, an ancestor of one of the thousands who fled Palestine after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. His ancestors were not among those who left everything in order to return to Palestine when the opportunity arose following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. His family was not among those who made the dangerous trek across what is now the Iraqi desert to resettle a land that was still in ruins and occupied by hostile, warring tribes. This Ethiopian’s lineage was not represented among those Jews who fought a fierce and bloody war for survival and independence against the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd Century B.C.E. He did not live in Jerusalem or pay the exorbitant taxes required to support the temple and its priesthood. He only came to worship on high feast days like Passover and Pentecost.

This Ethiopian is a lot like those members of your church that you only see on Christmas and Easter. They tell you all about how their parents were staunch members of this church, how they were baptized and confirmed in the church and how much their church means to them-and then they disappear for another year. And you want to say to them, “Where were you in November when the rest of us made a pledge of financial commitment to the mission and ministry of this church? Where were you when the council was meeting down in the undercroft until late into the night hammering out a budget for the coming year? Where were you when the basement flooded and we were all bailing like mad? By what right do you call yourself a member? By what right do you claim the cleansing waters of baptism?

I don’t know if questions like these were going through Philip’s mind when the Ethiopian asked him what was there to prevent his being baptized. But the Bible does tell us what Philip and the Ethiopian were talking about as that chariot made its way through the wilderness in Gaza. Philip was telling the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. Jesus, we know, had no scruples about including among his disciples people on the margins of polite society. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus laid his hands upon unclean corpses. Jesus shared a table with tax collectors and outcasts. So whatever reservations Philip may have had about baptizing this Ethiopian Eunuch, they were overcome by the good news coming from his own lips. At the end of the day, Philip simply could not see any obstacle between Jesus’ love and this man who needed it. The Spirit of Jesus broke the logjam of objections, prejudices, traditions and deeply held beliefs that stood between this Ethiopian outsider and the good news he so much needed to hear.

Psalm 22:25-31

This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at verse 25. Verse 22b marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.

I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g.Psalm 5Psalm 7Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.

It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.

1 John 4:7-21

“God is Love.” John Wesley has noted that “[t]his little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.” Wesley’s Notes on the BibleChristian Classics Ethereal Library. Indeed, love is the heart of God’s being, the unifying force holding the church together and the power by which the world is overcome. But this love is no abstract principle. As noted by one commentator:

“It is important not to confuse this dynamic of love with the sentimentality that passes for love in our culture. What is affirmed here makes our customary talk of love sound thin and gaseous by comparison. The kind of love initially regarded as sacrificial love (as in John3:16) has assumed awesome dimensions here. For one thing, love is regarded as constitutive for the community of believers. If we do not love, we cannot know God—which is like saying that without oxygen we would not be able to breathe. Having initially drawn breath, though, we are obliged to continue breathing and acting in love. Loving one another is mentioned several times in this text. We recognize it as something we do because we have first been loved by God.” Brusic, Robert M., “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World, (c. 1997 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) pp. 217-218.

God’s love is expressed concretely in the sending of his Son to “abide” among us. Vss. 10, 15. That term “abide,” which is critical both for the letters and the gospel of Saint John, makes clear that the sending of the Son was not an event fixed in the past. God has been sending his Son for as long as God has been speaking through the prophets. But when that Word became “enfleshed,” and came to “tabernacle” among us, God’s desire from the foundation of the world became complete. John 1:14. It cannot be over-emphasized that the Incarnation was not a temporary state for God. When God became human, God remained human and henceforth will always be human. Only so can God abide among us such that God is our God and we are God’s people. See Revelation 21:5-8. Though perfected in the age to come, this “abiding” begins even now within the community of disciples whose love for one another reflects the love God has for the Son and the love God demonstrates toward God’s people.

The Gospel of John, and even more John’s letters, have been criticized for their concentration of love within the community of the faithful. The missionary emphasis is lacking, it is claimed. But such a conclusion can only flow from a very superficial reading of John. As we saw from last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus has sheep that do not yet belong to his fold and need to be brought in so that there will be “one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. The whole purpose of the oneness of the disciples in love is “so that the world may believe that you [God] have sent me [Jesus].” John 17:23. Disciples of Jesus are called to be a countercultural community that testifies to an alternative way of being human. A community that lives the Sermon on the Mount is far more transformative than one trying to preach it into legislation, social action and reform of the existing order. Saint Augustine also recognized the outward thrust of John’s letters in his homilies: “Extend thy love to them that are nearest, yet do not call this an extending: for it is almost loving thyself, to love them that are close to thee. Extend it to the unknown, who have done thee no ill. Pass even them: reach on to love thine enemies. This at least the Lord commands.” Homily 8, St. Augustine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

“Perfect love casts out all fear.” Vs. 18. I would be rich if I had a quarter for every time I heard a preacher say “I fear.” “I fear for our teenagers and the pressures they face…” “I fear for the future of our children…” “I fear for our church in the coming decades…” I am as cognizant as anyone of the dangers we encounter, the temptations in front of us and the challenges we face both as believers and simply as human beings. Prudence and caution are always warranted, but fear must never be part of the equation. Whenever we go into survival mode, we invariably make foolish, faithless and shortsighted decisions that bite us in the end. If the universe is the creation of a God whose determination to bring it to perfection is demonstrated by God’s “putting his own skin in the game,” sending his only begotten Son to abide with us at the cost of his crucifixion, then there is no room for fear. We cannot lose this game. We can only forfeit our opportunity to play on the winning team for fear of getting dirty, beat up and sore.

John 15:1-8

The Hebrew Scriptures frequently employ the “vine” metaphor in speaking about Israel. See Isaiah 5:1-7Isaiah 27:2-6Psalm 80:8-16Jeremiah 2:21Jeremiah 6:9Jeremiah 12:10-13Ezekiel 15:1-8Ezekiel 17:5-10Ezekiel 19:10-14Hosea 10:1-2Hosea 14:7. That being the case, one might expect Jesus to say that “we” or “you” are the vine inasmuch as the community of disciples represents the renewal of Israel. Instead, Jesus employs the “I am” construction seen throughout the gospel calling himself the vine. One might argue, as some commentators have, that the metaphor is problematic because its use is principally associated with judgment upon Israel’s failures. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John (c. 1991 by Eerdmans) p. 513. The image fits nicely into John’s incarnational thought, however. “[I]t is a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” Brown, Raymond, E., The Gospel According to John XIII –XXI, The Anchor Bible (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 670. The indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ will animate the community of faith through which the ministry of Jesus will continue. Like the vine to which all branches cling and from which they derive their sustenance, Jesus is the source of life and power to which the disciples must cling.

The disciples are branches whose life and fruit bearing capacity depend on their connection to the vine. Apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. Vs. 4. Again, the key term “abide” is used to emphasize the indwelling of Jesus among his disciples. Vs. 4. Abiding in Christ is a life and death matter. Branches that do not “abide” in the vine wither, die and must be burned. By contrast, fruitful branches are pruned in order to make them more fruitful still. Vs. 2.

What does Jesus mean by saying that his Father is glorified as the disciples “bear much fruit” and so “prove” that they are his disciples? Clearly, the chief fruit is love among the disciples. Indeed, it is by their love for one another that the disciples will be known as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. This love, however, is not a passive emotion. Because the Spirit of Jesus is at work inspiring love among his disciples, they will do not only the works Jesus has done during his ministry, but even “greater works than these.” John 14:12. As God’s alternative humanity, the church will invariably collide with the old system of loveless domination and exploitation. This is a community that has been sent into the world just as Jesus was sent into the world. John 20:21. Because a servant is not above his master, the disciples can expect the same resistance and rejection Jesus receives. John 15:20. The cross is the shape love invariably takes in the midst of a sinful world.

Stanley Hauerwas has often said that the church is a people whose lives are incomprehensible apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus says much the same thing later on in the chapter.

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19If you belonged to the world,* the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19.

Of course, the world has many good reasons for hating Christians that have nothing to do with faithfulness to Jesus. The degree to which we are not liked is a poor barometer by which to measure the effectiveness of our witness. Nonetheless, we ought to be somewhat concerned at the ease with which the church has been able to fit into the Americana landscape over the last couple of centuries. If the church’s life and ministry would look just as sensible if we were to dismiss Jesus altogether, something is clearly out of whack.

Living toward death; a poem by W.S. Merwin; and the lessons for Sunday, March 18, 2018

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Truly, Truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24.

Technically, I suppose, that is not entirely correct. The seed remains “alive” even when it falls into the earth, however lifeless it might appear-or does it? In his recent book, Sex and the Origins of Death, Professor of Immunology William R. Clark makes the following observation concerning bacterial spores:

“Apparently, then, a spore is not dead-but why not? If it shows absolutely no evidence of life, can it truly be considered a living thing? What property does it retain that allows us to define it as alive? Reversibility of the deathlike state is an intuitively attractive way out of the dilemma, but what exactly does that mean? We know that gradually, over time, spores fail to respond to the conditions favorable to growth by reviving. Did such spores “die” during the spore period? If so, what was different about them before and after they died? What thin line did they cross? If we cannot answer such questions, we really cannot understand what death is. These questions are as difficult for biologists as they are for philosophers.” Clark, William R., Sex and the Origins of Death, (c. 1996 by Oxford University Press)  p. 142.

Evidently, the line between life and death is not as clear cut as we like to think. But in any event, until a seed hits the soil where it meets “the conditions favorable to growth,” it is, like the spore, for all intents and purposes “dead.” A seed can remain in a state of dormancy similar to death for centuries only to revive again when planted. Yet the likelihood of that outcome decreases the longer a seed remains “alone” without being planted. For the good of the seed, for the good of all who may benefit from its fruit, the seed must “fall into the ground.”

This is not a welcome word for a death denying culture like our own. It strikes me as odd that even institutions created to assist us in death avoid using this dreaded word. The funeral industry, hospice providers and even a lot of religious organizations pile up euphemisms thick and fast to cover up the stench of that stark reality. Yet that is precisely where we need to make clear that belief in Jesus’ resurrection and our own is not all about avoiding the unpleasant reality of death or somehow escaping its reach. In this the biblical authors part company with a lot of religious dogma positing the survival of the soul or some other part of us following death of the body. The Bible is clear about one thing: Nothing survives death. If there is anything for us beyond death, it is only because God makes of what is dead something new. That something new is as qualitatively different from what has died as the blooming plant is from the sown seed. If there is continuity between the two, it is only because the resurrected Christ is even now fashioning within us the “the pattern in the seed” someday to be seen “with new eyes.” “Behold the Host Arrayed in White,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 425 (c. 1978, Augsburg Fortress).

It seems to me that disciples of Jesus are required to live with a greater awareness and anticipation of death. That is not to say that they are to be morbidly preoccupied with death. Rather, they are mindful that life is a freely given yet limited and precious commodity. They understand, too, that life’s purpose and meaning outlasts it. Precisely because God promises to raise up the dead and weave them into the fabric of a new creation, it is critical to give God as much to work with as possible in whatever time one has. Jesus invites us to throw every minute of our lives into the things that matter eternally, reconciliation, peace, justice and compassion-the stuff of which God’s reign is made. For some, as for Jesus, that means a premature death. But disciples of Jesus know that living long is not nearly as important as living well.

None of this is to say that death is good or that it is merely an illusion or that it is just a “door into a better place” as a friend once inartfully put it. Death is an ordeal both for the dying and for those they leave behind. There is nothing good about it. That said, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst thing that can happen is that you will “remain alone,” that you will never pour out your lifegiving baptismal potential into the world for which Christ died, that you will live your whole life without ever learning what it is for, that you will die long before you stop breathing. Death is a tiger. It will never be your friend, but if you run from it, it will take you down all the faster.  For people who make a habit of facing down the tiger, of dying daily to sin, dying daily to yesterday’s losses, dying daily to the cycle of tit for tat, the ever-elusive promise of material security and the lure of power, wealth and fame, the tiger loses its power to terrify and paralyze. The day of death turns out to be just another day.

Here is a poem by W.S. Merwin speaking to the awareness and anticipation of death in the midst of life.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Source: The Second Four Books of Poems (c. 1992 by W.S. Merwin, pub. by Copper Canyon Press).  W.S. Merwin, born in 1927 in New York City, spent his formative years growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and began writing hymns for his father when he was only a child. He graduated from Princeton University in 1948. In addition to writing his own poetry and prose, Merwin is also a prolific translator of poems. His awards include fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. You can read more about W.S. Merwin and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Israel understood God and her relationship to God not on the basis of theological assertions about God or philosophical ideas about God, but through a series of historical covenants with God. God’s heart, mind and will for Israel were discerned through the living out of those covenants in obedience to Torah, a body of law that shaped Israel’s worship, commerce, community life and her relationship with other nations. According to the Deuteronomist, the glory of Israel was the wisdom and understanding gained through her obedience to Torah. Deuteronomy 4:6. Jeremiah was on the same page with the Deuteronomist on this score. He was probably a young man when, under King Josiah, Judah undertook significant reforms, purging the land of idolatry, restoring the temple in Jerusalem that had fallen into disrepair and strengthening the institutions of worship. See II Kings 23.

While Jeremiah likely approved of these reforms, he learned through bitter experience that, in themselves, they were insufficient for restoring Israel’s heartfelt obedience to her God. “The heart” he observed, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9. In the hands of a perverse and godless people, even the Torah becomes an instrument of injustice. “How can you say, ‘We are wise and the [Torah] of the Lord is with us?’” Jeremiah asks. “[b]ehold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Jeremiah 8:8. For this reason, Jeremiah believed that a new covenant was required. Understand, however, that a new covenant is not synonymous with a new law. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the body of law given through Moses needs neither replacement nor supplementation. It is the heart of Israel, not the Torah that must be changed.

A covenant is not a legal contract, though it does stipulate terms for living within it. It is best to think of a covenant as a relationship. Jeremiah compares it to a marriage. Vs. 32. The core of every marriage is fidelity. Whatever rules and statutes govern that marriage, they are not the essence of the marriage. They exist to protect, strengthen and enhance the marriage. If there exists no bond of fidelity, there is nothing for the laws to protect. When God enacts a covenant, it never begins with rules. First comes the promise. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it was the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. In the case of Sinai, the giving of the law was preceded by God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to protect Israel’s new gift of freedom and to keep her from becoming another Egypt. Thus, Jeremiah looked forward to some new saving act of God that, like the two aforementioned covenants, would melt Israel’s stubborn unbelief. Through this new saving event, God would once more give Torah to the people of Israel, not on tablets of stone, but engraved upon their hearts.

