Tag Archives: Colossians

Sunday, July 24th

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18:20–32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6–19
Luke 11:1–13

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Lord, teach us to pray…” That is the simple request Jesus’ disciples made of him. Praying rightly does not come naturally. It must be learned. Based on much of what passes for prayer these days, I am not convinced the church has done a particularly good job of teaching or that we children of the church have learned our lessons well. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer are we instructed to pray for the self-interested welfare of our own particular nation state. Nowhere are we instructed to pray for victory in war. Nowhere are we instructed to seek special miracles of healing for ourselves or loved ones, professional success or financial security. Prayer is not a means of gaining God’s favor, support or intervention to further our own personal interests. That, however, is the focus of many prayers I have heard over the years.

How different is the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray! Jesus’ prayer begins not with his own needs, but with a plea that God’s name be regarded as holy. Prayer is not all about us, our needs, our hopes, our desires and longings. It is about glorifying God. Many of the Psalms illustrate that very point. including, for example, Psalm 150. In his/her prayer, the psalmist asks nothing of God, seeks nothing from God and does not attempt to influence God in any way. The psalm is pure praise to God from beginning to end. What we are commanded to pray for, above all else, is the coming of God’s reign on earth. That is not to say the coming of God’s reign depends on our prayer. As Martin Luther rightly points out, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” We are that for which we yearn. We are shaped by what we desire, what we long for and that for which we hope. If the primary focus of our prayer is something less than the reign of God, then we become less than all God would have us be.

So what hopes and longings are shaping our souls? Our culture of late stage capitalism instills in us a thirst for acquisition and consumption. The American Dream is often cast in terms of home ownership, financial security and increasing wealth. By contrast, Jesus teaches us to pray for no more than today’s sustenance, leaving tomorrow to be concerned for itself. This “daily bread” is the only material thing for which Jesus teaches us to pray.

Finally, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will be done-not our own agendas for personal well-being. In praying for God’s will to be done, I might be praying for poverty, persecution or even death. The kingdom is revealed through the suffering witness of a church that lives as though the kingdom were fully present in a world that does not yet recognize or accept it. It is only with this understanding that we can pray rightly to be delivered from evil and temptation. Deliverance from evil is not protection from suffering, but faith that endures suffering without succumbing to unbelief and despair. This petition is essential precisely because loyalty to the reign of God brings a disciple into conflict with the values and priorities of the dominant culture. The “evil” to be avoided is not suffering or persecution, but the danger of yielding to the ways of the world under the threat of these necessary consequences of faithfulness.

Ultimately, prayer is less about altering the external environment to our own liking than being altered in heart and mind so that we learn to yearn for God’s kingdom, seek God’s will and hallow God’s name through faithful discipleship.

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian of the 19th Century, was well schooled in the art of faithful prayer. Here is one of his.

Move in Infinite Love

You who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes! You who are unchangeable in love, precisely for our welfare, not submitting to any change: may we too will our welfare, submitting ourselves to the discipline of Your unchangeableness, so that we may in unconditional obedience find our rest and remain at rest in Your unchangeableness. You are not like us; if we are to preserve only some degree of constancy, we must not permit ourselves too much to be moved, nor by too many things. You on the contrary are moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we humans beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moved You; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves You, You who are unchangeable! You who in infinite love do submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move You to add Your blessing, in order that there may be brought about such a change in us who pray as to bring us into conformity with Your unchangeable will, You who are unchangeable!

Source: Christian Classics, c. The Words Group, 700 Sleater-Kinney Road, Suite 303-B, Lacey, Washington 98503.  Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen and spent two years in Germany before returning to Copenhagen, where he would spend the rest of his life. Kierkegaard’s life and works presented a serious challenge to the institutional church of his day, which he felt had replaced faithful discipleship with mere cultural and ethical convention. Rightly or wrongly, he is regarded as the father of modern existentialism and was one of the first thinkers to take a modern, analytical and psychological approach to religion. You can find out more about Soren Kierkegaard at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Genesis 18:20–32

The common lectionary’s hatchet strikes again! One cannot possibly appreciate what is going on between Abraham and the Lord in this passage without reading from verse 16. Recall that Abraham last week received three mysterious visitors who, it turns out, were the Lord and two angelic agents. They inform Abraham and Sarah that by the coming Spring, Sarah will be a mother. Now the two angels depart toward Sodom and we get a very rare look into the mind of Israel’s God:

“The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’” Genesis 18:17-19

This is important. God’s deliberations go to whether God will act unilaterally or whether God will draw Abraham into the process of judging Sodom. God finally decides to reveal to Abraham his intent to investigate the outcries against Sodom’s wickedness. Why? Because Abraham is to become a nation by which all other nations shall bless themselves. Abraham’s job is to bless and that is what he attempts to do. He pleads with God to show compassion on Sodom for the sake of the few righteous that might live therein. That is what it means for Israel to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Vs. 19. The outcome is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued along with his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot, it turns out, will become the father of two other near eastern nations, Moab and Amon. That these two nations became enemies of Israel only serves to underline the point: Israel’s job is to spread blessing in a world cursed by sin. She is to intercede on behalf of the peoples of the world-even if those people are her enemies; even when these people are Sodomites; even when intercession must be made against the very judgment of God. Punishment and retribution are God’s business. Israel’s job is blessing and intercession.

The conclusion of this saga in the 19th chapter of Genesis probably will never find its way into the lectionary. Read it at your own risk. It is a sordid tale of attempted gang rape, cowardice, stupidity, violence, incest and drunkenness that I am sure the American Family Association would be quick to censor-except that it happens to be in the Bible. You might well conclude that if Lot was deemed sufficiently righteous to be snatched from the destruction of Sodom, God must be setting the bar extremely low. Be that as it may, Lot did offer the visiting angels hospitality and sanctuary. This hospitable conduct toward the visitors marks a striking contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites who sought to abuse them. Kindness to strangers, aliens and sojourners goes a long way with Israel’s God and might have induced the Lord to overlook what we see as Lot’s character flaws.

Psalm 138

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

I am particularly struck by the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. At my first parish where I served some thirty years ago, a crusty old Irishman in my congregation named “Jack” posed the following question. “Pastor, how do you know that God isn’t using you to keep this little church going so that the Alcoholic Anonymous group will have a place to meet?” The question infuriated me at the time. I fumed over it for the rest of the day and well into the week. Since then I have asked myself many times why Jack’s quarry upset me so. Was I insulted because he was suggesting that I and my ministry might not be at the center of God’s work? Was my pride hurt because I might be the nail holding the shoe on the horse rather than the general sitting in the saddle? Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough to know that God promises to weave my life into the rich fabric of his redemptive drama? Am I miffed because I didn’t get to play the lead role?

I think Jack was onto something important. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might only be a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage, or the pastor of a church kept alive only for the sake of a bunch of recovering alcoholics. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.

Colossians 2:6–19

Perhaps you can still recall how nearly a decade ago, on October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten little girls execution style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. Though certainly tragic, school shootings are hardly unusual in our violent and firearm saturated culture. What was remarkable in this story was the Amish response. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness and support to the family of the one who had slain their children. How different that is from the usual cries for vengeance, the death penalty, law and order, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-all those visceral responses that come so naturally through the media, over the internet and talk radio when our own children or loved ones are the victims of senseless violence like this. How do you account for such radical forgiveness, such unorthodox compassion?

I don’t want to idolize the Amish. I have been around them enough to know that their marriages have problems; their kids misbehave and neighbors within their communities quarrel. The Amish are no less human than we are, but they do have one advantage. They are in every sense of the word “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in the faith.” Colossians 2:7. Their daily lives revolve around worship and prayer. Scripture informs their dealings with each other and the outside world. Moreover, the Amish are not as exposed as we are to “philosophy and empty deceit” or as possessed as we are by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Colossians 2:8. They are not bombarded day in and day out with Kenny Rogers and his like singing “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Their brains are not programmed from near infancy by westerns and crime dramas propagating the myth that justice and peace can be established through violence. They do not live in a culture where faith is cordoned off to one morning each week while television, the internet and entertainment from a thousand digital duhinkies reign supreme for the remaining six and one half days. Consequently, when their children were murdered, the Amish responded in the only way they could possibly imagine, having had their imaginations formed by the image of Jesus. They forgave their enemies because, well, what else would a disciple of Jesus do?

I am no more ready to become Amish than I am to join a monastery. (I would starve without my microwave and I am afraid of horses.) But I believe that, whatever shortcomings there may be to the Amish way of life and their communities, they are right to allow their imaginations to be shaped by Jesus. So the question is: how does that happen for communities of disciples living in the midst of a culture like ours? I am not so naïve as to suppose that I can convince anyone to give up watching CSI or Hawaii Five O. But is it too much to ask that you start watching these shows more critically? Why not ask after each show you watch: what does this story say about the world? About human beings? About God? Is that what I believe? Is it consistent with what the scriptures proclaim about Jesus? How about trying to imagine how Jesus would meet the violent encounters you see on the screen? How about examining your own feelings about what is taking place and whether that squares with Jesus’ teaching and example? As Paul charges us in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

Luke 11:1–13

Today’s gospel contains what I typically call “the other Lord’s Prayer.” It is significantly different from the form of that prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 that we routinely pray in our liturgies. Close examination of the prayer reveals that both Matthew’s and Luke’s version were likely based on an original composed in a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic which was then translated into Greek. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 455. There is some dispute over whether Matthew and Luke used a common Greek form of the prayer from the material labeled “Q” employed by both of them, each editing it for his own purposes, or whether they each supplied a form of the prayer used in their respective communities. Most scholars tend to agree that the Semitic original gave rise to at least two Greek translations of the prayer and that Matthew and Luke each used a different translation. It is noteworthy that Jesus substitutes the more formal and strictly religious word for “father,”abinu, with the informal abba used by children to address their fathers. Thus, Jesus transformed the fatherhood of God into an intensely personal form of address and instructed his disciples to pray with precisely such familiarity. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963, Penguin Books) pp. 151-52.

Jesus’ instructions on prayer are remarkably brief. First and foremost, God’s name is to be hallowed and praised. The disciples are to desire and pray for the reign of God above all else. Because God is a loving father, the disciples may confidently pray for their daily bodily needs. Forgiveness also can be confidently expected, though reciprocal mercy is to be shown to everyone indebted to the petitioner. Prayer is also made for guidance that the disciple might not fall into temptation/the time of trial.

Jesus does not instruct his disciples on methods for prayer, but he is clear about three things: audacity, persistence and faith. Like restless children, disciples are to keep pressing their demands to the point of being annoying. They are to keep knocking on the door until the weary householder cannot endure the pounding anymore and is forced to get out of bed. Above all, they are to trust their Heavenly Father to give them what they need (not necessarily what they want). What the disciples need (whether they know it yet or not) is the Holy Spirit. This prayer will always be answered with a resounding “yes.”

