Posts Tagged Church
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of the one who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Galatians 4:7.
Three leaders of the Miss America Organization resigned on the Saturday before Christmas, two days after a report revealed purported e-mails from them and other employees disparaging Pageant contestants. Following the report, dozens of former Miss America title holders from as far back as the 1940s issued a joint call for the resignation of the organization’s leadership. “As dedicated members of communities, businesses and families, and ambassadors for the Miss America program across the country, we stand firmly against harassment, bullying and shaming — especially of women — through the use of derogatory terms meant to belittle and demean,” the statement said.
Both the statement and the subsequent string of resignations are welcome developments. The “Me too” movement denouncing sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein has led to a much needed examination of systemic misogyny and sexism in the culture of entertainment, politics and the workplace generally. It is good to see that many of the worst bullies and predators in our midst are finally being held accountable for their crimes and misconduct. Nevertheless, the actions of these individuals are symptomatic of a cultural disease that I believe is exemplified in the Miss America Pageant itself.
The Pageant originated in 1921 as a “bathing beauty revue.” As such, it was geared toward judging women on their appearance and sexual appeal. In more recent years, the Pageant has expanded the scope of the contest to include character, intellect, accomplishments and community service as factors in evaluating contestants. Nonetheless, physical attractiveness remains a dominant feature of the Pageant and that raises many troubling issues. Female beauty and sex appeal, we must not forget, are defined by men in a culture that continues to be dominated by men. Despite our general acknowledgement of gender equality in principle, inequality is still very much the reality in many dimensions of our common life. That is hardly surprising. Less than a century ago, women were denied the opportunity to vote or hold political office in this country. In the world of my childhood, no one would have considered seriously the notion that a woman could be president of the United States. Women physicians were a rarity. The church in which I grew up taught that the ministry of word and sacrament must be reserved exclusively for men. The subordination of women to men was as natural and seemingly unchangeable as gravity.
Some of the old rules have changed, but too many attitudes unfortunately have not. After all, we elected a president who routinely calls women he doesn’t like “dogs,” “pigs” “fat” and other names I would rather not print. One of our two major political parties poured money into a herculean effort to elect to the highest legislative body in our land a man who routinely preyed on teenage girls. Women, their rights, freedoms and security are still not a high priority for a huge section of our population. In a society where women are secondary beings who exist for the benefit of men and live to support them in the “real world” of work, standards for judging their “beauty” as well as their character are invariably measured in terms of their usefulness and desirability to men. A “good woman” is a good wife and mother, someone who can satisfy the needs and wants of a man. That is the fatal flaw in the Miss America Pageant and it should not surprise us overly much to learn that the men who have dominated this event exemplify our worst cultural tendencies to objectify women.
The consequences of this objectification go far beyond the bullying and harassment of Pageant contestants. The violence done to girls and women by our cultural images of female beauty (often exaggerated to inhuman proportions with the help of airbrushing and other photogenic techniques) is incalculable. According to the Center for Change, an organization that treats eating disorders, 86% of all American women are dissatisfied with their bodies to some degree:
“Women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity. Some girls assume there is something wrong with their bodies when they cannot fit consistently into some “standard” size; others will reject a pair of jeans simply because they won’t wear a particular size. The majority of girls step on the scale to determine their self-worth; if they have lost weight, then it is a good day and they can briefly feel “okay” about themselves. If the number on the scale has increased ever so slightly, then the day is ruined and they feel worthless.” Battling our Bodies: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Body Images, Nicole Hawkins, PhD., Website for Center for Change.
These feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred often lead to self-destructive behavior, particularly among teenage girls, such as anorexia, bulimia and self-cutting. As important as it is to hold accountable men who bully, harass and sexually abuse women and girls, it is just as important that entertainment organizations, glamour publications and fashion industries be called out for shamelessly promoting ideals of female beauty based on narrowly defined and largely unattainable standards grounded more in male sexual fantasies than reality. A kinder, gentler Miss America Pageant is not the answer. Nothing short of totally dismantling the Pageant and all other societal structures that reflect and promote the false values of male privilege and female beauty will do.
In our second lesson for this Sunday, Saint Paul reminds us that we are no longer to regard ourselves as “slaves,” but as free children. Slavery was accepted as a fact of life in Paul’s world-just as subordination of women to men was uncritically accepted in my childhood years. The world of the First Century was both hierarchical and patriarchal. At the top of the pyramid stood the emperor, below him the aristocracy, then male Roman citizens, and after that, male Roman subjects. Women, slaves and aliens were at the bottom of the heap. They were considered non-persons for all practical purposes. Paul stands this pyramid on its head. Unlike the emperor, God is not a tyrant ruling over descending classes of slaves. God is a parent whose reign is for the benefit of “the least” among us.
All of this has ramifications for how we relate to one another. If we are all equally God’s children, then we are all equally sisters and brothers. Paul makes the startling declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. This is not to say that we do not retain our sexual, racial or cultural identity. Nor does it mean that the systemic injustice subordinating some to others magically disappears. It does mean, however, that within the Body of Christ there can be no claim of authority or exercise of power based on these distinctions. It also means that disciples of Jesus are called to unmask the oppressive systems of hierarchy and patriarchy for what they are-bondage to sin and obstructions to God’s gentle reign of justice and peace. We are called to be, in the words of Simeon in our gospel lesson, “a light for revelation to the nations.” Luke 2:32.
Poetry is one of the cracks through which voices too long suppressed, the voices of women, people of color, sexual minorities and the marginalized break through. One such voice is that of Carolyn Kizer, part one of whose poem appears below:
From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women.
How unwomanly to discuss it! Like a noose or an albatross necktie
The clinical sobriquet hangs us: codpiece coveters.
Never mind these epithets; I myself have collected some honeys.
Juvenal set us apart in denouncing our vices
Which had grown, in part, from having been set apart:
Women abused their spouses, cuckolded them, even plotted
To poison them. Sensing, behind the violence of his manner—
“Think I’m crazy or drunk?”—his emotional stake in us,
As we forgive Strindberg and Nietzsche, we forgive all those
Who cannot forget us. We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it.
While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,
Howl still, pacing the centuries, tragedy heroines.
Some who sat quietly in the corner with their embroidery
Were Defarges, stabbing the wool with the names of their ancient
Oppressors, who ruled by the divine right of the male—
I’m impatient of interruptions! I’m aware there were millions
Of mutes for every Saint Joan or sainted Jane Austen,
Who, vague-eyed and acquiescent, worshiped God as a man.
I’m not concerned with those cabbageheads, not truly feminine
But neutered by labor. I mean real women, like you and like me.
Freed in fact, not in custom, lifted from furrow and scullery,
Not obliged, now, to be the pot for the annual chicken,
Have we begun to arrive in time? With our well-known
Respect for life because it hurts so much to come out with it;
Disdainful of “sovereignty,” “national honor;” and other abstractions;
We can say, like the ancient Chinese to successive waves of invaders,
“Relax, and let us absorb you. You can learn temperance
In a more temperate climate.” Give us just a few decades
Of grace, to encourage the fine art of acquiescence
And we might save the race. Meanwhile, observe our creative chaos,
Flux, efflorescence—whatever you care to call it!
Source: Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina,” Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000, (c. 2001 by Carolyn Kizer. pub. by Copper Canyon Press) Carolyn Kizer (1925-2014) was born in Spokane, Washington. Kizer’s work is known for its intellectual rigor, formal mastery, and willingness to engage with thorny social realities and political issues. She earned a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and did graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Washington. During the mid-1950s, she studied poetry at the University of Washington. Kizer cofounded the journal Poetry Northwest, editing it from inception in 1959 until 1965. You can read the rest of this and other poems of Carolyn Kizer on the Poetry Foundation website.
The text comes to us from what scholars typically call “Trito-Isaiah” or Third Isaiah constituting chapters 56-66 in the Book of Isaiah. This section of oracles is principally the work of a prophet who ministered after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, but before reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In terms of dating, this time period runs from 530 B.C.E. to 510 B.C.E. Our particular lesson is a continuation of the “core” section of Third Isaiah, the beginning of which we saw in our lesson for the Third Sunday of Advent. See my post for December 17, 2017 for background information.