It is important to appreciate both the continuity and discontinuity between this anticipated “new” covenant and the “old” covenants of Sinai and the patriarchs/matriarchs. As in the past, this new covenant would be initiated by the free act of Israel’s God. Some saving intervention of God in the human story would prove to be as compelling as was the call to Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt. The only conceivable response to such gracious acts of salvation is thankfulness from which genuine obedience flows. Torah will no longer be a means of establishing obedience. Its role will be to channel that outpouring of newfound thankfulness inspired by what God will shortly do. Rather than being an objective authority imposed from outside, Torah will be internalized and written upon the heart. Vs. 33. This covenant is consistent with God’s merciful intent for Israel expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It will be “new” in the sense that Israel will have another wonderful experience of that merciful intent renewing her ancient faith and enriching her narrative.

A new covenant was sorely needed. The promised land, the temple, the line of David and many other hallmarks of the prior covenants would soon be lost with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. What would it mean to be Israel without all of these things? Was such an existence even possible? Jeremiah’s answer is a resounding “yes.” God is far from finished with Israel. The exile, to be sure, was God’s just punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. But it is not only that. God is laying the groundwork for a new salvific act through which God’s faithfulness will be manifested and Israel’s faith restored. This is a good word for individual believers and churches experiencing loss and facing an uncertain future. God never makes an end of things except to make a new beginning.

Psalm 119:9-16

For my general observations on the form and content of Psalm 119, see my Post for September 7, 2014.  This psalm is the longest of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the second section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Bath.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would have evaluated what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

Our section of the psalm begins with a question: “How can a young person keep his/her way pure?” The answer comes in the very next sentence: “by guarding it according to thy word.” Vs. 9. This is precisely what the prophet Jeremiah told us must happen and it is significant that this psalm was composed long after the prophet’s time. We might see this psalm as something of a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. “I have laid up thy word in my heart,” says the psalmist. Vs. 11. The people of Judah not only survived the Babylonian conquest and exile, but learned through that and subsequent experience to internalize Torah.

The psalmist understands, as did Jeremiah, that Torah cannot be learned. It must be taught and taught chiefly by the God who gives it. Thus, s/he prays, “teach me thy statutes!” vs. 12. Because the psalmist trusts God to teach, s/he is diligent in “declaring,” “meditating” and “fixing [his/her] eyes” on Torah. This is no burdensome and onerous task. To the contrary, the psalmist “delights” in Torah and vows not to “forget thy word.” Vss. 13-16. The psalm is a testimony both to the transformative power of Torah and the blessedness of the life by which it is shaped.

In order to make sense out of this psalm (the entire Bible for that matter), we need to see the covenant community that formed the prayer and which, in turn, is formed by it. The statutes about which the psalmist sings are those given by the God who promises an aged, barren, childless nomadic couple a land, a people and a blessing. They are given to slaves, a people that was no people, but who have now been liberated and called to freedom. They are laws given by the God who sets rulers over his people, not to reign as gods, but to be God’s representatives of justice for the widow and the orphan. Psalm 119 is the payer of individuals, families and communities struggling to live as the people of this marvelous God. Seen in that light, the study of Torah is an invitation to enter into the marvelous narrative of Israel’s history with her God, not the dry and onerous study of mind numbing rules we might otherwise imagine it to be.

Hebrews 5:5-10

To recap what I have written before, I do not view the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism as some commentators do. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the consummation of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Jewish disciples of Jesus who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For disciples of Jesus it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews, both those who accepted Jesus as messiah and those who did not. For the most part, the Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah and the synagogue as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands” (John 2:19-22) and in the community of faith called church Christ’s bodily presence. I Corinthians 12:27. So the writer’s objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the mission of Jesus and his continuing presence with the church fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.

Our lesson for Sunday speaks of Jesus as the new “High Priest.” Vs. 5. “The essential concept underlying priesthood in the ancient world, among both Jews and Gentiles, was that of mediatorship between the divine and human, by virtue of the priest’s superior knowledge of, or power of communication with, the supernatural.” Shepherd, M.H., Jr., “Priests in the New Testament,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 889. Though likely in existence in some form from ancient times, the office of high priest came into prominence following the return from exile in Babylon and the reconstruction of the second temple around 520 B.C.E. In the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the high priest, Joshua, appears to hold power comparable to Zerubbabel the Persian appointed Jewish governor of Judah. Haggai 1:1Haggai 1:12-14Haggai 2:2Zechariah 6:9-13Zechariah 3-4. “With the disappearance of the Davidic line, it was inevitable that the postexilic high priest should acquire much of the power and prestige which formerly belonged to the king.” Abba, R., “Priests and Levites,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 887. The priesthood was hereditary, being tied exclusively to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. As the writer of Hebrews points out, “one does not take the honor [of priesthood] upon himself, but he is called by God just as Aaron was.” Hebrews 5:4. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the decimation of the priesthood and the termination of sacrificial worship, the question becomes: How does one properly worship the God of Israel?

As noted previously, the answer lay in Torah and the synagogue for most Jews. The Pharisaic tradition, which had championed this perspective all along, became the definitive shape of Judaism going forward. The priesthood had no further relevance. For disciples of Jesus, the priesthood was understood to have been assumed by Jesus whose offering of his life atoned for sin and created a new and better avenue of approach to God. Jesus was understood among his disciples as God’s true high priest from an entirely different lineage than that of Aaron, namely, the line of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek is an obscure figure who makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s (later Abraham) cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abram formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abram as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abram and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abram with the words:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave [Melchizedek] one-tenth of all the spoils of his victory.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4. It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek and his lack of genealogy or history that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice.

In my former life as an attorney, I knew a judge who, when confronted with a trial adjournment request for a case that had already been sitting on the docket for years would blurt out, “and when did the accident take place? Back when Christ was a corporal in the Marine Corps?” What interests me about this profane remark is its rather poor theology. It implies that Jesus started out at the lower echelons of human existence and worked his way up through the ranks to become God’s Son-a sort of spiritual Horatio Alger myth. Actually, one could get that impression from an over hasty reading of verses 7-10 in our lesson. It is important to note, however, that Jesus was at all times God’s Son. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Vs. 8. What he “became” was not God’s Son (which he already was) but “the source of eternal salvation.” Vs. 9. His “perfection” was the life he lived in the “flesh,” the only life that ever was genuinely human. And being human in the way God desires and in the way that God is human when God is incarnated in human flesh entails an obedience which, in a sinful world, leads inevitably to suffering.

The other psalm citation by the writer of Hebrews is found in Psalm 2. Like Psalm 110, this is also a coronation hymn likely used for the crowning of a Judean king in the Davidic line. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. Like the priesthood, so also the royal line of Judah came through God’s anointing. In the case of the psalm, the term “begotten” is clearly figurative. For the New Testament writers, the term took on a more profound meaning in the description of Jesus’ person and ministry. One might wonder why the writer chose a coronation hymn like this when his/her focus was clearly on Jesus’ priestly function. As Psalm 110:4 and the duel offices of Melchizedek illustrate, however, the royal and priestly functions were blurred from ancient times. The objective is to show that the priestly functions of the temple ministry and priesthood have passed to Jesus and his active presence in the life of the church. Like the lesson from Jeremiah dealing with the destruction of the first temple, so this reading from Hebrews helping disciples of Jesus to come to terms with the destruction of the second temple speaks words of comfort and hope to a church that has come to believe its best days are behind it.

John 12:20-33

Sunday’s lesson is taken from the closing chapter of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. We are in the midst of John’s Palm Sunday narrative. Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from a predominantly Greek speaking region is approached by “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus. Scholars wishing to delve into the so called historical basis for this encounter suggest that these Greeks were actually Greek speaking Jews from the diaspora coming to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. However that might be, John wishes to emphasize their “Greekness” and identify them with gentiles. These are “the other sheep that are not of this fold” who must be brought in so as to heed Jesus’ voice. John 10:16.

This episode marks a significant turning point. Jesus has said repeatedly throughout the prior chapters that his “hour had not yet come.” John 2:4John 7:30John 8:20. But the coming of the Greeks signals that now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Vs. 23. How is the glorification of the Son of Man to take place? Jesus leaves little doubt: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Vs. 24. Jesus’ death will be his glorification. We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ death glorifies Jesus precisely because it is the natural, legally anticipated consequence of his life of perfect obedience to the Father. Jesus is what genuine humanity looks like. He is also what the heart of the Father looks like. For this incarnate life there can be only one end in a world that shuns the light and chooses darkness.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Vs. 25. These are difficult words for a culture that values enjoyment of life, that believes the pursuit of happiness to be a fundamental human right and that strives for comfort above all. But the truth from which we hide is that our comfort in this society comes at a terrible cost to the rest of humanity, to the earth’s biosphere and to our capacity for empathy and compassion. It seems to me that there is much to hate about the way we live. As noted last week, the term “eternal life” as used by John refers not chiefly to life’s duration but to its orientation. Life that is lived in relationship to Jesus is shaped by the love binding the Trinity as illustrated in Jesus’ prayer at John 17. Such love is directed toward the world to which the Son was sent to give life. John 3:16. We are compelled to ask how much of our living is “eternal,” that is, grounded in the love of the Father for the Son, love of God for the world and love for one another. If we cannot take a look at our lives in the light of truth and hate what we see, how can we ever arrive at life that is eternal? “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” Vs. 26. These words should dispel once and for all the notion that “Jesus bore the cross so that we would not have to.” In reality, bearing the cross is a privilege. It is our opportunity to escape from a selfish, consumer driven and destructive existence that we should have learned by now to hate. It is sheer grace for those who have eyes to see it.

John’s gospel does not have a Transfiguration story as do Matthew, Mark and Luke. Verses 27-33 serve many of the same literary purposes, however. The voice from heaven both glorifies Jesus and declares that his name will be further glorified. The voice is directed to the disciples and, in John’s gospel, to the Palm Sunday crowd as well. There are echoes also of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in vs. 27 where Jesus resists the temptation to ask the Father to save him from the hour of suffering. As in the three other gospels, so also in the gospel of John, Jesus is a fully human person no more eager to suffer and die than anyone else.

“Now is the judgment of this world.” Vs. 31. This will in fact be a double judgment. The world will judge Jesus and Jesus’ condemnation and death will be God’s judgment on the world. The cross will bring to full light the world’s hostility toward the Father in all of its ugliness. More importantly, though, it will bring to light the Father’s love for his fallen world. The world will be exposed for what it is and God will be exposed for who God is. In this the “ruler of this world” is cast out. In the cross, the devil had his best shot at rupturing the love that holds the Trinity in unity and the love of the Triune God for creation. He took it and scored a bull’s eye. But the devil’s strongest punch could not take Jesus out. It could not induce Jesus to abandon his mission. It could not induce God to retaliate for the murder of his Son. The love of the Father for the Son remains intact as does the obedience of the Son to the Father. God’s love for the world is still as strong as ever despite the cross. The devil couldn’t crack the Trinity.

 

Love makes room for another to be; a poem by Jalal al-Din -Rumi; and the lessons for Sunday, January 7, 2018

See the source imageBAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

In the beginning God said “let there be” and there was. That is already grace. God had no need to create anything. God was not lonely, nor did God make the universe out of boredom. God was fully sufficient in God’s self, the Father passionately loving the Son with that love that is Spirit. Yet, in another sense, creation was necessary. It was necessary because genuine love is forever looking beyond itself. By its very nature, it overflows its banks giving life to everything it touches. Thus, although God had no need for anything beyond God’s Triune self, “the three in love and hope made room within their dance.” “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” Leach, Richard, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412 (c. 2001 by Selah Publishing Co., Inc.). In creation, God generously makes room for us to be. In the person of his Son, God breaks down the walls of isolation, exclusion and rejection that manifest themselves within our human experience of brokenness. In Jesus, God makes room for the outcast, the sinner, the hungry, the poor- the very “least” by our hierarchical standards of judgment-to draw near to God’s self.

We should perhaps pause and think about what it means for love to be understood simply as “that which makes room for the other.” Love is a word used rather loosely in our nomenclature. I can as well say, “I love ice cream” as I can say “I love my wife.” But are these two “loves” even remotely similar? A lot of what passes for love is neither life giving nor liberating. Love that is possessive and controlling smothers its object with jealousy and distrust. Parental love that does not free our children to become the unique individuals they are destined to become, but seeks to channel their lives into what we deem to be in their best interests is hurtful and destructive. Love for one’s country that closes borders, restricts immigration and imposes arbitrary religious, social and cultural norms on the whole population is far from anything like true patriotism. Genuine love, as Saint Paul reminds us, is “patient…kind…and does not insist on its own way…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7. Love makes room for a person to be and become who he or she is-whether or not I like it, approve of it or agree with it.

Too much that passes for Christian discipleship these days has been shaped by love that seeks to constrict rather than make room for the other. The good news of Jesus Christ was never meant to be imposed as a cultural norm. For that reason, the very notion of a “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. God has no use for nation states. God neither needs nor desires defenders. God seeks witnesses to the good news that there is room in God’s heart for all people-even those who do not believe in God; even those who misunderstand God; even those who hate God; even those whose actions grieve the heart of God. Witnesses have no obligation to defend, refute or persuade. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. To love someone is to make room for them to be in God’s presence without judgment or condemnation. It is to allow the Holy Spirit all the time that is necessary to do her work in the heart of the other and, most importantly, accept the outcome.

Our gospel lesson invites us to focus on Jesus. As we are drawn into his orbit of influence, our lives are transformed. And yes, we are called upon to make room in that dance for all others we encounter. Some will join in the dance, learn its subtle steps and movements, fall into the rhythms of worship, prayer, giving and witness. Others will follow another path. There we would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:40. It is not for us to convert the world to any particular religious, moral or political vision. In truth, our understandings of these things are far too unsure, shifting and tentative to serve as an absolute norm. We are called only to make room for our neighbors-be they Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or whatever else to grow into the image of their Creator in whatever way the Spirit directs.

Here is a poem about creatively “making room” for which another name might be “hospitality.”

