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Blessedness of dying broke; a poem along the same lines; and the lessons for Sunday, November 19, 2017

See the source imageTWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18
Psalm 90:1–12
1 Thessalonians 5:1–11
Matthew 25:14–30

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I was afraid.” Matthew 25:25

At first blush, the parable of the talents in today’s gospel strikes us as rather severe. Three servants each receive a sum of money to be held in trust. Two of them invest and double their master’s wealth and are richly rewarded. The third keeps it safe and returns it to the master with neither profit nor loss-and is severely punished. But how much of this is really the third servant’s fault? No one can predict a bull market. That is why investments that promise a high return are considered risky. What if this parable had taken place in the fall of 2008? What if the first two servants had come back with only a tenth of their original trust? Would the master then have said to the third servant, “Well done good and faithful servant! You dealt with my money carefully and prudently”? Would he have punished the first two servants for taking imprudent risks? Doesn’t the parable place upon the servants responsibility for matters well beyond their control?

No. To read the parable in this fashion is to miss the point. The first two servants were not rewarded for their investment successes and the third servant was not punished for fiscal incompetence. The first two servants are commended for being “faithful.” Nothing more is required of them. Success is God’s concern. The servants don’t have to worry about that. They need only use the resources given to them faithfully and God will accomplish whatever it is God intends to accomplish through them. Whether the result looks like success or failure to them in the end is immaterial. Freed from the crippling fear of failure, the servants can go about their work with hopefulness, joy and expectation. That is what faith looks like.

The opposite of faith is fear. “I knew that you were a hard man,” says the third servant, “and I was afraid.” But was that really the case or was it merely the servant’s perception? If the servant believed his master to be a “results oriented” boss with an eye only for the bottom line, then his decision to “play it safe” makes sense. Investments that require innovation, risk taking and novelty often do not pay off until years later-if at all. They are not an attractive option when your annual review is coming up in six months. That is why a management plan rewarding short term success and punishing failure has been shown again and again to be a failed business model. Fear and innovation don’t mix.

Fear is the author of many a poor decision. This week fans of ex-Fox commentator Sean Hannity began smashing their Keurig coffee makers because Keurig withdrew its advertising from Hannity’s show. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The only one you hurt by such a demonstration of disapproval is yourself. It’s rather like protesting a movie you don’t like by buying a ticket and not going in to see it. But people do stupid things when they are afraid and anger is, after all, just fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Fear inspires people to support political measures that are sure to hurt them economically, i.e., a southern border wall, trade wars and health care legislation limiting insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Fear seduces otherwise intelligent people to believe all kinds of nonsense, i.e., Barak Obama is a Kenyon born Muslim bent on implementing Sharia law; the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school never happened and are just an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the liberal media; Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster and opened up a child porn service out of a pizza parlor; the U.S. Air Force is concealing the bodies of extra-terrestrial aliens, etc. We (I at least) might be inclined to mock such incredulity. But none of us are our best selves when we are afraid. As nutty as some of these beliefs appear, they help make sense out of life for people whose world is coming apart and who cannot understand why. When you are convinced you are going under, you grasp at any flimsy straw within reach.

Too much of what our church does, both on the denominational and parish levels, is inspired by fear. And let’s face it, declining membership, dwindling financial resources and a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent to organized religion are all scary things. In a time when our existence seems to be threatened, we are less likely than ever to take risks, be innovative and embrace the cross. Our first impulse is to grasp, hang onto and depend on the things we know. We know how to run capital fund drives; we know how to erect sanctuaries; we know how to develop liturgies and plan worship; we know how to advertise. These are the things to which we turn as we try to save ourselves and preserve what we have. None of that is necessarily bad, but our reliance upon it for our salvation is misplaced.

If I am reading this parable correctly, saving ourselves and preserving what we have is the last thing we should be trying to do. What ought to concern us is not the possibility that we will lose all that we have. Rather, we should be concerned that the last day will catch us with money still in the bank. We should be worried Jesus will return to discover that we have not spent all that we are and have in the service of our neighbors and in witnessing to the gentle reign of God. This century may well see the death of the church as we know it. But that should not concern worshipers of the God who raises the dead. Better to have died in confident faith than to survive until the end with nothing to show for it other than unspent potential, wasted opportunities and unfulfilled intentions. Jesus challenges us to a life of faithfulness in which loss, failure and death are not determining factors. He calls us to live thankfully, faithfully and generously, knowing that in him all things are ours to be spent in his service-and after that, to arrive at the grave broke.

Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in squandering all for the sake of the kingdom and the reward that comes with it.

Net Worth

I own the golden sunlight
breaking over the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows that come to feed
at the seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!

Source: Anonymous

Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18

Zephaniah is one of the twelve “minor” prophets, so called not because they constitute a minor prophetic league, but because their books are far smaller than those of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). According to the first verse of his collected writings, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. This king, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E., was credited in the book of II Kings for instituting in the latter part of his reign sweeping religious reforms and ridding the kingdom of idolatry. II Kings 23:1-25. The prophet’s sustained criticism of Judah’s religious infidelity suggests that he ministered in the earlier part of Josiah’s reign before the passage of his reforms. Zephaniah’s lineage is traced back to one called “Hezekiah,” but it is not known whether this Hezekiah is the Judean King by that name who ruled between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. during the ministries of the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Zephaniah’s oracles begin with the prophet’s warning of a catastrophic judgment of cosmic proportions that will sweep away not only Judah, but all of humankind. For more general information on the Book of Zephaniah, see Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

In this Sunday’s reading, Zephaniah delivers a scorching rebuke to his nation. Like Amos in last week’s reading, Zephaniah warns that the “Day of the Lord,” a common term for God’s hoped for salvation, would be nothing of the sort for the sinful nation of Judah. Significantly, in the omitted verses 8-11, the prophet directs withering criticism toward “the king’s sons” and “those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud,” but not the king himself. Josiah was only eight years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. II Kings 22:1. It is unlikely that he would have exercised any true political authority at this point (much less had any sons!). Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the “sons” of whom Zephaniah speaks are Josiah’s brothers, the sons of the former king, Amon. Like his father, Manasseh, Amon practiced idolatry and it seems that his sons continued in that vein. Zephaniah’s reluctance to criticize the king directly might well have been due to his reasonable fear of the consequences. It might also have stemmed from his hope that the boy king Josiah might yet prove himself made of better stuff than his father when he finally grew into the crown. The practice of “leaping over the threshold” mentioned in verse 9 appears to have been a pagan ritual upon entering a shrine. See I Samuel 5:5.

The agent of God’s judgment upon Judah will come from the north, entering by way of the Fish Gate at the northeastern wall. Vs. 10. It must be born in mind that this period of time was marked by geopolitical instability. The Assyrian Empire was fast disintegrating, leaving a power vacuum that King Josiah would later exploit to Judah’s temporary advantage. At this early point, however, the political future of the region was unclear. Restive nations now released from the yolk of Assyria were beginning to assert themselves. Like the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions in the 1990s following the decline of Soviet rule, the near east was spinning into chaos as Assyria’s power faded. The feared invader from the north could therefore have been any number of potential foes. According to most scholars, the most likely suspects are the Scythian tribes. In any event, the immediate threat against which the prophet warned seems not to have materialized.

Neither military might nor wealth will be able to deliver Judah from the coming judgment. Vss. 17-18. Israel’s trust in these things is vain as their power is illusory. Yet there appear to be people in Judah whose trust is so anchored. They are, to use a contemporary term, “practical atheists.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Vs. 12. The belief underlying this remark is that God does not get involved with human affairs. Other than worship, prayer or other religious activities, human conduct is of no concern to God. God is compartmentalized into the realm of the “spiritual” and has no place in the “real world.” Yet a God thoroughly removed from the economic, political and social realities in which human beings live might as well not exist. Belief in such a god is practically indistinguishable from belief in no god at all.

This reading does not portray our God as a kindly old over-indulgent grandfather. This is an angry God. In our modern 19th Century, rational, refined, ever white and ever polite protestant piety, a God of wrath and judgment is viewed as inconsistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Lately, though, we are learning that the real world is a good deal messier than our quaint Enlightenment rationalism once led us to suppose. Anger and love are not as far apart as we imagine. Most acts of violence are domestic. The bloodiest conflicts often take place between religious, cultural and racial groups that are closely related. The people we love most are those with the greatest capacity to hurt us. A God incapable of anger would be a god that didn’t care. A god that that never gets in the way of what we want would not be a God of love, but one of benign indifference. It is precisely because God loves us so passionately that God is so deeply grieved and so thoroughly outraged by our self-centered and self-destructive behavior. God’s judgment, severe though it may be, is another manifestation of God’s love seeking to save us from ourselves. Even the bad news is really good news.

Psalm 90:1–12

This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. The attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.

However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.

Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.

Formally speaking, the psalm is in a class by itself, defying the categories of scholarly classification. Though it begins by praising God’s creative and eternal power, it is hardly a song of praise. Like a lament, this poem is decidedly dark, but the psalmist is not crying out for salvation from any threat of extraordinary danger or the prospect of a premature death. The psalmist is simply reflecting on the limitations of being a mortal creature in a perishable world. From dust we are made, to dust we return. Vss. 3-4. We are like the grass, flourishing in the morning and perishing before sunset. Vss. 5-6. But in one crucial respect we are not like the grass or any other non-human creature that is content to live its span and return to nourish the earth from which it came. We want more. Unlike Jesus and very much like Adam, we view godhood as “a thing to be grasped.” Philippians 2:5-6. Yet every time we reach out for the prize of god-like immortality, we run into our mortal limits. Each passing day reminds us that our bodies and minds are in decline.

The psalmist understands and accepts (as our own culture frequently does not!) that such is life as God’s creature. There is no escape from mortality. So the psalmist prays that s/he might live wisely and well within his/her creaturely limits. How very contrary that prayer is to our fixation on youthfulness, our preoccupation with covering up the evidence of aging, our promethean dreams of indefinitely extending the length of human life through medical and technological advances! Yet it should not seem at all radical or unusual to disciples of a man who was misunderstood all his life, died violently in his youth and was abandoned by his closest friends and supporters in the end. Life need not be eternal to be eternally significant. Nor does life need to be long in order to be full and complete. If you follow Jesus, you know that the criteria by which our world measures the value of a human life are false and distorted. Not surprisingly, they lead us to despair.

As dark as this psalm is, it does not despair of human existence. Rather, it seeks wisdom to live faithfully within our human creaturely limits. In the final verse of the psalm (not included in our reading), the psalmist prays that God would “establish the work of our hands.” Vs. 17. It is, after all, only God who can endow our lives with true value and significance. It is only by commending our works into God’s hands that we can hope they will find any degree of permanence beyond the measure of our days. That we have the work of this psalmist’s hands enshrined in our scriptures testifies to the truth of his/her words.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.

1 Thessalonians 5:1–11

For my comments generally on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, see my post for October 22, 2017,  See also Summary Article by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.

