Posts Tagged Elijah

Soldiering on in the dark; a poem by Nikki Giovanni; and the lessons for Sunday, August 13th

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:9–18
Psalm 85:8–13
Romans 10:5–15
Matthew 14:22–33

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Storms rage around us and cause us to be afraid.” So says the prayer of the day and it hits the nail on the head. I am afraid. I’m not so much afraid for myself. Straight white males like me haven’t much to fear in the way of oppression and never have. I am afraid, however, for my friends who are people of color whose position becomes ever more tenuous under the growing tide of white supremacy that has found its way into the mainstream and even into the once hallowed halls of the White House. I am afraid for my daughters, my granddaughter and all the women I love whose safety and well-being has casually been devalued by our country’s appalling indifference to the history of sexual predatory conduct dogging the man it elected to the highest office of law enforcement in the land. I am particularly afraid for many family members, friends and colleagues who identify as gay, lesbian and transgendered against whom, in an effort to whip up support from the army of deplorables that created it, the present administration has unleashed a  string of punitive executive initiatives, including the discharge of all transgendered persons serving in the military, many of whom have served for years with courage and distinction. I am sickened by the growing chorus of hatred against these people I love by the unholy choir of so-called “evangelical” Christians and the willingness of our ruling party to grovel at their feet to win their votes by codifying their bigotry into cruel, repressive, humiliating and unjust laws. Most of all, I am frightened by my own church’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront this darkness with a bold proclamation of Jesus as gospel.

I can’t say that I fully understand the sentiments of Elijah in our first lesson for this coming Sunday. Nobody has ever persecuted me on account of my faith. Truth is, when it comes to mistreatment, I have born a lot more hostility, insult and injury from within the church than from the world outside. But even the worst of that does not amount to anything like persecution. Still, like Elijah, I do at times feel tired, lonely, isolated and, yes, frightened. I sometimes wish I could wake up and discover that the last seven months have been a terrible nightmare and that Barak Obama, George Bush or any other president whose administration I have lived through were still in the White House.

I’d like for God to end these fearful storms we are experiencing, but that is not what is promised. Elijah receives only the bare assurance that he is not altogether alone, that God still has important work for him to do and that the purposes for which God called him will be fulfilled, though perhaps not in his lifetime. The psalmist is not saved from his/her distress, but assured that his/her prayer and hope for a new day have been heard. Though Jesus quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, we know that there are greater storms ahead. All Jesus’ disciples know is that Jesus will be there to help them navigate through. That has to be sufficient. We don’t get an end to the storm, only enough (sometimes just enough) hope, faith and courage to weather it. We don’t get a road map for the journey. We get only enough light to take the next step. We don’t get a game plan. We only have the same instructions Jesus gave us two thousand years ago to speak good news to the poor boldly and truthfully, live generously without anxiety, care for the poor, the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry and the stranger. We are invited to stand with Jesus as he stands with the powerless and persecuted-whether it is politically popular or not. We don’t always get to see the fruition of our labors. We get only the assurance that God will work with them to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s own good time.

Finally, we are again invited to believe in the reign of God inaugurated in Jesus. That is the one reliable anecdote to fear. After all, racism, nationalism, hate and bigotry (even under the cloak of religion) have no future. Tomorrow belongs to the Lord. All we need to know about tomorrow is that it brings us another day closer to that age when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; one day closer to the day when, in the words of the psalmist:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

Psalm 85:10-11

In the meantime, we pray that God’s’ will may at least be done among us and through us for a world desperately in need of God’s reign of love.

Lo! The hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Text: Harry E. Fosdick, 1878-1969 Tune: CWM  RHONDDA, Evangelical Worship, # 705.

Here is a poem about soldiering on in hope through history against the tides of overwhelming opposition by Nikki Giovanni.