 

Sunday, July 17th

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18:1–10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15–28
Luke 10:38–42

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

One night as I was reading stories from the Bible to my children, one of my daughters asked me, “How come God doesn’t talk to us anymore?” I probably said something along the lines of the Bible being God’s speech to us today. I might also have pointed out that God speaks to us through our interactions with others. While both answers are true as far as they go, they really don’t go far enough. My daughter was not looking for a theological explanation for God’s seeming silence. She was seeking a break in the silence. She was thirsting for the immediacy of God’s presence, the sense of awe and wonder that breaks into our lives and draws us away from our day to day busyness. She sought the miracle that fills us with awe and leaves us marveling at the mystery even as the phone rings, the cat pees on the carpet and supper catches fire on the stove.

I think something like that must have happened to Mary in our gospel lesson. She did not make a conscious choice to neglect her domestic duties. This story should not be read as a morality tale elevating the life of contemplation over the life of service. Jesus’ words to Martha should not be read as an admonition to get her priorities in order, but as an invitation to join Mary and the rest of the disciples who have “left everything” in order to follow him. Martha, too, needs to be caught up in the mystery of hearing God’s life-giving word.

Why doesn’t God talk to us anymore? I suspect that God is speaking, but that I am not listening. I do not hear God speaking for the same reason that I no longer hear the noise of the elevator in my apartment complex or the air conditioner at night or the traffic in the street. Of course, it is not that I do not “hear” these noises. Rather, my brain has convinced me that these sounds are irrelevant to my needs, desires and plans. I don’t have to listen to them. They can safely be ignored. They constitute “white noise,” that is, sounds I have subconsciously determined to filter out of my perceptions and thought processes.

Has God’s speech become for us “white noise”? Have we learned to relegate the signs and wonders of God’s presence all around us to the reservoir of perceptions unworthy of our focused attention? Are we confusing the urgent with the important, the immediate with the significant, the temporal with the eternal? What will it take to peel our minds away from the daily “to do” list, the frantic chiming of the smart phone, the endless parade of text messages and e-mails demanding our full attention right now? Is God speaking a life-giving word to me this minute, even as I work frantically to get this post up by the end of the day?

Here is a brief poem by “erin” expressing what Mary might have said of her experience in Sunday’s gospel.

white noise

Life went on in the background
like white noise
but I was too hung up on your words
to hear it.

This poem is copyrighted by erin and found on the site, Hello Poetry, where you can sample more of her work.  

Genesis 18:1–10a

This is a delightful story whose significance unravels in the telling. It begins with the aging Abraham receiving three visitors. There is nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary here. Travelers in the early bronze age were a vulnerable lot, subject to abuse and exploitation-as can be seen from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which follows. It was not unusual for them to seek food and shelter from nomadic tribesmen like Abraham. Nor was it unusual for these tribesmen to exercise hospitality. After all, one never knows when it might become necessary to travel for some reason. It would then help to be able to call in some favors and be assured of hospitality along the way. It is not until verse 9 that we learn the Lord is among these three visitors. There the promise is made to Sarah that she will have a son.

Where is your wife, Sarah?” asks one of the guests. “She is in the tent,” Abraham replies. Vs. 9. No doubt she is busy with the work of meal preparation. The visitor announces that Sarah will have a son. That is where the lectionary would leave it. But the best part is yet to come. If you read on, you discover that “Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’” Genesis 18:10b-15. Like Mary in our gospel lesson, Sarah was being attentive to a word of the Lord that seems to have been directed to her as much as to Abraham.

“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” That question is almost unintelligible to us moderns. We inhabit a wonderless world circumscribed by physical laws dictating to us what can and cannot be. We firmly believe that what we do not yet understand can be explained and demystified once we have gathered enough data and conducted a sufficiently rigorous investigation. “Wonder” belongs to an open universe that is too big to fit into anyone’s “theory of everything.” Wonder belongs to a people who worship a God that is mysterious, terrifying, unbridled and uncontrolled; a God that is “good,” but not by the measure of our preconceived notions of goodness. Wonder happens when we enter into the world of the Bible to be transformed instead of trying to domesticate the Bible to fit the confines of our own cramped, stuffy, limited and wonderless world.

Abraham and Sarah felt trapped in a world without wonder. This is not the first time they had received the promise of a child. As a youngster of eighty-six, Abraham was told that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan in which he was currently just an immigrant. When Abraham reminded God that he had no descendants and that the heir to all his property was a slave born in his company, God did something unprecedented. God swore an oath to Abraham that he and Sarah would indeed have a son who would become their heir.

Evidently, Abraham and Sarah felt that such wonders were beyond even the reach of God. So they tried to help God out. They turned to surrogate parenthood. Abraham impregnated Sarah’s slave girl who, as Sarah’s property, would produce a son that would likewise be hers. In so doing, they were trying to make sure that history came out right; that God’s promised word would come true. Instead, they created a host of lethal domestic problems for themselves. Now, thirteen years later with the biological clock at one minute to midnight, the promise is repeated and Sarah laughs. This is no joyful laugh. It is a bitter, cynical laugh. “Shall an old woman enjoy a roll in the hay with her ninety-nine year old husband?”

Bitterness is what remains when our sense of wonder is lost. Aging becomes a process that continues to narrow possibilities, limit activities and destroy capabilities of sight, hearing and memory. Time is a conveyer belt taking us to the grave. The future seems to offer nothing but more of the same. It is precisely here that God breaks into our closed universe and opens our eyes to the wonder of the possible. Sarah will laugh once again, but not with bitterness. She will laugh when she holds her newborn son Isaac in her arms. She will laugh at how small and hopeless her world once was. She will laugh at the absurdity of her unbelief. She will laugh with a holy wonder at the new possibilities God has opened up for the world even as he opened her womb. Sarah will laugh because she knows that along with Isaac, a flood of new wonders have come tumbling into the world. They will culminate in the wonder of a group of women centuries later as they meet the resurrected Lord they came to prepare for burial. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

The significance of the three visitors has sparked all manner of speculation. They seem at some points to speak as one person, prompting some early Christian commentators to see a Trinitarian presence. However, as we discover later on in the narrative, two of the visitors clearly are “angels” or messengers of God. We ought not to press this distinction too much, though. God frequently acts and speaks through “angels,” which in the biblical languages simply means “messengers.”

Psalm 15

According to the Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, J.W. Rogerson & W. McKay, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.

The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in the community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.” Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”

Colossians 1:15–28

Here Paul makes some incredible claims about Jesus of Nazareth. In short, Jesus is not one in a pantheon of great prophets, teachers, community organizers or moral examples. He is the “image of the invisible God,” the “firstborn of all creation” and the “first-born from the dead.” “All things were created through him and for him.” “He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Jesus is described both as Lord of all thrones, dominions and powers as well as the “head” of the Body of Christ, the church. The only difference, then, between the church and the rest of humanity is that the church recognizes its head. It is not that Jesus must struggle to become Lord of all. He is Lord of all even if all do not yet know that.

Paul sums up in succinct fashion what God accomplished in Jesus: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vss. 19-20. I suppose that my reading of this verse is colored by my participation in the 2013 Ekklesia Project Gathering in Chicago. Ekklesia, as you may already know, is a network of Christians who are discovering a uniting and empowering friendship rooted in our common love of God and the Church. This year’s theme for the gathering was “Practicing the Peace of Christ in Church, Neighborhood and Country.” What I have taken away from my years of association with Ekklesia and this last week in particular is the recognition that peace is not a tangential aspect of the gospel. It stands at the gospel’s very core. The willingness of Jesus to shed his blood rather than employ violence against his enemies and God’s raising of Jesus from death to offer him to us again rather than retaliating against us for the murder of his Son demonstrate God’s mercy triumphing over judgment. The cycle of retaliation has been broken within the heart of God and in the realm of human history as well. The peace of Christ reigns at God’s right hand. The resurrected Body of Christ lives that peace in the world as church.

What follows? Disciples of Jesus are called to live under God’s gentle reign, practicing the peace made by Jesus through love for enemies, forgiveness of wrongs and reconciliation of all things. The renunciation of violence is a direct corollary to accepting the peace of Christ. Hostility is to be met in the same way Jesus always responded to it throughout his ministry and at the very end. Because peace has been made through the blood of the cross, coercive  force is no longer a weapon in the disciple’s arsenal.  Our sole weapons are righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, prayer and the Holy Spirit. See Ephesians 6:13-20.

This is a difficult message to proclaim in a culture so thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult of violence that it cannot imagine life without it. Seldom does anyone question the proposition that “a strong military is essential to our security.” The right of self-defense is written into our law and presumes the necessity of force or the threat of force to keep one’s self safe from harm. From police dramas to westerns, the entertainment industry reinforces our belief that the only sure way to deal with violent evil is by employing a violent response. In our creed we may be confessing the Prince of Peace, but in practice our lives are more often shaped by Kenny Rogers’ lyric: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Coward of the County, Kenny Rogers. Disciples of Jesus do not accept the proposition that “sometimes you have to fight.” Sometimes you have to suffer. Sometimes you have to forgive as many as seventy times seventy. Sometimes you have to die. But fighting violence with violence is not an option.

Luke 10:38–42

This brief story has been cited numerous times for the proposition that the contemplative life of prayer, meditation and worship is superior to the active life of work and service. Both the proposition and the use of the text to support it are off the mark. There are a couple of things going on here. Jesus is a guest in the home of Mary and Martha. As such, protocol demands that he be shown hospitality in the tradition illustrated by Abraham in our Genesis reading. But Jesus is not simply a guest. He is a teacher or rabbi and is in the process of instructing his disciples. Mary is among those disciples “sitting at his feet” and listening to his instruction. While women in the first century were not forbidden to learn Torah, it would be highly unusual for a rabbi to accept one as a disciple. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 163. It would also have been considered extremely poor etiquette at the very least for a woman to neglect her duty of hospitality toward a visiting rabbi in order to sit listening with his disciples. It is hardly surprising, then, that Martha is not pleased with Mary.

By taking Mary’s part, Jesus is recognizing her as one of his disciples invited to hear and obey his word. So far from denigrating Martha’s service, Jesus is actually elevating Martha. By implication, he is telling her also that she is far too important to be tied to domestic chores when the word of life is being spoken. Mary has chosen the “better” part and that choice is now open to Martha also. If the reign of God calls one to leave behind home, family and livelihood, how much more whatever is cooking on the stove! Let the beans burn.

As he does throughout his gospel, Luke is once again elevating the role and status of women in Jesus’ ministry.  Consistent with the tone of urgency that has taken hold since the turning point of the gospel toward Jerusalem, Luke is here pointing out that the good news about the reign of God disrupts the conventions of proper hospitality just as it does funeral preparations, Sabbath observance and class distinctions.

Sunday, July 10th

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1–10
Colossians 1:1–14
Luke 10:25–37

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.

Fulfillment of the law is humanly possible. The covenant obligations imposed upon Israel are not hopelessly unachievable ideals. God has far better ways to spend time than devising rules nobody can keep and then punishing everyone’s failed efforts to attain the impossible. The law was made to be kept. Lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus did not come to replace the Torah with some simpler, easier, more enlightened and less demanding moral teaching. To the contrary, he stated that not a single stroke of the law will pass away as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17.