Sunday’s reading is another one with a focus on “the day of the Lord.” As pointed out in my introductory remarks, this is a broad term that can be applied to any watershed time of salvation such as the Exodus from Egypt. But it is also used to denote the final triumph of God’s justice throughout creation. This latter sense is the one St. Paul intends in our lesson. One thing to keep in mind about the “Day of the Lord” is that it is about judgment as much as it is about salvation. You cannot have salvation of the righteous without judgment of the wicked. Finally, it must be said that we are never on shakier ground than when we presume we are wholly on one side of that divide and someone else is on the other. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every heart. Paul warns his church that the final judgment is already making itself felt in the present moment. Even now believers must shake themselves out of sleep (Vs. 6) and put on the armor of faith, love and hope. Vs. 8.

Though Paul reiterates what has been said in the gospels, that the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (Vs. 2), that should not be a cause for alarm. In contrast to the rest of the world, which assumes that the cosmos is on solid ground and will continue indefinitely along the lines established in the past, disciples of Jesus understand that the night will not go on indefinitely. The daylight is coming. Now is the time to begin practicing how to live and move in the light so that the Day of the Lord will come as a welcome and anticipated moment rather than as a blinding flash of light to eyes accustomed only to the darkness.

The Day of the Lord appears as a disruptive and disturbing event to a world alienated from its Maker. It is not the apex of gradual social evolution toward a better society. Neither is it the endpoint of a predetermined historical clock whose workings are buried in the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. The church is no more knowledgeable concerning God’s timing than is anyone else. But Jesus has delivered to his disciples God’s coming kingdom now. Church under the cross is the shape that kingdom takes in a world that is not yet ready for it.

Once again, the bottom line is comfort. Apocalyptic imagery used here by Paul and throughout the scriptures is not intended to scare the socks off people. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 9. Paul urges us “to encourage one another and build one another up” in this hope. Vs. 11.

Matthew 25:14–30

This parable of the talents is also told in the Gospel of Luke, though with a few additional twists. Luke 19:12-27. As Professor Nolland observes, the master’s entrusting his slaves with money in this parable is unusual by 1stCentury Palestinian standards. One would normally make investment arrangements over a long period of absence in other ways. The slaves are thus being treated with unusual distinction. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 1013-1014. Though some commentators suggest that the talents represent a “business loan” of some sort, nothing in the parable supports such an interpretation. The money is not given to be used for the benefit of the slaves. Nor is there any suggestion that they are to share in the profits. The money is given to the slaves to be invested solely for the benefit of the master and his estate. That, of course, fits with the biblical understanding that “the earth is the Lord’s” and its human inhabitants but stewards. Psalm 24:1.

The term “talent” originally referred to a measure of weight on a scale. It then came to mean anything weighed and later to a specific weight of about thirty kilograms. Over time, it came to be used of money indicating the value of that weight of gold, silver, copper or whatever other precious commodity might be involved. It is the general scholarly consensus that silver talents are intended by Matthew. Ibid, p. 756. One talent, then, would amount to about six thousand denarii (Ibid), one of which constitutes a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer. Matthew 20:1-16. Thus, even one single talent amounted to a considerable chunk of change.

Upon his return, the master settles accounts with his three slaves. The first two mange to double their investment and are given the promise that their faithfulness with the “little” placed in their hands will be rewarded with responsibility over “much.” Vss. 20-24. The third slave took a different approach. Rather than investing the one talent he had been given, he buried it in the ground in a napkin to ensure its safety. This action was not commercially unreasonable. It was apparently an accepted means of keeping valuables safe. See, e.g., Matthew 13:44. But preservation is clearly not what the master was looking for. Instead of a glowing commendation, this third slave received a withering rebuke. Apparently, it was not enough for him to show that he had not pilfered or squandered the master’s goods. He needed to show that he had put them to productive use.

At a gathering of fellow clergy some years ago, I remember somebody remarking how he wished that Jesus had told this parable differently. He wished that at least one of the two successful slaves had both failed to earn interest and lost his principle. The master would nevertheless commend the unsuccessful but gutsy slave on his entrepreneurial spirit. So my friend would have had the parable end. But that proposed telling misses the point in a most obvious way. The two slaves are not rewarded on the basis of their success or their risk tolerance, but on the basis of their faithfulness. The operative words are: “well done good and faithful slave.” Where one is faithful to Jesus, his/her work will bear fruit. When one does the work of the kingdom, one cannot but succeed. Of course, success on God’s terms and for God’s purposes might not meet with our expectations of what success should look like, but that is a discussion for another day.

The problem, then, with the third slave was his lack of faith. He did not really believe in the mission with which his master had entrusted him. He thought it wiser to conserve than to invest. As far as he could see, there was no future in venturing all that had been given into his care. He could not comprehend Jesus’ warning that all who seek to save their lives ultimately lose them or his promise that those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them. The third slave was too fearful of losing his master’s money to make any good use of it. He thought that the only way to keep himself out of trouble was to preserve until the end what had been given to him. But God seeks missionaries, not custodians. That is a timely message for churches obsessed with maintaining their buildings, preserving their endowments and hanging on to ways of being church that no longer answer the call to make disciples of all nations.

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Choosing the right kind of heroes; a poem by Denise Levertov; and the lessons for Sunday, November 5, 2017

Image result for fearless girl statute ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

Revelation 7:9–17
Psalm 34:1–10, 22
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I was a junior in High School when I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that chronicles the World War II experiences of his fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier into the postwar years. The story is told in a surreal, unchronological fashion such that Pilgrim’s post-traumatic stress induced delusions mesh with his life experiences making it impossible for the reader to disentangle them. At one point, Pilgrim comes into contact with the work of Kilgore Trout, a failed novelist and author of a cheesy book entitled The Gospel from Outer Space. Trout’s novel narrates the journey of a visitor from outer space who studies Christianity to determine “why Christians found it so easy to be cruel.” The problem with the Christian religion, as the alien visitor sees it, is that its Christ is so clearly linked to God. He had connections. Who would dare to kill him? Who could expect to escape divine retribution for so do doing? Who could pardon anyone for rejecting the teachings of one so obviously close to God? The takeaway: Don’t kill people with connections.

The alien thus attempts to revise the gospel story by making Jesus not the exalted Son of God, but an ordinary, unappealing and bothersome bum nobody likes or cares about. Only after this alternative Christ is abused, neglected and left to die is he revealed as God’s son. Thus, the takeaway message from the alien’s revised gospel is this: “From this moment on, [God] will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”

Vonnegut’s alien is actually not so very far from the truth of the gospel. Anyone who reads the gospels with any degree of discernment will soon discover that Jesus was, in fact, crucified as a “nobody.” Moreover, he warned that abuse toward the “least” of humanity is a blow against him and his heavenly Father. The kind of Christianity the alien encounters on his visit to earth is in reality a horrible distortion of the discipleship toward which Jesus calls us. Nonetheless, it accurately parodies a lot of American religion seeking to pass for Christian that sees in Jesus a moral avenger rather than a friend of sinners. The ghastliest distortion comes to us from the pre-millennial sects that have Jesus returning to a world reduced to misery by a divinely inflicted “tribulation” in order to defeat the armies of the nations with overwhelming violence and to cast into hell anyone who hasn’t the sense to believe in him after witnessing such fireworks. Such a Christ, though hardly the one proclaimed by the gospels, nevertheless fits the profile of a nation that looks to guns for security, deifies warriors and accepts school shootings as a normal and unavoidable (if regrettable) part of day to day life.

Just as we Americans are tempted to embrace the wrong Christ, we are similarly drawn to the wrong kinds of heroes. Whether it be old-fashioned westerns, comic superhero movies or police dramas, the plot is always the same. Innocent victims are beset by irredeemably evil predators. The innocent are finally rescued by a powerful male[1] protagonist who employs violence to destroy or subdue the enemy. Everyone lives happily ever after-until next week. The characters are so hopelessly two dimensional and the plot so simplistic that we are unable to wonder what drives the evil antagonist, whether s/he is best by mental illness, scarred by an abusive upbringing or motivated by some noble, if misguided belief system. There is no room for sympathy toward the antagonist, for doubts concerning the innocence of the victims or the purity of the protagonist’s motives. Nothing must be allowed to contaminate our pure moral outrage, cool our sympathy for the victim or muddy the clear distinction between good and evil. That would only spoil the cathartic release we all expect when the protagonist justly guns down, beats up or otherwise annihilates the antagonist. The message is clear: Good and evil are delineated by clear and unambiguous moral boundaries. There is no room for compromise and no possibility of reconciliation. There is no alternative beyond life and death conflict. Good conquers evil through brute violence. As so famously articulated by the NRA, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Given this singular morality play repeated in so many different genres to audiences of all ages on the stage of moralistic simplicity, it should come as no surprise that we are becoming increasingly polarized and unable to view our political opponents as anything less than enemies. It is no mystery why we have managed to elect a president whose sole means of governance is confrontation. Violence from gang warfare to suburban road rage is readily understandable when we realize that such conduct flows from our emulation of the heroes from whom we learned from childhood about courage, manhood, good and evil. Violence is the only tool left in our box. No wonder we treat everyone whose ideas are different, whose race is other than our own and whose language is unfamiliar as an enemy. We lack the imagination to do otherwise.

All Saint’s Day is the church’s opportunity to offer our culture an alternative set of heroes. We are called to remember women and men who stood up alone and unarmed to speak truth to power. We memorialize the believers who faced bravely the raging bull of oppression with only the word of truth. We lift up those who renounced the ways of violence, coercion and materialism in favor of poverty, hunger for justice, mercy, peacemaking, meekness and purity. We celebrate the memories of people who gave their own lives for justice and peace rather than trying to achieve these ends by taking the lives of others. We honor those who have chosen to suffer violence rather than inflict it. Our heroes are people like Stephen, who prayed for the very people who were lynching him. We honor people like Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic nurse who risked certain death at the hands of the Nazis when she smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto before its destruction. We teach our children to emulate Kyla Mueller who dedicated her life to serving vulnerable populations in impoverished and war-torn areas of the world, and who ultimately was murdered by ISIS fighters while she was assisting a hospital caring for Syrian refugees from Aleppo. We do not rejoice in the death of evil people through retributive justice. We rejoice in the death of saints whose lives bear witness to the greater restorative justice of bread and dignity for all, reconciliation and peace.

All Saint’s Day is the Veteran’s Day of the Church. It is our opportunity to honor and be inspired by those persons whose faithful discipleship mirrors the love of Jesus for the world. Our heroes are not “super.” To the contrary, they recognize perhaps better than the rest of us that the line between good and evil passes through the midst of every human heart, including their own. Just as the same potential for selfishness, meanness and cruelty driving the most depraved criminal dwells in some measure within the heart of the most dedicated saint, so also the image of God in Christ can never be entirely erased from the worst among us. For that reason, the saint understands that violence can never cleanse and redeem us. Only love can save us from ourselves; only reconciliation can give us genuine peace; only forgiveness can break the cycle of vengeance keeping us at each other’s throats from one generation to the next.

To be a saint is to embrace suffering, not because suffering is good in itself, but because the cross is the shape love always takes in a sinful world. A saint understands that the future belongs to the God who raised from death the man who gave his life to love and invites his disciples to do the same. For this reason, Jesus tells us, the life of the poor, hungry, meek, peaceful and persecuted saint is blessed.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov about the strange blessedness of saintliness.