This, Being Human, is a Guest House.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
[S]he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jalal al-Din -Rumi

Source: Garmon, Rev. Meredith, “Radical Hospitality,” Liberal Pulpit, 2015/11/10 (trans.Coleman Barks).  Jalal al-Din Rumi was one of the greatest poets of the Sufi Muslim tradition. He lived and worked during the 13th century. Rumi was already a teacher and theologian in 1244 when he encountered a wandering dervish (a Muslim ascetic) named Shams of Tabriz. Spiritually inspired by the dervish to find God in worldly experiences, he founded the Mevlani Order of the Sufi sect. Find out more about Jalal al-Din Rumi and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 1:1-5

To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.

Our lesson, the opening to a 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. 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?

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.

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.” If you were to read further, you would discover that 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.

Of particular significance for the Baptism of Our Lord is the interplay between the “Spirit of God moving over the waters,” the speech of God crying “Let there be,” and the result: “and there was.” It is unfortunate that the lectionary folks did not pair this reading up with John 1:1-18, our gospel for last week. There is a clear correlation between these opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures and John’s prologue to his gospel in which he recites how the Word was in the beginning with God, was God and was the means by and through whom all things were made. John 1:1-3. It is fitting, too, that Jesus should be announced by John, the one who baptizes with water. Water, Word and Spirit are interwoven throughout both these readings. Baptism brings us terrifyingly close to “the deep” where all order, coherence and consciousness are dissolved. To be blunt, baptism kills us. Yet the waters that drown and destroy also hold the potential for life. Water is critical to life and makes up a substantial piece of what we are as creatures. We cannot live without water, nor can we live comfortably with it. The Spirit, however, moves these waters toward their creative pole. The word gives the formless deep a form. So what is dissolved in the waters of baptism is called forth newly constituted.

Psalm 29

Most commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. E.g., Gaster, T.H., “Psalm 29,” JQR 37 (1946) pp. 54ff cited by Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 261; see also Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 142. It is also possible to maintain that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai.

The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly problematic for those of us affected by severe storms. Are these destructive storms God’s doing? Does God send them or just allow them to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?

I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps our problem is rooted in our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded through insurance, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits?  I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.

Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either.  No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.

But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (c. 1950 by Estate of C.S. Lewis; pub. by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.) pp. 73-74. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror.  The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!

Last Sunday John pointed out to us that God’s creative word became flesh. God entered fully into the adventure of being human in a creation filled with mystery, wonder, beauty and terror. Baptism into the name of this Triune God is to join in the adventure of becoming fully and truly human.

Acts 19:1-7

It appears that a distinct community of John the Baptist’s disciples continued to exist well into the New Testament period. Whatever the baptism of John was all about, it surely did not include the name of Jesus. Thus, it is not surprising that, upon becoming associated with the church, these disciples of John should be baptized into Jesus Christ. Of what, then, did this new baptism consist? Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to the baptism of the believers in our lesson “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:

“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.

I must admit that I don’t know what theological sense to make out of the chronology in this brief snippet from Acts. Preaching comes first; then comes baptism and after that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word and baptism. But one of those things or both seems to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this passage, I prefer simply to take it as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.

Mark 1:4-11

Mark tells us less about Jesus’ baptism than any of the other gospels except for John who tells us nothing about it. Mark’s introduction to John the Baptist, though brief, is pregnant with suggestive imagery. The Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” As Commentator Morna Hooker points out, Israel’s long sojourn in the wilderness became a metaphor for her captivity in Babylon and hence associated with the idea of a new Exodus. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 36. Some of the Hebrew prophets looked back to these years spent in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land as an ideal period. Ibid. In the wilderness, Israel had none but God to rely upon and so her relationship with God was naturally closer. See Jeremiah 2:2Jeremiah 31:2Hosea 2:14Hosea 9:10; and Amos 5:25. From this outlook there developed a strong conviction that final salvation for Israel would have its beginning in the wilderness where the messiah would first appear. Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 42.

Mark’s description of John is filled with images pointing to his prophetic role. His camel hair robe might suggest the “hairy mantle” associated with professional prophets in Zechariah 13:4. Mark’s description of John’s leather belt is an echo of the description of Elijah in II Kings 1:8. By this time Elijah’s role as harbinger of the messianic age was deeply ingrained in Jewish consciousness. See Malachi 4:5-6. Mark’s audience needed no further explicit citations to scripture to understand that John was to be understood, if not as Elijah himself, then surely as a prophet fulfilling Elijah’s eschatological mission. It is in this light that we must understand his declaration that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Vs. 8. The point here is that John is merely the prophet who goes before the Lord preparing the Lord’s way.

Yet I think it far too simplistic to assume that Mark’s only or even chief purpose is to undermine the importance of John the Baptist whose community might still have been in existence competing with the church for Israel’s allegiance. John plays a critical literary/theological role in Mark’s gospel. So far from detracting from Jesus, his ministry sets the stage for Jesus’ revealing. That is where the baptism comes in. Again, I am not convinced that the early church was “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism under John. Whatever ecclesiastical embarrassment there might have been over this event arose much later as a result of distorted notions of what constitutes “sin,” truncated understandings of “repentance” and inadequate models of atonement that could not accommodate Jesus’ undergoing a baptism of repentance. Yet once repentance is understood as a turning toward God, something Jesus did throughout his life, there is nothing inconsistent in Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance. In our case, repentance always means turning from sin. But that is a consequence of our turning toward God, not a precondition.

We began the church year with a reading from Isaiah in which the prophet cries out: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. In Sunday’s gospel that plaintive cry is answered. “And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” Vs. 10-11. The Greek verb translated here as “opened” (“schizo”) actually means to “rend” as does the Hebrew equivalent in the above Isaiah quote. In Jesus God has torn open the heavens allowing the Holy Spirit to flood into the world. God’s reign has been let loose. The new wine is spilling into the old wine skins and splitting them at the seams. Better buckle your seat belt and put on your crash helmet. This is going to be a wild ride!

“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it; a poem by Ellery Akers; and the lessons for Sunday, December 17, 2017

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Beloved, pray for us.” I Thessalonians 5:25.

In tweets responding to “thoughts and prayers” directed to the victims of the recent church shooting in Southerland Springs, Texas by the likes of President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and many other political leaders, Washington Post correspondent Karen Tumulty remarked, “thoughts and prayers for people who were mowed down in a church sounds especially hollow.” Singer and song writer Rosanne Cash noted that “[the shooting victims] were in a church that was full of prayers. They need a government who will enact common sense gun laws.” Actor Michael McKean observed that “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.” I fully understand these sentiments. So does the Apostle James:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:16.

Just as this mock benediction from the Epistle of James rings hollow to persons who are homeless and hungry, so also “thoughts and prayers” from government officials entrusted with protecting their citizens from violence come across as empty, hypocritical and impotent to citizens whose loved ones have died as a result of their willful neglect. If the Republican controlled congress loved their citizens half as much as they crave the endorsement of the gun lobby and its lavish gifts of cash to their campaigns, there would be no need for them to console the Southerland victims with empty platitudes. For more on that, see my post of October 4, 2017.

The prayers Saint Paul asks of the church in Thessalonica, are of an entirely different order. His plea for prayer comes not from some far of executive seated in a distant corner office issuing Hallmark platitudes on company stationery, but from a pastor who has labored among and prayed fervently for the people whose prayers he now seeks. This is a church immersed in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness.” I Thessalonians 1:3. Paul’s prayers for this faithful church and the prayers he seeks from them grow out of their shared baptismal commitment to the reign of God. They are not a pious substitute for meaningful action, but a plea for God’s inspiration, support and strength for the work in which they are already engaged. Furthermore, Paul is not looking for prayers addressing his own personal needs. He is urging the Thessalonians to pray for his mission to the world, his ministry among his many congregations and the spread of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Paul, prayer is part and parcel of the church’s struggle to live faithfully under the reign of God in a world fiercely resistant to that gentle reign. Divorced from this sacred context, prayer becomes little more than a bland expression of good intent or a laundry list of personal favors. “Thoughts and prayers” is religious short hand for “good luck.”

Of course, I don’t fault politicians or anyone else for expressing sympathy to the Southerland victims’ families. Nor do I fault them for the seeming soullessness of their well wishes. Who of us can ever find words that bring true comfort in the face of such horrendous tragedy? Sympathy, however, is not enough. Words unaccompanied by action are worse than silence. Mass shootings should not be happening (and in most other industrialized nations do not happen) with regularity. It is the job of government to protect its people from systemic violence of this kind. Expressions of sympathy from governmental leaders for victims of gun violence who have not and do not intend to take any steps to eliminate it might well be sincere, but they should not be confused with genuine prayer. Moreover, such sentiments are clearly not enough. Just as “faith without works is dead,” so prayer for an outcome you are not prepared to live for, sacrifice for and, if need be, die for is just sanctimonious hot air.

Here’s a poem by Ellery Akers speaking to that fragile word that is prayer and suggesting how the answer to prayer might be closer than what we think.

The Word That Is a Prayer

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you:
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

Source: The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, c. 2010 (Poem originally copyrighted by Ellery Akers, 1997). Ellery Akers is a poet, children’s writer and naturalist living in Marin County, California. She earned a BA at Harvard University and studied at San Francisco State University where she got her masters. She is the author of two poetry collections. She has been honored with the Poetry International Prize, the John Masefield Award, the Paumanok Award and Sierra magazine’s Nature Writing Award. You can learn more about Ellery Akers and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.

Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of April 9, 2017.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.

The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.

“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.

The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.

Isaiah 61:5-7.

Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30Matthew 20:16Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?

Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human well-being and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.

Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).

Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.

Psalm 126

This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.

“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.

“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.

This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Refrain:
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.

Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.

Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.

Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.

Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.

As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid.Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.

That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).

When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.

Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.

 

When doing good doesn’t do any good; a poem by Julia Spicher Kasdorf; and the lessons for Sunday, November 26, 2017

CHRIST THE KING

Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24
Psalm 95:1–7a
Ephesians 1:15–23
Matthew 25:31–46

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

One of my favorite hymns begins with a question: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?” See Lutheran Worship, (C. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. By Augsburg Fortress Publishers) Hymn # 431. The question is difficult on a number of different levels. As an American, I chafe at the very idea of having a king. After all, didn’t we fight the revolutionary war to rid ourselves of a king? I don’t fancy being governed by a leader whose authority cannot be questioned, who cannot be voted out or impeached and who calls me to lay down my life for the kingdom. Our attitude toward kingly authority is perhaps best expressed by the sentiment I have recently seen expressed on so many toddler tee shirts: “You’re not the boss of me.” Nothing stimulates the testosterone quite like having somebody else try to tell us what to do with our lives. Yet that is precisely what Jesus does. Our lives, he tells us, are not our own. They belong to our heavenly Father and they can never be lived well until reconciled to his will. We prefer Burger King telling us that we can “have it our way,” to Christ the King who tells that our way leads to self-destruction.

More difficult than getting past the very idea of a king is coming to grips with the kind of king Jesus is. His life and ministry was anything but kingly. Kings get things done. That’s one advantage of being ruled by a king. King’s don’t have to bother with congress or worry about courts striking down their orders. Because they don’t stand for election, they don’t have to take the temperature of public opinion before they act. They can build bridges, drain swamps, fight wars and make the trains run on time in whatever way they see fit. Of course, there is a price to be paid for autocracy. As the lesson from Ezekiel demonstrates, kings frequently put their own interests above those of the people. They abuse their power. They can be cruel, ruthless and unjust. But what if you could find a king that really does love his people, who puts the common good above his own interests and who rules with justice and equity? What if you found a person with integrity so deep seated that s/he could not be moved by any bribe, threat or self-serving interest? If such a person were to exist, wouldn’t you gladly accept them as king?

In many respects, Jesus seems to fit the bill. Yet when offered the opportunity to reign as king, not merely over Israel but over the whole world, Jesus rejected it. Putting to one side the fact that the offer was made by the devil, wouldn’t it have been better for all of us if Jesus had accepted it? Think of how much good could be accomplished with Jesus controlling the levers of power rather than the likes of Emperor Caligula or Donald Trump! Jesus, however, will not take up the sword of empire, not even for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. The only weapons Jesus employs are words of liberation, healing, compassion and forgiveness. His only military strategy is victory through reconciliation. His only plan for achieving peace is peace itself. These methods usually are not politically effective. In fact, they might undermine our political efforts to affect needed social change. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Truth is often the first casualty in the political process. The language of diplomacy requires “incidental falsehoods.” For example, it may well be essential to American strategic alliances and to such noble objectives as achieving peace in the middle east to avoid official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Don’t the lives and wellbeing of people today trump recognition of people who have been dead 100 years? Can’t we find a way to honor the Armenian victims “under the table” while ignoring them-for strategic and humanitarian purposes-in the room where the sausage is made? Perhaps the day will come when the whole truth can be told-but not today.

Jesus will not settle for a peace that buries the truth. He won’t tolerate false narratives and he will not give way to the Nieburian siren song promising that the ends will justify the means-a rationalization we are all too prone to adopt. We can mock the Trumpian evangelicals all we want for supporting a pedophile like Roy Moore and a molester like Donald Trump because, after all, they support their moral agenda (which evidently does not include protection of women and girls from predatory males). But their rank hypocrisy only illustrates the end stage of the same path we so called progressives take when we turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of our allies in the struggle against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. The desire to accomplish a great good and to see it done within one’s lifetime is hard to resist. That is why pastors and congregational leaders turn to coercive techniques when they are desperate to get programs off the ground or projects completed. It is also why Christians who seek to shape law and policy for the better frequently find themselves morally compromised. We can’t resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and use them to make history come out right. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot bear to watch evil prevail and do nothing. Yes, turn the other cheek, but not now! Not under these extreme circumstances! The greater good of preventing such a travesty of justice as Jesus’ arrest excuses the limited use of the sword.

I don’t think this means necessarily that disciples of Jesus cannot engage in politics. I do think, however, that we might find we are not very good at it. It seems to me that a believing politician has to be willing to lose an election that, with the backing of a little money in exchange for an inconsequential vote or two, s/he might otherwise win. A Christian legislator may have to let a proposal for hunger relief, protections for civil rights or some other very worthy cause go down in defeat-if the cost of success means voting once again to bury the Armenian Genocide. A disciple of Jesus must never forget that no end, however noble, can justify unjust means for achieving it, but that the means always shape the ends in ways we cannot foresee. Following Jesus in the realm of politics is a daunting task requiring much integrity, honesty and humility. No wonder Martin Luther once remarked that a good prince is a rare bird.