Fulfillment of the law is not merely a human possibility. It is an accomplished human fact. The law, we are told, was fulfilled in the obedient human life and faithful human death of Jesus. So let us forever dismiss lame excuses like, “Nobody is perfect,” “I’m only human” and “I can only do my best.” There is nothing in the law that you cannot do. You can worship the Lord your God; you can both rest from your labors and give rest to your laborers; you can respect your neighbor’s life, property, marriage and livelihood; you can be a good steward of creation living gently on the land and contributing more than you consume. This “word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. Deuteronomy 30:14. Neither Saint Paul nor Martin Luther ever said anything different.

Our problem with the law is not our inability to keep it. Our problem arises from believing that our success in keeping the law wins us God’s favor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even perfect obedience to Torah could not win God’s favor. That is because obedience is not necessary for that purpose. God cares for and redeems us because God loves us as a parent loves a child. Good parents love their children the minute they come forth from the womb, before they have had a chance either to make them proud or break their hearts. So, too, God loves the good world God made and the creatures made in God’s image because that’s the way God is. God’s heart breaks when we transgress the law-not because God is a stickler for the rules-but because God cares so deeply about the pain we inflict on ourselves and the rest of creation as a result of those transgressions. People were not created for the sake of the law. The law was given for the protection of God’s people. That is why the two great commandments call us to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The entire law must be interpreted and put into practice toward these ends only-not in order to placate, please or impress God.

It is for that reason Jesus asks the lawyer in our gospel lesson, “What is written in the law” and “how do you read?Luke 10:20. It is critical that the law be read and interpreted as God’s gift to be used in the service of worshiping God and loving the neighbor. To his credit, lawyer gets the answer right: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27. You’ve got it, says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:28. But the lawyer is not interested in doing the law. As lawyers are wont to do, he is trying to find a loophole by which to escape the law’s demands. So he asks Jesus a question designed to demonstrate that the law is ambiguous, unclear and subject to multiple interpretations. Who, after all, is my neighbor? Surely it is not the gentile altogether outside of the covenant promises made to Israel. Surely it is not the Israelite who, through his or her sinful acts has separated himself or herself from the community of Israel. Surely it is not those Israelites whose teachings are contrary to the traditions handed down to us by the elders. Where does one draw the line when it comes to the scope of my duty to my neighbors? If the line cannot be drawn with legal clarity, then how can I be expected to keep the law?

But Jesus will not debate the meaning of Torah on the lawyer’s terms. He responds with a story in which neighborliness is practiced between mortal enemies. A Samaritan acts with compassion one would never expect him to show toward a Jew. Why? Simply because when the Samaritan saw the broken man on the side of the road, he didn’t see a Jew. He saw only a wounded, vulnerable, dying man. And we are told that “he had compassion.” The Greek word used here for “compassion” goes beyond its English counterpart. It means a deep seated, heartfelt identification and solidarity with the victim. It’s being able to get inside his or her skin and see the world through his or her eyes. It is the kind of identification God expresses toward God’s wounded creation by sending his only begotten Son. We are never more genuinely human nor are we more reflective of the divine image than when we exercise compassion toward one another. Neighborliness is not a legal obligation whose scope can be measured by statutory prescription. It is a miracle that occurs when, through God’s Spirit, God is recognized as our loving Father and the person standing in need of our compassion is recognized as a sister or brother made in God’s image. This miracle in the depths of the human heart, says Jesus, propels us into action that fulfills the Torah.

Fulfillment of the law is not a task far beyond the reach of human effort. It is as close as your nearest neighbor and it is as clear as your neighbor’s need. It is in your mouth. It is in your heart. To be sure, it is not easy. But it is humanly possible. You can do it.

Here’s a poem by Jan Beatty about exercising the kind of compassion I believe Jesus is talking about.

Stricken

We’re sitting in Uncle Sam’s Subs, splitting
a cheesesteak, when Shelley says:
I think I should buy a gun.
I look up at her puffy face, and she’s staring,
her hands shaking. On medication for
schizophrenia, she’s serious.
I say, Tell me why you need a gun.
Her voice getting louder: You know why.
No, no I don’t, I say.
In case I need it. I might need it to shoot somebody.
I give her a hard look — You don’t need a gun.
No one is after you.
She stares back: You might be after me.
I don’t know what to say — I never know what to say.
I know it’s not her speaking, but it’s my friend,
far away in some other stricken mind.
What’s it like to know you’re right/
you’re in danger —
and the world says no?
Every woman I know has lived that.
I say: I would never hurt you. I’m not a threat to you.
She laughs, says, Well, you might be.
The laughing scares me.
I want out of this place,
this sub shop, to walk away,
knowing she can’t walk out of her mind, leave
the illness behind. The long minutes,
the long, long minutes. She says, What do you think?
I think we should eat our sandwiches, then
take a walk, I say.
What about the gun?
Let’s talk about it later, I say,
not knowing a thing.
Not knowing a goddamn thing.

Source: Poetry Magazine (April 2016). Jan Beatty is the author of The Switching/Yard (c. 2013 University of Pittsburgh Press). She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

The language of this lesson naturally grates on my Lutheran ears. Since I was knee high to cricket I have been taught that it is impossible for human beings to keep the law; that the law always and only accuses us and shows up our sinfulness. I was always taught that the purpose of the law is to drive me to seek God’s forgiveness. So what does God mean by telling Israel: “this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you…”? vs. 11. I think we need to make an important distinction here. As I said above, the law was not given to Israel so that she could earn God’s favor. She already had God’s favor. God demonstrated God’s unconditional love for Israel when God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to Israel so that she might remain free, so that she would not become yet another Egypt. God calls Israel to obedience in Torah, not because God is a neurotic rule maker who cannot abide violations. God calls Israel to obedience because obedience is the only way for Israel to prosper and live well in the land.

When Moses declares that the law can be kept, he does not mean that it can be kept perfectly or flawlessly. Indeed, Moses knows otherwise. That is why the law makes provision for sacrificial offerings and rites through which God’s forgiveness is declared and reconciliation is facilitated. It should be noted that in the larger context of today’s reading, Moses assumes that the people will be disobedient to God’s commands, that they will suffer the consequences and that they will be carried into exile. Nevertheless, Moses goes on to say that God is merciful and forgiving; that God will always hear Israel’s prayers and will always respond to her expressions of repentance with forgiveness. God may punish Israel, but he will never reject her. God is always there for Israel to help her begin anew.

Again, as I said before, when Saint Paul and Martin Luther declare that people are incapable of keeping the law, they are simply saying that the law cannot be used to curry favor with God. When the law is employed to please God rather than to serve the neighbor, it becomes a curse instead of the blessing it was intended to be. Where law becomes the measure of righteousness before God, then we find ourselves embroiled in those endless “where do you draw the line?” discussions. What constitutes “work” in violation of the Sabbath? What constitutes “good cause” for divorcing my spouse? Who exactly is my neighbor? All of these questions suggest that if only we can figure out where to draw the line between obedience and disobedience to the law and stay on the right side of the line, we will be OK in God’s sight. That was precisely the outlook of the young lawyer in our gospel lesson. He was appealing to the law “to justify himself.” He wanted Jesus to clarify for him his duty of neighborliness so that he could be sure he was meeting all of its requirements.

But as Paul and Luther point out, that is not how law works. Sin is not a matter of keeping or breaking the rules. It is a matter of the heart. It all boils down to whether we love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and our neighbor as ourselves. You can keep all the rules but still lack faith and compassion. Indeed, there is no clearer evidence for lack of faith than a false dependence on and pride in keeping the rules. Israel has not been called to a slavish compliance with nit picking demands. Rightly understood as pure gift, Torah is the shape human life takes when drawn into covenant with a gracious, merciful and forgiving God.

Psalm 25:1–10

This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 34Psalm 37;Psalm 111Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. In these psalms, each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.

And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.

Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50,The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

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

Colossians 1:1–14

Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See   Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.

At this point it is clear that the church is beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire and is “bearing fruit.”  Paul opens his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the faith of the church at Colossae of which he has heard. It seems that Paul has never actually visited this church because much of what he seems to know has come through what he has heard or been told by others, specifically, “Epaphras.” Vs. 7. Paul then moves into a prayer for the Colossian church, that it may be strengthened, filled with wisdom and understanding so that it may “lead a life worthy of the Lord.” Vss. 9-10. As we will see in the weeks to come, Paul makes a sweeping argument for the cosmic impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in whom “the fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” Colossians 2:9.

Luke 10:25–37

In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from Judah and the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem, eventually establishing their own capital city in Samaria. This break up took place after the death of Solomon, David’s son around 922 B.C.E. The Samaritans asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel that existed prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith.

The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendents born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.

According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the vacinity of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.

As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. That the conflict was very much alive in the first century is evident from Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob. The first question she asked upon learning that Jesus was a prophet involved the proper place of worship: the temple in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim?  John 4:19-26. This background  information important as it makes clear that the neighbor to be loved includes not merely the stranger on the side of the road with a flat tire, but the mortal enemy that would kill you given half a chance.

The antagonist in this story is a lawyer. While we need to take care that we do not read too much of what we know and understand about lawyers today into what the New Testament means by the term, there are some parallels worth noting. Lawyers typically focus on the outer limits of the law. Modern lawyers advise their clients concerning the extent to which certain conduct might violate the law. Thus, a corporate client might want to know whether its newly designed logo is sufficiently different form a similar one belonging to another company to ensure safety from liability for trademark infringement. A company might consult a lawyer to determine whether it can safely designate certain income as non-taxable without incurring the scrutiny of the IRS. Similarly, lawyers in Jesus’ day were responsible for determining what conduct lay within or outside the parameters of the Torah. The Rabbis spoke of erecting a “hedge” around the Torah consisting of prohibitions and requirements that went beyond Torah. The thinking was that if you observed these “hedge” provisions, you would never get close enough to the Torah to violate it. The problem was, however, that these provisions sometimes prevented people from getting close enough to Torah to obey it. The case of the lawyer in this story is an illustration of that very thing.

The lawyer first seeks to “test” Jesus by asking him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus will not take the bait. “You know the answer to that question well enough.” Jesus replies. “What does the law require?” The lawyer correctly responds with the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Right,” says Jesus. “Do it and you will live.” Here Jesus is on the same page with Moses. This command is doable and understandable. Of course, that does not mean that it is easy, but that is another question and perhaps the very one the lawyer seeks to avoid. In true lawyer fashion, the lawyer manufactures a hurdle to obedience by seeking to render the statute ambiguous. “All well and good to say, ‘love your neighbor,’” he says, “but who is my neighbor?” Obviously, the lawyer is trying to drag Jesus into one of those hopeless “where do you draw the line” arguments. You know what I am talking about: “If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Yes, but what if he does it again? How many times do I have to let him hit me? What if I am an abused spouse? Do I just stand there and take it? What do I do with an armed maniac who points a gun at my dear old grandma…” On and on it goes.

Jesus will not be drawn into this silliness. He simply does not answer the lawyer’s question because he knows it will only lead to more stupid questions. He will not get into an argument over who should be classified as “neighbor,” but instead tells a story about neighborliness. Now if Jesus had told a story about a Jew who happened upon a wounded Samaritan and helped him, the lawyer might have nodded with approval. “Yes, we Jews certainly know how to act like neighbors-even to Samaritans. But tell me Jesus, how far do we have to go with that? What if the Samaritan is threatening me? What if he is trying to rob me?” That would bring us right back to the “where do you draw the line” argument.