The Wealth of the Destitute

How gray and hard the brown feet of the wretched of the earth.
How confidently the crippled from birth
push themselves through the streets, deep in their lives.
How seamed with lines of fate the hands
of women who sit at streetcorners
offering seeds and flowers.
How lively their conversation together.
How much of death they know.
I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness.’

Source: Poems 1972-1982 (c. 1975 by Denise Levertov, pub. By New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2002) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Revelation 7:9–17

My experience with The Book Revelation has always been bitter-sweet. Whenever I announce that I will be holding a Bible Study on Revelation, the initial response is enthusiastic. I find, however, that interest soon wanes when it becomes clear that I will not be announcing the end date for civilization as we know it, the identity of the antichrist or who can expect to be raptured as opposed to being “left behind.” The disappointing truth for many folks is that Revelation does not hold the key to predicting the future. It does nevertheless hold many other fascinating and edifying treasures often missed by those intent on using it as a crystal ball. For a good general overview of Revelation, see the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Our lesson for Sunday is one of several self-contained liturgical interludes between the visions given to John of Patmos from chapters 4 through 22. See also, Revelation 4:9-11Revelation 5:6-10Revelation 11:16-18Revelation 15:2-4Revelation 16:4-7Revelation 19:1-8. This hymn of praise, along with the surrounding narrative, was the inspiration for the old Norwegian hymn, “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 425. John of Patmos is given a vision of a “great multitude” too numerous to count. Vs. 9. These words echo the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 in which the patriarch is assured that God will make of him a “great nation.” See Kelly, Balmer H., Revelation 7:9-17, published in 40 Interpretation (July 1986) p. 290. That nation is precisely what John is looking at. It is a nation made up of every country, tribe and people yet its allegiance is to “God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.” Vs. 10. The political import of this vision is clear. The people called into existence by God and the Lamb, not the Roman Empire, will reign. God, not Caesar, sits upon the highest throne. All rule and authority belongs not to emperor, but to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb.”

We were first introduced to the Lamb in Revelation 5:1-5. He is the one being in all heaven and earth worthy to open up the scroll through which John must enter into the visions soon to be revealed. Though announced in the court of heaven as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), this being appears as a lamb that was slain. Revelation 5:6. This strange juxtaposition, the slain Lamb as the “conqueror” over the vicious predatory beasts to be revealed, is the key to understanding the Book of Revelation. Just as it is the crucified Jesus through whom God’s suffering love overcomes the violent reign of Caesar, so also through the suffering endurance of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-3 God’s gracious will for the world is both revealed and actualized. Contrary to appearances, the enduring reality is the life of the fragile, persecuted and demoralized churches-not the Roman Empire.

The great multitude robed in white represents the struggling churches as they truly are: loyal subjects of the triumphant Lamb. They have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” Vs. 14. This is not to be understood as substitutionary atonement. This “washing” in blood refers to the churches’ sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the cross of Rome. They have come out of the “great tribulation,” that is, persecution under the reign of Caesar. Vs. 14. The image of white robes might very well be an allusion to baptism as well. The use of white garb for the newly baptized is evidenced very early in the life of the church and might well date from the New Testament era. The thrust of this vision is clear. Things are not as they seem. Presently, it appears as though Rome rules supreme and the churches are powerless victims. Caesar’s violence appears to have the upper hand. In reality, however, the patient, suffering love of God revealed in the slain Lamb is destined to outlast the empire. It is precisely through such suffering love that Caesar meets his defeat.

The song making up verses 15-17 evokes numerous images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Service in the temple of the Lord was seen as the highest possible privilege and delight. See, e.g., Psalm 84. Though reserved for the Levitical priesthood in ancient Israel, this privilege is now given to all the baptized. Language strikingly similar to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 can be found in verses 16-17, i.e., “the sun shall not strike them,” “For the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd,” and “he will guide them to springs of living water.” As in so many instances throughout the New Testament, John of Patmos draws from numerous familiar images in the Hebrew Scriptures and weaves them into his poetic portrayal of God’s sojourn with his church under the scourge of imperial oppression and violence.

In sum, “Revelation 7:9-17 is, therefore, unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of the Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” Balmer, supra at 294.

Psalm 34:1–10, 22

This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 37Psalm 111Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Its form suggests that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. It is quite possible, though, that I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced appear only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have seldom made choices in my life that I felt certain were inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.

The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. “[T]hose who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Vs. 10. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.

From verse 10 the lectionary takes a flying leap to verse 22 which reads: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” This is not to be taken as immunization against condemnation by any human court. We know well enough that the innocent frequently are condemned by unjust and oppressive structures. Even in relatively just societies justice sometimes miscarries. But the judgments of all human authorities are relative and subject to reversal in God’s court of appeal. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate reversal of human judgment. It is precisely because God raised Jesus, who lived according to the humanly impractical directives of the Sermon on the Mount, that believers can so live, endure the world’s rejection, ridicule and persecution but anticipate vindication on the Day of Jesus Christ.

1 John 3:1–3

Professor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the life of discipleship is unintelligible apart from the conviction that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from death. That is why the world, which does not know or believe in what God did through Jesus, finds disciples of Jesus so utterly incomprehensible-or at least it should. This is what separates Christian ethical conduct from every other ethical point of reference. It is precisely because disciples of Jesus are convinced that the Sermon on the Mount embodies the kingdom destined to come as it must exist in a sinful world that they conform their lives to it even when doing so seems ineffective, impractical and counter-productive. The Sermon is not an unachievable ideal. It was, in fact, achieved and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ faithfulness to the Sermon he preached resulted in his crucifixion. That, standing alone, would validate what every “realist” tells us. The Sermon is impractical. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would have to concede that the cross proves the realist’s point. But God raised Jesus and that changes everything. To every objection of impracticality one might raise against following Jesus’ call to love our enemies, renounce the use of coercive force and lend without expecting repayment, the only proper response is, “but God raised Jesus from death.”

“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…” vs. 2. This is perhaps one of the most important words on the resurrection and eternal life. Far too common is the belief that eternal life is nothing more than a continuation of our present existence-only without sickness, poverty, warfare, Barry Manilow and whatever else makes life miserable. A friend of mine once told me that “death is not real,” that it is no more than “passing through a door.” But if I am the same person on the other side of that door as I am today, nothing has changed. If I carry with me into eternity the same prejudices, the same grudges, the same scars and the same selfish ambitions that characterize my present existence, eternal life will be nothing more than a continuation of all the animosity and strife we now experience-except that there will be no end to it. That sounds very much like Jean Paul Sartre’s portrayal of hell in No Exit.

Death is not only real, but necessary. That is precisely why Paul speaks of baptism as being joined in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:1-4. We need to become the sort of people who can live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. That requires repentance which is a sort of death. Repentance, it must be emphasized, is not an individual act. It is rather a way of living in community shaped by the faithful practices of preaching and hearing, Eucharist, prayer, sharing of resources, almsgiving and witness.

Matthew 5:1–12

The problem with the Beatitudes is the same as the problem we have with the well known lullaby, “Rock a by Baby.” The words are so familiar that their shock value no longer registers. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to sing an infant to sleep with a song ending in the fall of a baby from the top of a tree? So, too, is there anything inherently blessed about poverty, mourning and persecution? Yet unlike “Rock a by Baby,” which in my view has no redeeming value, the Beatitudes make sense, but only when read against the backdrop of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.

Moreover, when properly understood as the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes obvious that the conditions of beatitude are not metaphorical. Poverty, real poverty, is what can be expected when you lend without expecting return, refuse to re-take what has been stolen from you and forego coercive measures to enforce your “rights.” I therefore agree whole heartedly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in rejecting the all too common belief that Matthew’s beatitudes represent a watering down of Luke’s briefer version in the Sermon on the Plain. “There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified, except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 119.

It is important to recall that it is not suffering in general, but the suffering consequential to faithful discipleship that Jesus calls blessed. As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of 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. Faithfulness to Jesus divides families, invites hostility from the surrounding culture and often requires the sacrifice of life itself. Though they do not frequently make the cut for what the mainstream media considers “news,” there are plenty of instances throughout the world of Christians experiencing poverty, mourning and persecution for their obedience to Jesus. That we do not typically experience these things in the United States is perhaps more an indicator of the church’s lack of discipleship in these parts than the “religious freedom” in which we take such pride.

So what is the “All Saints Day” spin on this text? For some reason, that question calls to mind a novel I read in my twenties entitled Morte d’UrbanIt was written by J.F. Powers. The main character is Father Urban, a priest and member of the fictitious Clementine monastic order. Urban is personable, a skilled organizer and a charismatic speaker. His leadership skills are much needed to shore up his failing Clementine order, but the order is run by unskilled, incompetent and less forward looking men who consistently assign Father Urban to positions where his gifts are wasted. Yet wherever he goes, Father Urban uses every opportunity to further the interests and growth of the Clementines.

Over time, however, Urban begins harkening to a different voice calling him to integrity, self-awareness and compassion. The more Father Urban grows into this new self, the less successful he becomes in his role as a promoter of the Clementines. He eventually alienates the powerful and wealthy benefactors he spent so much time and effort cultivating. Ironically, it is at the point of his lowest level of competence (and the height of his spiritual development) that he is appointed leader of the failing Clementine order. His leadership proves to be as ineffective as that of his predecessors-but effectiveness is perhaps overrated.

Is Morte d’Urban a cautionary tale, a parable for a failing protestant establishment desperate to save its institutional life? When survival is at stake, both institutions and individuals are sorely tempted to put spiritual priorities to one side. The bottom line becomes the only line anyone looks at. When new money comes in the door, one tends not to look very carefully at where it came from or how it was made. If somebody within the institution is successful at bringing in membership, building up support and attracting wealthy donors, one does not scrutinize the methodology. As long as nothing blatantly illegal is going on, let the golden goose keep laying! What the heck, it works. None of us likes to think we are that mercenary. But when an institution feeds you, clothes you and provides your medical coverage, it is hard to resist grasping at anything that will extend its life.

What does saintliness look like in our context? What are the qualities we seek in our leaders? Are we valuing effectiveness over faithfulness? Or is this a false dichotomy? Do we need to ask “effective in doing what?” What is a faithful church supposed to look like in 21st Century North America? Are poverty, mourning and persecution marks of such a church? How are we measuring the success of our bishops, pastors and leaders? Is “success” even an appropriate category for such measurement? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it troubles me that so few in our church are asking them.

[1] I understand that women are breaking into acting roles in the superhero and police genre. I suppose that’s a good thing-if equality and diversity are genuinely advanced by our acknowledgment that women are as competent as men when it comes to killing people and breaking things.

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Calling a thing what it actually is; a poem by Anne Waldman; and the lessons for Sunday, October 29th

Image result for martin luther nailing 95 thesesREFORMATION SUNDAY

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Art. 21.

This week we saw a decorated four-star general with a distinguished record of service to his country disgrace himself and his uniform by trying to explain away the mad ramblings of an emotionally unstable president with rank lies about an elected member of the house of representatives. In response to queries about that by an incredulous press, we heard the president’s press secretary tell reporters that military leaders are not to be questioned. Meanwhile, a state university in Florida hosted a white supremacist whose demagoguery incited the same kind of violence against protesters that occurred at his appearance in Charlottesville last summer, thankfully without the same tragic results. Am I the only one who finds it passing strange that white supremacist Richard Spencer is given a platform to preach his racist idiocy at an expense to the taxpayers of over half a million dollars while reporters asking questions about the public statement of a military leader are told to shut up? Are we still in the United States of America?