Discipleship, in any area of life, means accepting the cruel fact that doing good might not do much good-but we do it anyway because it is what Jesus would have us do and it readies us for life under God’s reign of peace-whenever in God’s own good time it comes. Disciples of Jesus understand that while they must witness to and live under God’s gentle reign, none but God can bring it about. God does that very thing through patient, suffering love that will not allow for any shortcuts. That is the only weapon King Jesus wields and the only one with which we are armed. Following Jesus, then, most often means doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, justice and peace on a day to day basis without stopping to consider whether it is accomplishing anything. It means taking up the cross and leaving the resurrection to God. Here is a poem by Julia Kasdorf that speaks of faithful discipleship, its challenges, costs and rewards.

Mennonites

We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets.
Like Jesus, the servant, we wash each other’s feet
twice a year and eat the Lord’s Supper,
afraid of sins hidden so deep in our organs
they could damn us unawares,
swallowing this bread, his body, this juice.
Growing up, we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned.
We love Catherine the Great and the rich tracts
she gave us in the Ukraine, bright green winter wheat,
the Cossacks who torched it, and Stalin,
who starved our cousins while wheat rotted
in granaries. We must love our enemies.
We must forgive as our sins are forgiven,
our great-uncle tells us, showing the chain
and ball in a cage whittled from one block of wood
while he was in prison for refusing to shoulder
a gun. He shows the clipping from 1916:
Mennonites are German milksops, too yellow to fight.
We love those Nazi soldiers who, like Moses,
led the last cattle cars rocking out of the Ukraine,
crammed with our parents–children then–
learning the names of Kansas, Saskatchewan, Paraguay.
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be? why we eat
‘til we’re drunk on shoofly and moon pies and borscht.
We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.

Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24

Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

Sunday’s passage is part of a larger section constituting all of Chapter 34. In verses 1-2, Ezekiel launches into a diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel.” The reference is to the Kings of Judah and Israel whose oppressive, self-centered and short-sighted policies lead to their nations’ demise. These kings/shepherds have put their own interests ahead of the flock, feeding their appetites as the sheep starve, wander away and become scattered. The prophet would have the exiles know that, as far as God is concerned, “enough is enough.” “I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Vs. 11. God will bring the people of Israel back from all the places to which they have been exiled. God himself will feed them and give them security from their enemies. Vss. 12-16. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!

The kings are not solely responsible for Israel’s plight, however. In the absence of proper leadership and oversight, covenant life within the Lord’s flock has given way to the law of the jungle. The oppression of the monarchy is reflected in the oppression of the weak by the strong. Thus, God addresses the flock as well. “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Vss. 20-22. For reasons known only to the inner circle of the lectionary makers, Verses 17-19 have been omitted from our reading. They expand further on this same theme.

In verses 23-24 God announces that he will set up over the people “my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Vs. 20. This is a little confusing. God has only just announced that God himself would be Israel’s shepherd, whereas now God announces that David (presumably a descendent) will have the job. These two notions are not necessarily contradictory, however, “for in the theology of Jerusalem the Davidic kings were an extension of Yahweh’s kingship.” Lemke, Werner E., “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future,” Interpretation, (Vol. 38, 2, 1984) p. 174. In addition to the term “shepherd” Ezekiel refers to the new David as a “prince” (Hebrew=nisi). The literal translation of this word is “exalted one,” a term that originated in the ancient Israelite tribal league existing prior to the rise of the monarchy. Ibid. Perhaps Ezekiel is deliberately avoiding the use of the Hebrew word for “king” (melech) because he wishes to make clear that this new David is not to be thought of as just a continuation of the dismal performance of his predecessors.

Ezekiel strikes a resonant chord. The blind embrace and elevation to leadership of known sexual predators to the highest offices in the land speaks both to the sickness of our governmental institutions and the perversity of the angry, white mob that is working hard to dismantle them. Somehow, we ended up with a president that is so mentally unstable that his generals are actually discussing how to handle the eventuality that he might fire off a nuke in a fit of pique as casually as he does his ill-considered tweets. The inability of our current leadership to govern, to unite the country or enact a coherent policy agenda comports with Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s self-serving “shepherds” whose inept leadership has impoverished and scattered the sheep.

Nonetheless, we cannot lay the blame of all our woes on our leadership. Unlike the unfortunate people of North Korea who inherited their bellicose, narcissistic, man-baby, we elected ours. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. When we continue to vilify the establishment, characterize career politicians as crooked and dishonest, should it come as any surprise that fewer and fewer honorable people are seeking public office? When honorable people are so repelled by public service that they avoid or resign from it, who is left? Exhibit A can be found in Washington, D.C.-when he is not in Mara Lago. We must accept the fact that Donald Trump is in large part the product of our own selfishness and cynicism.

There are two observations I would make in this connection. The first has to do with the limits of human capacity for wise leadership. Few can bear the weight of the crown without being corrupted by it. Even fewer have the maturity, insight and moral courage to envision a good larger than their own parochial interests. That is why, I believe, Israel’s hope for salvation eventually turned away from reliance upon human leaders. The crown belongs to God alone. The Christian faith confesses that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and received that crown to which every knee must finally bend. Yet this king will not have us bend in terror or under duress. He seeks obedience from the heart-something that must be won not through force of arms, but through faithful, suffering, enduring love that outlasts our distrustful resistance.

That leads me to the second observation. We are not yet a people capable of being led. The image of ourselves as sheep under the care of a shepherd does not play well in a culture of individualism like our own. We value our right to be our own person, make our own decisions and believe what we choose. While I have no problem with the state affording us these prerogatives, I am not convinced that we can hang onto them as we enter into the Body of Christ. It seems to me that the language of rights is foreign to and inadequate for defining life under our baptismal covenant with Jesus in the church. I believe one of the major flaws in American Protestantism is our penchant for organizing ourselves, whether nationally or as congregations, by means of constitutions that speak the language of rights rather than the language of covenant. We are, after all, a people who follow a king who reigns through laying down his kingly prerogatives and refusing to exercise his rights to self-defense, retribution and self-determination.

Psalm 95:1–7a

This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.

Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 (not in our lesson) refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.

The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church year draws to a close, we prepare to begin anew the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection through the eyes of Mark’s gospel. This story, as it is enhanced and enriched through the prism of our weekly readings, illuminates and informs the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of the disciples as they follow Jesus and finally betray, deny and abandon him. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.

Ephesians 1:15–23

For a brief introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians, see Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.

This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the lectern without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.

I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. It is therefore appropriate for the celebration of the reign of Christ. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, James Carroll wrote: “Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.

“Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.” James Carroll, “Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, November 7, 2014.

What Carroll has said here about the Roman Catholic Church is every inch as true for American Protestant denominations. We are nothing if not “institution-protecting.” The precipitous decline in membership and support we have experienced in the last two decades (and before if we had been paying attention) has only exacerbated and raised to panic level this self-defeating behavior. In some respects, this takes us back to the whole question of leadership raised by our lesson from Ezekiel. The leader we desperately need is one that can point us beyond our angst over institutional decline to the figure of Jesus. Jesus alone can give us the courage to die and, paradoxically, the promise of life.

Matthew 25:31–46

Professor Nolland suggests that the reading for Sunday was originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people, but has been progressively allegorized by the early church to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment rather than a parable. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2008 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1024. I trust there is no need for me to repeat my skepticism about scholarship seeking the so-called “Historical Jesus” behind the gospel witness as we have it. I nevertheless agree with Nolland’s literary judgment that this story is not a parable. It is, as he points out, the climactic conclusion to the parables of the Ten Maidensand The TalentsIbid. at 1022. Whereas the preceding parables stressed preparedness and faithfulness, the story of the final judgment paints in stark relief that for which the disciples must prepare and the shape their faithfulness must take.

The image of the Son of man separating the people of the nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats faintly echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. As the reign of the new David in Ezekiel was to be an extension of God’s just and merciful reign, so also the Son of Man is an extension of God’s presence in judgment and salvation. A shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in his flock for any number of reasons, one being that goats need protection from cold at night not required for sheep. Ibid. at 1026. It would be a mistake, however, to read more into the shepherd’s reasoning than is required to make sense of the story. It is enough to know that such separation was common and so a useful image for the separation to be made finally of those recognized by the Son of Man from those not so recognized.

The point of the story turns on the failure of both the sheep and the goats to recognize the significance of their actions/inactions. The story is both a judgment on the nations of the world for whom divinity is wrapped up in imperial might and worship given to the symbols of Roman power as well as encouragement to the church whose acts of compassion toward “the least” is in fact the highest possible service to the one true God. The way of patronage that advances one upward through the hierarchical strata of Roman society turns out to have been tragically misguided. When the true “king” arrives, the contacts required to win his favor will turn out to have been the very folks we go out of our way to avoid: the homeless, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned and abandoned.

My Lutheran associates often get hung up on this text because it appears to advocate salvation by works rather than by God’s grace. Caring for the poor and hungry becomes the basis for salvation rather than faith in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the case. If works had been the basis of their salvation, the sheep would not have been so clueless about their acts of kindness to the Son of Man. Because they have been shaped by their friendship with Jesus in the baptismal community called church, their works are not their own. They simply flow from their living relationship to Jesus as naturally as breathing. Their left hand knows not what their right hand is doing. See Matthew 6:3.

Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether this story is not as much a rebuke to the sheep as to the goats. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need our help rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers).

Perhaps the sheep could use some help recognizing their King in the faces of those for whom they are caring. Acts of charity can be and are done by Christians and non-Christians alike. Anyone can feed the hungry, but only the church can invite them to the messianic banquet. Anyone can show genuine compassion to someone in need. But only a disciple of Jesus can recognize in such a person the presence of Jesus. It is just this recognition that “the least” are not “social problems” needing a solution, but rather “the treasure of the church,” as St. Lawrence would say, that distinguishes friendship with the marginalized from toxic charity. The “least” are, in fact, priceless invitations to deeper intimacy with Jesus.

On this Sunday of Christ the King, we are asked what it means for us to be subjects of a King whose nearest associates are the hungry, the poor, the naked and the imprisoned. Taken seriously, discipleship as Matthew envisions it turns our social/economic/political world on its head.

 

Six churches I have loved and what they taught me; A poem by Connie T. Braun; and the lessons for Sunday, October 22, 2017

Image result for small churchesTWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

It is easy to breeze over the second lesson from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. Paul commends the Thessalonian believers for their endurance under difficult circumstances and praises their faith. He encourages them with a recitation of the gospel. Then he tells them how very thankful he is for their church and its witness. It’s the sort of thing you would expect a pastor to write to a former congregation. But is there anything in here meriting reflection? Is there a sermon lurking under these pleasantries?

I believe there is, but it has taken me years to recognize it. Perhaps it is a function of my age, but I have become acutely aware in recent years of just how deeply I have been formed by the congregations of which I have been a part. I was baptized in Memorial Lutheran Church, a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation in Bremerton, Washington. There I was first exposed to the hymns of the church, the etiquette of liturgical worship and the rhythms of the church year. I learned the Christmas story by participating in the Christmas Eve pageant-first as a back-up to the angel choir, then as an angel proper and finally as a shepherd. That is as far as my acting career went. I never managed to land a speaking part or a coveted role in the holy family.

I learned the Passion story at Memorial’s Wednesday night Lenten services. In lieu of a sermon, we watched film strips accompanied by a vinyl record upon which the phonograph needle had to be strategically placed by the quivering hand of an usher so as to line up with the night’s particular episode. These films, I must confess, left a lot to be desired on many different levels. But they managed to tell the story and, moreover, their coming to an end at the beginning of Holy Week gave us one more reason to rejoice on Easter Sunday. I learned from Memorial Lutheran Church that there is an alternative calendar, a parallel universe of time grounded in the Biblical story of salvation that is nonetheless woven into the fabric of ordinary time making each year holy.

When I was about eleven years old my family, along with several other families and individuals, left Memorial Lutheran Church. This departure was not the result of any falling out or dispute. It was in response to the challenge of our district leadership to begin a mission congregation at the other side of town where new residential communities were popping up like dandelions in springtime. Before we had enough money to purchase land or determine whether the ministry upon which we were embarking was even viable, we named our new venture “Peace Lutheran Church,” called a young pastor fresh out of seminary to lead us and began worshiping in the VFW Hall next to the high school. Over time, we selected a lot overlooking what would become a large shopping mall and community center. Every step of the way presented a new challenge, but somehow, the Lord provided. Our excitement was evidently contagious, because our numbers increased as we continued to worship, dream and build.

It was not always easy going. With no store of past tradition and experience to lead us, it sometimes seemed as though we were learning all over again what it meant to be a church. I like to think that I shared my own adolescence with this young church and that we kind of grew up together. It was during my sojourn at Peace Lutheran Church that I first heard the call of Jesus to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I learned from Peace that the church is not a static institution, but an organic, mission oriented fellowship that is forever extending its tendrils out into new territory.

During my first year at Seminary, I was assigned to Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota for my mandatory semester of field work. Trinity was a traditional, well established Lutheran congregation-until construction of a new freeway resulted in the condemnation of its sanctuary by eminent domain. Left physically homeless, the congregation soon discovered that it lacked the resources to rebuild in any area where it made sense to build a church. Nonetheless, a core of committed members remained convinced that there was important work to be done on behalf of God’s kingdom in their neighborhood. So the congregation elected to begin renting space in the sanctuary of an old Belgian Catholic parish. Freed from the time, expense and aggravation of maintaining a building, the little congregation was free to focus its energies entirely on mission. Forging relationships with student organizations at nearby University of Minnesota, partnering with tenant rights groups and working ecumenically with neighboring churches, Trinity built a thriving ministry to people of all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. I grew to love that church so much that I became a member and worshiped there throughout my three years of seminary. I learned from Trinity in Minneapolis that the church is a people, not a building and that congregational life is always more vibrant when mission comes first.

As part of my seminary training, I was required to do a year of internship ministry at a parish under the direction of an ordained minister. Once again, the church I served was called “Trinity,” though this time the sanctuary was located in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. The parish began as an ethnic Norwegian congregation in the pietist tradition. Its first crisis occurred in the 1950s when the English speaking sector of younger congregants eclipsed those who grew up worshiping in Norwegian. After an emotional meeting that left many members in tears, the decision was made to move the Norwegian worship service to a chapel in the church’s basement and yield the sanctuary to the younger English speaking worshipers.