But Jesus tells a story about a neighborly Samaritan. This takes the whole matter of neighborliness outside the realm of law, regulation and custom-the very ocean in which the lawyer swims. The Samaritan, to the lawyer’s way of thinking, was a man without any true law. The lawyer is now completely out of his element-like a fish out of water. There are suddenly no longer any points between which lines might be drawn and therefore no more lines to argue about. There is simply the Samaritan feeling compassion, a word Luke uses in Zechariah’s song of praise to describe “the tender mercy of our God.” Luke 1:78. The question now is no longer “what legally constitutes a neighbor,” but who is acting the neighbor. At its root, this is a grammatical problem. For the lawyer, neighbor is a noun to be defined. For Jesus, it is a verb to be acted upon. So Jesus tells the lawyer who asks him “who is my neighbor,” to stop obfuscating and be a neighbor. “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.

Sunday, April 20th

RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD

Acts 10:34–43
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
Colossians 3:1–4
Matthew 28:1–10

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“While [the women] were going [from the tomb to tell the rest of the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection], behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’” Matthew 28:11-14.

“Unfortunately, no longer does anyone need to be bought off to deny the resurrection. For us, that is, for anyone schooled in modernity, the resurrection is quite simply unbelievable. The resurrection is the miracle of miracles, and miracles are unbelievable. Of course, the resurrection is the miracle of miracles, but not because it defies belief. The resurrection is the miracle of miracles because it is the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. But little will be gained in trying to convince anyone that the resurrection might have happened. To do so threatens to isolate the resurrection from the life and crucifixion of Jesus in a manner that distorts the witness that Matthew has trained us to be. The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if in fact Jesus has not been raised from the dead.” Stanley Hawerwas in his commentary on Matthew, (Brazos Press) p. 249.

Hawerwas puts his finger on something important: Disbelief in Jesus’ resurrection is a much bigger problem for the church than it is for the public at large. Belief in the resurrection is inspired by the witness of a community whose existence and way of living cannot be explained in any other way. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is entirely unworkable as a general ethic. It is simply not possible for individuals living in contemporary society to apply it in any meaningful way. The Sermon only becomes intelligible where it is lived by a community convinced that Jesus has been raised from death, that a new age has arrived and that life must be conformed to the contours of that new age rather than to the principalities and powers governing the prior age.

The problem, however, is that the life of the church is often entirely intelligible without Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, we mainliners go to great lengths demonstrating that we are relevant, that we make sense and that we share the same enlightened values that all decent human beings promote. My church has published dozens of “social statements” over the years on one issue or another. Most of them are well reasoned, carefully thought out and reach conclusions that I can agree with more or less. But for the most part, they would be no less reasoned, thoughtful and agreeable (to me at least) if you were to leave Jesus out of them altogether. In short, we seem to be finding our way just fine without the resurrection of Jesus. That is a huge problem for the church in seeking to fulfill the great commission to baptize and teach. How do you convince all nations that Jesus matters to them when Jesus doesn’t matter to you? What, then, does it mean to be a people who are unintelligible without Jesus’ resurrection?

First let me say that being a people unintelligible apart from the resurrection doesn’t mean that we are unintelligible altogether. It isn’t enough just to be strange. Our strangeness must grow out of our conviction that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have made a fundamental difference for the entire universe. If even death is reversible, it seems to me that we ought not to waste another nanosecond worrying about and discussing the future of the church in our society. The word “sustainable” ought never again to come up in our discussions of mission and ministry. Since when has sustainability ever been part of the discipleship package? And let’s stop fretting about our loss of financial support. What more do we need in the way of material wealth to be the church than a Bible, a loaf of bread and a little wine?

No vote should ever again be taken to resolve any issue, whether in a congregation or at a synod assembly. Instead, we should devote ourselves to prayer until the Spirit makes the mind of Christ clear to the whole Body of Christ. If that takes years to happen, so be it. God has all eternity to work with us. Unrealistic? Tell the Mennonites. They have been employing this patient method of decision making for generations.

Furthermore, if the church is truly the Body of the resurrected Christ, then each congregation is committed to the health and wellbeing of each of its members. The church as a whole is obligated to each congregation as it seeks to fulfil this commitment. There is no excuse for any member of any Christian congregation to be without sufficient food, health care or housing. That is not how parts of a healthy body behave toward one another. Lest anyone suggest that this is impossible or impractical, networks of Christian communities have actually been providing such care for one another for decades. See, e.g., Shane Claiborne on CNN (Healthcare).

I make no claim that any of this is practical, cost effective or sustainable. Quite the contrary. You would out of your mind to do things this way-unless, of course, you happen to believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead. In that case, living as members of his resurrected Body is the only rational response.

Acts 10:34–43

This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord. The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Vss. 34-35. Peter had to give up long held interpretations of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be. As I have said many times before, this story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47

While the context of this passage is important, the Easter emphasis is on Peter’s witness to Jesus. Note well how Peter makes clear that his witness goes not merely to Jesus’ resurrection, but also to Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit, his works of healing and casting out demons and his execution-the natural outcome of his faithful life. Without this narrative, the resurrection is empty of any real meaning for us. Unlike us, the ancient world had no doubt that God (or the gods) could resurrect a dead person. The gods might bestow such a favor on anyone to whom they took a shine. But in the realm of Greco-Roman literature, such persons tended to be heroes. The notion that Israel’s God (or any other deity) would raise up a crucified criminal was absurd. Under all objective standards, Jesus had been a colossal failure. He was misunderstood, betrayed and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by his people and put to death in the most shameful way possible. But God’s judgment on Jesus’ life is entirely different than our own. God raised Jesus from death to say, “Yes, this is what my heart desires of human beings. This is my very self and is also everything I ever wanted humans to be. This is the measure by which I judge; this is the depth of my love for all so judged.”

Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24

“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.

The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Because the psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another while some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist, many Old Testament scholars believe this hymn to be a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.

The passage most commonly cited in the New Testament is at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.

Colossians 3:1–4

Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his own. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.

Chapter 3 brings us to the center of the concentric circles of thought. Our reading for Sunday summarizes Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of God’s resurrection future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and also head of the church which is his Body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.

This lesson makes clear to the church that Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference. A new world order has begun, whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. The church need not build the kingdom of God. It is already here. The church only needs to witness to the new reality by living faithfully under its sway.

Matthew 28:1–10

To appreciate the full impact of Matthew’s resurrection witness, we need to go back to the account of Jesus’ burial. The chief priests, you will recall, had petitioned Pilate to seal the tomb of Jesus and set a guard over it for three days in order to prevent his disciples from stealing the body and claiming that he had risen. Matthew 27:62-66. But as it turns out, the disciples are the least of their worries. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James proceed to the tomb on the dawn of the third day and witness an earthquake as a descending angel of the Lord moves the stone away from the tomb. Vss. 1-2. It is critical to note that by this time, the tomb is already empty. The seal has been broken from within. The angel’s mission is neither to immobilize the guard nor to let Jesus out of the tomb. He comes only to demonstrate to the women that the tomb is empty. Jesus has already been raised. The impotence of the mighty Roman Empire could hardly be clearer. It’s false “peace” imposed by the violence practiced against Jesus has been shattered. The seal on its reign of terror has been broken. In its failed effort to seal Jesus’ tomb, Rome has sealed its own fate. Pilate’s wife was right to be troubled over the death of this “righteous man.” Matthew 27:19. Be afraid, Pilate. Be very afraid. The nightmare is only beginning.

It should be clear from the preceding paragraph that I do not buy into the commonly accepted belief that Matthew is merely trying to dispel a rumor of fraud and fabrication surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. I do not believe that Matthew or the other gospel writers were the least bit concerned about such trifling matters. I think they were a good deal smarter than that. Matthew’s literary purpose here is to juxtapose the imperial might represented by Rome, might that Jesus’ enemies exploited in their efforts to destroy him, over against the purpose of God worked out through Jesus’ mission that his gospel takes pains demonstrating at every turn through citations to the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as Herod’s futile violence against the children of Bethlehem only confirmed the prophetic witness to Jesus, so the violence of Israel’s religious authorities, Pilate and the hostile crowd unwittingly moved God’s final saving act to completion. All authority on heaven and earth now belongs to Jesus, not Rome. Vs. 18.

Matthew’s resurrection account follows Mark insofar as the angel instructs the two women to tell the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee. Vs. 10. Cf. Mark 16:7. By contrast, both Luke and John place Jesus’ initial resurrection appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem. Luke 24:33-43; John 20:1-29. It is pointless to try and reconstruct the actual sequence of events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection, just as I believe it is futile to search for the so called “historical Jesus” lurking about behind the gospel texts. God has not given us “history” in the New Testament witness. The Spirit inspired the Apostles to preach the good news about Jesus and inspired subsequent generations to put that preaching and testimony into narrative form. That is disquieting to the 19th Century prejudices of historical/critical scholars who still believe in that antiquated notion of “objective history.” But for a world that has outgrown the Enlightenment, the apostolic witness speaks a word about Jesus that has the ring of truth.

That the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the disciples should take place on a mountain has clear significance. Vs. 16. It stretches back to the Mountain of Transfiguration and perhaps also to the locus of the Sermon on the Mount. There are, of course, also echoes of the appearance of the Lord on Mt. Sinai narrated throughout the Pentateuch. In the face of such a theophany, worship is the only appropriate response. Vs. 17. Nonetheless, “some doubted.” Matthew recognizes that faith is a complicated reality. It cannot be “wowed” into existence by a demonstration of “shock and awe.” Not even the appearance of the resurrected Christ can “prove” the resurrection beyond dispute. So, too, faith does not require such appearances. The testimony of the apostolic witness is sufficient and it is that with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes. The disciples are sent out with the assurance that the resurrected Christ will accompany their testimony. Nothing more is required.

Let me conclude as I began with a citation to Stanley Hauerwas: “The resurrection, of course, is not a ‘knockdown sign’ that establishes that Jesus is the Son of God. The soldiers were scared to death by the angel, but that did not incline them to believe in Jesus or the resurrection. They remain under the power of the chief priests and elders and seem more than willing to do their bidding. The truth that is Jesus is a truth that requires discipleship, for it is only by being transformed by what he has taught and by what he has done that we can come to know the way the world is. The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed-but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him. That is what it means to live apocalyptically.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 247.

Sunday, August 4th

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
Psalm 49:1–12
Colossians 3:1–11
Luke 12:13–21

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent God, you are the source, the guide, and the goal of our lives. Teach us to love what is worth loving, to reject what is offensive to you, and to treasure what is precious in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

American Dream | Meadowlands™ is located right here in our own neighborhood. You have probably seen it from the Turnpike. Governor Chris Christie has called it the ugliest building in America. A recent Quinnipiac University poll revealed that 74 percent of New Jersey residents agree. Whatever you might think about its architectural esthetics, you have got to admit that it’s an eye catcher. American Dream/Meadowlands is the latest reincarnation of what started out as Xanadu about a decade ago. When complete, it will be one of the largest and most unique shopping, entertainment and tourism centers in the world. At least that is what its website promises. According to its proponents, the mall will also bring more business to the meadowlands, generate more jobs and help stimulate or stagnant economy.