More disturbing than the current administration’s shredding of the constitution, a university’s dignifying racist yammering and the absolute disregard for truth that has washed like tsunami over our nation is the religious underpinning for all this so generously provided by the evangelical wing of American religion. The president’s equivocation (to put it charitably) on the violence in Charlottesville resulted in so many resignations from his Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Jobs Initiative councils that he was forced to disband both. But labeling neo Nazis and clansmen “fine people” was not enough to tickle the gag reflexes of Mr. Trump’s religious advisory council. Unlike the captains of industry, these religious figures didn’t feel that a little racism (to say nothing of sexual predatory conduct) is anything over which to become upset. If God has placed the Donald in the White House (and yes, that’s what these folks are saying), then opposing the Donald is opposing God.

All of this might be laughable-except that God’s presidential appointee is in the process of deporting children to countries where they have never lived, don’t speak the language and have no cultural or even family ties. We might just shake our heads, sigh and go on with our business-except that this president is bringing us closer every day to an unwinnable military conflict that could well bring ours and everyone else’s business to an abrupt end. We might shrug our shoulders and take the attitude that life goes on-except it might not and surely will not for the growing number of victims of hate crimes incited by Trumpist dog whistling. We might dismiss idiots like Richard Spencer as harmless clowns dancing around outside the margins of respectable society, spewing their venom but harming no one. But Mr. Spencer is not muttering his malarkey into a beer mug at a dark pub in the hearing only of some unfortunate bartender, where ten years ago we would have expected to find such sorry specimens of humanity. Instead, he is speaking at publicly funded universities and even landing interviews with NPR. Overt racism, once unthinkable in polite society, is becoming as American as apple pie-again.

“The truth will make you free” Jesus declares in this Sunday’s Reformation gospel. The sad corollary is that lies imprison us. We are currently enslaved by a congress that has been lying to itself and to us about the obvious fact that we have managed to elect a deeply paranoid, narcissistic and delusional man to the highest office in the land and armed him with the deadliest arsenal on the planet. We are being lied to by well-meaning leaders who suggest that, if we just learn to talk nice to each other, we can come together and solve the country’s problems-except that inviting people of color to discuss commonalities with those who want to lynch them is a mighty big ask. Moreover, anyone who thinks that welcoming Spencer and his hoards into the political mainstream will domesticate them would do well to remember the Weimar Republic’s last prime minister, Paul von Hindenburg, who named Adolf Hitler chancellor of the republic in hopes that the responsibilities of governing would curb his fanaticism. We are being lied to by the church and not only that heretical fragment ensconced in the Trump White House. We are also being lied to by a mainline church that, in my view, has failed to recognize and name the evil we face for what it is-a nationalistic, militaristic and racist revival of xenophobic populism that is taking root not only in the United States but in democracies everywhere. Let us be clear: this has nothing to do with disputes over politics, economics and social policies about which reasonable persons of good will might well disagree. Toning down the rhetoric alone will not bring us back to civility and peace. The election of 2016 has ignited a tidal wave of racist, misogynist, xenophobic and homophobic hate that respects neither law nor policy. This irrational madness has placed the mad man in the White House. That is the hard truth that needs to be spoken.

Five hundred years ago Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg for discussion and debate with this preface: “Out of love for the truth.” His was a challenge to the church of his day to engage in frank and fearless discussion about what he saw to be the blinding lies holding captive the people of God. If we want to be faithful to the reformation tradition, I believe we need to hear that call today. I think Martin is calling us to name truthfully the evil confronting us for what it is. Moreover, we (especially those of us in the white, straight, male category) need to take a careful inventory of the ways in which we have contributed to the making of the Trump presidency by failing to recognize and confront the systemic oppression that has always existed at all levels of government, education and the work place. Donald Trump did not invent racism, sexism or homophobia. He only exploited it and made us painfully aware of a truth we have been reluctant to see. That might well be the one positive accomplishment of his presidency. As important as getting the mad man out of the White House surely is, getting the madness of entrenched bigotry out of our institutions and our hearts is by far the more daunting task. We desperately need bishops, theologians and pastoral leaders with courage to speak difficult truths to us and lead us on the hard journey of repentance and faith. However painful that path might be, it is the way to which Jesus calls us and the only way to freedom.

Here is a poem by Anne Waldman about the inbreaking of truth.

To the Censorious Ones

(Jesse Helms & others…)

I’m coming up out of the tomb, Men of War
Just when you thought you had me down, in place, hidden
I’m coming up now
Can you feel the ground rumble under your feet?
It’s breaking apart, it’s turning over, it’s pushing up
It’s thrusting into your point of view, your private property
O Men of War, Censorious Ones!
get ready big boys get ready
I’m coming up now
I’m coming up with all that was hidden
Get ready, Big Boys, get ready
I’m coming up with all you wanted buried,
All the hermetic texts with stories in them of hot & dangerous women
Women with lascivious tongues, sharp eyes & claws
I’ve been working out, my muscles are strong
I’m pushing up the earth with all you try to censor
All the iconoclasm & bravado you scorn
All the taunts against your banner & salute
I’m coming up from Hell with all you ever suppressed
All the dark fantasies, all the dregs are coming back
I’m leading them back up now
They’re going to bark & scoff & rage & bite
I’m opening the box
boo!

Source: In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985-2003, (c.  2003 by Anne Waldman,  pub. by Coffee House Press). Anne Waldman was born 1945 in Millville, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan. She was heavily influenced by Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gertrude Stein. She was educated at Bennington College in Vermont. Waldman has received honorary grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She co-founded the Poetry Is News collective poet Ammiel Alcalay in 2002. You can find out more about Anne Waldman and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org.

Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ formally from the old. The “law” or “Torah” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.

This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat, that somehow the line of David would be preserved, that the Holy City and the temple of Solomon would be spared from destruction. But that would not have been salvation. For a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God, salvation for her institutions would only have enabled her to stray further. A miraculous deliverance from Babylon would have saved Judah’s national independence, her architectural treasures and her royal lineage. But it would have damned her soul. Salvation lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new heart God would form in his people after all these things had been taken away. Judah would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Judah would become precisely the nation God needed.

Jeremiah has been dubbed the prophet of doom. Yet the more I read him, the more convinced I am that he has gotten a bum rap. Jeremiah does have good news for his people. The problem, though, is that the people are not ready to hear it. They cannot see the glorious future God is offering them because they are fixated on preserving the past. As far as they are concerned, there can be no future other than a return to the past. A future without the throne of David, the temple in Jerusalem and the land of Israel is no future at all. Loss of these three pillars of Judah’s identity constituted only the end. The people of Judah had neither the language nor the conceptual tools to imagine life beyond that end. Their minds could not process the vision of a radically new existence as God’s people under a radically new covenant.

I am convinced that our protestant churches in the United States suffer from the same malady that affected the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time. God has moved beyond the past. Our church is still hopelessly stuck in it. I have encountered Jeremiah’s dilemma over and over again when trying to speak with church leaders about the promise of God’s future for the church in America. I always preface my remarks with what has become for me a mantra: “These are exciting days in which to be the church.” Yet I find that when I share that excitement, the response often ranges from sadness, to fear, to outright rage. The good news is heard as bad. Very often I find that when congregations say they want to grow, thrive and do new ministries, what they are really seeking is some way to rebuild the glories of the past. They want the pews filled again, a robust Sunday school and a church basement filled with teenagers playing twister. When I try to tell them that the church they are seeking is dead and never coming back-they are far too fearful/sad/angry to hear the good news, namely, that God has something better in mind. What is true of congregations individually is just as true of my denomination as a whole. Our leaders’ response to several years of decline and loss of support? A capital fund drive. If successful this effort, along with the assets collected from more and more closing congregations, will keep the denominational machinery going long after our congregations are nearly depopulated!

To be fair, this is not altogether about self-preservation. My congregation does some fine ministry in our community that would be missed should the church fold. So also, my denomination’s institutions do many important things for the whole of society. They feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; care for refugees; provide disaster relief; educate and advocate for justice and peace. The world will be decidedly poorer in the event my church’s corporate ministries cease to exist. Yet I must emphasize that one very important reason for their present peril is our failure to make our congregations communities capable of forming saints with hearts for the hungry, poor, oppressed and homeless. Instead of welcoming the stranger into our midst, we have created professional agencies to “address their needs.” We have cultivated a “check book charity” that allows congregations to buy off their “social consciences” without ever having to get their hands dirty. I think that John Tetzel would have approved the logic at work here. Indulgences financing social programs rather than building projects might be more palatable to our progressive tastes. But at the end of the day, the result is the same. Sanctification for sale. Genuine gospel mission cannot long maintain itself on such a flimsy foundation.

As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. The good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good. So, too, I often wonder whether Jesus’ promise that whoever loses life for the sake of the gospel will find it sounds like unmitigated bad news because we can’t quite get over the “loss” piece. We lack the capacity to imagine church without our individual congregations and their sanctuaries, seminaries, professional clergy and the recognition we have known in society at large. It is for that reason I continue to hold up Church of the SojournersReba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm as alternatives to what we have come to understand as church. I don’t suggest that these communities can be emulated by all our congregations or that they provide us with any sort of blueprint for tomorrow’s church. They do, however, challenge our assumptions about what it means to be church in the 21st Century and what is required to be faithful disciples of Jesus and, perhaps just as importantly, what is not. Like Jesus’ parables, these communities stimulate our imaginations and give us concrete images with which to envision God’s future.

The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20Ezekiel 14:11Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.

Psalm 46

This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3Habakkuk 3:9Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.

In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.

The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14.  Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.

As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.

In the third section, the focus is upon the violent geopolitical scene. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs.  9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.

Romans 3:19-28

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.

With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.

Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”

Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.

John 8:31-36

Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13.  In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).

The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30.  But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.

John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41.  To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?

I believe much of the membership loss among American mainline protestant churches may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, Jesus called people to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?

In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what constitutes true discipleship. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.

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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.

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My politically correct mother; a poem by Gerald Stern; and the lessons for Sunday, October 8, 2017

Image result for politically correctEIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

My mom was one of the most politically correct people I have ever known. She would not have agreed with the dubious proposition that a person should speak whatever is on his or her mind. “If you can’t speak kindly of someone else,” she used to say, “keep your mouth shut.” That rule applied even when my unkind remarks were true. For example, there was no denying that old Mr. Salter who lived a block away was an ornery old cuss that hated children. Once when I accidentally kicked my soccer ball into his front lawn, he promptly stepped out the door, picked up the ball and took it into his house. I had a few choice words for him that day.

When I got home, I told Mom all about it. She informed me that she would take care of getting my ball back and I was to apologize to Mr. Salter. “Why?” I demanded. “It was an accident and it didn’t do any harm. The ball landed on the grass! Nothing got broke and I wouldn’t even have had to step on his lawn if he’d just let me pick it up!” “Not the point,” Mom replied. “Mr. Salter feels that you have disrespected him. He needs to know that he has our respect. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong here. What matters is that we be good neighbors to each other.”