The Song of the Feet

It is appropriate that I sing
The song of the feet

The weight of the body
And what the body chooses to bear
Fall on me

I trampled the American wilderness
Forged frontier trails
Outran the mob in Tulsa
Got caught in Philadelphia

And am still unreparated

I soldiered on in Korea
Jungled through Vietman sweated out Desert Storm
Caved my way through Afghanistan
Tunneled the World Trade Center

And on the worst day of my life
Walked behind JFK
Shouldered MLK
Stood embracing Sister Betty

I wiggle my toes
In the sands of time
Trusting the touch that controls my motion
Basking in the warmth of the embrace
Day’s end offers with warm salty water

It is appropriate I sing
The praise of the feet

I am a Black woman

Source: Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (c. 2002 by Nikki  Giovanni, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2002) Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was born 1943 in Knoxville, Kentucky and attended Fisk University, a prestigious, all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee from which she graduated in 1968. From there she went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York. Giovanni authored several volumes of poetry for children and adults. She is the recipient of multiple NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award and over twenty honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country. You can read more about Nikki Giovanni and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

1 Kings 19:9–18

The most fascinating character in the Book of I Kings is not a king at all, but the prophet Elijah. Elijah first appears during the reign of King Ahab over the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Continuing the policies of his father, Ahab renewed Israel’s Phoenician treaties solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess with a fierce loyalty to her god, Baal. Though Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel, he did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.

Elijah the prophet appears as if out of nowhere announcing to King Ahab a drought that would soon devastate the land of Israel for three years and end only upon the prophet’s word. At the prompting of the Lord, Elijah flees and lives for the next three years as a fugitive. Ahab, knowing that Elijah holds the key to ending the drought, seeks him throughout Israel and asks for extradition privileges from any other kingdom in which the prophet might seek refuge. At the end of the three year period, Elijah reveals himself to the king with a proposition. Let there be a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal. The God of Israel challenges Baal to a duel-high noon at Mr. Carmel. Let two altars be built, one for Baal and one for the Lord. The god who consumes the sacrificial animal on his altar is God indeed. Ahab agrees and the prophets of Baal turn out in force and build their altar. Elijah, too, builds an altar and places his offering upon it. Fire from heaven consumes the offering on Elijah’s altar. Baal is a no show. A rain storm follows breaking the drought. Everyone knows who to thank.

You would think the matter had been settled once and for all. Wrong. Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, issues a death warrant for Elijah. Once again, Elijah is a fugitive. Understandably, he is despondent. Three years of toil, sacrifice and danger with nothing to show for it. Baal still rules the religious roost in Israel, the priests of the Lord are being murdered or driven into exile and Elijah is a homeless fugitive. That is the state in which we find him at the top of Mount Horeb in our lesson for Sunday.

The voice of the Lord is sought in earthquake, wind and fire. But the word of the Lord is not found in any of these dramatic phenomena. Rather, that word is revealed in a “still, small voice,” as the RSV translates it. Vs. 12. The NRSV translates the term as “a sound of sheer silence,” seemingly an oxymoron (or perhaps foreshadowing Simon & Garfunkel?). The Hebrew word is unclear, but perhaps the critical and operative term is “voice” or “sound.” It is through the word that God achieves God’s purposes-not through spectacular shows of force. If fireworks could turn the heart of Israel back to her God, surely the fire from heaven coming down on Mr. Carmel would have been enough to do the trick. But miraculous shows of power alone, like the miracles Jesus performed, are incapable of producing faith. At best, they inspire fear and amazement. They might show that God is powerful, but they do not demonstrate conclusively that God is good.

Elijah gets a word that is not altogether encouraging. Seven thousand people in all Israel remain faithful to the Lord and have not worshiped Baal. Vs. 18. That isn’t very many. Elijah is instructed to anoint a new king for Syria, Israel’s arch enemy. Vs. 15. That cannot be a good sign. He is also instructed to anoint a new king for Israel. This is somewhat hopeful as it indicates God’s determination to bring Ahab’s corrupt line to an end. Finally, Elijah is instructed to anoint his own successor. This can only mean that Elijah will not live to see the work of his ministry completed. He will come to the end of his life with a lot of loose ends still hanging out there.