What interests me about this project is its name, “American Dream.”  According to the Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, the term is defined as: “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.”  Much ink has been spilt lately lamenting the loss of that dream for many people in our country, the shrinking middle class and the shortage of opportunities for “upward mobility.” Debate rages in the U.S. Congress as well as in barber shops, bars and bus stops throughout this ever increasingly polarized land over how to remedy such growing inequality and loss of economic opportunity.  I don’t take much interest in these arguments. I suppose that is because I am not convinced the American Dream is worth restoring.  If “the realization of this ideal” means nothing more than the opportunity to shop in a big, glitzy mall offering virtually anything money can buy, I join the assessment of the “teacher” in this Sunday’s lesson from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2

The teacher knows what he is talking about. He was a king of Israel. According to his own account, “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them, I kept my heart from no pleasure.” Ecclesiastes 2:9-10.  This is a guy who knew prosperity. He “had it all,” everything money could buy. He spent a lifetime working, toiling and clawing his way to the top only to find out that, when he got to the top, there was nothing there. That seems to be the burden of the teacher’s message. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the tasks with which we busy ourselves are largely meaningless and the pleasures with which we seek to entertain ourselves finally dead end into boredom. More of the same will not make our lives any better.

This ought to be no secret. God knows we have seen enough child actors and entertainers rocket into the big time only to crash and burn. If money can buy happiness, the line in front of the Betty Ford clinic indicates to me that happiness is overrated. The teacher warns us that “upward mobility” is just a downward spiral that we cannot recognize because we do not know which end is up. So forgive me if I cannot get enthusiastic about anyone’s plan to stimulate the economy or restore the American Dream. More wealth and prosperity for the American people is about as helpful as giving an alcoholic a gift certificate for Stew Leonard’s. If we are lifting children out of poverty only so that they can receive paychecks for meaningless work to consume more needless commodities at American Dream/Meadowlands and do their rehab at plush residential treatment centers in the company of Lindsay Lohan, the game is not worth the candle.

I have read through the Book of Ecclesiastes several times during my life. I am not sure the teacher ever manages to think his way out of the quagmire in which he finds himself. For that we must turn elsewhere. Jesus has plenty to say about living well. He agrees with the teacher as far as his teaching goes. Wealth is not necessarily evil in and of itself, but a life dedicated to acquiring wealth or the things wealth can buy is bound to end badly. Jesus urges us in Sunday’s gospel lesson to be “rich toward God.” The wealth of God’s Kingdom is found not in “upward mobility” but by worshiping the God who “looks far down…” and “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts up the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7. To be rich toward God is to be transformed into the image of this downward reaching God who sees the poor and the needy as unique and gifted persons-not merely as potential consumers. As Paul points out in our lesson from Colossians, God’s reign promises a humanity reconciled as one Body in Christ Jesus, sharing God’s good gifts to strengthen the bonds of faith, friendship and love. Sure beats the heck out of a shopping mall, doesn’t it?

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23

According to most scholars, the book of Ecclesiastes was composed in post-exilic Jerusalem late in the Old Testament period, most likely between 350-250 B.C.E. It stands in the biblical cannon as a direct antithesis to the preceding Book of Proverbs. Proverbial wisdom maintained that there exists a moral underpinning to the universe discernible to the wise and virtuous.  “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” Proverbs 2:6-8.  The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes casts serious doubt upon this assumption.  He declares, “I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.

The double irony here is that both of these works are attributed to King Solomon. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon formed treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms transacting commerce and military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

However the question of Solomon’s connection to Ecclesiastes might be resolved, the teacher clearly has a literary incentive for attributing his work to the king. If ever there was a man whose wisdom could have answered the mystery of suffering, injustice and the emptiness of material success, it was the proverbially wise King Solomon. Yet not even Solomon can unravel these deep and terrifying mysteries. Most people sweat their lives away toiling under the sun and have nothing to show for it in the end. Even in rare cases, such as that of Solomon, where wisdom and hard work produce an abundance of wealth, such success brings neither joy nor satisfaction. Death will erase whatever a person manages to accomplish. Sensual pleasure finally becomes empty and boring. “So,” says the teacher, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:17.

The message of the teacher is not one that a positive, anything-is-possible, can-do culture like ours likes to hear. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, we believe fervently in the value of hard work and the blessings of prosperity it promises to bring. But I cannot tell you how many people I know who hate their jobs and are counting down the days until retirement. I have known more than a few individuals over the years whose hard work and dedication to the company earned them only the jealousy of their co-workers and termination at the hands of supervisors worried that they might get “shown up.” The world of work as we know it is often a heartless environment where the bottom line reigns and workers are little more than replaceable cogs in the machine. This reflects the experience not merely of unskilled, minimum wage employees, but also that of more highly compensated professionals.

“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.

The teacher could well understand the rage of the 99%, but he would have little enthusiasm for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. That is because a bigger slice of the pie will not bring about the better life for which such folks seemed to hunger. Life is no better for the 1% at the top of the heap. They will learn soon enough that their acquisitions and achievements amount to “vanity and chasing after wind.” So King Solomon discovered:

“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it? I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.

Perhaps the teacher can help those of us in the church begin changing the conversation about wealth and poverty which too often mirrors the partisan divide in our country. We need to focus our discussion on what makes life good rather than accepting uncritically the American Dream of middle class “upward mobility” as the good life and then arguing about how to get there. The teacher can help us deflate the notion that the good life depends on satisfying an endless thirst for accumulation that finally will exhaust the planet and leave us empty and despondent.

Psalm 49:1–12

This psalm is a wisdom psalm in the same tradition and genre as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. For this reason, most scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile. Again, while I think this is probably correct, I also believe that the psalmist might very well be working with material reaching back to the Davidic monarchy. Thus, when we speak about the age of this psalm we need to be very precise about what we mean. The material utilized might very well be ancient indeed, even though the composition took place at a later date and subsequent editing was done more recently still.

The theme here is consistent with what we have seen in Ecclesiastes. Death is the great equalizer before which the wise and the foolish, rich and poor come to the same end. The jubilant refrain appears twice in the psalm: “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” Vss. 12 & 20.  The psalmist is particularly scornful of people who “trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches.” Vs. 6 Their wealth cannot ransom them from the grim reaper. If you were to read on to verse 15 (not in our reading), you would discover that the psalmist is more optimistic than the teacher. Of him/herself, s/he says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Most likely, this is an expression of confidence in God’s power and readiness to rescue the psalmist from the power of his/her wealthy enemies rather than an expectation for immortality or resurrection. Still, the psalmist maintains confidence in the moral underpinnings of human existence that the teacher has long abandoned.

It is interesting that this psalm (like many wisdom psalms) is addressed not to God but to the psalmist’s fellow Israelites. See also, Psalm 37; Psalm 52; Psalm 53. Biblical prayer is never an entirely personal matter. The psalmist’s expression of confidence in God encourages other worshipers to place their trust in God as well and call upon God’s saving power in their own circumstances. Even those psalms which appear to be intensely personal have been preserved and included in Israel’s public worship book for use by the whole people of God.

Colossians 3:1–11

To refresh your recollection concerning the background of the Letter to the Colossians, see the synopsis by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament. For my thoughts about its authorship and why I continue to refer to the writer as “Paul,” see my post of Sunday, July 14th.

The first four verses summarize Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of the future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and head of the church which is his body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler, that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.

“Do not lie to one another.” Vs. 9. This admonition seems almost trivial and superfluous in its simplicity. Yet truthfulness is the most critical ethical demand for the community of disciples. Without complete honesty and transparency, it is impossible for the “love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” to exist. When you think about it, so much of day to day life is sustained by an elaborate network of lies. There are the lies we tell ourselves to make it possible to live with the actions in our past we cannot help but know are wrong. There are the lies we tell each other to cover the imperfections in our marriages, the failures we experience in raising our children and the lack of success and recognition we feel in the work place. Of course, there are the lies that our society tells itself in order to continue believing in its goodness and the rightness of its causes. Too often, church is the place where we put on our “Sunday best.” There seems to be a tacit agreement that we will not probe too deeply into each other’s lives. There is an unwritten rule against shaking each other’s façade of well being. Yet while that might keep us from getting hurt, it will also finally prevent our being healed.

Disciples of Jesus are called to be a truthful people. We know that “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Luke 12:2. Consequently, there is nothing to be gained from lying. Our lies and the lies of all people will be exposed in the end. Therefore, we live our lives conscious of the fact that we have no secrets. The whole truth will come out in the end, so it is best to make peace with the truth now. It is best to start living in the truth today so that when it is finally revealed to the entire world, it will be our friend and not our enemy.

Confession of sin is the ultimate expression of truthfulness. It takes an enormous degree of humility to confess before God and one another that we are not the people we pretend to be; that our families are not the models of domestic tranquility we try to project to the world; that our marriages are struggling; that we work in an environment where we are not valued. In a culture that values independence, individuality and self sufficiency, it is hard to confess that we need God’s healing forgiveness and that we need one another’s support to become whole. Yet such honesty is also liberating. It takes a lot of energy to keep in place a carefully orchestrated network of lies. Paul reminds us here that we don’t have to tire ourselves anymore with play acting. We can drop the mask and be assured of a welcome-just as we are.

Luke 12:13–21

This parable begins with a dispute between two sons over an inheritance. Presumably, the father has died (though that might not necessarily be the case as the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates). This leads me to wonder whether the “rich fool” in Jesus’ parable that follows is not actually the father of these two sons. The parable concludes with the question: “and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Could the answer be in the opening interchange between Jesus and the brothers? The man’s wealth will go to his two sons where it will create disharmony and animosity for his family-not feasting and merriment as he supposed. Obviously, for father and for sons, life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Vs. 15.

Taken by itself, the parable is long on what “abundance” is not and short on what it is. I have to tell you that this fellow in Jesus’ parable has done nothing my own financial advisor has not urged me to do. He experienced a good year and wisely (as my advisor would no doubt agree), he put away a substantial amount of profit for the years to come. We call that retirement planning. Jesus calls it stupid. Why? Part of the answer may lie in the rich man’s soliloquy. Oddly enough, this man appears to be pathologically lonely. He has no one with whom to share the good news of his bountiful harvest or anyone to congratulate him. He must do that for himself. He also has no God to thank, so naturally he takes credit for his own good fortune. He has no one with whom to share his bounty and so he concludes: “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for yourself; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” Vs. 19. The future he paints for himself is hardly a life worth living. We are left with the image of a man sitting alone at his table, eating, drinking and trying very hard to be merry-by himself.