Mom was particularly intolerant of jokes and derisive comments directed to people with disabilities. I once called one of my friends a “retard” for reasons I no longer remember. I meant it as a joke and my friend took it that way, but Mom called me on it and delivered a stern rebuke. “But it was just a joke!” I explained. “It was between him and me. There were no other people around to hear it and be hurt.” “I heard it,” said Mom, “and it hurt me. Think about it. If you or somebody you cared about had a mental disability, would you want to hear an ugly word like that? Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes for once.”

For the same reason, too, racial epitaphs were forbidden in our home and that rule applied whether there were persons of color within ear shot or not. “The way you talk about people shows how you feel about them and whether you respect them,” she said. Mom taught us to practice respect whenever we opened our mouths so that we would grow up to be respectful.

Mom always believed that you “can’t judge a book by its cover.” So I doubt she would understand why so many people in our country feel that a Muslim cannot be a good citizen or why a judge of some particular ethnic background other than her own could not be fair and impartial or why you would automatically be fearful of someone simply because of where they come from, what language they speak or how they look. I also doubt she would find the rude, crude and insulting language that has been oozing out from the internet, talk radio and political leaders these days much to her liking. It isn’t that Mom couldn’t be forceful and assertive. She could be plenty assertive when she had to be. But she never lost sight of the humanity of the people she confronted. However much she might have disagreed with what someone else had said or done, she never failed to respect them or treat them as anything less than a human being loved by God and created in God’s image. No doubt about it, Mom was politically correct-only we didn’t call it politically correct back then. We just called it good manners.

I think St. Paul would have seen eye to eye with Mom on that score. In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Philippians (which is not, but should be included in our reading for Sunday), he says “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8. As Mom always said, your thoughts shape your words, your words shape your actions and your actions shape your destiny. We don’t need to allow our thoughts, words and actions be shaped by the shallow and mean spirited discourse we find all around us. We can instead be inspired by what is true, what is beautiful and what is good.

Here’s a poem by Gerald Stern celebrating a small, simple act of beauty and generosity that is worth thinking on.

In Beauty Bright

In beauty-bright and such it was like Blake’s
lily and though an angel he looked absurd
dragging a lily out of a beauty-bright store
wrapped in tissue with a petal drooping,
nor was it useless—you who know it know
how useful it is—and how he would be dead
in a minute if he were to lose it though
how do you lose a lily? His lily was white
and he had a foolish smile there holding it up like
a candelabrum in his right hand facing the
mirror in the hall nor had the endless
centuries started yet nor was there one thorn
between his small house and the beauty-bright store.

Source: Poetry Magazine (March 2010) c. by Gerald Stern. Gerald Stern (b. 1925) is one of America’s most celebrated poets.  Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1925 to immigrant parents of eastern European Jewish descent, he has held positions at Temple University, New England College and Drew University. He also taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find out more about Gerald Stern and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 5:1–7

This Sunday’s lesson is an oracle from the prophet Isaiah who lived and ministered in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. His writings are found in Isaiah 1-39 along with much other material from various sources. For some more general background on the prophet Isaiah, see Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

The comparison of Israel to a vineyard or to grape vines is a common one. It is found, for example, in our psalm for this Sunday. See also Hosea 10:1-2Jeremiah 2:21Ezekiel 19:10-14. The vineyard is also a common metaphor for a bride. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd) p. 60. Thus, the hearers are put on notice that this song is about more than a disappointing harvest. It is about betrayal at the deepest, most intimate level. The word for “choice vines” planted in the vineyard is a translation of the Hebrew word “soreq,” which means either red grapes or grapes native to the valley of Sorek west of Jerusalem. Because Isaiah’s poem bears many similarities to songs composed for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, it is likely that the oracle was proclaimed to the people at this time, perhaps when they were gathered in the temple. Ibid. 59. Utilizing the language of praise and thanksgiving, the prophet composes a damning indictment against his people whose lives are as far from covenant faithfulness as wild grapes are from cultivated fruit.

After shocking his audience with this disturbing poem at a time when all are in the mood for celebration, the prophet asks the people to judge between the grower and his vineyard. What more could the grower have done? And more importantly, what must now be done with the vineyard? We are not privy to any response from Isaiah’s audience. If they have been following the prophet’s allegory, they already have an inkling of what will be revealed in verse 7, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The prophet declares the grower’s intention for the vineyard, which should come as no surprise. Land that is unproductive needs to lie fallow for a year or two. Rather than sheltering the land, clearing the soil of rocks and weeds, it must be left exposed to the elements.

Although Professor Kaiser dates this oracle early in the career of Isaiah predating the Syro-Ephraimite conflict of 734 B.C.E., it seems to me that this oracle fits well with conditions under the reign of King Hezekiah following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Isaiah’s audience could hardly miss the dire threat of invasion, destruction and exile implied by the abandonment of the vineyard. They had, after all, witnessed that very fate visited upon the Northern Kingdom. Whatever the case may be, the clear implication is that Judah has failed to produce the fruits of righteousness and justice that her God had a right to expect in view of his kindness and faithfulness to her. For that she can anticipate the consequences all too graphically demonstrated in the fate of Israel to the North.

As dire as is the threat of judgment, there is some grace here as well. After all, the ultimate objective of abandoning the land to lie fallow is its regeneration. However convinced Isaiah may have been that Judah’s justly deserved conquest and exile were near, the book as a whole testifies to God’s determination to stand with Israel throughout the time of her punishment and bring her through judgment to redemption.

Psalm 80:7–15

Using the same striking imagery of the vineyard employed by Isaiah in passing judgment upon the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the psalmist frames his/her prayer for salvation as a plea for God to come and attend once again his “vineyard” which has been inexplicably abandoned. Unlike the prophet, the psalmist does not make the connection between Israel’s unfaithfulness and her national calamity. S/he sees the pitiable condition of his/her nation as the consequence of God’s failure to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. Prayers such as this offend our Christian sense of piety and one commentator suggests that such sentiments as are expressed in this psalm constitute “an unworthy notion about the nature of God.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 157. But prayer has less to do with our theologies about Good and more to do with our relationship with God. As all people of mature faith know, the feeling of desertion and abandonment by God is very real. Genuine faith gives expression to what is real-not to what pious convention dictates. Look no further than Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross for confirmation of that point! Mark 15:34Matthew 27:46.

Though the psalmist assumes that God’s displeasure with Israel is at the root of the nation’s troubles, the very fact that s/he brings his/her complaint to God demonstrates the conviction that God has not rejected Israel for all time and is still open to her prayers. The psalmist is convinced that the God of the Exodus will finally turn and show compassion for his troubled people. This psalm demonstrates how Israel’s conviction that the loss of her land, temple and royal line represented God’s judgment on her covenant faithlessness did not come in a flash. It developed over a long period of reflection upon her covenant traditions, the preaching of the prophets and her experiences in exile. There was for Israel a long journey from the raw pain of conquest and exile to a mature understanding of both God’s judgment upon her past and God’s promise of a new beginning.

Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.

Philippians 3:4b–14

Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

Whereas the lessons for the last two weeks came from Paul’s “Letter of Friendship,” this week’s reading comes from his third letter of warning against rival missionaries urging gentile believers to receive circumcision. While Paul’s opponents in his letter to the Galatians were partisans of Jewish believers from the church in Palestine, his rivals in Philippi appear to be more distantly connected to Judaism. They might even be gentiles who have enthusiastically embraced diaspora Judaism and seek to draw Paul’s churches into their orbit. This would explain Paul’s appeal to his Jewish credentials. “You want Jewish?” says Paul. “I’ll show you Jewish!” Paul then launches into his family heritage; his upbringing; and his education. He crowns all of these fine credentials by pointing out that, “as to righteousness under the law” he was “blameless” even though his zeal led him to persecute the church. Vs. 6.

Clearly, Paul has made the case that his Jewish roots are genuine unlike those of his opponents. But then Paul goes on to say that his flawless pedigree does not amount to a hill of beans. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Vs. 7. Paul does not disown his Jewishness. He remains proudly Jewish. Nevertheless, it is not his solid Jewish heritage that makes him righteous. Righteousness for Paul is not first and foremost a matter of heritage, practices and tradition. Righteousness is relational. One is made righteous, not by following the right practices or believing the right doctrine, but by trusting the right person. “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Vss. 8-9.

Paul then expresses the hope that he might know Jesus and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings to become like Jesus in his death. His hope is that in so doing he may share in Jesus’ resurrection. That all comes across as circular. Yet it makes sense. God’s resurrection of Jesus is God’s “yes” to Jesus’ obedient life and faithful death. To know the resurrected Jesus is to know the depth of God’s love, the immeasurable value of God’s promises and God’s determination to keep those promises. To become like Jesus in his death is to share the confidence of Jesus in the promises of his heavenly Father in the face of death. It is to live without fear of death.

Paul states quite honestly that he has not achieved such perfect confidence yet. He is plagued by a past that includes the persecution of Christ and his church. He struggles with personal impediments to his ministry. II Corinthians 12:7-10. Yet Paul refuses to let his present life be dictated by his past. Instead, he is motivated by God’s promised future that is made present to him in Jesus’ resurrection. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.” Vs. 14. As hopelessly corny as it may sound, today really is the first day of the rest of the disciple’s life. But this is not based on mere optimism. It is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus which is our own through faith in his promises.

The gospel re-orientates our lives. Rather than living out of the past, being shaped by our scares and having our relationships with others determined by the age old conflicts into which we were born, we are called to live now in God’s future achieved through the reconciling power of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. That changes everything!

Matthew 21:33–46

The gospel, like our lesson from Isaiah and our psalm, employ the image of the vineyard. But that is where the similarity ends. For Isaiah, the vineyard was the rebellious nation that forgot the kindness and mercy of her God, neglected the covenant and produced the fruit of violence and injustice rather than faithfulness and peace. For the psalmist, the vineyard is a broken people struggling to understand why it has been forsaken by its God. Jesus’ focus in the gospel parable is not so much on the vineyard as it is on the tenants responsible for its care and for giving to the landlord his share of its produce. The parable is thus directed against the leaders of the people who, as we have seen, rejected the baptism of John just as their ancestors rejected the witness of the prophets. Matthew 21:31-32Matthew 23:29-39. Now God is sending to them his Son. How will the leaders react? Will they finally respect the Son and acknowledge God’s rightful reign over Israel? Of course, we know the answer to that question-or do we? As a religious leader myself, this parable gives me profound discomfort. I am forced to ask myself whether I have faithfully tended the vineyard and offered the first fruits of my labor to the Lord, or whether I have treated my calling as a profession, put in my time and been content to take my pay and go home. Is my section of the vineyard struggling because the tenant in charge of it has been lazy, complacent and self-centered? The questions raised in my introductory remarks hang like a cloud over this story.

The parable presents us with a couple of imponderables. Why would the owner of the vineyard send his son into a situation so dangerous and hostile that it already cost him the lives of some of his servants? On what basis did the tenants determine that murdering the owner’s son would result in their getting title to the vineyard? Some scholars have speculated that the tenants erroneously assumed that the owner had died and that title had passed to his son. Assuming that the son was the owner’s only son and assuming further that the son had no heirs of his own, there would be no one to lay claim to the vineyard in the son’s absence. The problem, of course, is that this explanation relies on quite a number of assumptions outside the scope of the text.