Of course, this was all in the distant past when I arrived. By the time I came on the scene, the new generation of English speaking Lutherans had aged into the old guard. The growing sector of the church came out of what began as a “mission” to the changing neighborhood that worshiped in Spanish. Once again, the complexion of the church was changing and the people of God were struggling to respond faithfully. Enthusiasm for the new thing God was doing burned alongside a deepening sense of loss for what had been. From Trinity in Brooklyn I learned that the Church belongs to Jesus Christ, that it is always being molded for mission and that we can never foresee or control the shape our church will take in the future. Nonetheless, whatever shape the church takes, whatever language its members speak, whatever style of worship they adopt, the church will be exactly the church Jesus needs to do the work of the kingdom at hand.

I have had the privilege of serving three churches as pastor since my ordination in 1982, these being Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Teaneck, Church of the Savior in Paramus and Trinity Lutheran in Bogota (all New Jersey). I think it is more than fair to say that they have taught me a great deal more than I could ever have hoped to teach them. I have learned from my three congregations that the way we go about getting things done is infinitely more important than actually getting things done. I have learned that being the church is far more important than anything the church does. I have learned that getting together on a Sunday morning to hear God’s word and to receive the body and blood of Christ is a really big deal. I have learned that planting seeds in the minds of my members and letting their imaginations run wild is a far more effective leadership model than trying to sell them on the agenda I have concocted-even when I believe in my heart that my agenda is the right one. I have learned that success and failure don’t matter, but that faithfulness is critical.

Occasionally, I have been stabbed in the back by people I trusted to have my back. That goes with the territory.  Always, in every crisis I have ever faced, someone in the church has been there to squeeze my hand, give me a hug or a word of encouragement that was just enough to lift my spirits and see me through. That is grace. Time and again, people I had long dismissed as self-absorbed, petty and cruel suddenly performed courageous and selfless acts of compassion that knocked my socks off and forced me to see them in a whole new light. That is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I have learned through the churches I have served that in every church every individual is there because Jesus has called them. Everyone in every church is there because Jesus has something to teach us that we cannot learn without them. I only hope that I have been able to reflect in my own ministry to these churches some small measure of all they taught me. I can join St. Paul in giving “thanks to God always” for all the congregations that have been so very formative for me.

Poems about congregational life and the role of the church in one’s formation are rare-at least in the American lexicon. The “spiritual but not religious” brand of “me and God” or “me and the great spirit, life force, higher power, etc.” kind of religion is not a new phenomenon. To the contrary, it is deeply ingrained in our individualistic character as a people. There is something deeply and offensively “un-American” about subscribing to a creed or being subject to the teaching authority of any church. Independent people think for themselves. Only weaklings let a church “cram religion down their throats.” Of course, the Bible is authoritative as “God’s word,” but only as long as I get to decide by myself what it means for me. Nevertheless, there has always been a faithful witness within our borders to a way of life in which the individual is not king, in which the common good takes precedence over personal whims and the authority of the Bible is too important to be subjected to the fancy of anyone who takes it upon him/herself to interpret it. That witness, in my own humble opinion, has been most faithfully maintained among our Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anabaptist communities. These believers understand better than the rest of us that we are not self-made, that we are the product of the families and communities in which we live and that we cannot tell our stories fully and honestly apart from them. Here is a poem by Connie T. Braun expressing that reality.

My Life Cannot be Grasped

“My life cannot be grasped as a singular totality.”
–Paul Ricouer

A life cannot be grasped
as a singular totality. The story

of my death can only be told
by others; my beginning, only

by others. My birth belongs
to the history of my parents.

It is the story in the middle
that I will tell. Let me

share it with you, then ask you
if you will tell my ending

after I’m gone, if you will
be the one to tell the story of love.

Source: Unspoken: An Inheritance of Words (Fern Hill Publications, 2016) also published in the Center for Mennonite Writing Journal, Vol. 9, 2017.  Connie T. Braun is an author and instructor of Creative Writing. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and is an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets, a member of the Canadian Author’s Association and a board member on the literary publications, Prism International and Image Journal.

Isaiah 45:1-7

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.

In this chapter, the prophet makes the startling announcement that Cyrus, emperor of Persia, is his anointed, his “messiah.” The Hebrew word, משיח    (Meshiach)  “anointed one” or “messiah,” is usually denotes one raised up from within Israel to lead the nation to victory against and enemy. The exiles might be incensed that their God did not raise up a child of Israel to fill the role of savior. But the prophet responds that God’s way of doing things is not to be questioned. The ancient prophecies will be fulfilled in God’s way. God is the master of God’s words, not the servant. Moreover, the Lord’s salvation is not for Israel only. It is for the ends of the earth and all nations which, when they see the miraculous success of Cyrus over them, will come to know that the Lord of Israel is God and that “there is no other.” Vs. 6.

Verses 2-3 give us a fairly accurate description of the success Cyrus has experienced thus far. His armies have advanced with little opposition into territories formerly ruled by Babylon. The prophet indicates that this startling success and lack of opposition Cyrus meets in his conquests is proof positive that the Lord is going before him. According to the prophet, Cyrus will one day recognize the God of Israel as the author of his success, but there is no evidence that he ever did. As has been seen before, God’s calling a person by name establishes a relationship of special ownership. Nevertheless, as much as God is doing for Cyrus, it is not Cyrus and his empire, but Israel who is to be the chief beneficiary of Persia’s campaign.

The prophet reminds his audience that the driving force behind history is neither Cyrus nor their Babylonian captors. Though the empires of the world pursue their own ambitions, agendas and policies, they are the unwitting instruments of Israel’s God who bends their self-serving actions to his own redemptive purpose for Israel and for the nations of the world. As illustrated elsewhere throughout the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the nations “are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on scales.” Isaiah 40:15.  This is a sobering word for a nation that has always fancied itself “the leader of the free world,” “a shining city on a hill,” and has taken on numerous other semi-messianic titles. “Crowns and thrones shall perish, kingdoms wax and wane,” the old hymn tells us. Despite the insistence of Christian nationalists to the contrary (See my post from Sunday, July 26, 2017), the United States is not God’s chosen nation and Americans are not the chosen people. We are just another drop in the bucket.

A good deal of preaching, teaching and programming in the church (liberal, conservative and in between) seems directed at “saving America.” We tend easily to direct the prophets’ invective against social injustice against the U.S. Congress-as though it were answerable to God’s covenant with Israel. Though progressives are loath to suggest that American should be a “Christian” nation, they often point to Jesus in defense or in opposition to certain legislation that has large humanitarian implications. To be sure, Jesus and the prophets tell us that all nations will be judged on the basis of how they have treated their most vulnerable members. The nations of the world are therefore answerable to God for their moral conduct, but that is far different from asserting that the nation as a whole is a covenant partner with standing to claim the promises God offers Israel and the church.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that we are not in a position to know the intent or will of God for the United States or any other nation state. Rev. Franklin Graham insists that God placed Donald Trump in the White House and he might be right about that. It may be that God has determined it is high time this “drop in the bucket” evaporated. It is possible that the United States has become an impediment to whatever God has in mind for the earth’s future. If that’s the case, what better way to bring it to its knees than to put at its head a narcissistic man baby who has never read a book in his life (including his own ghost written autobiography), never held public office and cannot put together a coherent declarative sentence to save his soul. Of course, I don’t know this to be God’s intent and I rather hope it isn’t. But we need, at the very least, to be open to the possibility that the future we desire for our country might have no place in the future God desires for the cosmos. If that is the case, all our efforts to “save America,” whatever that might mean from our respective theological perspectives, are at best vain and at worst obstructionist.

Psalm 96:1-13

This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 628; See I Chronicles 16:23-33. Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. Rogerson, J.W., and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 220. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king (see, e.g., Psalm 2). These coronation psalms were later adapted and transformed into hymns celebrating the Lord as king of all the earth. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.

The psalm calls for a “new song,” (vs. 1) reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.

“The gods of the nations are idols.” Vs. 5. If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” vs. 7. The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

According to the Book of Acts, Paul came to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, somewhere between 40-45 C.E., after having been driven out of Philippi. As was his practice, he visited a synagogue and engaged the congregation in discussions about Jesus as the Messiah for about three weeks. Acts 17:1-3. Some of the Jews and “god-fearing” Greeks were persuaded by Paul’s message. Acts 17:4. The congregational leaders, however, rejected Paul’s preaching and publically accused him of sedition against Rome. These accusations incited a riot against Paul and his new converts. Acts 17:5-9. The new believers escorted Paul out of town for his protection. Acts 17:10-12. I leave to people who care about such things the inconsequential issue of whether the Book of Acts can be relied upon as a historically accurate source. Since our 19th Century notion of “historical accuracy” was not wired into the brains of the New Testament writers and is of limited utility in our 21st Century, I find the question uninteresting. One might as well contemplate how history would have turned out if the Aztecs had developed the atomic bomb. It is clear from the letter itself that there were at least three weighty concerns for the Thessalonican congregation. 1) Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development and is concerned that it lacks maturity and solid leadership; 2) Paul’s character, motives and integrity have been challenged by some unknown critics; and 3) church members have theological/pastoral concerns about death and dying.

Our reading consists of the opening chapter of I Thessalonians which begins with Paul’s customary greeting in the name of “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 1. The letter is actually addressed from Silvanus and Timothy as well as Paul, but there can be little doubt that Paul is the principal author. Timothy, we know, was a close companion of Paul whose ministry is mentioned in I & II Corinthians as well as in this letter. “Silvanus” might be an alternate form of the name “Silas,” Paul’s chosen companion for his second missionary journey according to the Book of Acts. Acts 15:36-41.

Paul praises the church for its courageous faithfulness in the face of affliction. The church’s suffering is a mirror image of Paul’s own experience of opposition in bringing the good news of Jesus to Thessalonica. Vss. 5-6. Just as the Thessalonian church amplifies the ministry begun by Paul, so also does it amplify the good news throughout the Mediterranean world. Vss. 7-8. The nature of the church’s faithful confession and the source of its suffering is clear from Paul’s remark about how well known it is that the Thessalonian believers “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Vs. 9. The worship of idols did not consist principally in the exercise of sincere religious faith. By this time in history, most of Rome’s subjects no longer believed in the gods of antiquity. These gods had become symbols of Roman power, Roman supremacy and Roman values. Worshiping them was more an act of patriotism than religious devotion. Nevertheless, in the view of the early church, worship of the state and worship of false deities amounted to the same thing. One cannot confess that Jesus is Lord and simultaneously declare that Caesar is Lord. The political nature of this declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is spelled out in the witness of the Book of Acts to Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica:

But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.” Acts 17:5-9.

We American protestants, hung over as we are from our fifteen and one half century Constantinian drinking binge, are still trying to disentangle ourselves from the religious patronage we have become accustomed to providing the state. Though the United States has never had a state church as such, it has leaned heavily on mainline protestant churches to uphold its middle class values, give religious content to its ideologies, bless its wars and sanctify its policies. More than half our churches still have American flags in them and I suspect that removing them would raise a greater outcry than removing the cross. We have a difficult time separating our identities as American citizens from our baptismal identity as subjects of Christ’s kingdom. That is largely because it has never occurred to most of us that there could be any such separation. Now the separation is upon us. America has now learned that it can go on its way very nicely without the church. The church, however, is still reeling from the break up, wondering what it said that was wrong, refusing to acknowledge that the divorce is final and wondering whether there is any way to patch things up.

It will come as no surprise to anyone following this blog that I think it is high time to accept the divorce as final (with thanksgiving!). I find here one more instance of support for the thesis that the most radical thing the church can do is simply be the church and stop worrying about whether that is relevant to anything else on anyone’s agenda.

Matthew 22:15-22

There are two very important lessons here, each deserving separate treatment, which the common lectionary, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to cram into one reading. The first is the controversy over tribute to Caesar which happens to be one of the most commonly misinterpreted texts in the New Testament. Typically, preachers have treated this lesson as a discussion about the role of government. The issue pressed by the Pharisees and Herodians sets up a false dichotomy, or so the argument goes. It is not a matter of God vs. Caesar, but what is owed to each. Because the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was a “heavenly” kingdom practiced through personal morality, it does not displace Caesar’s role as emperor. Faith does not require disloyalty to Caesar, but rather complements his civil authority with heartfelt obedience to a deeper personal morality. Thus, Caesar is simply “the left hand of God” at work in the world maintaining a semblance of order so that the higher morality of faith can thrive.

Nothing could be further from Jesus’ message here. Note first of all that the Herodians, with whom the Pharisees were here allied, were collaborators with Rome. They had no sincere wish to engage Jesus in a discussion about how a conscientious Jew lives faithfully under pagan domination. Nor was the issue of loyalty to Caesar one that required extensive discussion. The First Commandment is clear. “You shall have no gods beside God.” Exodus 20:3Deuteronomy 5: 7. Moreover, you are not to make or worship any image as divine. Exodus 20:4-6Deuteronomy 5:8-10. (Actually, that is the Second Commandment for most non-Lutheran folks). So when Jesus is confronted with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, he asks his opponents for the coin with which they intend to pay the tax. It is noteworthy that Jesus must ask them for this coin. He obviously does not have such a coin in his possession. The fact that his opponents do speaks volumes. The minute they produce the coin and hand it to Jesus, the argument is finished. Jesus has already made his point. Now it’s just a matter of having a little fun with his opponents.

With a little imagination, we can readily see how this confrontation plays out. “Oh, my!” Says Jesus. “This coin has an image on it!” His opponents are now beginning to squirm. Just as Jesus turned the question of authority back on the heads of these opponents a couple of Sunday’s ago by bringing up their compromised position on John the Baptist, so now he confronts them in the presence of the people with a clear violation of the First Commandment. “Sorry.” Says Jesus. “I didn’t quite catch that. Could you speak a tad louder, please? Whose image did you say was on this coin?”

“Caesar’s,” they mutter in a barely audible reply. The crowd has got to be loving this.