Having just delivered an oracle of salvation in the voice of the Lord (vss. 8-9), the prophet now breaks into a psalm of praise in his own voice. S/he declares that God has “clothed” him or her with “salvation” and “righteousness.” Vs. 61:10. To Lutherans like me, this language suggests the righteousness and salvation won for us through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death, i.e., vicarious satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, etc. But the theology of substitutionary atonement is not a good fit for this oracle (nor is it a good fit for any scriptural text, but that is a topic for another day). Here God’s salvation refers specifically to God’s gracious act of restoring the exiles to their homeland and God’s promise to exalt Israel among the nations. Because the proclamation of God’s word and the fulfilment of that word are viewed by the prophet as a single continuous act, the prophet bearing the word is clothed with the salvation and righteousness the word is destined to bring about. It is the prophet’s identification with God’s word, his or her soul’s exalting in God that clothes him or her in righteousness and salvation. Vs. 61:10. Of course, it is not only the prophet who will be so clothed. “Righteousness and praise” will spring forth before “all the nations.” Vs. 61:11. As surely as the earth brings forth vegetation, so will the word of God the prophet proclaims bring forth righteousness that will embrace the world and incite praise. Vs. 61: 11.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…” Vs. 62:1. Who is speaking here? Is this a continuation of the prophet’s discourse? Or are we now hearing the voice of the Lord? Does it matter? Most commentators believe that the words in chapter 62 are spoken in the voice of the prophet. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 374 citing Voltz, P., Iesaja, Leipzig, 1932. However that might be, I agree with Westermann that this sentence must be understood as a reply to the classical Hebrew lament, “How Long?” best illustrated throughout Psalm 13. “How long wilt thou forget me?” “How long wilt thou hide thyself from me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” “How long shall the enemy be exalted over me?” The prophet’s/God’s response is “not much longer.”
It is important that the nations see Israel’s vindication. Vs. 62:2. The rebirth of a righteous people exalted by God makes known to the world the heart and gracious intent of God for all peoples. In much the same way, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the community called church shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and suffering as a consequence of so living. It is not the great empires that “fret and strut” their hour upon the stage and are heard from no more that reflect God’s glory and implement God’s design. It is the people of the covenant living faithfully under the gracious reign of their God who embody God’s future for all humankind. Life within the covenant is God’s alternative way of being human.
“You shall be called by a new name, which the Lord your God will give you.” Vs. 62:2. A new name signifies a change in status. God changes Abram’s name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations or peoples). Genesis 17:5. Jacob is re-named Israel. Genesis 32:28. The names “Forsaken” and “desolate,” often given to Israel by the prophets in their declarations of judgment, will no longer apply. Instead, the people will be called “My Delight is in her” and “Married” (as opposed to divorced or abandoned). Vs. 4 (not in our reading).
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Vs. 3. Note well that the symbol of God’s sovereignty is a people without an army and without any sovereign status. God exercises God’s power through God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Divine sovereignty is exercised by the power of example rather than by an example of power. The prophet therefore calls into question the church’s Constantinian assumptions about the necessity of state sanctioned violence to establish and maintain order. More specifically for us Lutherans, the prophet puts the lie to our understanding of the state as God’s instrument of civil peace enabling the church to undertake its spiritual mission. As I have said many times before, pacifism is not one of many biblical themes. It is the biblical theme that finds its ultimate expression in the cross.
This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 146-150) that begins and ends with the expression of praise, “hallelujah” or “Praise YAHWEH.” It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” Vs. 14. The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
Vs. 1 “Praise the Lord!” or “Halleluiah” A refrain that appears again and again throughout the psalm. The word “Yah” is a Hebrew short form for the name “Yahweh.” “Hallel” is the word for praise or singing.
Vs. 2 “all his angels” or “Kol Melachw” in Hebrew literally translated means “all his messengers.” “All his hosts” or “Cal Zaboth” likely refers to angelic beings. The similar term, “Yahweh Zaboth,” is common throughout the Old Testament and is often translated “Lord of Hosts.” It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” or “Lord of the heavenly beings.”
Vs. 3 “Cal Cochav Or” or “all you points of light.” The stars are called to give praise to God as are the sun and moon. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7.
Vs. 4 “You waters that are above the heavens.” Here we see a reference to ancient cosmology-the understanding of the earth as subsisting inside of a great bubble with the waters above held back by the sky and those beneath confined to the sea bed. Though perhaps not entirely consistent with our 21st Century understanding of the cosmos, it nevertheless displays a profound recognition that our existence is precarious and preserved only by the creative Word of the Lord holding all of the destructive forces of nature in check.
“He commanded and they were created.” Vs. 5. See Genesis 1 in which the universe is called into being by the command, “Let there be!” In verse 6 the psalmist declares that God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.” There is an echo here of Yahweh’s promise to Noah: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelt the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” Genesis 8: 20-22.
“Ye sea monsters and all deeps” Vs. 7. In Canaanite mythology, the sea monster Tiamat was an evil symbol of chaos that reigned before creation. We can hear an echo of that in Genesis 1:2 where the pre-creation state of things is referred to as “Tohu Vabohu” or “without form and void.” In the Canaanite creation myth, Tiamat is defeated in a great battle with the sky god Maraduk. There is no “struggle” in the creation story, however. When God speaks, the waters withdraw and order is introduced into the universe. Fire, hail, snow and ice-all potentially destructive forces-were very much feared in a culture of subsistence farmers. Vs. 8. Yet even these powers serve the will of God. In verses 9-10 we are reminded of the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 where God creates each species according to its kind, including the “creeping things.”
In verses 11-12 “kings and princes of all the earth” give praise to God. This is reminiscent of the universal appeal found in Second Isaiah: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow every tongue shall swear.’” Isaiah 45:22-23.
“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” Vss. 13-14. The psalm comes to a climax with praise to God for what he has done for Israel. This is quite by design. Though Israel surely recognized her God as Lord of Creation, God’s saving power and loving kindness are demonstrated not chiefly in the realm of nature, but in the realm of history. It was in the Exodus that God showed Himself as the God of mercy who glories in raising up the slave and putting down the mighty. It is through God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel that God makes himself known as the God who keeps promises. So also in the New Testament God demonstrates that God is not merely “as good as His Word,” but that God in fact is God’s Word. See John 1:1-18.
For background information on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, see Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org. Our lesson is a summarization of the main point Paul is making in this letter. Our salvation is relational. That is to say, we are redeemed not by adherence to the letter of the law, but through trusting Jesus, God’s Son through whom we have been adopted as God’s children. Paul contrasts the master/slave relationship governed by law, threat and the fear of punishment with the parent/child relationship that is grounded in parental love inspiring trust on the part of the child.
It is important to understand that Paul is not antinomian or hostile to Torah. The relationship between parent and child is not without boundaries, rules and expectations. The difference is that, as between parent and child, the rules serve the relationship. The relationship is not defined by the rules. That is enormously important because a lot of religion these days, much of it going under the name of Christianity, is more about rules than it is about our relationship with Jesus. For too many people, the Bible is essentially a rule book. The problem with that approach lies with the Bible itself. Its rules are frequently contradictory and always contextual. Nobody keeps all the rules in the Bible. So which ones do we keep? If you are going to raise up one passage out of Leviticus to condemn male homosexual conduct as “abominable,” don’t you have to say the same for people who eat lobster, also an abomination? See Leviticus 11:9-12; Leviticus 18:22. Which abominations are more abominable and why? As long as you maintain that the Bible is a rule book, you will never get past that argument.
Jesus makes clear that, while there are rules in the Bible and that these rules must be taken seriously, not all rules are equal. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied that there are two that tower over all the rest: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-34. If you interpret the Torah in any manner such that it detracts from love for God and compassion for your neighbor or if you construe the scriptures in ways that drive people away from God’s loving embrace, you have got it wrong. That is why I say repeatedly (and most often in vain) to people who insist that biblical provisions preclude full inclusion of GLBT persons, “Look, you can scream ‘Bible, Bible, Bible’ in my face until hell freezes over and I’m going to keep replying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Either you use (abuse) people to serve the interests of the particular law that suits your fancy, or you put the whole law to work in the service of God and your neighbor. That is the very issue Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians.
Luke seems to be conflating a couple of Hebrew Scriptural traditions in this lesson. The first is the rite of purification for Mary following the birth of Jesus. This requirement is spelled out in Leviticus 12. The second is the required ransom of the firstborn. Exodus 13:1-16; Exodus 34:18-20; Numbers 18:16. The offering of “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” clearly pertains to the purification. No mention is made of the five shekel fee required to redeem a first born male child. It appears, though, that Luke is far more concerned with getting Jesus into the Temple than he is with explaining whatever ritual purpose might have brought him there. Luke’s purpose appears to be that of echoing the presentation of Samuel “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” I Samuel 1:24. Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 450-451. Just as the shrine at Shiloh was the backdrop for Samuel’s consecration, so the temple serves as the staging for Jesus’ initiation into God’s service.
Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the temple. The story opens with Zechariah’s service in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple “blessing God” following Jesus’ ascension. Luke 1:5-25; Luke 24:50-53. When Jesus goes MIA during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is found in the temple “about his Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-51. It may be that in drawing the implied parallel between the sanctuary at Shiloh (destroyed by the Philistines) and the temple in Jerusalem, Luke is foreshadowing the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. I must add that I have not found any commentary to support me on this. I may well be reading too much into the text. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that Luke has some literary/theological purpose in mind with all of his temple episodes.
Significantly, the main actors in this temple drama are not the priests responsible for performing the rites that allegedly drew the family to the temple in the first place. It is the prophetic voice of old Simeon that articulates Jesus’ calling. Vss. 25-35. Through revelation of some kind, Simeon has learned that he will see the Lord’s messiah before his dying day. Vs. 26. The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the temple where his prophetic vision is fulfilled. Now he can die in peace.
Simeon’s song of blessing anchors Jesus’ mission in Israel’s longing for salvation and her hope for a renewed existence. He was, after all, “looking for the consolation of Israel” and found it in Jesus. Vs. 25. Yet Simeon’s words to the effect that God’s salvation has been prepared “in the presence of all peoples” and that the messiah is to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles” foreshadow the movement of the church in the Book of Acts beyond the scope of Israel. Vs. 31. The cross is also foreshadowed by Simeon’s warning to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through your heart also.” Vs. 35.
The other main actor in this drama is Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. “Anna” is the Greek equivalent of “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel. It appears that from the death of her husband early in their marriage, Anna has been living a life of devotion to prayer and religious observance. The suggestion that she might have belonged to a religious community of widows providing service to the temple is interesting, but lacking in evidential support of any kind. Like Simeon, she was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Vs. 38. Whereas Simeon appears to have been speaking principally to Mary, Anna speaks of the child Jesus to all who, like her, anticipate the salvation of Israel.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy, that willingly we may bear your redeeming love to all the world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The miracle of the Incarnation is the very core of our Christian understanding of God. We believe that God was born of a homeless woman in a shed. We confess that God is weak, vulnerable and in need of care and protection. The vulnerability of God in the womb of Mary compels the belief that human life is sacred from the time of conception and deserving of our most lavish protection. For that reason, I am and always have been adamantly and unequivocally pro-life. I am convinced that terminating a pregnancy brings to an end the life of a unique human being. For that reason, every effort should be made to preserve, support and encourage the carrying of every pregnancy to full term. Here is what that means to me.
The most effective way to prevent the termination of a pregnancy is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That requires sex education at the elementary school level. It also requires making gynecological care and access to birth control available to all people of childbearing age, including teens. The argument that availability of birth control and sex education will encourage more teens to become sexually active has not proven to be the case. In reality, neither sex education nor the availability of birth control increases the degree of teen sexual activity, but they do significantly reduce the instances of teen pregnancy. Over all, where women are given access to good gynecological care, including reproductive care and counseling, we find far fewer unintended and unwanted pregnancies; hence, fewer abortions. Support for family planning and sex education is a pro-life position.
Furthermore, the best way to protect the lives of the unborn is to care for their mothers. Food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services are provided to low-income women, infants, and children under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, popularly known as WIC. This program is designed to ensure that women are able to obtain the nutrition necessary to remain healthy throughout their pregnancies and feed their children when they are born. Knowing that there are resources available for women to raise and care for their children creates a strong incentive to continue a pregnancy. Supporting the WIC program and other nutritional support programs for low income persons is therefore a pro-life position.
Health care is a critical factor in preserving the lives of the unborn. Having a child is an expensive proposition when, for whatever reason, one does not have health insurance coverage. This is particularly so for high risk pregnancies, complicated deliveries and post-natal problems. Too often, abortion appears to be the only alternative to bankruptcy or homelessness. Universal health insurance coverage ensures that no baby will ever be “too expensive.” Support for universal health care coverage is therefore a pro-life position.
Finally, there some circumstances under which a pregnancy should be ended. If you believe that a girl below the age of consent, a victim of rape or incest, a woman to whom pregnancy and childbirth pose serious psychiatric or medical risks should be compelled by law to carry a pregnancy to term, then your moral compass is oriented to the north pole of a different planet than the earth I inhabit. I doubt we have enough moral common ground to continue this discussion further. But if, like me, you agree that there are circumstances were abortion is a responsible, if tragic, necessity; then there is just one question left: Who decides when a pregnancy should be terminated?
Deciding whether to end a pregnancy is difficult and fraught with conflicting interests and priorities. The medical, social and financial issues bearing on that decision are never clear and require wisdom, discernment and an intimate knowledge of the persons affected. I am firmly convinced that no one is in a better position to make such a decision than the persons closest to it and most directly affected by it. Women, not the state, not the courts or the medical establishment, are in the best position to determine what, under all of the circumstances, is best for their own physical and emotional well-being and that of their children. Consequently, enabling women to make these difficult decisions by providing access to affordable, medically safe surgical procedures, including abortion, is a pro-life position.
Yes, it is possible that some women will make poor choices-as do governments, courts and medical professionals. But, on the whole, mothers tend to make the best choices for themselves and their families-especially when given every conceivable opportunity to choose life, including early sex education, access to birth control, nutritional support, gynecological care and adequate health insurance coverage. That is why God entrusted the life of his Only Begotten Son to the care of a woman. Entrusting the welfare and protection of the unborn to the care of their mothers is, therefore, a biblical pro-life position.
Here is a poem by Medora C. Addison about a mother’s desperate, fierce and sheltering love that would probably have resonated with Mary, the mother of our Lord.
Playing alone by the ocean’s edge,
Eager and unafraid,
You are the child I used to be,
Playing the games I played.
Now I have only a coward’s heart,
Finding you all too dear,
Learning at last that love shall teach
The fearless how to fear.
You are so little against the sky,
Laughing and undismayed–
Oh, little son by the ocean’s edge,
I am afraid, afraid!
Source: Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 5 (February 1922). Little is known about the life of Medora C. Addison. It appears that she was born in December 1891 in Massachusetts and attended Yale University where she was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poetry in 1922.
Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of monarchy. The Hebrew Scriptures at times extol the monarchy as God’s instrument of justice and peace. As God’s representative, the king “delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.” Psalm 72:12-13. The prophets took a more critical view of kingship in Israel. Ezekiel criticize the kings of Israel and Judah for looking after their own interests and allowing the “sheep” to be scattered and lost. Ezekiel 34:1-10. So, too, Jeremiah railed against these “shepherds” of Israel whose self-serving ways brought about the destruction of the flock. Jeremiah 23:1-4.
These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a loose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.
The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings against the consequences of monarchy had come true with a vengeance. I Samuel 8:10-18. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.
Most scholars agree that II Samuel 7:1-29 is a late theological commentary inserted into the early source intended to explain why David was not chosen to build the temple in Jerusalem. That purpose is not readily discernable from our reading because verses 12-15 have been omitted. These verses make clear that God has chosen David’s heir to build the temple. I believe that this section also serves to clarify the nature of the Davidic covenant as subordinate to God’s covenant with all Israel at Sinai. Though God’s promise to preserve faithfully the line of David is repeated here, the prophet Nathan warns that iniquity on the part of David’s descendants will meet with punishment. Vss. 14-15.
The key to this interchange between the word of the Lord, delivered through Nathan, and David is found in the various meanings of the Hebrew word for “house.” Initially, David intends to build a “house” for the Ark of the Covenant. So used, the term means “shrine” or “temple.” God responds by promising to build David a “house,” clearly meaning a dynasty. If you were to read on to verses 18-20, you would discover that the same term is used again to describe family status, i.e., “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house that thou hast brought me thus far?” Vs. 18. This is clearly a reference to the former insignificance of the family of Jesse and David’s status as the youngest of Jesse’s sons. The different shades of meaning for this one word serve to illuminate the depth and complexity of the Davidic covenant and the significance of the temple. Both are subordinate to the Sinai covenant and flow from the faithfulness of God to Israel expressed in that covenant. The temple is not to be a shrine to the Ark, but the place where God’s name dwells. Vs. 13. Though established “forever,” the dynasty of David is answerable to Torah and subject to God’s punishment for violating it. Vss 13-14.