Professor William R. Herzog, II has an interesting take on this parable (as he does on a number of Jesus’ parables). According to Herzog, the parable is about the conversion of farm land supporting subsistence farmers into cash crops, i.e., grapes for wine. Herzog, II, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech, (c. 1994 by William R. Herzog II, pub. by Westminster/John Knox Press) p. 108. It is likely, Herzog contends, that the vineyard was taken from distressed farmers who now operate the vineyard as tenants and sustain themselves by growing vegetables along the edges of what once was their own land. Ibid. The tenants, having been “forced beyond the narrow parameters required for their survival…had no choice but to rebel.” Ibid. The sending of the owner’s son is explained in terms of class expectations. “The father’s reasoning…reflects his social location and class attitude. He speaks as a confident elite who is certain that peasant tenants, even rebellious ones, will respect his son. Seen within the framework of ruling-class attitudes and assumptions, the father’s reasoning makes sense.” Ibid. at 110.

This interpretation requires us to lift the parable out of its context in the gospel and insert it into a speculative reconstruction of the setz un leben or “historical context.” In order for this reading to work, we need to reimagine a so called “historical Jesus” apart from the ideological distortions of the early church’s witness. This age old quest for the so called “historical Jesus” and his true message is, in my humble opinion, a wasted effort. Nevertheless, if you would like to embark on that journey, Herzog’s book is a great place to start. He is thoughtful, thorough and articulate. Please give my regards to Slender Man and the Tooth Fairy should you encounter them along the way-a prospect about as likely as finding the “historical Jesus.”

According to the parable as we have it in Matthew, there appears to be no ground for animosity on the part of the tenants against their landlord. The text is silent as to how the land was acquired. It appears, however, as though the landlord has made a significant investment in the land and understandably expects a return. That the actions of the tenants appear inexplicable goes to the parable’s point, namely, that Israel’s leaders have ruled her people in their own self-interested way rejecting the warnings of the prophets and of John the Baptist. Sending one’s son into the violent and volatile setting of a rebel occupied vineyard might not make sense from the standpoint of an absentee landlord who is just trying to get a handle on his investment property. But the landowner is God and the vineyard is God’s chosen people. To his own beloved people, God makes God’s self vulnerable in order to achieve reconciliation and peace.

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Vs. 42. This is a quotation from Psalm 118:22-23. The “chief corner stone” is probably the main stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.

The stone has a dual function in the gospel. It is the cornerstone of faith, but for unbelief it is a stumbling block. “The one who falls upon this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Vs. 44. This is possibly an allusion to Isaiah 8:14. “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” It might also stem from a popular Jewish midrash: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot! Either way, woe to the pot!” cited at Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 880. Either way, the immovability and permanence of the stone stand in stark contrast to the seeming vulnerability of the landlord’s son. The “stone” sayings might be said to reveal the true state of things that the tenants in the parable misunderstand to their own undoing.

 

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Reconciling irreconcilable differences; a poem by Daniel Webster Davis; and the lessons for Sunday, October 15, 2017

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Philippians 4:2.

This intriguing snippet from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in Sunday’s second lesson is one of many highly personal, particular and cryptic references in the epistles that makes me long to know more. Who were Eudia and Syntyche? In what respect were they not “of the same mind in the Lord?” What little we know is that Eudia and Synctyche were women who worked “side by side” with Paul to proclaim the gospel and that Paul views them both as “fellow workers” whose names are written “in the book of life.” In short, they were both dear friends and valued colleagues of the apostle who is clearly pained by their apparent discord.

Though we can only speculate over what their points of disagreement might have been, it seems obvious to me that the dispute or disputes between these two women were not of the trivial sort, i.e., what color to paint the church restrooms, where to situate the choir during worship or which sauce to use at the annual pasta dinner. These women were, after all, leaders and co-workers with St. Paul in his gospel ministry. As such, we can safely assume that they were mature in their faith, deeply committed to the mission of the church and zealous for the kingdom of heaven. For this very reason, we can also assume that each of these women’s respective positions stemmed from a significant concern that the mission of the church be carried out faithfully and well. Both women had the best interests of the church and the kingdom to which it witnesses at heart.

Paul was no stranger to such disputes. We read in the Book of Acts that he separated from his long-time partner, Barnabas, over a disagreement involving staffing for an important missionary journey. Acts 15:36-41. Paul found himself at odds with many of his fellow Pharisees at the Jerusalem council where he presented the case for his ministry to the gentiles. Acts 15:1-29. He also had a sharp confrontation with the Apostle Peter in Antioch over Peter’s practice of “dividing the table” between Jewish and gentile believers. Galatians 2:11-14. Paul understood that principles are important, particularly as they pertain to preaching and practicing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But he also understood that principles are meant to serve the Body of Christ, not the other way around. Paul knew that amputation is not the treatment of choice when curing an ailing body part. So he does not take sides as between Eudia and Syntyche. He does not scold or reprimand them. Nor does he recommend that they part company. Instead, he urges them to work at becoming reconciled, to be at one in the Lord.

Reconciliation is hard work. It does not happen overnight and sometimes those of us who find ourselves at odds need help getting there. That is why Paul appeals to the entire Philippian congregation to “help these women.” They need help in extricating themselves from a dispute that has become bigger and stronger than both of them. At its best, that is what the church does. It creates a supportive, but honest forum where its members are loved and accepted while their respective viewpoints are rigorously evaluated and judged. Living in such a community calls for maturity, humility and a very thick skin.

During my first year of seminary back in the late 70s, I did my fieldwork training at a small congregation in downtown Minneapolis. That is where I met a youth minister I will call Tony. Tony told me that he was ordained, but “flying a little under the radar” at the time. When I asked him what he meant by that, he told me that he had come out as gay in his first congregation in the northern half of the state and had been asked to leave his pastorate. His bishop was in the process of removing him from the clergy roster. I asked him something along the lines of why he remained in a church that didn’t want him. Tony smiled and said, “Well, it’s like this. I know the church doesn’t want me. Believe me, there are plenty of days when I don’t want the church either. But Jesus wants me and the church sort of comes with him. So, me and the church are kind of stuck with each other whether we like it or not.”

I have thought about that a lot over the years. I’m not sure that I would have been as determined as was Tony to stick with the church if I had been in his shoes. I tend not to hang out very long where I get the sense that I’m not wanted. But Tony understood what Paul also understood, namely, that the church is Christ’s Body and we don’t heal its wounds by hacking off its wounded members, that Jesus sometimes calls people who are total jerks to follow him, that we don’t all arrive at a knowledge of the truth at the same time, that there are those of us who think we have arrived but still have a long way to go, that we all need each other if we are going to arrive at the end of the journey, that the mind of Christ is formed in communities of people that don’t always get along and sometimes don’t even like each other very much. That’s church. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The gritty determination of people like Tony and St. Paul strikes a dissonant chord in a culture where religion is just one more consumer good that can be had at any corner church. There is little incentive to remain in a congregation where, for whatever reason, you don’t feel at home. Why not find a more congenial church or, failing that, start your own? That’s the American way, isn’t it? Perhaps, but it is not the way of Jesus and his church. We are called to be a community of people who do not give up on one another. Discipleship requires living with irreconcilable differences until in God’s good time we are led to a place of reconciliation. The church is God’s ambassador for reconciliation. The church exists to demonstrate for all the world that there is a better way to be human, that our divisions can be healed and that the future need not be a replay of our contentious past. Reconciliation is not just a utopian pipe dream. It is the only practical way forward for a world in danger of social collapse, thermonuclear war and catastrophic climate change. The alternative to reconciliation is too terrible to contemplate.

Here’s a delightful little poem about reconciling differences among the people of God by Daniel Webster Davis.

De Linin’ ub De Hymns

Dare a mighty row in Zion an’ de debbil’s gittin’ high,
An’ de saints done beat de sinners, a-cussin’ on de sly;
What for it am? you reckon, well, I’ll tell you how it ’gin
Twuz ’bout a mighty leetle thing, de linin’ ub de hymns.

De young folks say taint stylish to lin’ out no mo’,
Dat dey’s got edikashun, an’ dey wants us all to know
Dat dey likes to hab dar singin’ books a-holin’ fore dar eyes,
An sing de hymns right straight along to mansion in de skies.

Dat it am awful fogy to gin um out by lin’,
An’ ef de ole folks will kumplain ’cause dey is ole an’ blin
An’ slabry’s chain don kep dem back from larnin how to read,
Dat dey mus’ take a corner seat, and let de young folks lead.

We bin peatin’ hine de pastor when he sez dat lubly pray’r
Cause some un us don kno’ it an’ kin not say it squar,
But dey sez we mus’ peat wid him, an’ ef we kan keep time,
De gospel train will drap us off from follin’ long behin’.

Well p’haps dez’s right, I kin not say, my lims is growin’ ole,
But I likes to sing dem dear ole hymns ’tis music to my soul
An’ ’pears to me twon’t do much harm to gin um out by lin’,
So we ole folk dat kin not read kin foller long behin’.

But few ub us am lef here now dat bore de slabry’s chain,
We don edekate our boys an’ gals we’d do de sam’ agin
An Zion’s all dat’s lef us now to cheer us wid its song,
Dey mought ’low us to sing wid dem, it kin not be fur long.

De sarmons high-falutin’ an’ de chuch am mighty fin’,
We trus’ dat God still understans ez he did in olden times;
When we do ign’ant po an’ mean still worshiped wid de soul
Do oft akross our peac’ful breas’ de wabes ub trouble rolled.

De old time groans an’ shouts an’ moans am passin’ out ub sight,
Edikashun changed all dat, and we believe it right:
We should serb God wid ’telligence but fur dis thing I plead,
Jes lebe a leetle place in chuch fur dem as kin not read.

Source: Poetry Foundation Magazine. This poem is in the public domain. Daniel Webster Davis (1862-1913) was a teacher, minister and poet. Born a son of slaves in rural Virginia, he moved to Richmond following the end of the Civil War. He began teaching in 1880 and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1896. Shortly thereafter, he became pastor of Richmond’s Second Baptist Church, a position he held for the rest of his life. Both in his writing and preaching, Davis engaged issues of racial justice, a task that required uncommon courage in an era marked by the violence of overt white supremacy. His true love, however, was the life of the church and its roots in the values of faith, family and friendship. You can read more about Daniel Webster Davis on the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 25:1–9

This is a psalm of praise for God’s anticipated salvation. The Hebrew text is riddled with difficulties rendering the English translations doubtful at best. For example, the statement in verse 2 “Thou hast made a (or the) city a heap” is a questionable reading. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 189. Commentators disagree over which specific city, if any, is intended. Most tend to favor Babylon. Ibid. It is also possible that the poem is dated as late as the Greek period under the SeleucidsIbid. If either of these theories holds, then this song clearly could not have been composed by the Isaiah of the Eight Century B.C.E. as was the bulk of the material in Isaiah 1-39. The phrase in the same verse, “A palace of strangers to be no city” is also doubtful. Ibid. Whatever their dating and precise translation, the gist of verses 1-5 is clear. God will humble and bring to nothing the ruthless and arrogant nations oppressing the poor and helpless. The latter will be exalted and the former reduced to fear and awe before God’s justice.