Not until the end do we get a hint at where Jesus is going with this. “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Vs. 21. A little later on in this same chapter Jesus spells out for us exactly what it means to be “rich toward God.” “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34. Jesus’ call is to a life of abundance found not in accumulation but in generosity and relinquishment. What we possess we will surely lose and to suppose otherwise is, well, foolish. But when we are possessed by the One who promises us an eternal kingdom built not upon accumulated wealth, but on the bonds built through sharing, compassion and faithfulness, there is no place left for anxiety or loneliness.

This brings us right back full circle to the American Dream/Meadowlands which would revive the economy by selling us a ticket to everything money can buy. Economy built on an orgy of self centered and unsustainable consumption? How very foolish!

Sunday, July 28th

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18:20–32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6–19
Luke 11:1–13

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The lessons all seem to touch on the topic of prayer in some fashion. Abraham intercedes with God on behalf of the Sodomites. The psalmist gives thanks to the Lord “with a whole heart.” Paul encourages the church at Colossae to “be rooted and built up” in Christ. Jesus responds to his disciples’ request that he teach them to pray. Volumes have been written by saints, sages and spiritual seekers on the subject of prayer. A few that I have found useful are Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton; Prayer, by O. Hallesby and Prayers by Michel Quoist. These books are all well worth reading as are many others. But for me, the most formative book on prayer is the biblical Book of Psalms. Here you find God framed in praise that is sublime, imaginative and at times disturbing. The God of the Psalms is not “nice.” God is as terrifying and ruthless as he is merciful and compassionate. The fear of this God is the beginning of wisdom. So also the psalmists are not an otherworldly spiritual lot. They are human to the core and often deeply flawed. They express anger, jealousy and a thirst for vengeance that makes us pious Protestant types cringe and wring our dainty little hands. Yet all of this reminds us that there is no part of our lives that ought to be excluded from prayer. The psalms invite us to “come as we are” and to speak freely all that is within us, however ugly it might be. Most significant of all, God speaks in the psalms. In fact, God sometimes initiates the process of prayer reminding us that prayer is a two way street. Freedom to pour out our hearts to God in words goes hand in hand with the obligation to listen for God’s Word to us. That is why I never tire of recommending two psalms every day, one in the morning and one before bedtime.

In popular culture, prayer is often touted as the means to some end. There is “power” in prayer that helps us overcome adversity. Prayer gives us peace in the midst of a stressful day. Prayer helps us shape and achieve our goals. It is an important part of our lives. But what if prayer is more than that? What if prayer is not designed to “get us through life,” but life is given to us so that we can learn to pray? What if prayer is the goal and meaning of life? As a child of the 60s, that notion does not go down well with me. My generation put a lot of stock in “doing” and “accomplishing” things. We were activists, organizers and agitators. (Actually I was never any of those things, but I am enough of a flower child to experience the nagging feeling that perhaps I should have been). Prayer is fine-as long as it fires us up for the pursuit of justice, peace and other abstract nouns. But prayer as an end in itself? That is just self centered, otherworldly, navel gazing.

Or is it? Throughout its history the church has been accompanied by the monastic movement, communities made up of persons convinced that prayer is their life vocation. Their disciplined lives revolve around intervals of corporate prayer, meditation on daily scripture readings and singing the psalms. The monks and nuns who have undertaken this life of prayer are anything but inactive. In the middle ages they built and ran hospitals, libraries, schools and orphanages. They grew food, manufactured household goods and even carried out early scientific research. But their productive lives were built around prayer. For them, prayer was not simply an oasis of peace in a busy day or an aid to coping with their heavy work schedule. Their work was an outgrowth of their vocation of perfecting the art of prayer.

Lately, I have been rethinking my priorities and the place of prayer in my life. Or perhaps I should say, I am rethinking the orientation of my life toward the practice of prayer. Too often, prayer is an “add on;” something I try my best to fit into some part of every day. The implication is that I value other things occupying my time more than I value prayer. Time belongs to me. Time is limited. I must decide how to parcel it out wisely and efficiently so that the important things get done. But in truth, time folds into eternity and eternity belongs to God. So in fact, we have all the time we need to know and enjoy God. That, according to St. Augustine, is what life is for. Something is seriously out of kilter with our lives if we cannot find time for the very reason we exist. Furthermore, if I cannot manage to recognize the highest calling for my life, how can I begin to prioritize the lesser tasks crying out for my attention? Is something important merely because I think it is? Is it possible that the outcome of my actions may not match my good intentions? Is it possible that my good intentions might be misguided? Is it conceivable that God might have priorities other than mine? To ask these questions is to answer them. As it turns out, life without prayer is a little like texting while driving. Fixation on the urgent can distract you from the truly significant, life altering matters that demand your full attention.

I am not ready to join a monastery just yet. Still, the older I get, the more evident it seems that God cannot make much good use of me or anything I do unless I am, to use Paul’s words, “rooted and built up in [Christ].” Colossians 2:7 Unless my life becomes prayer, my best work is just a lot of aimless busyness no matter how well and efficiently I may carry it out. So at the ripe old age of fifty-seven, after completing thirty years of ordained ministry and having just entered the estate of grandfatherhood, I find myself asking, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Better late than never!

Genesis 18:20–32

The common lectionary’s hatchet strikes again! One cannot possibly appreciate what is going on between Abraham and the Lord in this passage without reading from verse 16. Recall that Abraham last week received three mysterious visitors who, it turns out, were the Lord and two angelic agents. They inform Abraham and Sarah that by the coming Spring, Sarah will be a mother. Now the two angels depart toward Sodom and we get a very rare look into the mind of Israel’s God:

“The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’” Genesis 18:17-19

This is important. God’s deliberations go to whether God will act unilaterally or whether God will draw Abraham into the process of judging Sodom. God finally decides to reveal to Abraham his intent to investigate the outcries against Sodom’s wickedness. Why? Because Abraham is to become a nation by which all other nations shall bless themselves. Abraham’s job is to bless and that is what he attempts to do. He pleads with God to show compassion on Sodom for the sake of the few righteous that might live therein. That is what it means for Israel to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Vs. 19. The outcome is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued along with his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot, it turns out, will become the father of two other near eastern nations, Moab and Amon. That these two nations became enemies of Israel only serves to underline the point: Israel’s job is to spread blessing in a world cursed by sin. She is to intercede on behalf of the peoples of the world-even if those people are her enemies; even when these people are Sodomites; even when intercession must be made against the very judgment of God. Punishment and retribution are God’s business. Israel’s job is blessing and intercession.

The conclusion of this saga in the 19th chapter of Genesis probably will never find its way into the lectionary. Read it at your own risk. It is a sordid tale of attempted gang rape, cowardice, stupidity, violence, incest and drunkenness that I am sure the American Family Association would be quick to censor-except that it happens to be in the Bible. You might well conclude that if Lot was deemed sufficiently righteous to be snatched from the destruction of Sodom, God must be setting the bar extremely low. Be that as it may, Lot did offer the visiting angels hospitality and sanctuary. This hospitable conduct toward the visitors marks a striking contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites who sought to abuse them. Kindness to strangers, aliens and sojourners goes a long way with Israel’s God and might have induced the Lord to overlook what we might see as Lot’s character flaws.

Psalm 138

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

I am particularly struck by the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. At my first parish where I served some thirty years ago, a crusty old Irishman in my congregation named “Jack” posed the following question. “Pastor, how do you know that God isn’t using you to keep this little church going so that the Alcoholic Anonymous group will have a place to meet?” The question infuriated me at the time. I fumed over it for the rest of the day and well into the week. Since then I have asked myself many times why Jack’s quarry upset me so. Was I insulted because he was suggesting that I and my ministry might not be at the center of God’s work? Was my pride hurt because I might be the nail holding the shoe on the horse rather than the general sitting in the saddle? Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough to know that God promises to weave my life into the rich fabric of his redemptive drama? Am I miffed because I didn’t get to play the lead role?

I think Jack was onto something important. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage, or the pastor of a church kept alive only for the sake of a bunch of recovering alcoholics. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.

Colossians 2:6–19

Perhaps you can still recall how seven years ago on October 2, 2006 a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten little girls execution style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. Though certainly tragic, school shootings are hardly unusual in our violent and firearm saturated culture. What was remarkable in this story was the Amish response. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness and support to the family of the one who had slain their children. How different that is from the usual cries for vengeance, the death penalty, law and order, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-all those visceral responses that come so naturally through the media, over the internet and talk radio when our own children or loved ones are the victims of senseless violence like this. How do you account for such radical forgiveness, such unorthodox compassion?

I don’t want to idolize the Amish. I have been around them enough to know that their marriages have problems; their kids misbehave and neighbors within their communities quarrel. The Amish are no less human than we are, but they do have one advantage. They are in every sense of the word “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in the faith.” Colossians 2:7. Their daily lives revolve around worship and prayer. Scripture informs their dealings with each other and the outside world. Moreover, the Amish are not as exposed as we are to “philosophy and empty deceit” or as possessed as we are by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Colossians 2:8. They are not bombarded day in and day out with Kenny Rogers and his like singing “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Their brains are not programmed from near infancy by westerns and crime dramas propagating the myth that justice and peace can be established through violence. They do not live in a culture where faith is cordoned off to one morning each week while television, the internet and entertainment from a thousand digital duhinkies reign supreme for the remaining six and one half days. Consequently, when their children were murdered, the Amish responded in the only way they could possibly imagine, having had their imaginations formed by the image of Jesus. They forgave their enemies because, well, what else would a disciple of Jesus do?

I am no more ready to become Amish than I am to join a monastery. (I would starve without my microwave and I am afraid of horses.) But I believe that, whatever shortcomings there may be to the Amish way of life and their communities, they are right to allow their imaginations to be shaped by Jesus. So the question is: how does that happen for communities of disciples living in the midst of a culture like ours? I am not so naïve as to suppose that I can convince anyone to give up watching CIS or Hawaii Five O. But is it too much to ask that you start watching these shows more critically? Why not ask after each show you watch: what does this story say about the world? About human beings? About God? Is that what I believe? Is it consistent with what the scriptures proclaim about Jesus? How about trying to imagine how Jesus would meet the violent encounters you see on the screen? How about examining your own feelings about what is taking place and whether that squares with Jesus’ teaching and example? As Paul charges us in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

Luke 11:1–13

Today’s gospel contains what I typically call “the other Lord’s Prayer.” It is significantly different from the form of that prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 that we routinely pray in our liturgies. Close examination of the prayer reveals that both Matthew’s and Luke’s version were likely based on an original composed in a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic which was then translated into Greek. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 455. There is some dispute over whether Matthew and Luke used a common Greek form of the prayer from the material labeled “Q” employed by both of them, each editing it for his own purposes, or whether they each supplied a form of the prayer used in their respective communities. Most scholars tend to agree that the Semitic original gave rise to at least two Greek translations of the prayer and that Matthew and Luke each used a different translation. It is noteworthy that Jesus substitutes the more formal and strictly religious word for “father,” abinu, with the informal abba used by children to address their fathers. Thus, Jesus transformed the fatherhood of God into an intensely personal form of address and instructed his disciples to pray with precisely such familiarity. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963, Penguin Books) pp. 151-52.