That might be God’s word to the church in the United States-or at least the protestant part of it. Gone are the days when protestant Christianity was recognized as the de facto religion of the United States. Gone are the days when businesses, sports leagues and civic programs ceased their activities on Sunday morning out of deference to the church. Gone are the days when everyone went to church somewhere (or claimed they did because they knew they were expected to go). The culture we live in today is largely indifferent to traditional, mainline Christianity. We are increasingly discovering that we must make the case for why Jesus is important, why the church matters and what difference all of this makes in one’s day to day life. In other words, we need to start doing what Jesus has been telling us to do for centuries: make disciples. Churches that are finding ways to do that are thriving. Churches that are carrying on with business as usual and simply hoping that people will someday come back are dying. That is the long and short of it.

There is much good news here for those with ears to hear it. The good news is that the reign of God is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom’s coming will be in God’s own time and in God’s own way. We are privileged to take part in that drama. We don’t get to choose our parts or write the script. For a church that has gotten used to being a powerful and respected force within society, becoming a smaller and poorer community speaking from the margins of society is a bitter pill to swallow. But for a church that recognizes in its poverty, decline and weakness the still small voice of God’s word, which is the only thing of value it has ever really had, this ancient scripture opens up new vistas of hope and promise.

Psalm 85:8–13

This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety. If you read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it starts with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.

Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.

Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.

Romans 10:5–15

Paul’s argument here is based on a passage in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Paul begins by reiterating what he has said previously: that if one would justify himself/herself by the law, one must do more than learn it and adhere to the letter. One must live by it. That, as Paul has already pointed out, is impossible while we remain in the flesh. The flesh is forever using the law to justify itself, ingratiate itself to God and elevate itself over others. Rightly understood, the law is a gift given to Israel to protect her freedom. It is the servant of love, never the master. Wrongly understood, the law is something that must be retrieved by “go[ing] up to heaven” or “cross[ing] to the other side of the sea.” In fact, the law has already been given to Israel to assure her blessedness in the promised land. But it does not secure God’s favor. The Book of Deuteronomy from which Paul quotes has already made clear from the outset that it is not because of any greatness or goodness on Israel’s part that God loves her: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. God loves Israel no more when she is obedient and no less when she is disobedient.

So Paul comes back once again to his gospel moorings. The “word” which is near us is the good news about Jesus Christ that inspires confident trust in God’s promises: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Vs. 9. This is wildly important and tragically misunderstood. “Belief” is not mere intellectual assent. Perhaps some of you can recall the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion program purporting to school believers in the art of evangelism. Would be evangelists are instructed to ask those to whom they witness: “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your response?” The problem with this whole approach is that it treats faith as though it were mere intellectual assent to a doctrinal proposition. What you need to get into God’s good graces is information. You have to come up with the correct answer and articulate it correctly.

That is nothing like the heartfelt trust in Jesus that Paul is talking about. Faith is the conviction that God raised Jesus from death. The tomb is empty. If that really is the case, human life should look altogether different than the way we experience it. If God raised the man who fed five thousand with just five loaves, then we ought not to sweat a few thousand children crossing the border into our country. If God raised from the dead the man who would not take up the sword in his own defense, then there is no reason any disciple of Jesus should feel the need to own a fire arm for self-defense. If God raised the preacher that gave us the Sermon on the Mount, there is no reason why any believer in Jesus should not be tithing his or her income. Quite frankly, the problem is that there are more atheists in the church than outside it. Functional atheism confesses Jesus with the lips but does not believe with the heart that God raised him from death. To borrow another phrase from Paul, too many of us are “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. That is why churches fight constantly over budgets. That is why the average percentage of income given yearly by the average Lutheran church member is a whopping 1.9%. That is why Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour in the United States. That is why protestant denominations are turning to highly paid consultants, resorting to capital fund drives and fundraising gimmicks under the false label of “stewardship” to save their institutional souls. All that religious stuff is fine for children and little old church ladies. But we all know that in the real world you have to be practical. So when it comes time to talk money, we politely ask Jesus to leave the room.