“Well, then,” says Jesus handing back the coin, “Let’s just give back to Caesar what clearly belongs to him and give God alone what belongs to God.” Jesus’ opponents shuffle away with their idolatrous coin while Jesus himself is as free of idolatrous images as he was to begin with. Point made. The state is not God. It has no right to demand that a disciple take up the sword to fight its wars when the disciple’s Lord has commanded him to put up the sword. The state has no right to demand ultimate allegiance from a disciple that can be given only to the disciple’s Lord. Modern nationalism and its call for ultimate allegiance and blood sacrifice, no less than First Century imperialism, is rank idolatry. This is not a matter of both/and. It is a matter of either/or.

Next we move to the question about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees’ hypothetical is not as outlandish as it might seem. A woman incapable of bearing children might be divorced for that reason by any number of husbands. Perhaps that was the fate of the woman at the well in John’s gospel who had had five husbands. John 4:16-19. If that were the case here, the woman would not have belonged to any of the seven brothers because they would all have divorced her. In order for the hypothetical to work, the brothers must all have died while legally married to the woman in question. The logic employed by the Sadducees is absolutely air tight. If God had intended to raise the dead, God would never have instituted a requirement for remarriage, as such a practice would obviously create insoluble problems in the next life.

There is a serious concern behind this hypothetical for all of us who have been married even just once. Will those relationships that have formed us and become a part of our identity survive into the post-resurrection world? If not, then how can there be any meaningful resurrection? Who am I if not the product of those whom I love and those who have loved me? Jesus responds by informing his opponents that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Vs. 30. Given how little the Bible actually tells us about what angels are like, this isn’t much of an answer. Perhaps it is Jesus’ way of saying that the question cannot be answered this side of eternity. Paul deals with substantially the same question in his first letter to the Corinthian church, which asks him what sort of body believers will receive in the resurrection. Paul is less diplomatic than Jesus. He says that the question is stupid. I Corinthians 15:35-36. Nevertheless, he goes on to answer it-after a fashion. He uses the growth of a plant from a seed as an analogy. Clearly there is continuity between the seed and the plant. They are one in the same. Yet the plant is so radically different, more complex and beautiful than the seed from which it came that one would never believe the two to be related if this miracle of growth were not taking place all around us every day. As difficult as it would be for one looking only at the seed of a plant s/he had never seen full grown to figure out what the full grown plant will look like, so difficult is it for us to imagine our bodily existence in the world of the resurrection. I Corinthians 15:35-50. Perhaps John says it best of all: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” I John 3:2. That is really all we need to know.

Next, Jesus turns to what is the real issue, namely, the power of God. The Sadducees are not lacking in knowledge or understanding. Indeed, from a formal scriptural point of view, they have the stronger argument. Ancient Judaism had no conception of life after death beyond a vague notion of “sheol,” a shadowy underworld where there was little if any conscious existence. Though in no way similar to later notions of hell and eternal punishment, sheol was the dead end to which all life eventually came. The psalms seeking salvation from sheol are best understood not as a plea for eternal life, but a request not to be taken to sheol prematurely. Resurrection is spoken of specifically only in the Book of Daniel, one of the latest books in the Hebrew Scriptural cannon. Daniel 12:1-4.

Nevertheless, the Sadducees’ scriptural arguments fail and not for lack of interpretive skill, but due to a lack of faith and imagination. God is the master of his words, not the servant. Law, whether it consists of moral precepts or principles of natural science, is part and parcel of the universe God created. As such, it cannot bind its maker. God hardly needs scriptural sanction to raise the dead and so the only question is whether God is willing and able to do so. Jesus says “yes” to both. If God, the great “I Am,” introduces himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” does one dare to say that this God is a deity of the dead? No, says Jesus, all who are loved and remembered by God are alive in God. They are loved back to life by God.

This lesson offers a great opportunity for talking about resurrection, eternal life, what it is, what it is not and what can and cannot be said about it. Though we mainliners are reluctant to speak of resurrection other than as a metaphor of some great project or agenda, we need to shake off our 19th Century prejudices and recognize that we are living in the 21st Century. Death and resurrection are of great concern to a lot of folks who lack the conceptual tools and biblical images for contemplating the mystery of eternal life. If we remain silent, we cede this ground to the Left Behind crowd whose message is more about fear than hope.

Giving up on the church; a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman and the lessons for Sunday, September 3, 2017

Image result for leaving the churchTHIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 15:15–21
Psalm 26:1–8
Romans 12:9–21
Matthew 16:21–28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.

Jeremiah 15:16-18

Jeremiah has reached a crisis point. His love for God’s word and will for Israel have only brought into sharper focus how far Israel has strayed from God. This dissonance between what is and what ought to be torments the prophet to the point of despair. “Am I wasting my life pursuing a dream?” he wonders. “Is life under God’s covenant a hopelessly unattainable ideal? Is there any point in continuing to endure abuse from a people hostile to everything I say?” I cannot say that I have ever faced anything during my ministerial career remotely similar to the opposition Jeremiah encountered. Nonetheless, as everyone following this blog can attest, I struggle with my church’s structural, programmatic and theological impediments to fulfilling the mission of proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom. Much of what I see on the denominational and congregational level looks a lot more like self-preservation than self-sacrifice for the gospel. Like Saint Peter in our gospel lesson, we shun the cross and seek to save our institutional lives rather than putting everything on the line for Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. That is, in my view, a large part of why the church’s testimony at the present time of crisis has been limited to measured social policy statements.

Of course, the shortcomings I see in the church are but a reflection of the faults I know have their origin in my own reluctance to embrace fully the way of the cross. Like the rich young man Jesus encountered, I am not eager to place in jeopardy the comfortable retirement that I hope awaits me. I have no inclination to “offer up my body as a living sacrifice” like Kayla Mueller who was kidnapped and killed while providing assistance to Syrian refugees. I know that, at least for the present, speaking out against the racist, sexist and bigoted policies of the Trump administration costs me nothing. Unlike Heather Heyer, I have not had to pay the ultimate price for confronting the demon of racist violence unleashed by the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign and the administration to which it gave birth. I have never had to endure the indignity of being beaten and left overnight in the stocks as did poor Jeremiah. I am therefore hardly in a position to utter the prayer on Jeremiah’s lips in this Sunday’s lesson.

Nonetheless, I experience, as did Jeremiah, that cognitive dissonance between the baptismal covenant under which Jesus invites us to live and the reality of life in the church as I know it. Perhaps that is, at the very least, a good place to start. The people of God should never allow themselves to lose their holy discomfort with the status quo governing the world, the inadequacy of their witness or the degree of their complicity with evil in their own lives. In my own Lutheran tradition we are fond of saying that we are, at the same time, “saints and sinners.” That is all well and good if it means we, like recovering alcoholics, are a community of people liberated from sin yet struggling to help each other hang onto sobriety in a world pulling us back into the self-destructive ways from which Jesus saves us. It is fine to recognize that we are subject to relapse and must stand ready and willing to forgive, help and support any one of us who “falls off the wagon.” But too often this saying is invoked to excuse a banal, secularized ideology of “self-acceptance.” Too often the saint/sinner identification is less a dynamic, faith-animating dialectic than it is a justification for a lifestyle barely satisfying the bar for white middle class respectability and good citizenship. There is a huge difference between sinners struggling to live into the identity of sainthood conferred upon us through baptism into Jesus Christ and sinners who view baptism as a stamp of approval on ethical relativism and spiritual mediocrity. Such piety (if you can call it that) produces Christians whose lives differ little from those of the prevailing culture except that, of course, they happen to be in church on Sunday instead of on the beach-at least one week out of the month anyway.

Of course, there is the opposite extreme that would dispense with the church altogether. Jeremiah seems to be teetering on the brink of doing just that-writing off the covenant people of Israel as beyond redemption. Having lived my life as an active member and/or leader in at least half a dozen congregations over my lifetime, I can sympathize with people who are “done” with “organized religion.” I understand people who are OK with Jesus but cannot stomach the church. I have experienced at least as much hurt, insult and outrage from the church as most of the folks I know who have left for that reason. So why do I stick with it? Well, for one thing, Jesus leaves me no other choice. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he says. The church is the Body of Christ. Discipleship is not an individual task. It requires community. There is no such thing as a lone ranger disciple of Jesus. If you want to hang with Jesus, you are stuck with the rest of the people who follow him. Be warned, they are an unsavory lot!

Second, I need the church-and so do you whether you are willing to admit it or not. At least you need it if you want the mind of Christ formed within you. I think a large part of the church’s problem is that it tends to preach itself rather than Christ. So much of our outreach proclaims the virtue of our churches-their wonderful programs, their fine preachers, their high quality worship, their great sense of community. But that has never been the reality and when we claim that it is, when we promise people a warm, wonderful, safe place where nobody ever gets hurt, we are committing spiritual consumer fraud. In fact, the church has always been a contentious body of disciples who miss the point of Jesus’ preaching, argue over which of them is the greatest and desert Jesus at his time of greatest need. If the New Testament epistles are any indication of what church life was like in the first century, then we cannot help but notice that fights over money, sex scandals, divisiveness, power struggles and worship wars are the norm rather than the exception. The church is not the place you go to escape the nastiness and evil of the world. It’s the place where you come to confront it. The church is home to a lot of people who are here because we are the only community that will put up with them. So if you want to join us, you will have to learn to put up with them too. And here is the thing: we need them, because they teach us what it means to love one another. They instruct us in the art of forgiveness. They help us to recognize Jesus in the least likely of places. We all need each other to be formed into the image of Christ. That is the reason the church exists: to form saints. That is not a process for the faint of heart. If you want to be welcomed, pampered and made to feel loved, then go to the Poconos for a Yoga weekend. But if you want to be sanctified, if you want to be shaped into the image of Christ, the church is the place to go.

Finally, I stick with the church because, every so often, we get it right. Every so often, we come together in a way that reflects God’s enduring love for the world. Sometimes it happens in a small way when the congregation or a group of people in it come together to support a family in crisis by cooking meals, providing baby sitting or transportation. Sometimes it happens in a big way when the church responds generously with financial assistance, volunteer participation and advocacy for victims of war, famine or natural disaster. Sometimes it happens when a pastor, a congregational leader or an individual believer stands up and speaks truth to power on behalf of a child being abused, a woman being sexually harassed in the work place or a victim of discrimination. Yes, the church is a fallible, corrupt and broken community with a lot of sins, failures and lost opportunities on its record. But every so often, we get Jesus and his kingdom just right. When we do, it’s beautiful and often just enough to keep me from walking out the door.

Here’s a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman picturing the church at its very best.

New Marriage, A Barnraising

What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first

post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-

beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have

tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be

offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters

who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What

grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step

on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.

They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading

out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not

own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves

Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.

Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.

Jeremiah 15:15–21

This passage is the second of six personal prayers of lament uttered by the prophet Jeremiah in the course of his ministry. The others are Jeremiah 11:18-12:6Jeremiah 17:14-18Jeremiah 18:18-23Jeremiah 20:7-13; and Jeremiah 20:14-18. These prayers are similar to the psalms of lament and contain much of the rich phraseology and imagery commonly employed by Israel in her liturgical/devotional life. The prayer is divided into two sections. In the first, Jeremiah addresses God. Vss. 15-18. In the second, God responds to Jeremiah’s complaints. Vss. 19-21. Jeremiah’s prayer begins with a plea for vengeance against his enemies. Professor Thomas Raitt says of this prayer and Jeremiah’s personal laments generally:

“Jeremiah’s so-called ‘laments’ are, at worst, sub-Christian expressions of vengeance, self-righteousness and bitterness about the sacrifices involved in filling the prophetic vocation. At their best these [laments] show that being a messenger of God’s word is a difficult calling and that often the last thing people want to hear is the truth, even from God, about their specific time and situation (which is precisely why prophets are not without honor except in their own country).” Raitt, Thomas M., Jeremiah in the Lectionary, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 161.

Jeremiah’s prayer certainly does illustrate the challenges of the prophetic vocation, but is it really “sub-Christian?” I must confess that I have always had difficulty with prayers for vengeance in the Bible, of which this is only one. Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central for Christian theology and practice that there seems to be no room for expressions of vengeance. But my pious unease is probably related more to my status and privilege than to any legitimate theological objection. I have never been raped or sexually molested. My children have not been murdered either by crazed fanatics in the service of their sick understanding of God’s will or by any respected, hardworking, church going Pentagon employee sitting in a cubicle orchestrating a drone attack in which my loved ones turn out to be “collateral damage.” I have never been driven out of my home by violence and forced to flee across the border into a foreign nation that does not want me. In short, I have not experienced the depth of human cruelty and oppression that gives birth to these laments. It is not surprising, then, that they do not come naturally to my lips.

It is important to keep in focus the fact that the psalmists’ pleas for vengeance are directed toward God. In praying for vengeance, they are confessing implicitly that retribution is the sole prerogative of God. God alone knows the hearts of human beings, what are their motivations and the external circumstances that often determine their actions. Too often, our perceptions of justice are warped by the pain of our own injuries and our personal need for “pay back.” We tend to focus narrowly on the perpetrator of a crime. But are not the parents who abused and neglected him equally responsible? What about his teachers who noticed bruises in odd places but remained silent? What about the neighbors who heard through the apartment walls the noise of abuse and his cries of pain and simply turned up the TV set because, after all, it was not their business. We can further expand this web of responsibility to include an entire nation whose priorities favor tax cuts to programs designed to assist families and children at risk. When it comes to dishing out retribution, there is never an end point. That is why Paul admonishes us in today’s lesson from Romans to leave this issue in God’s hands where it belongs.

German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the biblical prayers for vengeance must remain within our use of the psalter. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible, (c. 1974 Augsburg Publishing House). He goes on to point out, however, that our prayers against the “enemy” are to some degree addressed against ourselves as well. As sinners, we are our own worst enemies. When we pray for God to intervene and adjudicate between ourselves and our enemies, we can never fully understand what we are asking for. God sees our enmity in a different light and without the blind spots that come with the white hot rage of injury. The justice we get in answer to our prayers might not look anything like our expectations for a just outcome.

While forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the good news about Jesus, they are the end result of a process. If forgiveness is to have any meaning, the injuries inflicted by my enemy (and upon him/her as well) need to be fully acknowledged. Lament affords us the opportunity to lay out our wounds, our hurts and the resulting anger in the presence of God. If reconciliation is to be genuine, the mutually destructive relationship between my enemy and myself must be altered. Master and slave are not truly reconciled if, at the end of the process, they remain master and slave. New creation necessarily means the death of the old-which will not go down willingly. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation take time, patience and, above all, grace.