Jesus’ instructions on prayer are remarkably brief. First and foremost, God’s name is to be hallowed and praised. The disciples are to desire and pray for the reign of God above all else. Because God is a loving father, the disciples may confidently pray for their daily bodily needs. Forgiveness also can be confidently expected, though reciprocal mercy is to be shown to everyone indebted to the petitioner. Prayer is also made for guidance that the disciple might not fall into temptation/the time of trial.

Jesus does not instruct his disciples on methods for prayer, but he is clear about three things: audacity, persistence and faith. Like restless children, disciples are to keep pressing their demands to the point of being annoying. They are to keep knocking on the door until the weary householder cannot endure the pounding anymore and is forced to get out of bed. Above all, they are to trust their Heavenly Father to give them what they need (not necessarily what they want). What the disciples need (whether they know it yet or not) is the Holy Spirit. This prayer will always be answered with a resounding “yes.”

Sunday, July 21st

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18:1–10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15–28
Luke 10:38–42

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

If I live to be a thousand, I will never understand the method behind the madness we call the common lectionary. This week’s reading from Genesis narrates the delightful tale of three mysterious visitors to the tent of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Perhaps he dozed off. We are told that when he “lifted up his eyes,” he saw three men standing in front of him. Springing into action (as much as one can at the ripe old age of ninety-nine), Abraham bows before his visitors and implores them to accept his hospitality and share a meal with him and Sarah, his wife. He orders his servants to fetch water so that the visitors may wash the grime of the desert from their feet. He directs Sarah to whip up some pancakes, then dashes off to prepare a roast. Ever the attentive host, Abraham serves his guests and stands by, ready to provide for their every need.

“Where is your wife, Sarah?” asks one of the guests. “She is in the tent,” Abraham replies. No doubt she is busy with the work of meal preparation. The visitor announces that Sarah will have a son. That is where the lectionary would leave it. But the best part is yet to come. If you read on, you discover that “Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’” Genesis 18:10b-15. Like Mary in our gospel lesson, Sarah was being attentive to a word of the Lord that seems to have been directed to her as much as to Abraham.

“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” That question is almost unintelligible to us moderns. We inhabit a wonderless world circumscribed by physical laws dictating to us what can and cannot be. We firmly believe that what we do not yet understand can be explained and demystified once we have gathered enough data and conducted a sufficiently rigorous investigation. “Wonder” belongs to an open universe that is too big to fit into anyone’s “theory of everything.” Wonder belongs to a people who worship a God that is mysterious, terrifying, unbridled and uncontrolled; a God that is “good,” but not by the measure of our preconceived notions of goodness. Wonder happens when we enter into the world of the Bible to be transformed instead of trying to domesticate the Bible to fit the confines of our own cramped, stuffy, limited and wonderless world.

Abraham and Sarah felt trapped in a world without wonder. This is not the first time they had received the promise of a child. As a youngster of eighty-six, Abraham was told that his descendents would inherit the land of Canaan in which he was currently just an immigrant. When Abraham reminded God that he had no descendents and that the heir to all his property was a slave born in his company, God did something unprecedented. God swore an oath to Abraham that he and Sarah would indeed have a son who would become their heir.

Evidently, Abraham and Sarah felt that such wonders were beyond even the reach of God. So they tried to help God out. They turned to surrogate parenthood. Abraham impregnated Sarah’s slave girl who, as Sarah’s property, would produce a son that would likewise be hers. In so doing, they were trying to make sure that history came out right; that God’s promised word would come true. Instead, they created a host of lethal domestic problems for themselves. Now, thirteen years later with the biological clock at one minute to midnight, the promise is repeated and Sarah laughs. This is no joyful laugh. It is a bitter, cynical laugh. “Shall an old woman enjoy a roll in the hay with her ninety-nine year old husband?”

Bitterness is what remains when our sense of wonder is lost. Aging becomes a process that continues to narrow possibilities, limit activities and destroy capabilities of sight, hearing and memory. Time is a conveyer belt taking us to the grave. The future seems to offer nothing but more of the same. It is precisely here that God breaks into our closed universe and opens our eyes to the wonder of the possible. Sarah will laugh once again, but not with bitterness. She will laugh when she holds her newborn son Isaac in her arms. She will laugh at how small and hopeless her world once was. She will laugh at the absurdity of her unbelief. She will laugh with a holy wonder at the new possibilities God has opened up for the world even as he opened her womb. Sarah will laugh because she knows that along with Isaac, a flood of new wonders has come tumbling into the world. They will culminate in the wonder of a group of women centuries later as they meet the resurrected Lord they came to prepare for burial. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Genesis 18:1–10a

This is a delightful story whose significance unravels in the telling. It begins with the aging Abraham receiving three visitors. There is nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary here. Travelers in the early bronze age were a vulnerable lot, subject to abuse and exploitation-as can be seen from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which follows. It was not unusual for them to seek food and shelter from nomadic tribesmen like Abraham. Nor was it unusual for these tribesmen to exercise hospitality. After all, one never knows when it might become necessary to travel for some reason. It would then help to be able to call in some favors and be assured of hospitality along the way. It is not until verse 9 that we learn the Lord is among these three visitors. There the promise is made to Sarah that she will have a son.

As I pointed out above, the lectionary brings this narrative to a close prematurely. It is significant that the three visitors inquire specifically about Sarah. Their message seems to be directed to her at least as much as to Abraham. At any rate, she is the one who responds with laughter. I find it amusing that, while the visitors seem focused on the “wonder” of the birth of a child, Sarah seems focused on the “wonder” of good sex at her and her husband’s advanced age. Vss. 11-15. In any event, we now discover that the Lord is among these three visitors and that God’s purpose is to reaffirm the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah.

The significance of the three visitors has sparked all manner of speculation. They seem at some points to speak as one person, prompting some early Christian commentators to see a Trinitarian presence. However, as we discover later on in the narrative, two of the visitors clearly are “angels” or messengers of God. We ought not to press this distinction too much though. God frequently acts and speaks through “angels,” which in the biblical languages simply means “messengers.”

Psalm 15

According to the Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, J.W. Rogerson & W. McKay, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.

The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in the community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.” Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.” For my thoughts on the prohibition against interest, see my post of September 2nd, 2012 .

Colossians 1:15–28

Here Paul* makes some incredible claims about Jesus of Nazareth. In short, Jesus is not one in a pantheon of great prophets, teachers, community organizers or moral examples. He is the “image of the invisible God,” the “firstborn of all creation” and the “first-born from the dead.” “All things were created through him and for him.” “He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Jesus is described both as Lord of all thrones, dominions and powers as well as the “head” of the Body of Christ, the church. The only difference, then, between the church and the rest of humanity is that the church recognizes its head. It is not that Jesus must struggle to become Lord of all. He is Lord of all even if all do not yet know that.

Paul sums up in succinct fashion what God accomplished in Jesus: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vss. 19-20. I suppose that my reading of this verse is colored by my participation in the 2013 Ekklesia Project Gathering this past week in Chicago. Ekklesia, as you may already know, is a network of Christians who are discovering a uniting and empowering friendship rooted in our common love of God and the Church. This year’s theme for the gathering was “Practicing the Peace of Christ in Church, Neighborhood and Country.” What I have taken away from my years of association with Ekklesia and this last week in particular is the recognition that peace is not a tangential aspect of the gospel. It stands at the gospel’s very core. The willingness of Jesus to shed his blood rather than employ violence against his enemies and God’s raising of Jesus from death to offer him to us again rather than retaliating against us for the murder of his Son demonstrate God’s mercy triumphing over judgment. The cycle of retaliation has been broken within the heart of God and in the realm of human history as well. The peace of Christ reigns at God’s right hand. The resurrected Body of Christ lives that peace in the world as church.

What follows? Disciples of Jesus are called to live under God’s gentle reign, practicing the peace made by Jesus through love for enemies, forgiveness of wrongs and reconciliation of all things. The renunciation of violence is a direct corollary to accepting the peace of Christ. Hostility is to be met in the same way Jesus always responded to it throughout his ministry and at the very end. Because peace has been made through the blood of the cross, coercive  force is no longer a weapon in the disciple’s arsenal.  Our sole weapons are righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, prayer and the Holy Spirit. See Ephesians 6:13-20.

This is a difficult message to proclaim in a culture so thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult of violence that it cannot imagine life without it. Seldom does anyone question the proposition that “a strong military is essential to our security.” The right of self defense is written into our law and presumes the necessity of force or the threat of force to keep one’s self safe from harm. From police dramas to westerns, the entertainment industry reinforces our belief that the only sure way to deal with violent evil is by employing a violent response. In our creed we may be confessing the Prince of Peace, but in practice our lives are more often shaped by Kenny Rogers’ lyric: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Coward of the County, Kenny Rogers. Disciples of Jesus do not accept the proposition that “sometimes you have to fight.” Sometimes you have to suffer. Sometimes you have to forgive as many as seventy times seventy. Sometimes you have to die. But fighting violence with violence is not an option.

*See last week’s post of July 14thfor my thoughts on authorship of the letter to the Colossians and why I continue to refer to the author as “Paul.”

Luke 10:38–42

This brief story has been cited numerous times for the proposition that the contemplative life of prayer, meditation and worship is superior to the active life of work and service. Both the proposition and the use of the text to support it are off the mark. There are a couple of things going on here. Jesus is a guest in the home of Mary and Martha. As such, protocol demands that he be shown hospitality in the tradition illustrated by Abraham in our Genesis reading. But Jesus is not simply a guest. He is a teacher or rabbi and is in the process of instructing his disciples. Mary is among those disciples “sitting at his feet” and listening to his instruction. While women in the first century were not forbidden to learn Torah, it would be highly unusual for a rabbi to accept one as a disciple. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 163. It would also have been considered extremely poor etiquette at the very least for a woman to neglect her duty of hospitality toward a visiting rabbi in order to sit listening with his disciples. It is hardly surprising, then, that Martha is not pleased with Mary.

By taking Mary’s part, Jesus is recognizing her as one of his disciples invited to hear and obey his word. So far from denigrating Martha’s service, Jesus is actually elevating Martha. By implication, he is telling her also that she is far too important to be tied to domestic chores when the word of life is being spoken. Mary has chosen the “better” part and that choice is now open to Martha also. If the reign of God calls one to leave behind home, family and livelihood, how much more whatever is cooking on the stove! Let the beans burn.

As he does throughout his gospel, Luke is once again elevating the role and status of women in Jesus’ ministry.  Consistent with the tone of urgency that has taken hold since the turning point of the gospel toward Jerusalem, Luke is here pointing out that the good news about the reign of God disrupts the conventions of proper hospitality just as it does funeral preparations, Sabbath observance and class distinctions.

Sunday, December 30th

First Sunday of Christmas

December 30, 2012
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day
Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings one and all! By the time you read this, the cultural part of Christmas will be over. The Christmas displays will have begun disappearing from the malls. Fir trees that only a week ago were selling for $50 to $100 will be lying out on the curb waiting for the recycling truck. The world will have woken up to the sad reality that Christmas is over, but winter has only just begun.