Paul would have us know that there are two starkly different claims about what is real and only one of them can be true. Either you believe that Jesus is still dead, that everything he lived for was hopelessly idealistic and impractical, or you believe that God said “yes” to the life Jesus lived by raising him from death. If Jesus is still in the tomb, nothing has changed. If the tomb is empty, everything is changed. Once you get it through your head and into your heart that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive, you don’t listen to practical advice from the worldly wise telling you how impossible it is to walk on the surface of the sea-which brings us right to the gospel for Sunday.

Matthew 14:22–33

The lesson follows directly on last week’s story about the feeding of the five thousand plus. Now that the crowds have been fed, Jesus dismisses them. He “compels” his disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Because Jesus sends them “ahead of him” we can assume that he meant to catch up to them at some point. The disciples are making their way across the sea against a strong headwind when they spot Jesus walking on the surface of the sea. Understandably terrified by what they take to be a ghostly apparition, the disciples cry out in terror. Immediately, Jesus calls out to them and urges them not to be afraid. Peter then replies, “Lord, if it really is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Vs. 28. Interestingly, Peter seeks a command from Jesus. Apparently, he knows that he is incapable of such a feat on his own. When Jesus replies, “come,” Peter steps out of the boat onto the water and comes to Jesus. Vs. 29.

The way Matthew tells it, Peter is not entirely clueless as he is portrayed in Mark’s gospel. He believes that Jesus is both capable of walking on the sea and that he is capable of enabling Peter to do the same. This belief is not merely theoretical as Peter’s first step out of the boat onto the water demonstrates. Moreover, when Peter begins to sink as a result of his doubt, he nevertheless knows to call out to Jesus for salvation. His faith, albeit “little,” is nonetheless genuine. So, too, the disciples confess Jesus as God’s son-a conclusion never reached by any of the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Yet this knowledge, like Peter’s faith, is not fully formed. There is more to Jesus than meets the eye and more yet to be learned and absorbed.

The telling of this story is perhaps shaped by Psalm 107 which narrates the perils faced by pilgrims making their way to the place of worship in Jerusalem and God’s saving intervention on their behalf. Of particular interest are verses 23-32:

Some went down to the sea in ships,  doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord,    his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,  which lifted up the waves of the sea.  They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;  their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards,  and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;  he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

Just as the pilgrims in the psalm recognize the compassion and salvation of God in their escape from the dangers of the sea, so the disciples are compelled to worship Jesus who stills the storm and brings them safely to their destination. The face of Israel’s God shines through the works of his messiah.

Though they recognize Jesus as “God’s Son,” the disciples still must learn what sort of Son Jesus is. Their failure to understand or accept the death Jesus predicts for himself in Jerusalem, their failure to anticipate Jesus’ resurrection and their continued doubt even in the presence of the resurrected Christ show that the disciples’ faith leaves much to be desired and will require continual growth through challenges yet to come. The message, then, for the church from Jesus is this: your faith is genuine; you have what you need to be my disciples; but your faith is still “little” and in need of nourishment, formation and maturity. One never graduates from the school of discipleship.

 

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Sunday, February 26th

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12–18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16–21
Matthew 17:1–9

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Matthew 17:5.

Listening is a lost art. These days we download more information than we can possibly hope to absorb; we scroll down the Facebook wall absorbing tidbits from the personal lives of people we might not even know; and we get our news digested, dumbed down and spun to our liking. To be informed is to know what is “trending,” to have read the latest tweet, to have commented on the most recent post. “Old media” such as newspapers, hardcopy magazines and scholarly journals are dying. We haven’t the time to read lengthy, nuanced articles that leave us with more questions than answers. We haven’t the patience for a book that takes days to read and does not give us “closure.” Why make a trip to the library when all the information you need is obtainable from Google? Of course, ferreting truthful and accurate information out of that forest of conspiracy nuttiness, half truths and misinformation found on the internet regarding any given topic is just as inconvenient as struggling with an ungainly newspaper or trekking to the library. Discernment, like listening, is hard work. It requires time, patience and persistence. In our current culture, what cannot be reduced to an “elevator speech,” a tweet or a sound bite is not worth learning. Only that which is simple, free of nuance and easily expressed deserves a hearing.