Jeremiah is unsparing in his criticism of the Lord he feels has abandoned him. “Yet,” as one commentator points out, “there is a contradictory character to this prayer, for even when doubting God’s care, it is to God that Jeremiah turns. God called him to be a prophet, and God’s service had been Jeremiah’s “joy” and “delight” as well as his pain and anguish. The prayer reflects a man who even in his deepest doubts about God’s care still knows that he is absolutely dependent upon God. God will be his undoing if God has really abandoned him; but God is also his only hope and to him he must return.” Bracke, John M., Jeremiah 15:15-21, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 175. One of the marvelous capacities of our human constitution is the ability to entertain two mutually conflicting ideas, two very opposite emotions and hope in the pit of despair. Even the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” makes this complaint to the very God whose absence s/he now experiences!

If Jeremiah had been expecting the gentle comfort of one trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, he would have been sorely disappointed. I doubt he had such expectations and, in any event, comfort is not the medicine Jeremiah receives. It is not God who has abandoned Jeremiah, but Jeremiah who has abandoned his God. After all, Jeremiah has been chiding his people for their own unfaithfulness; for their failure to trust God in the face of the Babylonian threat; for seeking salvation from foreign alliances rather than putting their faith in the Lord. Is his own personal danger and suffering any worse than what he is calling his own people to risk and to endure? If God has proved a “deceitful brook” to Jeremiah, has not Jeremiah been preaching deceit to his people? God will continue to be with Jeremiah to deliver him. But Jeremiah cannot expect to escape the judgment he proclaims for his people. That goes with the territory of the prophetic vocation.

These are hard words for leaders of God’s people ministering in hard times. We all know that the church can be awfully hard on the people that serve her. I have been lied too, betrayed, criticized behind my back and hurt by people in the church. Fortunately, these experiences have been only small islands of unpleasantness in an otherwise deep and expansive ocean of love, support and partnership. For the most part, even people with whom I have had deep disagreements remained supportive, caring and faithful to the gospel. My worst day in parish ministry was a romp in the park compared to Jeremiah’s experiences. Jeremiah serves to remind us all that we are calling the world to take up the cross and follow Jesus. That means taking it up ourselves. We cannot get out of being crucified with Christ, but the operative word here is with. Jesus does not call us to anything through which he has not already made a path.

Psalm 26:1–8

Some commentators view this psalm as the plea for God’s intervention on behalf of one involved in a legal dispute soon to be adjudicated. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 117. Such a circumstances might have given birth to the stereotypical phraseology in the psalm, but the prayer seems to have a broader application as it now stands. Though likely composed as an individual lament prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E., it has been edited to meet the worship needs of the whole worshiping community. Such is the case with many of the personal psalms.

It takes a lot of chutzpa to pray this psalm. Who among us could declare in the presence of God that we “have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” Vs. 1. How many of us would invite God “to prove” and “try us,” to “test [our] heart[s] and mind[s]”? Vs. 2. Yet it seems to me that if we read these two verses as intimately linked to the rest of this prayer for vindication against enemies, they constitute an invitation to humility. Indeed, if we are going to pray for vindication against our enemies, then we must also pray that God will try our own hearts and minds, put us to the proof and bring our motives to light. For in reality, there is no such thing as a one sided conflict. Good and evil are never cleanly divided along the lines of combat drawn between human warring factions. Yet, as I argued in my post for July 20th, we Americans have a strong tendency to view conflict in precisely this fashion. That is why our politics is so dysfunctional. After all, how can you compromise with a party whose agenda is the destruction of American society as we know it? There can be no negotiation or settlement with evil, but only eradication.

Too often, the same is true for interpersonal conflict. We tend to demonize those with whom we differ, attribute to them the worst of motives and dismiss any possibility that they could actually have a meritorious point of view. They owe us an apology and until we get it, hostilities continue. The psalmist entertains no such simple minded illusions. S/he prays not merely that God’s judgment will fall upon his/her adversaries, but that it will penetrate his/her heart of hearts as well. From the psalmist’s standpoint (as from our own!), it may very well seem that s/he has taken the high road, that s/he has avoided “the company of evildoers” (Vs. 5) and “washed [his/her] hands in innocence.” Vs. 6. But in reality, s/he knows that there are in his/her own heart motives that are unseen and assumptions about the enemy that blind him/her to the big picture resulting in vast potential for misinterpreting the meaning of words and the significance of actions. Though the psalmist cannot see it now, s/he knows that when disputes are submitted to God with an honest prayer for vindication, the one seeking such relief must be prepared to discover his/her own complicity in that dispute and be prepared to accept full responsibility. Perhaps that is why the psalmist also prays that God “sweep me not away with sinners.” Vs. 9 (not in our reading). For “if thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.

More, however, needs to be said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that: “The notion that we can never suffer innocently so long as within us there still hides some kind of defect is a thoroughly unbiblical and demoralizing thought.” Godsey, John D., The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1960 Westminster Press) p. 191. We can hardly fault a child in any way for injuries suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. Yet even in what appears to be a clear case of one-sided aggression, the aggressor is a complex individual whose motives, words and actions are the product of a lifetime of experiences that likely include victimization. As evil as his/her acts clearly are, the actor can never be written off as beyond redemption-at least not by us. Thus, while it is quite possible to suffer innocently, it does not follow that the full weight of guilt and retribution can be focused on the most visible perpetrator of the wrong.

As always, I encourage reading of Psalm 26 in its entirety.

Romans 12:9–21

The admonitions in verses 9-13 can sound almost pedestrian when they are read in isolation. Have genuine love. Hold to what is good. Show honor and zeal. Be hopeful, patient, prayerful and generous. Well, Duh!!! How else would a disciple of Jesus behave? It is critical therefore to read these admonitions in light of Paul’s earlier call for the Roman believers to present their bodies as sacrifices for God and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the gospel rather than conformed to the world around them. Romans 12:1-2. The “world” of which Paul speaks is the world of the Roman Empire, a hierarchical society in which everyone from the emperor to the galley slave had his or her fixed position. Honor was due from the lesser to the greater. As one commentator points out:

“J.E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by ‘the workings of honour and pride,’ which provided ‘the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactors’ that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain where always present, ‘the duty to “honour” or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself, is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…’ The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring…This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: ‘Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind…Everything, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.’ At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.” Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 citing Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292.

Paul turns this “pyramid of honor” on its head. Rather than compete with one another in the accumulation of honor, disciples of Jesus are challenged to “out do one another in showing honor.” Vs. 10. Within the church, the structures of honor and patronage holding the Roman Empire together dissolve. That explains why the church was accused (and rightly so) of “turning the world upside down.” Acts 17:6. It also demonstrates why Paul’s letter to Philemon is probably one of the most revolutionary documents ever written. Paul’s insistence that Philemon welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother struck at the very foundations of Roman society. While some of our aging commentators left over from the 1960s fault Paul for being less than fully socially conscious because he was not out demonstrating in the streets of Rome against slavery, I cannot help but note that the churches they represent are often just as segregated today as was Selma, Alabama in the 60s. It just goes to prove Mark Twain’s adage, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” Paul’s opposition to slavery was written into his practice-not merely on a cardboard sign. His church struck at slavery by ending it within a counter-cultural community valuing all persons, regardless of their societal status, as equally members of the Body of Christ.

Verses 14-21 echo Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-48. At first blush, they might seem to conflict with the sentiments expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist in our previous lessons. That is not the case, however. Like the psalmist and the prophet, Paul urges the Roman church to leave vengeance and retributive justice in the hands of God. It might well be that one’s enemy is deserving of punishment. But that is not the disciple’s concern. The disciple of Jesus is called upon to love the enemy, pray for the enemy and show kindness to the enemy whether deserving or not. By assuming God’s prerogative and seeking retribution, one is overcome by evil. Again and again we have learned that by fighting evil with evil’s own tools of violence and hateful rhetoric, we are conformed to the very image of that which we despise. Rather than be so conformed, Paul urges us to be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Romans 12:1-2.

Matthew 16:21–28

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus turns toward Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each of the subsequent transitional sections will remind us of that destination. Matthew 16:21Matthew 17:22Matthew 19:1Matthew 20:17). Here Jesus reveals to his disciples for the first time that this journey will lead to his rejection by the religious authorities and his suffering and death. Vs. 21. Peter once again personifies what must have been the response of all the disciples: “God forbid!” Vs. 22. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this “rock,” upon which Jesus said in last Sunday’s lesson that the church would be built, has so soon after become a rock of “stumbling” to Jesus!) We now learn that Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Son of the living God, through accurate, is still unformed. He cannot reconcile the glorification of Jesus with the cross. He is not the only one. I have repeatedly been asked about verse 28 in which Jesus tells his disciples that they will not see death before they witness his coming in glory. “Pastor,” they ask me, “How can that be true? We have still not seen Jesus coming in glory.”

Of course, Jesus did come in glory. Our problem is that we don’t understand what glory is any more than we understand what power is. God is nowhere more thoroughly glorified than on the cross where the depth of God’s love for all creation is made known. God is nowhere more powerful than on the cross where even the crucifixion of his Son cannot entice God to turn against us in anger. God’s love is stronger than our sin. The cross, says St. Paul, is the wisdom of God and the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18-25. For Matthew, it is the coming of Jesus in glory. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us looking for a kick ass savior who will appear at the end of time to whoop the anti-christ and impose his reign in the manner of a Caesar on steroids. That is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because that is not the way God triumphs over evil. God overcomes evil in the same way Paul calls upon his churches to overcome evil: by loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them. That will probably take a long time. But God is in no hurry. Neither should we be.

The term “taking up the cross” has become a hackneyed phrase in our common parlance. Typically, it is a synonym for taking one’s own share of hardships that go with living. Suffering becomes a good in its own right, an end in itself, an opportunity to practice patience and self-denial. These are both fine virtues and to the extent one uses suffering to that end, all well and good. But this understanding has nothing to do with taking up the cross. As pointed out by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. The cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or a symbol of anything else. It was the means by which Rome put down anyone confessing a lord other than Caesar. Following Jesus means risking execution.

Yet it is precisely in risking all for Jesus that true life is discovered. Until one is ready to die, there is no prospect for life. The church is called upon to risk all-to risk dying. That is a hard word to speak to a church that is obsessed with survival. Though we talk incessantly about “change” and the “need for change” and the benefits of “change,” the change we often promote is geared chiefly to preserve ourselves. That is understandable. It is easy enough to speak abstractly about the end of the established church in the post Constantinian era. That reality, however, means the loss of some very good social ministries built with the blood, sweat and tears of people whose careers have been defined by them. It means the loss of jobs and the end of career opportunities. On the congregational level it means the loss of century old sanctuaries with brass plates on every piece of furniture memorializing a loved one. It means the loss of cemeteries where generations of families have been laid to rest. It means the end of a multitude of voices singing those dear old hymns to the accompaniment of a majestic pipe organ. That is what the death of “church as we know it” will mean. By way of full disclosure, I have a daughter who is preparing for a career in parish ministry. So although I am close enough to retirement to have gotten my own share out of the Constantinian church, I am hardly a detached observer.

Matthew tells us, however, that we have nothing to fear from death once we recognize that “dying” is the place to which Jesus calls us. We hardly need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how frantically we try to preserve our lives, we are going to lose them in the end. It is the other side of the equation that spells the good news Jesus alone can bring, namely, that by losing one’s life, one gains it. There are, as I said in last week’s post, many new and lively manifestations of “church” in our midst. I do not suggest that any of these models can simply be copied. That, too, is a recipe for failure. But they testify to what is possible when we stop fretting about survival and focus instead on being faithful disciples of Jesus. If God is taking the church we have known and loved away from us, it is because God has something better to give us. Once our hands are free from vainly trying to hang on to what is being lost, we will be free to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst.

 

Appeal to my Christian Friends who voted for Donald Trump; a poem by Langston Hughes and the Lessons for Sunday, August 20th

Image result for charlottesville white supremacy rallyELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 56:1, 6–8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32
Matthew 15: 10–28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  Isaiah 56:7

The open and inclusive invitation extended by the prophet Isaiah to all peoples of every nation to enter into the temple and participate in Israel’s covenant with her God was on display this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia as a group of clergy from different faith backgrounds and varied racial and cultural origins walked through the city, arms linked, while silently offering prayers. All of this stands in stark contrast to the shouts of “blood and soil” chanted in those same streets at what was supposed to be a rally by white supremacists. The quiet, but forceful witness of the church testifies to the world and reminds us fellow Christians that ours is not a faith of blood and soil. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. What defines us is our baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ that cuts across racial, national and tribal boundaries. Disciples of Jesus have no permanent “soil” on earth to call their own. Their lifeblood is that of the Son of God poured out for the sake of the world. As Paul points out in his letter to the Philippians and the author of Hebrews makes very clear, “our commonwealth is in heaven.” While we wait for and witness to the advent of a new heaven and a new earth, we live as resident aliens in and among the nations.

All of this is so obvious that it should not have to be said. But unfortunately, saying it loud and clear is now more important than ever before. The events in Charlottesville should be a wakeup call for us all. If anyone still harbored doubt that the ugly specter of white supremacy is far from dead, the horrific and violent bloodletting unleashed by “Unite the Right” over the weekend should put that doubt to rest once and for all. Of course, the slumbering demon of racism has been ever present throughout American history making itself felt systemically in our government, schools and work places.  Over the last year, however, it has been roused and whipped into a frenzy that has not been seen for a generation. We don’t have to look any further than the 2016 election to find the source of this growing malignancy. Right wing persons, publications and entities, once considered fringe elements, have wormed their way into the political mainstream. These include The Daily Stormer, a leading neo-Nazi news site; Richard Spencer, director of the National Policy Institute, which aims to promote the “heritage, identity, and future of European people”; Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, a Virginia-based white nationalist magazine; Michael Hill, head of the League of the South, an Alabama-based white supremacist secessionist group; and Brad Griffin, a member of Hill’s League of the South and author of the popular white supremacist blog Hunter Wallace. Their uniform support of Donald Trump is undisputed and I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that his campaign and his presidency have lent legitimacy to white supremacy that, in turn, has made it “cool” once again to be racist.