This scripture invites us to contemplate our response to expectations that fail to materialize. It is evident that the line of David did in fact come to an end following the Babylonian conquest of 587 B.C.E. Either God’s promise failed or its fulfilment lies beyond the scope of the Judean monarchy. Second Isaiah deals with this problem by suggesting that God’s “steadfast, sure love for David” now embraces all Israel rather than any one individual descendent of David. Isaiah 55:3-5. Later Judaism saw in the Davidic covenant the promise of a messianic deliverer. This hope, in all of its many permutations, was very much alive in Jesus’ day. Jesus himself appears to have invited his hearers to consider in what sense the promised messiah could be considered “the son of David.” See Mark 12:35-40; Matthew 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44. So also, both Judaism as a whole and the early church struggled with the meaning of the temple’s destruction by Rome in 70 C.E. As I have often said before, I believe the Letter to the Hebrews is in large part a response to this crisis.
Promise/fulfilment is a common theme throughout the Advent season. Now as throughout history, the people of God are called upon to discern how the ancient promises are working themselves out in our midst. For Christians, the challenge is to discover the layers of meaning and the richness given to the gospel narratives by the Hebrew Scriptures out of which they grew. Care must be taken, however, to respect the witness to these scriptures given by the Jewish people in all ages. There is no place for a theology of supersessionism in which Christianity is seen to “replace” or “supersede” Judaism. As Paul points out in the latter half of his Letter to the Romans, both Israel and the church play a critical role in God’s redemptive purpose for the world.
Although it focuses on the rise of the Davidic monarchy as God’s saving act, the psalm begins with an acknowledgement that the true sovereign of all the earth is God. Vss. 1-2. God makes a “covenant” with David. Vs. 3. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection andeternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. It is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from God to David and his line.
Although the image of parenthood is used (vs. 26), David is every inch a human being and there is no suggestion that his being anointed king confers divinity on him. This is one feature setting the Israelite concept of kingship apart from Canaanite ideas. There is no suggestion in this psalm that David is chosen on the basis of merit. Nothing is said about David’s character or his good deeds that might have led God to select him as a covenant partner and king over Israel. We hear plenty, though, about the character of God and God’s determination to stand by the promises made to David. Vss. 20-24. Once again, being king does not set one above the commandments of God. If anything, the king has a greater responsibility to observe justice and righteousness. He stands in God’s place as the representative of God. As such, his failures are not merely his own. They have an impact on the nation for which he is responsible. As Jesus was wont to say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Luke 12:48.
If you were to read the Psalm 89 in its entirety (which I always recommend) you would discover that the psalm’s tone changes abruptly from a mood of praise to bitter lament at verse 38. Obviously, the situation in which the king now finds himself does not evidence the protection and success promised to the line of David in the “vision” discussed in the earlier part. Vss. 19-26. We do not know the precise historical setting of this psalm. Because the prayer is by or for a king currently (though tenuously) on the throne, it is safe to assume that it was written before the Davidic dynasty came to an end in 587 B.C.E. with the second Babylonian invasion. The prayer might reflect the desperate situation in which David found himself during the rebellion of his son, Absalom. Or it might reflect the invasion by Egypt during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. It could have been composed after the tragic death of the young King Josiah at the hands of Pharaoh Neco or the siege of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. Whatever the historical setting, it must have been a very traumatic and faith shaking experience for Israel to see the Lord’s anointed, the heir of David, God’s covenant partner so thoroughly defeated. What could this mean? Had God abandoned the covenant? Had the Lord forgotten all the promises made to David? Where was God’s salvation in this time of need?
The mood of the disciples must have been very similar when they saw their Lord nailed to the tree and crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet just when it seemed that God could not be further away from them, God had drawn near in the most profound way possible. Jesus’ death and resurrection bring to crescendo Israel’s stubborn belief that, however dark the hour, God is at work in history. It is often when we find ourselves with the sea in front of us and a hostile army at our heels-or at the tomb where our last, best hope seems dead and buried-that God works salvation.
This is the conclusion to Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he has gone to great lengths explaining in some detail how “the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith…” vss. 25-26. This snippet plays nicely into the prophecy/fulfillment theme of Advent, but I cannot imagine how one could preach on it without reaching back into the body of Romans and reconstructing Paul’s argument. Such a project is far too big for any one sermon and best saved for periods in the church year where consecutive readings from the Letter to the Romans are featured in the lectionary. This last summer would have been a good time for that.
Luke’s telling of the nativity narrative is strikingly different from that of Matthew in several respects. Whereas in Matthew Joseph is the recipient of angelic revelation, in Luke he is altogether absent from the scene until the trip to Bethlehem. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel’s messages come through dreams. Luke has the angel Gabriel addressing Zachariah and Mary directly. Derived from the Hebrew words “Gavar” meaning “strong man” and “el,” a word for God, the name Gabriel is best translated “God has shown himself mighty.” Brueggemann, Walter, “Gabriel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2 (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 332. Gabriel first appears in Daniel explaining to the prophet a vision of the end that he has just seen. Daniel 8:15-17. See also Daniel 9:21. Though not otherwise mentioned in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, Gabriel is frequently portrayed as God’s agent of revelation, punishment and salvation throughout later Jewish writings such as the Books of Enoch. It is important to understand that in Hebraic thought, God is fully present in the person of God’s messenger. Ibid, p. 333.
The impact of Gabriel’s message is very much muted by the later church’s fixation on the “immaculate conception” and our 19th Century prejudice against that which does not fit our empirical world view. Few people in the 1st Century B.C.E. doubted that God (or a god) could bring about a pregnancy miraculously. The remarkable thing here is that Gabriel, God’s chief messenger, should be sent 1) to a woman; 2) to an insignificant town in Galilee; 3) to announce that God’s messiah and David’s heir was to be born to this woman of no particular standing. Luke goes out of his way to let us know that he is well aware of contemporary events and the way in which history appears to be unfolding through the likes of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus. Yet he would have us know that the true history, the history that matters, the history God is making will unfold not in Jerusalem or Rome, but in the small hamlet of Nazareth. The hope of Israel and the whole world will be born to a homeless couple in a drafty animal shelter. That is the miracle at which Luke would have us marvel.
What, then, shall we say of the “virgin birth”? Though not as pronounced as in Matthew’s gospel, one point seems to be that Jesus’ conception and birth is at the initiation of God and independent from requirements of lineage, status and blood. Something new and different is taking place with the birth of Jesus. How does God initiate that birth? Luke tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Vs. 35. Perhaps the church would have been wise simply to leave it there. Who can explain the workings of the Holy Spirit? We know that the Spirit can work through events that appear to unfold naturally and in accord with what we understand about the processes of nature. Yet the Spirit also introduces novelty that strains our credibility, exceeds our expectations and challenges our imaginative abilities. Who can say how the Spirit worked in this instance? Does it really matter?
It may not have mattered to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, but it became an important question for the church in later years as she struggled to make the gospel intelligible to Mediterranean culture while remaining faithful to her biblical roots. Without rehashing the first six centuries of the church’s history, it is fair to say that the confession of Jesus as the Son of God born of the virgin Mary was part and parcel of the church’s insistence that Jesus was no less human than he was divine; that God as creator took naturally to human flesh created in God’s image; that the Incarnate Word has plumbed the depths of all that it is to be human. At the end of the day, the Incarnation is a mystery that can be contemplated, worshiped and believed, but never fully understood. We cannot insist on any particular metaphysical understanding of virginal conception because this says more than the biblical witness tells us. Neither can we dogmatically maintain that the birth of Jesus must have occurred under purely “natural” circumstances as we think we understand them. Assertion of either position says both too much and too little.
Gabriel’s assurance that “with God nothing will be impossible” and Mary’s response, “let it be to me according to your word” fitly summarize the import of this lesson. To be fully open to God requires belief in God’s willingness and ability to do all things-even the seemingly impossible. Advent beckons us to just such radical openness. It challenges us to suspend our judgments about who we think God is, who our neighbor really is and what are the possibilities for the future, both ours and the world’s. During this holy season we are challenged to expect the impossible!
“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it; a poem by Ellery Akers; and the lessons for Sunday, December 17, 2017
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Beloved, pray for us.” I Thessalonians 5:25.
In tweets responding to “thoughts and prayers” directed to the victims of the recent church shooting in Southerland Springs, Texas by the likes of President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and many other political leaders, Washington Post correspondent Karen Tumulty remarked, “thoughts and prayers for people who were mowed down in a church sounds especially hollow.” Singer and song writer Rosanne Cash noted that “[the shooting victims] were in a church that was full of prayers. They need a government who will enact common sense gun laws.” Actor Michael McKean observed that “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.” I fully understand these sentiments. So does the Apostle James:
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:16.