Not surprisingly, then, we seem to have reached the point where truth no longer matters. We have lost the capacity to be shocked when the president of the United States rails about terrorist attacks in Sweden that never happened; massive voter fraud for which there is not a scrap of evidence and skyrocketing crime when the crime rate is actually lower than at any time since the early 1970s. “Fake news” can only exist in a culture so pitifully superficial and woefully ignorant that it seldom looks further than the latest blizzard of tweets, posts and shares.

I am not an enemy of the internet or social media. Neither do I believe that they are the source of all our social, political and moral woes. The social media revolution has made this blog of mine possible. It would be hypocritical in the extreme for me, of all people, to damn it. I am truly grateful for the opportunity the internet has given me to be heard by a larger audience. Nevertheless, I still miss the days when you couldn’t publish a book or an article that anyone would read without convincing a reputable publisher you had something to say and were capable of expressing it. I miss the days when our free public libraries were the authoritative source of public information and the gatekeepers were knowledgeable reference librarians who steered you to reliable and authoritative literature. I sometimes long for the days when you had to be somebody before you got to be on television or radio. Call me an elitist, but I miss the days when all opinions were not equal; when only men and women who knew what they were talking about got an audience and the ignorant were left to mutter their nonsense into their drinks at some hole-in-the-wall bar.

Yes, of course there was plenty of ignorance when I was growing up and a good deal more bigotry and overt racism. There were plenty of stupid television programs and radio shows as well. There was no shortage of demagogues and fear mongers in my younger years. God knows there have been too many trees sacrificed to print poorly written books. But generally speaking, we had a way of figuring out what was good and what wasn’t. Fringe elements remained on the fringe. Over time, the books worth reading percolated to the top while the junk found its way to the bargain table or the recycling bin. That was due in no small part to literary critics whose knowledge, understanding and insight were publicly recognized. We used to understand the difference between professional journalists on the one hand, who painstakingly collected facts, interviewed sources and carefully wove their material into thorough, balanced and thought provoking articles and demagogues on the other, who spouted groundless conspiracy theories and advanced baseless assertions. Nobody forty years ago with any semblance of literacy would ever have thought about putting trash like Breitbart on the same level with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  But now that the internet has leveled the playing field, one has to fish through miles of cyber sewage to find genuine news, reliable information and truthful reporting. Truthful speech is simply one more voice struggling to be heard and frequently shouted down under the cacophony of “alternative facts.”

In the Transfiguration gospel, the Word of God reminds us that the truth still matters and identifies the voice to which we need to listen in order to hear it. We are commanded to listen to Jesus. That will require us to re-learn the art of listening and slow, careful reading. The Bible is not a post you skim and delete. It is one of those books, like Moby Dick, that you live with, read and read again. A good book is one you find it nearly impossible to explain. The most you can say about it is: “You have got to read this!” A book that can be summarized isn’t worth reading. How much more so the Bible! Don’t think you can find an abstract or a digest of Jesus. You cannot fit the Sermon on the Mount into a tweet or summarize it on a bumper sticker. If you are not confused and mystified by the Bible, you have not been listening to it!

There are many voices today clamoring for our attention. Some of those voices, like those of Moses and Elijah, even speak to us from out of the Bible. But none of these voices, not even the biblical ones, merit our immediate and primary attention. The first voice we are called to hear is that of Jesus. Learning to listen well to him will guide our reading of the Bible and sharpen our discernment enabling us to recognize and speak what is true, what is beautiful and what is good. Our language is only as powerful as our ability to listen and discern the truth. Here’s a poem by Kay Ryan about the fate of language in the absence of truth:

The Obsoletion of a Language

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.

Source: Poetry Magazine (May 2011), c. by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was born in in 1945 in California.  She is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. You can find out more about Kay Ryan and sample more of her fine poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Exodus 24:12–18

The Book of Exodus is the second of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) making up the “Pentateuch” or the “Five Books of Moses.” It has long been understood that Moses was not the author of these works, at least not in the modern sense of that term. Most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These works were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist” or just “J,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source referred to simply as “E.” This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist or “D,” consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the “J” and “E” material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E.