Verses 6-9 contain the prophecy of a new age to be initiated by God’s saving activity. As is so often the case throughout the Bible, the coming of the messianic banquet is compared to a great feast, often a wedding feast. God is the host of this great feast which will be for “all peoples.” Vs. 6. Moreover, the people are to be fed with “fat things full of marrow.” Vs. 6. The “fat” of animals was reserved for the Lord according to Israelite cultic practice. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:8, 12. Here, however, this choice part is given by God to the people.

The “covering” and the “veil” over the nations to be destroyed by the power of God may refer to the former ignorance or the mourning of the “strong peoples” and the “ruthless nations” that have been chastened by God’s judgment. Vs. 7. The lavish hospitality of God poured out upon all peoples seeking his favor at Mt. Zion is capable of overcoming both types of blindness. The declaration in verse 8 that God will “swallow up death forever,” and “wipe away tears from all faces” is echoed by John of Patmos in Revelation 21:3-4. Death, like poverty and want, has no place in the new age. It does not necessarily follow, however, that immortality is intended here. Death, in Hebrew thought, was the natural end to life. It was seen as evil only to the extent that it was untimely or violently imposed. Thus, some commentators attribute this promise to the work of a redactor much later than either Second Isaiah or Third Isaiah. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 201. While this may well be, the defeat of death can be interpreted in a way consistent with Hebrew thinking on the subject. Though death itself might remain in the messianic age, the evil of death might be said to have been vanquished in a world where all people live in peace and security to a ripe old age. Where death is restrained and prevented from disrupting the peace of the community or ending life prematurely, its destructive power is ended.

It is generally agreed by most commentators that Verse 9 begins a new and separate song of praise. Some scholars limit it to this one verse, while others suggest that it continues to verse 12. Ibid. 202. Nonetheless, verse 9 stands in the canonical text as a fitting conclusion to the preceding hymn of praise for God’s salvation. Israel’s patient waiting for the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises is to be vindicated on a day of the Lord’s choosing. Israel and all the world will then know that God’s people have not suffered, lived faithfully or died in vain. As noted above, it is impossible to date this passage with certainty, but the message is clear and applicable to many different times and places.

Psalm 23

Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. That has not stopped me from trying. Given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016Sunday, April 26, 2015Sunday, October 12, 2014Sunday, May 11, 2014Sunday, March 30, 2014Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. I will only add that the NRSV’s translation of the last verse differs from the old RSV which reads: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The NRSV renders the passage: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” That has proved unsettling for a lot of folks who saw in that verse the assurance of everlasting life. While the newer translation is probably more faithful to the intended meaning of the Hebrew, I don’t believe that we are using this psalm unfaithfully at funerals. Life, after all, is God’s gift. It is precisely because life was grounded in God that Israel insisted immortality is not a property of the human person. There is nothing in us that survives death. Nonetheless, there is nothing inconsistent with God’s continuing to give us the gift of life even after death. Though life everlasting might have been more than was contemplated by the psalmist, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection it is nonetheless a proper extension of his/her confident assurance of God’s saving presence throughout his/her existence.

Philippians 4:1–9

Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

As you can see, this Sunday’s reading contains elements of the Letter of Friendship and the letter of warning. Verse 1 concludes the main theme of the letter of warning by urging the Philippian congregation to “stand firm” in the truth of the gospel against the onslaught of false teaching. Verse 2 turns to what appears to have been an internal problem for the congregation. It seems that two leading women of the congregation are at odds with one another, namely, Euodia and Syntyche. We know nothing of the dispute, but it is clear that Paul values both of these individuals as fellow disciples who have “labored side by side” with him. Vs. 3. This brief, cryptic note is a reminder that the church has been plagued by divisive forces from its inception. Unity in the Spirit must ever be carefully guarded and nourished with constant conversation, consolation, loving confrontation and forgiveness.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Vs. 4. Whatever faults the Apostle Paul had, he was ever thankful. He was thankful for his fellow workers in his missionary endeavors; he was thankful for his struggling little churches; he was thankful for his many experiences of God’s guidance and protection. But most of all, Paul was thankful for the grace of God through which even a persecutor of the church with blood on his hands could find forgiveness, peace and newness of life.

The admonition to “have no anxiety” is the corollary of trusting God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Anxiety is the consequence of assuming responsibility God never intended for us to have. It is the fruit of thinking that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. Philippians 2:6. We are not in a position to direct our destinies or plan our lives. Neither are we given the task of passing judgment on the value, success or importance of our lives. That job belongs to God. All we need to know is that God has made us his children through baptism, God has his own purpose for our lives and God will complete what he began in our baptisms. Nothing we do or fail to do will change that.

Verses 8-9 encourage the church to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise. That is a refreshing word in a culture that thrives on scandal, gossip and maliciousness. It is a sad commentary on our national character that candidates simply cannot win elections without “going negative.” At least that is what professional consultants tell us. Are we really so bankrupt of ideas, imagination and the will to improve our lives that we cannot raise ourselves up without pulling someone else down? However that might be in the surrounding culture, Paul makes clear that this is not how life in the church should look. Instead, members of the Body of Christ seek reasons to praise one another, honor one another and bear with one another. For a body cannot be healthy unless all of its parts complement one another. When the politics of the church begins to resemble the politics of the world, the health of Christ’s Body is endangered. Church councils and Synod Assemblies take note!

Matthew 22:1–14

This story of the feast and the thankless guests is told also in the Gospel of Luke with a different twist. See Luke 14:16-24. Unlike Luke, Matthew tells us that the host is a king and the occasion for the feast is the wedding of his son. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament frequently use feasting in general and wedding feasts in particular as metaphors for the kingdom of heaven. This rich imagery could not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers.

The story itself seems hardly credible. In a culture where the opportunity to dine on meat of any sort was a rare luxury, who would turn down the chance to eat one’s fill of prime rib? Who would miss the opportunity to dine in a palace and who would think it wise to abuse and kill the messengers of a king bearing such an invitation? Are these folks out of their minds? What sort of king would have to go out into the streets and beg for guests to attend such a splendid affair as the marriage of his son? And what sort of ingrate, having been undeservedly granted admission to such a grand occasion as the royal wedding, would show up in gardening cloths?

Yet I think the story’s very implausibility illustrates the point Jesus is making. The kingdom of heaven is the greatest gift God has to offer, yet human beings reject that gift and go so far as to kill the messengers announcing its coming. It is a parabolic way of saying what John tells us in his gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Our attitudes of indifference and hostility toward the kingdom of heaven are no less inexplicable than the behavior of the invited guests toward the king’s wedding invitation.

Some commentators have concluded that vss. 11-14 (the guest without a wedding garment) was originally a separate parable. Indeed, Eduard Schweizer is convinced that these verses could not have been added by Matthew because they do not fit the thrust of the parable, namely, that the “first called” who rejected the invitation will be passed over in favor of the “chosen” gathered from “good and bad alike.” Vss. 8-10. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 416. There is, however, no strong textual evidence in support of deleting verses 11-14. Moreover, I believe that the episode further illustrates Matthew’s point. Just as egregious as the outright rejection of the wedding invitation is the absence of thankfulness and respect shown by the guest’s lack of proper attire.

It would seem unfair to fault the ill clad guest if, as in Luke’s gospel, he had been drawn from “the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” Luke 14:21. But that is not the case in Matthew’s telling of the story. There is no indication in this parable that the guests were unable to meet the formal requirements of this gala wedding. Moreover, the guest does not plead this excuse or any excuse at all. We read only that he was “speechless.” Vs. 12. He had no excuse. The harshness of his treatment makes more sense when we recall that this is a parable of the kingdom of heaven, the rejection of which is its own punishment.

The sting of this parable becomes clear when set alongside Sunday’s reading from Isaiah. That lesson recites with vivid imagery the marvelous, generous, abundant feast of good things God prepares for his people. Yet so far from flocking from the far corners of the earth to partake of this great dinner, we ignore the invitation, go about our business and even mistreat the prophets bearing God’s invitation. I learned recently that the average active Lutheran Christian attends worship roughly twelve times per year. Note well that these are the “active” members, though by what reasoning one could call such spotty participation “active” escapes me. I suppose that these members are off each to his own business of tending the house down at the shore, racing to children’s athletic events or catching up on sleep-all of which takes precedence over the wedding feast of the Lamb.

I wonder what would happen if we offered $100,000 dollars to everyone who could get a certified statement from his/her pastor verifying that s/he had attended church for all fifty-two Sundays out of a given year. Somehow, I cannot imagine anyone giving up money like that for a kid’s soccer game. Nor do I think very many people would mind losing an hour or two of sleep on the weekend for a payoff like that. In short, I believe that such an offer would pack our churches to the rafters-for a year anyway. Makes you wonder who really is God in our lives. Once again, I think Stan Hauerwas says it best:

“This is an extraordinary parable that makes for uneasy reading for those who want Jesus to underwrite a general critique of elites in the name of creating a community of acceptance. To be sure, just as the previous parables had been, this parable is meant to make those in power and the well-off uncomfortable. Most of us, particularly in the commercial republics of modernity, refuse to recognize that we are ruled by tyrants or, worse, that we have become tyrants of our own lives. We believe that we are our own lords, doing what we desire, but our desires make us unable to recognize those who rule us. We have no time for banquets prepared by the Father to celebrate Jesus’s making the church his bride. We have no time for the celebration of the great thanksgiving feast in which we are “living members” of the King, the “Son our Savior Jesus Christ” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, 365). Such a people are right to be challenged by God’s hospitality to those who must live in the streets.

“Yet this parable also makes clear that those who come to the banquet from the streets are expected to be clothed by the virtues bestowed on them through their baptism. If the church is to be a people capable of hospitality, it will also have to be a community of holiness. Jesus expects those called to his kingdom to bear fruit (Matt. 21:34). He has made clear in the Beatitudes how those called to his kingdom will appear. To be poor and outcast may well put one in a good position to respond to Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom, but Jesus expects the poor and downcast to live lives worthy of the Lamb who will be slain. Only people so formed will be able to resist the emperors, who always claim to rule us as our benefactors.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub by Brazos Press) p. 189.

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Marriage, Morality, and Righteousness; a poem by Dana Gioia; and the lessons for Sunday, October 1, 2017

Image result for old married coupleSEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

There were two couples. The first couple never married, but remained faithful to each other throughout their lives. During the course of their shared life, they adopted several special needs children, provided for them a stable home and supported them as they sought to live independently in a society not particularly accepting of people labeled “disabled.” The second couple was legally married in a church ceremony. Over the course of their lives they had numerous extramarital affairs, fought continually, neglected and abused the children born to them and ultimately ended the marriage. Which of the two couples did the will of their heavenly Father?