Just as this mock benediction from the Epistle of James rings hollow to persons who are homeless and hungry, so also “thoughts and prayers” from government officials entrusted with protecting their citizens from violence come across as empty, hypocritical and impotent to citizens whose loved ones have died as a result of their willful neglect. If the Republican controlled congress loved their citizens half as much as they crave the endorsement of the gun lobby and its lavish gifts of cash to their campaigns, there would be no need for them to console the Southerland victims with empty platitudes. For more on that, see my post of October 4, 2017.
The prayers Saint Paul asks of the church in Thessalonica, are of an entirely different order. His plea for prayer comes not from some far of executive seated in a distant corner office issuing Hallmark platitudes on company stationery, but from a pastor who has labored among and prayed fervently for the people whose prayers he now seeks. This is a church immersed in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness.” I Thessalonians 1:3. Paul’s prayers for this faithful church and the prayers he seeks from them grow out of their shared baptismal commitment to the reign of God. They are not a pious substitute for meaningful action, but a plea for God’s inspiration, support and strength for the work in which they are already engaged. Furthermore, Paul is not looking for prayers addressing his own personal needs. He is urging the Thessalonians to pray for his mission to the world, his ministry among his many congregations and the spread of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Paul, prayer is part and parcel of the church’s struggle to live faithfully under the reign of God in a world fiercely resistant to that gentle reign. Divorced from this sacred context, prayer becomes little more than a bland expression of good intent or a laundry list of personal favors. “Thoughts and prayers” is religious short hand for “good luck.”
Of course, I don’t fault politicians or anyone else for expressing sympathy to the Southerland victims’ families. Nor do I fault them for the seeming soullessness of their well wishes. Who of us can ever find words that bring true comfort in the face of such horrendous tragedy? Sympathy, however, is not enough. Words unaccompanied by action are worse than silence. Mass shootings should not be happening (and in most other industrialized nations do not happen) with regularity. It is the job of government to protect its people from systemic violence of this kind. Expressions of sympathy from governmental leaders for victims of gun violence who have not and do not intend to take any steps to eliminate it might well be sincere, they should not be confused with genuine prayer. Moreover, such sentiments are clearly not enough. Just as “faith without works is dead,” so prayer for an outcome you are not prepared to live for, sacrifice for and, if need be, die for is just sanctimonious hot air.
Here’s a poem by Ellery Akers speaking to that fragile word that is prayer and suggesting how the answer to prayer might be closer than what we think.
The Word That Is a Prayer
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you:
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
Source: The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, c. 2010 (Poem originally copyrighted by Ellery Akers, 1997). Ellery Akers is a poet, children’s writer and naturalist living in Marin County, California. She earned a BA at Harvard University and studied at San Francisco State University where she got her masters. She is the author of two poetry collections. She has been honored with the Poetry International Prize, the John Masefield Award, the Paumanok Award and Sierra magazine’s Nature Writing Award. You can learn more about Ellery Akers and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.
Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of April 9, 2017.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.
The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10; Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.
“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.
The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?
Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human well-being and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.
Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).
Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.
“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.
“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.
This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.
Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.
Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.
Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!
“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.
As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid.Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.
That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).
When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.
Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.
When doing good doesn’t do any good; a poem by Julia Spicher Kasdorf; and the lessons for Sunday, November 26, 2017
CHRIST THE KING
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
One of my favorite hymns begins with a question: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?” See Lutheran Worship, (C. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. By Augsburg Fortress Publishers) Hymn # 431. The question is difficult on a number of different levels. As an American, I chafe at the very idea of having a king. After all, didn’t we fight the revolutionary war to rid ourselves of a king? I don’t fancy being governed by a leader whose authority cannot be questioned, who cannot be voted out or impeached and who calls me to lay down my life for the kingdom. Our attitude toward kingly authority is perhaps best expressed by the sentiment I have recently seen expressed on so many toddler tee shirts: “You’re not the boss of me.” Nothing stimulates the testosterone quite like having somebody else try to tell us what to do with our lives. Yet that is precisely what Jesus does. Our lives, he tells us, are not our own. They belong to our heavenly Father and they can never be lived well until reconciled to his will. We prefer Burger King telling us that we can “have it our way,” to Christ the King who tells that our way leads to self-destruction.
More difficult than getting past the very idea of a king is coming to grips with the kind of king Jesus is. His life and ministry was anything but kingly. Kings get things done. That’s one advantage of being ruled by a king. King’s don’t have to bother with congress or worry about courts striking down their orders. Because they don’t stand for election, they don’t have to take the temperature of public opinion before they act. They can build bridges, drain swamps, fight wars and make the trains run on time in whatever way they see fit. Of course, there is a price to be paid for autocracy. As the lesson from Ezekiel demonstrates, kings frequently put their own interests above those of the people. They abuse their power. They can be cruel, ruthless and unjust. But what if you could find a king that really does love his people, who puts the common good above his own interests and who rules with justice and equity? What if you found a person with integrity so deep seated that s/he could not be moved by any bribe, threat or self-serving interest? If such a person were to exist, wouldn’t you gladly accept them as king?
In many respects, Jesus seems to fit the bill. Yet when offered the opportunity to reign as king, not merely over Israel but over the whole world, Jesus rejected it. Putting to one side the fact that the offer was made by the devil, wouldn’t it have been better for all of us if Jesus had accepted it? Think of how much good could be accomplished with Jesus controlling the levers of power rather than the likes of Emperor Caligula or Donald Trump! Jesus, however, will not take up the sword of empire, not even for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. The only weapons Jesus employs are words of liberation, healing, compassion and forgiveness. His only military strategy is victory through reconciliation. His only plan for achieving peace is peace itself. These methods usually are not politically effective. In fact, they might undermine our political efforts to affect needed social change. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Truth is often the first casualty in the political process. The language of diplomacy requires “incidental falsehoods.” For example, it may well be essential to American strategic alliances and to such noble objectives as achieving peace in the middle east to avoid official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Don’t the lives and wellbeing of people today trump recognition of people who have been dead 100 years? Can’t we find a way to honor the Armenian victims “under the table” while ignoring them-for strategic and humanitarian purposes-in the room where the sausage is made? Perhaps the day will come when the whole truth can be told-but not today.
Jesus will not settle for a peace that buries the truth. He won’t tolerate false narratives and he will not give way to the Nieburian siren song promising that the ends will justify the means-a rationalization we are all too prone to adopt. We can mock the Trumpian evangelicals all we want for supporting a pedophile like Roy Moore and a molester like Donald Trump because, after all, they support their moral agenda (which evidently does not include protection of women and girls from predatory males). But their rank hypocrisy only illustrates the end stage of the same path we so called progressives take when we turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of our allies in the struggle against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. The desire to accomplish a great good and to see it done within one’s lifetime is hard to resist. That is why pastors and congregational leaders turn to coercive techniques when they are desperate to get programs off the ground or projects completed. It is also why Christians who seek to shape law and policy for the better frequently find themselves morally compromised. We can’t resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and use them to make history come out right. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot bear to watch evil prevail and do nothing. Yes, turn the other cheek, but not now! Not under these extreme circumstances! The greater good of preventing such a travesty of justice as Jesus’ arrest excuses the limited use of the sword.
I don’t think this means necessarily that disciples of Jesus cannot engage in politics. I do think, however, that we might find we are not very good at it. It seems to me that a believing politician has to be willing to lose an election that, with the backing of a little money in exchange for an inconsequential vote or two, s/he might otherwise win. A Christian legislator may have to let a proposal for hunger relief, protections for civil rights or some other very worthy cause go down in defeat-if the cost of success means voting once again to bury the Armenian Genocide. A disciple of Jesus must never forget that no end, however noble, can justify unjust means for achieving it, but that the means always shape the ends in ways we cannot foresee. Following Jesus in the realm of politics is a daunting task requiring much integrity, honesty and humility. No wonder Martin Luther once remarked that a good prince is a rare bird.
Discipleship, in any area of life, means accepting the cruel fact that doing good might not do much good-but we do it anyway because it is what Jesus would have us do and it readies us for life under God’s reign of peace-whenever in God’s own good time it comes. Disciples of Jesus understand that while they must witness to and live under God’s gentle reign, none but God can bring it about. God does that very thing through patient, suffering love that will not allow for any shortcuts. That is the only weapon King Jesus wields and the only one with which we are armed. Following Jesus, then, most often means doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, justice and peace on a day to day basis without stopping to consider whether it is accomplishing anything. It means taking up the cross and leaving the resurrection to God. Here is a poem by Julia Kasdorf that speaks of faithful discipleship, its challenges, costs and rewards.