That all sounds nice in theory. But our reading for Sunday illustrates the limitations of such literary analysis in many cases. Exodus 24 is filled with phrases and terminology that is foreign to all of the four known sources. This has led to a dispute over whether we are dealing with a possible fifth source or perhaps incorporation of such source material by J and E, the probable contributors for this section. Old Testament professor Brevard Childs wisely concludes that “the evidence is no longer such as to permit this detailed reconstruction” and that “the better part of wisdom consists in making clear those areas of general agreement.” Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 500. That being said, the one thing all scholars tend to agree upon is that verses 15-18 can be safely attributed to the “P” source.

By now you must be wondering why any of this crap matters. Usually, it doesn’t. Ordinarily, I would not waste time with such noetic perjinkerties, but I believe that here it makes sense to focus on verses 15-18 with the understanding that they come down to us ultimately from the Priestly (“P”) source. As Professor Gerhard Von Rad points out, “P depicts a course of history in which new manifestations, institutions, and regulations are revealed from age to age.” Von Rad, Gernard, Old Testament Theology, Volume I, (c. 1962 by Oliver and Boyd Ltd, pub. Harper &Row Publishers, Inc.) p. 233. At this particular juncture in the Exodus narrative, Moses is being summoned to the top of Mt. Sanai to receive the “tables of stone, with the law and the commandments.” Vs. 12. He instructs Aaron and Hur to remain below with the people. Vs. 14. At the beginning of vs. 15 we are given the Priestly authors’ account of Moses’ direct encounter with God upon Sinai. God appears as a devouring fire in the midst of a dense cloud. While at this point Moses alone can approach God, Moses is to receive detailed instructions for construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in which it will be housed. Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated as priests to serve in the Tabernacle which will henceforth mediate God’s presence in the midst of Israel. All of this is spelled out in Exodus 25-31.

The Priestly history reveals that “new manifestations and institutions” governing worship and faithful living are not directionless. They have a goal, namely, the nearer presence of God. There is, one could say, an incarnational tropism expressed in the relentless approach of God toward his people. The end point is that day when “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest…” Jeremiah 31:33-34. Or, in terms of the New Testament, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them.” Revelation 21:3. This dogged progression of God toward oneness with his people manifested throughout the growth and development of Israelite religious institutions could not have been lost on Matthew whose purpose is to present Jesus as the end point of the law and the prophets. That will become increasingly evident in Matthew’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration.

Psalm 2

This psalm is familiar to all lovers of Handel’s Messiah. Formally, it is an “enthronement psalm” portraying the coronation of an Israelite/Judean King. As such, it reflects a ritual common throughout the ancient world, particularly in Egypt, where the king was designated “God’s son.” The coronation took place in the sanctuary where the newly crowned king received an oracle from the priest legitimating his rule. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 188. This ritual and its accompanying liturgy brings into sharp focus the danger of monarchy and the reason for Israel’s ambivalence toward the institution of kingship. As the prophet Samuel pointed out when the people of Israel first began agitating for a king to rule over them, kingship would bring with it taxation, loss of tribal autonomy and oppressive military conscription. I Samuel 8:10-18. But the more significant threat was theological. It is the Lord “who is enthroned on Israel’s praises.” Anointing a king over Israel amounted to dethroning the Lord as king. I Samuel 8:7. Linkage between the liturgy of the Temple and the coronation of the king is symptomatic of a dangerous synergy. Before long, the worship of God would be swallowed up in adoration of the king. Very soon the institutions of worship and the observances of the covenant would become the religion of the nation state. Faith in Israel’s God would be reduced to sacred ideology legitimating injustice and oppression under the monarchy. This is precisely the evil which the 8th Century prophets rose to denounce.