I suspect that some of you might object that the question is not fair. You might argue that neither couple did what God requires, but they each disobeyed in different ways. On the surface, that appears to be a legitimate point. But Jesus’ parable in Sunday’s gospel about the two sons challenges us to look deeper into the matter. At the end of the day, neither the first son’s refusal to work nor the second son’s insincere promise to work amounts to anything. What matters is what each son finally did. The first son did his father’s bidding. The second did not. By the same token, the first couple in my above example did not enter into a binding legal covenant requiring faithfulness to one another until death as did the first couple. Nonetheless, the first couple was, in fact, faithful. They were in fact good and compassionate parents to their children. They did everything the first couple promised to do in the presence of God and God’s people-but did not.

I am no more attempting to undermine the institution of marriage here than Jesus was promoting tax fraud and prostitution when he pointed out that the harlots and tax gatherers responded faithfully to John the Baptist’s message, whereas his opponents, the religious authorities, did not. The point is that righteousness is not measured by the cannons of respectability, whether they be the religious standards of first century Palestine or the cultural expectations of twenty-first century white middle class America. Righteousness is not achieved by keeping all the rules. Righteousness is measured by one’s response to the gracious call of Jesus and takes the shape of love for God and for one’s neighbor in concrete action. Such love does not necessarily negate religious, social and legal norms, but it surely transcends them.

Much of the debate these days over the “institution of marriage” centers around arguments over its definition. My evangelical friends often insist that marriage is by biblical definition the life-long monogamous union between one man and one woman. But that, quite frankly, is not the exclusive biblical model. Polygamy was widely accepted in the biblical world-as was sexual slavery. In much of the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage was practiced as a commercial transaction between men rather than a courtship ritual between a man and a woman. Because women were deemed the legal property of some man, adultery was not considered an offense committed against a person’s spouse, but an offense by one man against another. The New Testament is not inclined toward a single definition of marriage either. In I Timothy we are told that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife.” I Timothy 3:2. Does that mean that the bishop must be married only once or does it mean that he must be monogamous-suggesting that there might have been bigamists accepted as members of the church, though not qualified to be bishops? Church weddings are foreign to the New Testament. Marriage, whatever shape it took, was considered a civil affair. Though believers were urged to honor it, the early church seems to have taken no interest in regulating or defining marriage.

That isn’t to say that anything goes. I believe that the Bible does inform our view of marriage, but in a far more nuanced way. For example, Paul likens it to the relationship between Christ and his church-an analogy that would seem to rule out hierarchy and polygamy/polyandry. And by the way, for those who might find this analogy patriarchal, I believe you can switch the roles such that Ephesians 5 reads: “Husbands, be subject to your wives; wives, love your husbands” rather than the other way around (as it is in the text) without changing the sense of the text one wit. That is because Christ reigns through serving and pouring out his life for the disciples who are, in turn, called to pour out their lives in service to him. The theological implications of this imagery thus undermine Paul’s patriarchal instincts. Marriage must also be seen through the lens of what Paul declares concerning unity in Christ that recognizes no gender distinctions. Galatians 3:28. The gospel frees us from strictures of cultural, political and societal expectations to become the unique and wonderful persons we truly are.

In the final analysis, the formal definition of marriage is less important than the narrative it creates for two persons finding in one another the mystery of love, the jewel of faithfulness and the sometimes joyous and often tragic beauty of a shared life. The miracle of two lives, ever unique and separate, discovering that together they are even more as they become one tells us whether, in the end, a marriage has been a reflection of the eternal dance between Christ and his Church. That miracle is as likely to be found among gay and lesbian couples as among the straight. It is no less common among those married in courthouses as among those married in churches-or never legally married at all. As in Jesus’ parable, the truth about a marriage is seldom revealed in how it starts out, but only in how it finishes.

Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia about a marriage finishing well.

Marriage of Many Years

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

Source: 99 Poems (c. 2016 by Dana Gioia, pub. by Graywolf Press). Dana Gioia (b. 1950) claims to be the only person in history ever to have gone to business school to become a poet. He was, in fact, a graduate of Stanford Business School and became a vice president of General Foods. He committed himself to writing full time in 1993. Gioia served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008 where he led Operation Homecoming which provides writing workshops to U.S. soldiers and their spouses. You can find out more about Dana Gioia and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32

For my general comments on Ezekiel, see the post from September 10th.

The prophet’s dialogical oracle is incited by what appears to have become a popular proverb among the Babylonian exiles: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Vs. 2. By this saying, the exiles are placing the blame for their predicament upon the sins of their ancestors. They are not altogether mistaken about that. There is no question that the economic exploitation, nationalistic policies and foolish decisions of Judah and her leaders put the nation on the trajectory of her disastrous clash with Babylon. Much of this pre-dated the births of people living in the present community. In the same way, exploitation of the African continent, the slave trade and legislatively imposed segregation pre-dates the lifetimes of most people now living in the United States. Nevertheless, the sad legacy of that history still haunts us and racism continues to infect the very structures of our society. We are all born into a world we did not make.

But that is not the end of it. The problem with the exiles’ proverb is that it purports to place full blame for their predicament on the shoulders of their ancestors, thus making the exiles themselves innocent victims. That, according to Ezekiel, amounts to self-deception. It allows the exiles the luxury of despair and inaction. The prophet would have his people know that they are still in the game. Though they may have been dealt a bad hand, they are not excused from playing it. That is where the proverb breaks down. While we cannot change the historical realities that made American cities like Charlottesvile, South Carolina flash points of racial violence, we can, if we have the courage and determination, shape what that history will mean for us today and how that understanding will, in turn, shape the future. We can refuse to be shackled by the chains of our past and open ourselves up to God’s future. In biblical terms, we can repent.

Ezekiel’s message is an important one for an increasingly cynical culture obsessed with movies of apocalyptic doom and dystopian scenarios for the future. This prophet is no shallow optimist. I have no doubt he would agree that global warming, militarization and nationalism are genuine threats placing our planet in dire peril. A lot of damage has been done that our best efforts will not be able to repair anytime soon. Nevertheless, the God of Israel is the one who breathes life into dead bones. Ezekiel 37:1-14. For that reason, despair, inertia and inaction are not options. God has not given up on the world, but is still very much at work redeeming it. Neither has God given up on his people. Though acts of mercy, compassion and healing so often seem ineffective in a world so torn by violence, cruelty and death, God assures us that the future is God’s new heaven and new earth. God’s people are privileged to take part in its birthing.

Psalm 25:1–9

This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 111Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-9, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It strikes me that the psalmist’s understanding of forgiveness is in some respects complementary to Ezekiel’s message. Both the prophet and the psalmist insist that sin and punishment are not the last words spoken. Even when one stands amidst the ashes of a ruined past, one nevertheless stands. Because the future is God’s future, it has power to redeem the past.

Philippians 2:1–13

Once again, to reprise what I said last week, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

As was the case last week, Sunday’s lesson is from Paul’s Letter of Friendship. Paul encourages the Philippian church to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Vs. 2. There is something repugnant about a group of people having “the same mind” or “one mind.” Our culture treasures the right of every individual to his or her own opinion. But the church is not made up of individuals endowed with a bundle of rights. It is the living Body of the Resurrected Christ of which all disciples of Jesus are members. Clearly, a body cannot function where each member has its own self-interested mind and will. As I have often said, the language of rights is not one that can articulate well the polity of the church.

It seems to me that in spite of our fierce dedication to preserving our individual rights, our preference for personal “spirituality” (whatever that is) over “organized religion,” and the value we place on making up our own mind, we are a good deal less independent than we think we are when it comes to thinking. “Movements” often tend to break out without any prior organization or structure. Groups of people are seized by images on the internet to take action of one kind or another. Crowds are whipped into a frenzy by news of some injustice, real or imagined. Celebs, political leaders and talk radio hosts collect followings of people who are infatuated with them or their views. Perhaps Paul understood better than we do the inevitability of some mind greater than our own dominating or at least influencing us powerfully. That being the case, says Paul, let it be the mind of Christ. Let your outlook, your words and your actions be shaped by your relationship to Jesus.

There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 53. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.

In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Vs. 12. That phrase taken alone is troubling-as well it should be. Salvation, to be sure, is God’s free gift. Yet, like the gift of a fine musical instrument, much time, hard work and dedication are required to make proper use of it. If the recipient simply thanks the giver and packs the gift away on a closet shelf, it loses its transformative power. It becomes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “cheap grace.” Nonetheless, lest anyone should conclude that salvation is less than sheer gift, Paul goes on to remind us that “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Vs. 13. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish.

Matthew 21:23–32

By this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph (Matthew 21:1-11) and cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He has now re-entered the temple on this, the following day, to take up teaching the people. It would seem quite natural for the chief priests and elders of the people to question Jesus about his credentials. What is your authorization to do these things, Jesus, and where did you get it? Vs. 23. At first blush, it would seem a little unfair for Jesus to demand from his opponents an answer to a subsequent question of his own without first answering theirs. But in reality, Jesus’ question is his answer. The source of Jesus’ authority is also the source of John’s authority. It is obvious, though, that the chief priests and the elders have been dodging the issue of John’s authority. As John was put to death by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, these leaders whose seat of authority was in the jurisdiction of Judah might well have managed publically to dissociate themselves from John’s execution. But in Matthew’s gospel, the ministry of John is intimately linked to that of the Messiah. John is the figure of Elijah who heralds the coming of the Lord. Matthew 11:7-15 cf. Malachi 4:5-6. The leaders are thus caught in a double bind. They cannot acknowledge John without acknowledging Jesus. Neither will they denounce John in the presence of the people. By confronting the chief priests and the elders with the ministry of John, Jesus has answered their question, though not in the way they had hoped. Rather than gaining an admission they could have used to prosecute Jesus before Pilate, the religious leaders receive a question they cannot answer but which leaves little doubt as to the source Jesus’ claims for his authority.

By this time, the chief priests and the elders are no doubt beating a hasty retreat. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “What do you think?” He calls to them as they seek to disappear into the crowd. “A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today,’ And he answered, ‘I will not;’ but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered ‘I go sir,’ but did not go. Which of these two did the will of his father?” Vss. 28-31. It is significant here that Jesus asks specifically which of the two children did what the father asked rather than which of the two was properly obedient or respectful. There could be only one response and that is the one the leaders were compelled to give, namely, that the first child who showed profound disrespect and disobedience to his father was nevertheless the one who did as he was commanded. Jesus then returns to the uncomfortable issue of John the Baptist. The tax collectors and prostitutes, people clearly outside any definition of righteousness, nevertheless did what righteousness required by heeding John’s call to repentance. By contrast, the chief priests and the elders, with all of their righteous credentials, refused to recognize the one who came to them in the way of righteousness. Vs. 32. Now the religious authorities are clearly on the defensive, where they will remain until the end of chapter 23.

Once again, Matthew redefines righteousness for us. Righteousness is not, as the chief priests and elders maintain, adherence to any written code, even the Torah. Right conduct grows out of a faithful response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. It is neither definitional nor behavioral, but relational. As observed by Professor Stanley Hauerwas,

“The chief priests’ and elders’ question has been repeated through the centuries of Christian history. Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry. If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus. There is no place one might go to know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is. To know that Jesus is the Son of God requires that we take up his cross and follow him. Having taken up the cross, Christians discover they have no fear of the truth, no matter from where it might come.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 185.

 

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