We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets.
Like Jesus, the servant, we wash each other’s feet
twice a year and eat the Lord’s Supper,
afraid of sins hidden so deep in our organs
they could damn us unawares,
swallowing this bread, his body, this juice.
Growing up, we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned.
We love Catherine the Great and the rich tracts
she gave us in the Ukraine, bright green winter wheat,
the Cossacks who torched it, and Stalin,
who starved our cousins while wheat rotted
in granaries. We must love our enemies.
We must forgive as our sins are forgiven,
our great-uncle tells us, showing the chain
and ball in a cage whittled from one block of wood
while he was in prison for refusing to shoulder
a gun. He shows the clipping from 1916:
Mennonites are German milksops, too yellow to fight.
We love those Nazi soldiers who, like Moses,
led the last cattle cars rocking out of the Ukraine,
crammed with our parents–children then–
learning the names of Kansas, Saskatchewan, Paraguay.
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be? why we eat
‘til we’re drunk on shoofly and moon pies and borscht.
We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
Sunday’s passage is part of a larger section constituting all of Chapter 34. In verses 1-2, Ezekiel launches into a diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel.” The reference is to the Kings of Judah and Israel whose oppressive, self-centered and short-sighted policies lead to their nations’ demise. These kings/shepherds have put their own interests ahead of the flock, feeding their appetites as the sheep starve, wander away and become scattered. The prophet would have the exiles know that, as far as God is concerned, “enough is enough.” “I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Vs. 11. God will bring the people of Israel back from all the places to which they have been exiled. God himself will feed them and give them security from their enemies. Vss. 12-16. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!
The kings are not solely responsible for Israel’s plight, however. In the absence of proper leadership and oversight, covenant life within the Lord’s flock has given way to the law of the jungle. The oppression of the monarchy is reflected in the oppression of the weak by the strong. Thus, God addresses the flock as well. “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Vss. 20-22. For reasons known only to the inner circle of the lectionary makers, Verses 17-19 have been omitted from our reading. They expand further on this same theme.
In verses 23-24 God announces that he will set up over the people “my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Vs. 20. This is a little confusing. God has only just announced that God himself would be Israel’s shepherd, whereas now God announces that David (presumably a descendent) will have the job. These two notions are not necessarily contradictory, however, “for in the theology of Jerusalem the Davidic kings were an extension of Yahweh’s kingship.” Lemke, Werner E., “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future,” Interpretation, (Vol. 38, 2, 1984) p. 174. In addition to the term “shepherd” Ezekiel refers to the new David as a “prince” (Hebrew=nisi). The literal translation of this word is “exalted one,” a term that originated in the ancient Israelite tribal league existing prior to the rise of the monarchy. Ibid. Perhaps Ezekiel is deliberately avoiding the use of the Hebrew word for “king” (melech) because he wishes to make clear that this new David is not to be thought of as just a continuation of the dismal performance of his predecessors.
Ezekiel strikes a resonant chord. The blind embrace and elevation to leadership of known sexual predators to the highest offices in the land speaks both to the sickness of our governmental institutions and the perversity of the angry, white mob that is working hard to dismantle them. Somehow, we ended up with a president that is so mentally unstable that his generals are actually discussing how to handle the eventuality that he might fire off a nuke in a fit of pique as casually as he does his ill-considered tweets. The inability of our current leadership to govern, to unite the country or enact a coherent policy agenda comports with Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s self-serving “shepherds” whose inept leadership has impoverished and scattered the sheep.
Nonetheless, we cannot lay the blame of all our woes on our leadership. Unlike the unfortunate people of North Korea who inherited their bellicose, narcissistic, man-baby, we elected ours. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. When we continue to vilify the establishment, characterize career politicians as crooked and dishonest, should it come as any surprise that fewer and fewer honorable people are seeking public office? When honorable people are so repelled by public service that they avoid or resign from it, who is left? Exhibit A can be found in Washington, D.C.-when he is not in Mara Lago. We must accept the fact that Donald Trump is in large part the product of our own selfishness and cynicism.
There are two observations I would make in this connection. The first has to do with the limits of human capacity for wise leadership. Few can bear the weight of the crown without being corrupted by it. Even fewer have the maturity, insight and moral courage to envision a good larger than their own parochial interests. That is why, I believe, Israel’s hope for salvation eventually turned away from reliance upon human leaders. The crown belongs to God alone. The Christian faith confesses that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and received that crown to which every knee must finally bend. Yet this king will not have us bend in terror or under duress. He seeks obedience from the heart-something that must be won not through force of arms, but through faithful, suffering, enduring love that outlasts our distrustful resistance.
That leads me to the second observation. We are not yet a people capable of being led. The image of ourselves as sheep under the care of a shepherd does not play well in a culture of individualism like our own. We value our right to be our own person, make our own decisions and believe what we choose. While I have no problem with the state affording us these prerogatives, I am not convinced that we can hang onto them as we enter into the Body of Christ. It seems to me that the language of rights is foreign to and inadequate for defining life under our baptismal covenant with Jesus in the church. I believe one of the major flaws in American Protestantism is our penchant for organizing ourselves, whether nationally or as congregations, by means of constitutions that speak the language of rights rather than the language of covenant. We are, after all, a people who follow a king who reigns through laying down his kingly prerogatives and refusing to exercise his rights to self-defense, retribution and self-determination.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 (not in our lesson) refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church year draws to a close, we prepare to begin anew the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection through the eyes of Mark’s gospel. This story, as it is enhanced and enriched through the prism of our weekly readings, illuminates and informs the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of the disciples as they follow Jesus and finally betray, deny and abandon him. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
For a brief introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians, see Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the lectern without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. It is therefore appropriate for the celebration of the reign of Christ. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, James Carroll wrote: “Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.
“Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.” James Carroll, “Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, November 7, 2014.
What Carroll has said here about the Roman Catholic Church is every inch as true for American Protestant denominations. We are nothing if not “institution-protecting.” The precipitous decline in membership and support we have experienced in the last two decades (and before if we had been paying attention) has only exacerbated and raised to panic level this self-defeating behavior. In some respects, this takes us back to the whole question of leadership raised by our lesson from Ezekiel. The leader we desperately need is one that can point us beyond our angst over institutional decline to the figure of Jesus. Jesus alone can give us the courage to die and, paradoxically, the promise of life.
Professor Nolland suggests that the reading for Sunday was originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people, but has been progressively allegorized by the early church to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment rather than a parable. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2008 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1024. I trust there is no need for me to repeat my skepticism about scholarship seeking the so-called “Historical Jesus” behind the gospel witness as we have it. I nevertheless agree with Nolland’s literary judgment that this story is not a parable. It is, as he points out, the climactic conclusion to the parables of the Ten Maidensand The Talents. Ibid. at 1022. Whereas the preceding parables stressed preparedness and faithfulness, the story of the final judgment paints in stark relief that for which the disciples must prepare and the shape their faithfulness must take.
The image of the Son of man separating the people of the nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats faintly echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. As the reign of the new David in Ezekiel was to be an extension of God’s just and merciful reign, so also the Son of Man is an extension of God’s presence in judgment and salvation. A shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in his flock for any number of reasons, one being that goats need protection from cold at night not required for sheep. Ibid. at 1026. It would be a mistake, however, to read more into the shepherd’s reasoning than is required to make sense of the story. It is enough to know that such separation was common and so a useful image for the separation to be made finally of those recognized by the Son of Man from those not so recognized.
The point of the story turns on the failure of both the sheep and the goats to recognize the significance of their actions/inactions. The story is both a judgment on the nations of the world for whom divinity is wrapped up in imperial might and worship given to the symbols of Roman power as well as encouragement to the church whose acts of compassion toward “the least” is in fact the highest possible service to the one true God. The way of patronage that advances one upward through the hierarchical strata of Roman society turns out to have been tragically misguided. When the true “king” arrives, the contacts required to win his favor will turn out to have been the very folks we go out of our way to avoid: the homeless, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned and abandoned.
My Lutheran associates often get hung up on this text because it appears to advocate salvation by works rather than by God’s grace. Caring for the poor and hungry becomes the basis for salvation rather than faith in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the case. If works had been the basis of their salvation, the sheep would not have been so clueless about their acts of kindness to the Son of Man. Because they have been shaped by their friendship with Jesus in the baptismal community called church, their works are not their own. They simply flow from their living relationship to Jesus as naturally as breathing. Their left hand knows not what their right hand is doing. See Matthew 6:3.
Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether this story is not as much a rebuke to the sheep as to the goats. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need our help rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers).
Perhaps the sheep could use some help recognizing their King in the faces of those for whom they are caring. Acts of charity can be and are done by Christians and non-Christians alike. Anyone can feed the hungry, but only the church can invite them to the messianic banquet. Anyone can show genuine compassion to someone in need. But only a disciple of Jesus can recognize in such a person the presence of Jesus. It is just this recognition that “the least” are not “social problems” needing a solution, but rather “the treasure of the church,” as St. Lawrence would say, that distinguishes friendship with the marginalized from toxic charity. The “least” are, in fact, priceless invitations to deeper intimacy with Jesus.
On this Sunday of Christ the King, we are asked what it means for us to be subjects of a King whose nearest associates are the hungry, the poor, the naked and the imprisoned. Taken seriously, discipleship as Matthew envisions it turns our social/economic/political world on its head.
Blessedness of dying broke; a poem along the same lines; and the lessons for Sunday, November 19, 2017
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I was afraid.” Matthew 25:25
At first blush, the parable of the talents in today’s gospel strikes us as rather severe. Three servants each receive a sum of money to be held in trust. Two of them invest and double their master’s wealth and are richly rewarded. The third keeps it safe and returns it to the master with neither profit nor loss-and is severely punished. But how much of this is really the third servant’s fault? No one can predict a bull market. That is why investments that promise a high return are considered risky. What if this parable had taken place in the fall of 2008? What if the first two servants had come back with only a tenth of their original trust? Would the master then have said to the third servant, “Well done good and faithful servant! You dealt with my money carefully and prudently”? Would he have punished the first two servants for taking imprudent risks? Doesn’t the parable place upon the servants responsibility for matters well beyond their control?
No. To read the parable in this fashion is to miss the point. The first two servants were not rewarded for their investment successes and the third servant was not punished for fiscal incompetence. The first two servants are commended for being “faithful.” Nothing more is required of them. Success is God’s concern. The servants don’t have to worry about that. They need only use the resources given to them faithfully and God will accomplish whatever it is God intends to accomplish through them. Whether the result looks like success or failure to them in the end is immaterial. Freed from the crippling fear of failure, the servants can go about their work with hopefulness, joy and expectation. That is what faith looks like.
The opposite of faith is fear. “I knew that you were a hard man,” says the third servant, “and I was afraid.” But was that really the case or was it merely the servant’s perception? If the servant believed his master to be a “results oriented” boss with an eye only for the bottom line, then his decision to “play it safe” makes sense. Investments that require innovation, risk taking and novelty often do not pay off until years later-if at all. They are not an attractive option when your annual review is coming up in six months. That is why a management plan rewarding short term success and punishing failure has been shown again and again to be a failed business model. Fear and innovation don’t mix.
Fear is the author of many a poor decision. This week fans of ex-Fox commentator Sean Hannity began smashing their Keurig coffee makers because Keurig withdrew its advertising from Hannity’s show. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The only one you hurt by such a demonstration of disapproval is yourself. It’s rather like protesting a movie you don’t like by buying a ticket and not going in to see it. But people do stupid things when they are afraid and anger is, after all, just fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Fear inspires people to support political measures that are sure to hurt them economically, i.e., a southern border wall, trade wars and health care legislation limiting insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Fear seduces otherwise intelligent people to believe all kinds of nonsense, i.e., Barak Obama is a Kenyon born Muslim bent on implementing Sharia law; the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school never happened and are just an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the liberal media; Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster and opened up a child porn service out of a pizza parlor; the U.S. Air Force is concealing the bodies of extra-terrestrial aliens, etc. We (I at least) might be inclined to mock such incredulity. But none of us are our best selves when we are afraid. As nutty as some of these beliefs appear, they help make sense out of life for people whose world is coming apart and who cannot understand why. When you are convinced you are going under, you grasp at any flimsy straw within reach.
Too much of what our church does, both on the denominational and parish levels, is inspired by fear. And let’s face it, declining membership, dwindling financial resources and a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent to organized religion are all scary things. In a time when our existence seems to be threatened, we are less likely than ever to take risks, be innovative and embrace the cross. Our first impulse is to grasp, hang onto and depend on the things we know. We know how to run capital fund drives; we know how to erect sanctuaries; we know how to develop liturgies and plan worship; we know how to advertise. These are the things to which we turn as we try to save ourselves and preserve what we have. None of that is necessarily bad, but our reliance upon it for our salvation is misplaced.
If I am reading this parable correctly, saving ourselves and preserving what we have is the last thing we should be trying to do. What ought to concern us is not the possibility that we will lose all that we have. Rather, we should be concerned that the last day will catch us with money still in the bank. We should be worried Jesus will return to discover that we have not spent all that we are and have in the service of our neighbors and in witnessing to the gentle reign of God. This century may well see the death of the church as we know it. But that should not concern worshipers of the God who raises the dead. Better to have died in confident faith than to survive until the end with nothing to show for it other than unspent potential, wasted opportunities and unfulfilled intentions. Jesus challenges us to a life of faithfulness in which loss, failure and death are not determining factors. He calls us to live thankfully, faithfully and generously, knowing that in him all things are ours to be spent in his service-and after that, to arrive at the grave broke.
Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in squandering all for the sake of the kingdom and the reward that comes with it.
I own the golden sunlight
breaking over the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows that come to feed
at the seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!
Zephaniah is one of the twelve “minor” prophets, so called not because they constitute a minor prophetic league, but because their books are far smaller than those of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). According to the first verse of his collected writings, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. This king, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E., was credited in the book of II Kings for instituting in the latter part of his reign sweeping religious reforms and ridding the kingdom of idolatry. II Kings 23:1-25. The prophet’s sustained criticism of Judah’s religious infidelity suggests that he ministered in the earlier part of Josiah’s reign before the passage of his reforms. Zephaniah’s lineage is traced back to one called “Hezekiah,” but it is not known whether this Hezekiah is the Judean King by that name who ruled between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. during the ministries of the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Zephaniah’s oracles begin with the prophet’s warning of a catastrophic judgment of cosmic proportions that will sweep away not only Judah, but all of humankind. For more general information on the Book of Zephaniah, see Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
In this Sunday’s reading, Zephaniah delivers a scorching rebuke to his nation. Like Amos in last week’s reading, Zephaniah warns that the “Day of the Lord,” a common term for God’s hoped for salvation, would be nothing of the sort for the sinful nation of Judah. Significantly, in the omitted verses 8-11, the prophet directs withering criticism toward “the king’s sons” and “those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud,” but not the king himself. Josiah was only eight years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. II Kings 22:1. It is unlikely that he would have exercised any true political authority at this point (much less had any sons!). Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the “sons” of whom Zephaniah speaks are Josiah’s brothers, the sons of the former king, Amon. Like his father, Manasseh, Amon practiced idolatry and it seems that his sons continued in that vein. Zephaniah’s reluctance to criticize the king directly might well have been due to his reasonable fear of the consequences. It might also have stemmed from his hope that the boy king Josiah might yet prove himself made of better stuff than his father when he finally grew into the crown. The practice of “leaping over the threshold” mentioned in verse 9 appears to have been a pagan ritual upon entering a shrine. See I Samuel 5:5.
The agent of God’s judgment upon Judah will come from the north, entering by way of the Fish Gate at the northeastern wall. Vs. 10. It must be born in mind that this period of time was marked by geopolitical instability. The Assyrian Empire was fast disintegrating, leaving a power vacuum that King Josiah would later exploit to Judah’s temporary advantage. At this early point, however, the political future of the region was unclear. Restive nations now released from the yolk of Assyria were beginning to assert themselves. Like the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions in the 1990s following the decline of Soviet rule, the near east was spinning into chaos as Assyria’s power faded. The feared invader from the north could therefore have been any number of potential foes. According to most scholars, the most likely suspects are the Scythian tribes. In any event, the immediate threat against which the prophet warned seems not to have materialized.
Neither military might nor wealth will be able to deliver Judah from the coming judgment. Vss. 17-18. Israel’s trust in these things is vain as their power is illusory. Yet there appear to be people in Judah whose trust is so anchored. They are, to use a contemporary term, “practical atheists.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Vs. 12. The belief underlying this remark is that God does not get involved with human affairs. Other than worship, prayer or other religious activities, human conduct is of no concern to God. God is compartmentalized into the realm of the “spiritual” and has no place in the “real world.” Yet a God thoroughly removed from the economic, political and social realities in which human beings live might as well not exist. Belief in such a god is practically indistinguishable from belief in no god at all.