Not so for the people of God. The feast of the nativity continues for two more weeks culminating on Epiphany. I will admit that it is hard to keep alive the Christmas spirit when everyone else has moved on. But perhaps that is not what we should be attempting to do anyway. I am not so sure what we commonly refer to as the “Christmas spirit” has much to do with the Holy Spirit that gives life to the church. At its best, the Christmas spirit is about giving, family and light hearted fun, i.e., Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph et al. At its worst, the Christmas spirit is an orgy of consumption, consumerism and greed. In either case, I can’t help but point out that a “spirit” that evaporates on December 26th s not much of a spirit. I am glad, however, that however one defines this vacuous Christmas spirit, it has the good grace to clear out of the way so that during the rest of the Nativity Season we can focus solely on what the Holy Spirit is telling us.

The lessons for this week focus on two children, Samuel and Jesus. I think it might be productive to use these lessons to reflect on our feelings about our children in particular and children in general. We dote on our children. We spend a fortune feeding, clothing and educating them. Our leaders speak eloquently of wanting to bequeath a brighter future to our children. The Christmas season is largely about indulging (and often overindulging) children. Perhaps that is why the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has had such a powerful impact on us. We find it inconceivable that anyone could harbor such malice against a small child.

This week the Bogota police visited Trinity School to discuss with us precautions we should take to prevent or minimize the impact of attacks like the horrific one at Sandy Hook. I suspect that such visits from law enforcement are taking place at schools throughout the country. I appreciate the concerns expressed about school security. Still, I think we need a sense of perspective here. As horrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, such events are thankfully exceedingly rare. The chances of a child perishing in a school shooting are far less than his or her being stricken by lightning. That does not mean we can afford to be careless with our security. But it should temper our security procedures with a good dose of healthy realism. Sandy Hook had state of the art procedures for dealing with terrorist threats. Those procedures probably prevented the attack from taking many more lives, but they did not prevent the attack. Practically speaking, we cannot prevent vicious attacks like those at Sandy Hook anymore than we can prevent lightning from striking. There are, however, more immediate and pressing dangers facing children that we can and should address aggressively.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, no less than 21% of our children live in impoverished households. A staggering 16 million kids in the United States suffer from some degree of malnutrition according to No Kid Hungry, a child advocacy organization. Each year over 3 million children are victimized by physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, and death – and those are only the ones that were reported! (Love our Children USA). Clearly, there is a huge disconnect between our avowed zeal for protecting children on the one hand and these horrific statistics on the other. The entire nation was horrified and outraged over the murder of the twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and rightly so. Should we be any less horrified and outraged about the 21% of our children living in poverty or the 16 million hungry children in our land or the 3 million children victimized by violence? If we are going to protect our children and ensure for them a better future, the places to start are secure homes, access to health care and adequate nutrition-not turning our schools into armed fortresses.

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306127

A word or two is warranted regarding the Book of Samuel which actually consists of two volumes  (I and II Samuel). The book is still widely regarded to be the product of two very different and originally independent pieces of literature or “sources.”

  • Early source: this writer expresses a favorable view of the development of Israel’s monarchy and sees the rise of the house of David as another saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. This piece was probably composed in the period of the united monarchy under David and Solomon before Israel split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
  • Late source: This writer composed his or her work in the later period of the Judean monarchy and was influenced by the prophets’ criticism of the Davidic kings for their idolatry, injustice and oppression of the poor.
  • These two sources were woven together into a single narrative during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to 530 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter.
  • The actual process of composition is actually a lot more complex with evidence of editing as late as the Persian period following the Babylonian Exile.

The tension between these opposing views becomes evident later on in the book when Samuel expresses opposition to the very idea of Israel’s having a king like all the other nations, yet takes an active part in anointing both Saul and David.

The particular snippet of scripture making up our lesson for this Sunday is part of a larger story from the late source. Hannah is one of two wives wedded to Elkanah. She is unable to bear children-a particularly cruel fate for a woman in ancient near eastern culture. In many such societies, a woman’s failure to bear children was grounds for divorce. Though we now know that infertility can as easily be a function impediments to the male reproductive system, in ancient societies it was almost always attributed to the women. To make matters worse, Hannah’s sister wife was fertile, had given Elkanah several children and would not let Hannah forget it. So while the family was on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh, Hannah went into the sanctuary and prayed fervently to the Lord for relief. She vowed that if only the Lord would open her womb and give her a son, she would give that son back to God by sending him to serve at Shiloh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, saw Hannah there engaged in earnest prayer and mistook the poor woman for a drunken prostitute. To his credit, Eli changed his tune when he discovered the truth and blessed Hannah. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to the boy, Samuel. True to her word, she brought Samuel to Shiloh where he served at the altar with Eli.

The pathos here is striking. Hannah prays for a child, but recognizes that any such child she may have will not be hers. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannah did not experience a degree of regret as she prepared her son for the journey to Shiloh form which he would not return with her. Her boy would spend his formative years away from home. Her only contact with him would be the annual visits she made with the family to Shiloh. She seems to accept this arrangement without any sign of regret.

Twenty seven years ago when I baptized my first child I began my sermon with the announcement that, after much prayer and consideration, Sesle and I had decided to give Sarah up for adoption. My relatives were deeply incensed and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lame joke and in poor taste. The rest of the congregation was taken aback as well. I doubt they heard much of the rest of the sermon which explained (I thought) my reasoning behind the opening remark. So this was probably not one of my more effective sermons. Nevertheless, I think it faithfully reflected what we are actually doing in baptism. We are giving custody of our children to Jesus. We are acknowledging that the bond they are forming at the font is deeper, stronger and more important than the bond of parenthood that ties us to them. For disciples of Jesus, family values are not the be all and end all. What, then, does it mean for the church, the people of God, to be our primary family?  How does this understanding influence the hopes, dreams and expectations we have for our children? Are we ready to sacrifice all of these to whatever purpose God may have for our children?

Luke 2:41-52  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306195

I will move from I Samuel to the gospel from Luke because there is such an obvious tie in. It is remarkable to me that in this one and only New Testament story from Jesus’ childhood, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never, ever do. He wanders away from his family in a strange city without telling anyone where he is going. Why this story? Why not a story of Jesus winning the Nazareth elementary school spelling bee? Or why not the story of Jesus making Eagle Scout? Confound it, Luke! Couldn’t you give us a story of Jesus that we could hold up to our kids as an example? Why give us a story of Jesus being naughty?

It does seem that Mary and Joseph need to learn what Hannah understood from the beginning. Their child is not really theirs. God has a hand on Jesus who must be about his Father’s business (that remark must have been a little hard on poor Joseph). But again, isn’t that the case with us and our children as well? Don’t we surrender ultimate custody when we hand them over to become one with Jesus in his death? I cannot say that I am at peace with that. Of course, I was delighted to be a part of two of my children’s weddings last summer. I was happy to see each of them united with someone who loved them deeply enough to build a home with them. I was also aware, however, that they were entering into a new bond that was deeper than any bond I have ever had with them. Now there is someone in each of their lives that comes before me. On a purely intellectual level, I understand that this exactly how it should be. But on a gut level, I would be less than honest to deny that it hurt just a little.

I wonder whether we should not be experiencing something of the same thing at baptism. Perhaps we have gone overboard in making this event solely a joyful celebration, even “cute.” Should we not rather feel something of the dread upon Abraham when God said to him, “Take your son, your only son, and offer him up to me.” I believe we are far too invested in the destinies of our children in this culture. The insanity of intense competition for spots in so called “Ivy League” preschools is just one extreme symptom of a larger societal compulsion for exercising control over our children’s destinies. When the kids become extensions of ourselves and we begin to live vicariously through them, we are not only developing a pathological outlook destructive to them. We are also violating the vows we made at their baptisms to “live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Rite of Baptism. In reality, we are only stewards or surrogate parents for our Heavenly Father who has his own calling and purpose for the children we call our own.

Psalm 148  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306282

This is a psalm of praise most likely composed after the Babylonian Exile. The hymn has some interesting parallels to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. As pointed out by J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay in their commentary, vss 1-6 correspond to Genesis 1-19 recounting the creation of the heavenly bodies. Vss 7-14 correspond to Genesis 1:20-2:4. There are also similarities of language and ideas. The psalm reflects the “word theology” seen in Genesis, namely, that God creates by the power of God’s speech. Compare Genesis 1:3 “And God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light” with Psalm 148:5 “For he commanded and they were created.”

Let me make just a couple of observations here. First, the psalmist is remarkably taken with the unity of creation in all of its diverse forms. From angels, to stars and planets, to weather phenomena, to human beings, to creeping things and winged birds, all created things are united in praising the God who spoke them into existence. Praise is the echo of God’s creative word reverberating throughout the universe. We might want to reflect on whether the “image of God” in which we were created consists in this: that we speak. How much of our speech, then, is creative and life giving? Is such speech the essence of praise?

Second, note that this psalm is a prayer that asks nothing of God, expects no response and has no motive other than sheer praise. I suppose that in result orientated culture that demands results, it should not surprise us that best-selling books on prayer tout “the power of prayer,” “answers to prayer,” “inner peace through prayer” and numerous other things that one might “get out” of prayer. Yet Jesus does not begin there. The Lord’s Prayer opens with a petition that God’s name be hallowed and that God’s will be done. In short, prayer is not first and foremost about us and our needs. We don’t pray out of our need but in response to God’s goodness and compassion. That is precisely what the psalmist does here. He or she praises God for no better reason than that God is God. We discover our true selves and our place in creation through praising the One who makes and sustains it by the power of his Word.

The last verse speaks of God raising up a horn for Israel as those “near to him.” The “horn” is a symbol of strength and power. (See Psalm 75). Israel’s exaltation is for the purpose of bringing all peoples to the praise of God that, in turn, will bring unity.

Colossians 3:12-17  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306343

For an excellent summary of this remarkable letter to the Colossians, see the introduction by one of my New Testament Professors at Luther Seminary, Paul S. Berge at the following link for enterthebible.org http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=18

There is plenty to talk about in these jam packed verses. But the one that strikes me at this time is the admonition to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” There is nothing that builds community like singing together. As one of my colleagues has often remarked, more people are driven out of a church by bad music than by bad preaching. This is true. I can easily forgive a lame sermon if the music of the liturgy carries me and the music leaders draw me and the congregation into spirited singing. But it is impossible to ignore a musician who lacks the skill and knowledge of the music to lead a faltering congregation in worship. Bad music is just painful. I feel the embarrassment of the musician as well as the frustration of the congregation. No sermon, however inspiring, articulate and well delivered can repair the damage done by disappointing music.

The church is about the last place in our society where people still sing together. Community singing is a practice fast disappearing in the rest of our public life. Other than singing the national anthem at sporting events, I cannot think of very many other occasions in which people sing together. Maybe that is at least part of what lies behind the lack of unity and polarization we experience in our nation and in our communities. We don’t have songs that unite us. That brings us full circle back to our reflections on Psalm 148. There, the entire universe finds its center in praise of its Creator. Perhaps disciples of Jesus can speak of their mission as a calling to sing for a people that has no song. I think that if I were going to preach on this aspect of the text, my hymn of the day would either be: “My Life Flows on in Endless Song (ELW 763) or “The Singer and the Song” (ELW 861).