After the events of last week, it is no longer possible to dismiss white supremacy groups as political freak show curiosities. They clearly have a significant following and are capable of dangerous acts of terrorism. And now I am going to say something a lot of you will find difficult to hear. Those of you, my fellow Christians, who cast your ballot last November for Donald Trump are responsible for the carnage in Charlottesville. Yes, I know that most of you are decent people who want nothing to do with white supremacists and roundly condemn their hateful ideology. I know that you probably supported Donald Trump for a lot of legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with racism. I understand that many of you felt you had no reasonable alternative to Trump. But I cannot ignore the facts. Before the November election:

You knew that in the 1970s Donald Trump’s real estate companies in New York systematically discriminated against people of color in their rentals and that, after a lengthy court battle, Trump was compelled to bring his practices into compliance with laws against discrimination under regulatory supervision. And you voted for him anyway.

You knew that Donald Trump propagated the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and therefore unqualified to be president. You knew that he continued to make this baseless assertion years after it had been thoroughly debunked. And you voted for him anyway.

You knew that Donald Trump painted Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as drug dealers and rapists. And you voted for him anyway.

You knew that Donald Trump stated publicly and has never withdrawn his assertion that an American born federal judge was incapable of deciding a case involving a white man because he was of Mexican heritage. And though even most Republicans found the remark to be racist, you voted for him anyway.

During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump savagely attacked the Muslim family of an American soldier who gave his life serving the nation in Iraq. And you voted for him anyway.

You knew that Donald Trump refused to distance himself from the support of avowed white supremacist and former KKK grand wizard David Duke for days and finally issued the most tepid of disclaimers against him much later. Nevertheless, Duke continued and still does support Donald Trump. And you voted for him anyway.

Spin them anyway you wish, these are facts well known before the November 2016 election. Aware of these facts, you voted for Donald Trump. And now, my friends, you share responsibility for Charlottesville. If you believe that your vote matters, if you believe that the people you elect to public office are an extension of the will of the people, then you have to acknowledge that the blood of young Heather Heyer, mowed down along with several other people and killed by a white supremacist over the weekend, is on your hands. You are, in part, answerable to the numerous victims of hate crimes that have been increasing at an alarming rate since the election of 2016. As harsh as that may sound, it is true and you need to own it. With the right to vote comes the duty to exercise that vote responsibly and to respond responsibly to all of the consequences.

Again, let me repeat that voting for Donald Trump does not make you a racist or a bad person. Maybe you didn’t think his remarks on race mattered. Maybe you thought his racial slurs were just empty rhetoric and that they would not affect his presidency or his policies. Maybe you assumed the talk of banning Muslims, delegitimizing the first African American president, calling Mexicans rapists and claiming that they are unfit to serve in government was all a lot of harmless campaign puffery that  would evaporate after the inauguration. But now you know better. Now you have no excuse for failing to recognize the demon of racial hatred and violence let loose in our country by the overtly racist and violent rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency. Now you know that you have helped to elect a government and a president who, at the very least, have created an environment friendly to overt, terroristic white supremacy. So the question is, now that you know, what are you going to do about it?

Understand that I am not writing this because I am angry with you. I am not writing these words to alienate you. I am writing these words because I need you. Your church needs you. The victims of racism need your voice. Folks, we can disagree about national security, healthcare, tax reform and a whole host of political issues without imperiling our unity in Christ. But there should be no issue when it comes to naming and expelling the demon of white supremacy. You need to do just that-in your church, on the job, at the barbershop, in correspondence with your elected representatives. Together we need to create an environment in our country where racist rhetoric, racist humor and racist practices are unable to take root and grow. By standing together, arm and arm, we can shame the likes of Richard Spencer and David Duke into silence and drive them and their kind back under the rock out from under which they slithered. Please. I’m counting on you.

Here’s a poem by Langston Hughes-or perhaps a prayer-particularly fitting for these times.

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Isaiah 56:1, 6–8

The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight through listening to a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”

It is not clear to me why the lectionary omits verses 2-5 as they seem to make up an integral part of the reading. “Happy is the mortal…” (Vs. 2) echoes the form of Psalm 1 which sets forth the two paths a human life may take: righteousness or wickedness. Righteousness is not simply general goodness or ethical behavior. It is a life of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. Sabbath observation is a critical sign of such faithfulness. According to Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath rest is woven into the very fabric of creation. Though ever a central commandment, Sabbath observance became even more important during the Babylonian Exile where it served as a line of demarcation between Israel’s covenant life and the surrounding pagan culture. The Sabbath was a visible sign of Jewish solidarity and identity.

It appears that Sabbath observance might have gone a bit lax within the community of the returned exiles. That would explain why the prophet urges his people to keep it. Vs. 2. Verses 3-5 are remarkable in that they offer full membership and participation in the covenant community to eunuchs and foreigners, both of which were excluded from the assembly of Israel under some provisions of the Pentateuch. Eg., Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Only decades later, Ezra the scribe would take a more severe and exclusive stance toward outsiders. Ezra 9-10. As far as Third Isaiah is concerned, however, Sabbath observance and adherence to the commandments are what determine membership in the community of Israel, not blood. Foreigners are not merely tolerated but welcomed and encouraged to flock to the Lord’s mountain that the sanctuary there might become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Vs. 7. Such is the generous invitation from the God who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 8.

This openness to foreigners runs contrary to the current mood in our country, which is now more consistent with that of Ezra. Presented with these two words of scripture (Isaiah and Ezra) each carrying a very different message, we must determine which one of the two is God’s word to us at this time. The temptation is to select the one that comports with our own view of what is right and just. That can be hazardous as human nature always bends the scriptures to favor its own self-centered needs and desires. In the end, the polestar of our hermeneutic is Jesus. This Sunday’s gospel tips the scale decisively in the direction of openness and inclusion.

Psalm 67

Based on verse 6, most commentators agree that this psalm is a harvest hymn giving thanks for a bountiful year. The song has a recognizable structure. It opens and closes with prayers for blessing that ultimately will lead to worldwide recognition and praise of Israel’s God. The middle section falls into two parts calling for universal praise: verses 3-4 call the nations to praise God for God’s just judgment and guidance. Verses 5-6 invite praise for God’s generous bounty in the form of a fruitful yield. Rogerson, J.W. and McKray, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 81.

“The Lord Bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us.” Vs. 1. These ancient lines are similar to and might be taken from the “Aaronic Benediction” (Numbers 6:24-26). Use of the word “Elohim” for “God” as opposed to “Yahweh” has suggested to some scholars that the psalm may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More likely, however, this is a very ancient form that has its roots in the period of the Judges. There is no mention of monarchy (either North or South) or Jerusalem.

“Let all peoples praise you, Oh God (Elohim).” Again, God’s works on behalf of Israel are to result in the praise of all people. This hymn affirms the belief that God is the God not only of Israel, but of all the earth. He is therefore exalted as a righteous judge and guide for all peoples. This echo of themes found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) has led a few commentators to date it after the Babylonian Exile. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Israel always viewed her God as supreme over all the nations. Moreover, the similarities to Second Isaiah could be the result of editing at a later time.

As noted above, verse 5 suggests that the psalm may have been composed for use as a hymn of thanksgiving for a fruitful harvest. Just as the Lord has brought about a successful growing year resulting in prosperity for Israel, so God’s life giving power will spread to the whole earth as Israel’s God is recognized as God of all peoples. The psalm concludes with a prayer for continued blessing that will have ripple effects to the ends of the earth. In the end, all the ends of the earth will revere the God of Israel who is, in reality, the God of all peoples. Vs. 6.

Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32

This chapter of Romans is critically important. It deals with a question very near to St. Paul’s heart, namely, the place of his own people, the Jews, in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. If there is one take away verse in this chapter it is verse 1: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” This verse is important because it puts the lie to nearly two millennia of Christian theology teaching precisely the view that Paul here rejects, namely, “supersessionism.” In short, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism. From this conclusion it follows that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s Chosen people. In its more extreme forms, the doctrine holds Jews solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and for that reason maintains that they are thoroughly rejected by God. This view has dominated the thinking of Christian theologians about Judaism until relatively recently and continues to enjoy support in many quarters.

It is important to remember that, in Paul’s time, there was no “Christianity” distinct from Judaism. The Jesus movement, sometimes called simply “the way,” was a reform movement within Judaism. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever dreamed of starting a new religion separate from Judaism. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and the conduit through which gentile believers were brought into God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Both Israel and the church were indispensable partners with God in the drama of redemption.

So how did we get to where we are today? The answer to that question is bigger than can be addressed on this post. But suffice to say that throughout the first century the line between church and synagogue had not been sharply drawn. It appears that Paul moved freely between the church and the synagogue in his ministry. Although some rupture occurred between the Jesus movement in Palestine and the Sanhedrin governing most of the Jewish community in the 90s C.E., there is documentation showing that disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues well into the 2nd Century C.E. If an event signifying the final break between church and synagogue could be identified, it would probably be the rise of emperor Constantine under whose influence Christianity became the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. In 380 C.E. Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by emperor Theodosius. From that point forward, all other religion, Judaism included, was disfavored if not strictly illegal. The Jews found themselves increasingly alienated in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Suspicion and fear of these communities that would not be assimilated into the larger culture often erupted into violent pogroms. The carnage reached its climax during the middle ages when knights on their way to crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land routinely destroyed Jewish communities and murdered their inhabitants along the way. Although the Renaissance saw greater tolerance and acceptance of Jews that continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, anti-semitism lay close under the surface. A deadly mix of these fierce cultural undercurrents of fear and hatred against Jews with the pseudo-scientific theory of white supremacy bequeathed by Enlightenment rationalism run amok infected Germany and several other nations with genocidal madness never before seen on the planet. The slaughter of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe finally led to a much needed (and far too tardy) reconsideration of the doctrine of supersessionism.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a good place to start in reconsidering the relationship of the church to Israel. Paul’s assertion that God does not reject Israel is simply the natural outcome of the view he has been expressing from the beginning concerning salvation by grace. God does not go back on his promises. Therefore, Israel’s disobedience no more invalidates God’s covenant with her than does the church’s disobedience void the promises made in baptism. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Vs. 29. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits Paul’s words to his gentile audience about the importance of Israel in the redemptive purpose of God and the fact that they, as outsiders to the covenant, have been graciously incorporated into the household of God just as wild olive branches grafted into a cultivated tree. Vss. 17-24. As such, the gentiles ought not to vaunt their status over Jews who as yet do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The rejection of Jesus by some Jews does not amount to God’s rejection of them. All Israel is and remains God’s elect by grace. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are fulfilling the purpose for which God called them.

Paul goes on to explain that the hearts of many of the Jewish people have been hardened toward Jesus-not because God is rejecting them, but because this hardening will open the way for faith among the gentiles. The faith of the gentiles will, in turn, awaken jealousy among the Jews that will ultimately draw them to faith in Jesus. Vss. 11-12; 25-28. I must confess in all humility that this is where I fall off the caboose in Pauls’ train of thought. It is not clear to me how Israel’s rejection of Jesus facilitates the faith of the gentiles or how the faith of the gentiles will finally draw Israel to Jesus. Obviously, that is not how things worked out historically. Nevertheless, be that as it may, Paul is absolutely clear about two things: 1) Israel is God’s people by the grace of election every bit as much as the church; 2) Israel plays an indispensable role in the redemption God is working out for all of creation. The church must therefore never understand itself as “the new and improved Israel” or as Israel’s replacement.

Matthew 15: 10–28

Every so often, the lectionary gets things right. Here the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” is further illuminated by the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus makes the point that one does not become unclean by what s/he consumes or by what s/he handles. Nor does one avoid uncleanness by adhering strictly to ritual practices. One is polluted by those things that fester deep in the heart. From a heart infected by greed, lust, anger and folly proceed evil words and actions.

In the Gospel of Mark, the woman in our lesson is described as Syro-Phoenician. Mark 7:24-30. Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite. Throughout the Pentateuch Moses repeatedly warned the people of Israel to have no dealings of any kind with Canaanites. Canaanites were to be exterminated thoroughly without mercy: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them…” Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Canaanites were repeatedly blamed throughout the Book of Judges for leading Israel into idolatry and betrayal of her covenant with God. That there probably were no persons living at the time of Jesus whose linage could have been traced to the Canaanite peoples of the Bronze Age is beside the point. Matthew wishes to make clear that this woman is the epitome of “unclean” in terms of Hebrew sensibilities. Yet she recognizes Jesus as “Lord,” and addresses him as “Son of David.” Her persistent plea for Jesus’ salvation for her daughter comes from a heartfelt confidence in Jesus’ ability and willingness to save. She, unlike Jesus’ ritually sensitive critics, is “clean.”

It is important that we avoid “dumbing down” this story. It is tempting to treat it as a morality play praising the heartfelt devotion of this woman while deriding the superficial ritualism of the Pharisees. Let us give the Pharisees their due. Faithful practices are essential to the development of character shaped by virtue. The ritual provisions of the Torah were designed to remind Israel in each of the most mundane and routine tasks of daily living that she belonged to her God. Prayer was woven into the fabric of work and play. Each meal was an act of worship and a celebration of community. There was no artificial division in Hebrew thought between secular and sacred such as we more or less take for granted today.

Jesus had no objection to ritual observances, but he would have us know that all such observances presuppose a covenant relationship of grace between God and the community of faith. To those on the outside, these observances must witness to the generosity of God and serve as an invitation to participate in that generosity. A community formed by the virtues of Torah and which practices Torah accordingly appeals to persons experiencing a hunger they didn’t know they had for a God they do not yet know. It is precisely for this reason that Judaism has in fact drawn proselytes from all the surrounding cultures in which it has made its home. That Jews have not historically sought such converts only further serves to illustrate the point.

Nonetheless, when religious practices become ends in themselves their meaning is distorted no matter how deeply scriptural they may be. That goes for Christian as well as Jewish practices. When prayer, the sacraments, preaching, fasting, tithing and Bible Study are used to manipulate, control and maintain power rather than to strengthen the covenant and nourish the community of faith, they become demonic. When observance becomes a measure of one’s worthiness to be part of the community of faith rather than means for inviting participation and strengthening membership, it conceals an unclean devotion to self-promotion and control of others. Under these circumstances, the joyous invitation to repent and believe in the good news is obscured.