This reading does not portray our God as a kindly old over-indulgent grandfather. This is an angry God. In our modern 19th Century, rational, refined, ever white and ever polite protestant piety, a God of wrath and judgment is viewed as inconsistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Lately, though, we are learning that the real world is a good deal messier than our quaint Enlightenment rationalism once led us to suppose. Anger and love are not as far apart as we imagine. Most acts of violence are domestic. The bloodiest conflicts often take place between religious, cultural and racial groups that are closely related. The people we love most are those with the greatest capacity to hurt us. A God incapable of anger would be a god that didn’t care. A god that that never gets in the way of what we want would not be a God of love, but one of benign indifference. It is precisely because God loves us so passionately that God is so deeply grieved and so thoroughly outraged by our self-centered and self-destructive behavior. God’s judgment, severe though it may be, is another manifestation of God’s love seeking to save us from ourselves. Even the bad news is really good news.
This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. The attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.
However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.
Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.
Formally speaking, the psalm is in a class by itself, defying the categories of scholarly classification. Though it begins by praising God’s creative and eternal power, it is hardly a song of praise. Like a lament, this poem is decidedly dark, but the psalmist is not crying out for salvation from any threat of extraordinary danger or the prospect of a premature death. The psalmist is simply reflecting on the limitations of being a mortal creature in a perishable world. From dust we are made, to dust we return. Vss. 3-4. We are like the grass, flourishing in the morning and perishing before sunset. Vss. 5-6. But in one crucial respect we are not like the grass or any other non-human creature that is content to live its span and return to nourish the earth from which it came. We want more. Unlike Jesus and very much like Adam, we view godhood as “a thing to be grasped.” Philippians 2:5-6. Yet every time we reach out for the prize of god-like immortality, we run into our mortal limits. Each passing day reminds us that our bodies and minds are in decline.
The psalmist understands and accepts (as our own culture frequently does not!) that such is life as God’s creature. There is no escape from mortality. So the psalmist prays that s/he might live wisely and well within his/her creaturely limits. How very contrary that prayer is to our fixation on youthfulness, our preoccupation with covering up the evidence of aging, our promethean dreams of indefinitely extending the length of human life through medical and technological advances! Yet it should not seem at all radical or unusual to disciples of a man who was misunderstood all his life, died violently in his youth and was abandoned by his closest friends and supporters in the end. Life need not be eternal to be eternally significant. Nor does life need to be long in order to be full and complete. If you follow Jesus, you know that the criteria by which our world measures the value of a human life are false and distorted. Not surprisingly, they lead us to despair.
As dark as this psalm is, it does not despair of human existence. Rather, it seeks wisdom to live faithfully within our human creaturely limits. In the final verse of the psalm (not included in our reading), the psalmist prays that God would “establish the work of our hands.” Vs. 17. It is, after all, only God who can endow our lives with true value and significance. It is only by commending our works into God’s hands that we can hope they will find any degree of permanence beyond the measure of our days. That we have the work of this psalmist’s hands enshrined in our scriptures testifies to the truth of his/her words.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my comments generally on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, see my post for October 22, 2017, See also Summary Article by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
Sunday’s reading is another one with a focus on “the day of the Lord.” As pointed out in my introductory remarks, this is a broad term that can be applied to any watershed time of salvation such as the Exodus from Egypt. But it is also used to denote the final triumph of God’s justice throughout creation. This latter sense is the one St. Paul intends in our lesson. One thing to keep in mind about the “Day of the Lord” is that it is about judgment as much as it is about salvation. You cannot have salvation of the righteous without judgment of the wicked. Finally, it must be said that we are never on shakier ground than when we presume we are wholly on one side of that divide and someone else is on the other. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every heart. Paul warns his church that the final judgment is already making itself felt in the present moment. Even now believers must shake themselves out of sleep (Vs. 6) and put on the armor of faith, love and hope. Vs. 8.
Though Paul reiterates what has been said in the gospels, that the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (Vs. 2), that should not be a cause for alarm. In contrast to the rest of the world, which assumes that the cosmos is on solid ground and will continue indefinitely along the lines established in the past, disciples of Jesus understand that the night will not go on indefinitely. The daylight is coming. Now is the time to begin practicing how to live and move in the light so that the Day of the Lord will come as a welcome and anticipated moment rather than as a blinding flash of light to eyes accustomed only to the darkness.
The Day of the Lord appears as a disruptive and disturbing event to a world alienated from its Maker. It is not the apex of gradual social evolution toward a better society. Neither is it the endpoint of a predetermined historical clock whose workings are buried in the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. The church is no more knowledgeable concerning God’s timing than is anyone else. But Jesus has delivered to his disciples God’s coming kingdom now. Church under the cross is the shape that kingdom takes in a world that is not yet ready for it.
Once again, the bottom line is comfort. Apocalyptic imagery used here by Paul and throughout the scriptures is not intended to scare the socks off people. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 9. Paul urges us “to encourage one another and build one another up” in this hope. Vs. 11.
This parable of the talents is also told in the Gospel of Luke, though with a few additional twists. Luke 19:12-27. As Professor Nolland observes, the master’s entrusting his slaves with money in this parable is unusual by 1stCentury Palestinian standards. One would normally make investment arrangements over a long period of absence in other ways. The slaves are thus being treated with unusual distinction. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 1013-1014. Though some commentators suggest that the talents represent a “business loan” of some sort, nothing in the parable supports such an interpretation. The money is not given to be used for the benefit of the slaves. Nor is there any suggestion that they are to share in the profits. The money is given to the slaves to be invested solely for the benefit of the master and his estate. That, of course, fits with the biblical understanding that “the earth is the Lord’s” and its human inhabitants but stewards. Psalm 24:1.
The term “talent” originally referred to a measure of weight on a scale. It then came to mean anything weighed and later to a specific weight of about thirty kilograms. Over time, it came to be used of money indicating the value of that weight of gold, silver, copper or whatever other precious commodity might be involved. It is the general scholarly consensus that silver talents are intended by Matthew. Ibid, p. 756. One talent, then, would amount to about six thousand denarii (Ibid), one of which constitutes a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer. Matthew 20:1-16. Thus, even one single talent amounted to a considerable chunk of change.
Upon his return, the master settles accounts with his three slaves. The first two mange to double their investment and are given the promise that their faithfulness with the “little” placed in their hands will be rewarded with responsibility over “much.” Vss. 20-24. The third slave took a different approach. Rather than investing the one talent he had been given, he buried it in the ground in a napkin to ensure its safety. This action was not commercially unreasonable. It was apparently an accepted means of keeping valuables safe. See, e.g., Matthew 13:44. But preservation is clearly not what the master was looking for. Instead of a glowing commendation, this third slave received a withering rebuke. Apparently, it was not enough for him to show that he had not pilfered or squandered the master’s goods. He needed to show that he had put them to productive use.
At a gathering of fellow clergy some years ago, I remember somebody remarking how he wished that Jesus had told this parable differently. He wished that at least one of the two successful slaves had both failed to earn interest and lost his principle. The master would nevertheless commend the unsuccessful but gutsy slave on his entrepreneurial spirit. So my friend would have had the parable end. But that proposed telling misses the point in a most obvious way. The two slaves are not rewarded on the basis of their success or their risk tolerance, but on the basis of their faithfulness. The operative words are: “well done good and faithful slave.” Where one is faithful to Jesus, his/her work will bear fruit. When one does the work of the kingdom, one cannot but succeed. Of course, success on God’s terms and for God’s purposes might not meet with our expectations of what success should look like, but that is a discussion for another day.
The problem, then, with the third slave was his lack of faith. He did not really believe in the mission with which his master had entrusted him. He thought it wiser to conserve than to invest. As far as he could see, there was no future in venturing all that had been given into his care. He could not comprehend Jesus’ warning that all who seek to save their lives ultimately lose them or his promise that those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them. The third slave was too fearful of losing his master’s money to make any good use of it. He thought that the only way to keep himself out of trouble was to preserve until the end what had been given to him. But God seeks missionaries, not custodians. That is a timely message for churches obsessed with maintaining their buildings, preserving their endowments and hanging on to ways of being church that no longer answer the call to make disciples of all nations.
Choosing the right kind of heroes; a poem by Denise Levertov; and the lessons for Sunday, November 5, 2017
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
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 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.
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 4:9-11; Revelation 5:6-10; Revelation 11:16-18; Revelation 15:2-4; Revelation 16:4-7; Revelation 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.
This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 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.
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.
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’Urban. It 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.
 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.