Nevertheless, this and several other psalms containing coronation liturgies and prayers for the king have made their way into the Psalter. It is important to keep in mind that, however corrupt the institution of monarchy might actually have become in Israel and Judah, the role of the king was to serve as God’s minister for justice. The king is not above the law as the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates. II Samuel 11:1-12:25. Kings of Israel were anointed to “judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice,” “to defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Psalm 72:2-4. The hope that such a king would someday arise remained alive even among prophets most critical of the monarchy, such as Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 23:1-6). It finally evolved into the fevered messianic expectation present throughout Palestine in Jesus’ day. This longing for a messianic liberator was naturally fed by resentment toward Roman domination. Thus, claiming the title “messiah” or “son of God” was a dangerous political assertion. It amounted to a frontal attack on the Roman Empire which maintained that “Caesar is Lord.”

Verse seven of the psalm is echoed first at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 3:17. The devil takes up the refrain throughout his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11. We hear these words once again in Sunday’s lesson on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Matthew 17:5. The allusion to this psalm is intended to inform us that Jesus is the messiah and, among other things, the rightful heir to the throne of David. But as we shall see in our reflections on the gospel lesson, there is far more to be said of Jesus than was ever intended for any Israelite king by the psalm.

2 Peter 1:16–21

The second letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was composed well into the 2ndCentury. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16).  The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.

The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.

Sunday’s reading appears to reference the Transfiguration story recounted in the gospels. However, it is possible that the author is referring to a resurrection appearance of Jesus similar to that described in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 28:16-20. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears only briefly to the women at the tomb following his resurrection. He instructs them to tell the rest of the disciples to meet him at a particular mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:8-10. Mark has a similar sequence, but in his gospel the women do not see Jesus, but only an angelic messenger at the tomb. Rather than delivering to the rest of the disciples the instructions to return to Galilee, the women run away from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Mark 16:5-8. In Matthew’s account, the women deliver the message from the risen Christ and the disciples travel to Galilee where they encounter him. Matthew 28:16. So the question is, which “holy mountain” is the author talking about? The Mountain of Transfiguration? Or the mountain in Galilee where the disciples encountered the resurrected Christ?

In either case, the point is that faith rests upon the handing down of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life giving ministry, obedient suffering, faithful death and glorious resurrection. These are not “cleverly devised myths,” but faithful testimony grounded in the witness of the apostles. Vs. 16. Jesus is the “prophetic word made more sure.” He is the “lamp shining in a dark place” by which we read the scriptures. No scripture is a matter of one’s own personal interpretation. For disciples of Jesus, the scripture has one purpose: to illuminate their Master. It is a dreadful mistake, therefore, to read the scriptures as though they were a list of moral rules, a collection of wise sayings or interesting narratives apart from their testimony to Jesus who, for us, gives them their meaning.

Matthew 17:1–9

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Vs. 1. The six days almost certainly harken back to the Exodus narrative in which the glory of the Lord in the midst of a cloud descended upon Mt. Sinai for that period of time. Exodus 24:16. Just as it was on the seventh day that Moses was called to enter into the cloud where the glory of the Lord resided, so Jesus takes his disciples “after six days” to the Mountain of Transfiguration where they enter with him into the cloud. The glory of the Lord which they behold, however, is Jesus himself whose face shines like the sun and whose garments become white as light. Vs. 2. Professor Stanley Hauerwas sees in these “six days” an allusion to the six days of creation after which God rested. Genesis 2:1-3. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 154. This could well be so. As I have noted before, it is not Matthew’s intent to fit Jesus into a single, ridged scriptural paradigm, but rather to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through myriad Hebrew Scriptural figures and traditions. Fellowship with Jesus is indeed the ultimate Sabbath rest and may well be what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:27-30 where he promises rest to all “who labor and are heavy laden.”

Jesus appears in the company of Moses and Elijah. The former is the mouthpiece through whom God delivered the covenant to Israel from Mt. Sinai. The latter is the mouth through which God persistently called Israel back to faithfulness under that covenant. Though ever in tension with one another, the law and the prophets are inseparable. The law (understood as “Torah”) is the concrete shape of Israel’s life of faithful obedience to her God. The prophets speak that same Torah freshly to each generation. In that sense, the prophets are “radicals,” ever calling Israel back to the roots of her faith. Matthew means to make it clear, however, that Jesus transcends both Moses and Elijah. Jesus both extends and fulfills their missions in himself. The voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Vs. 5. When the cloud recedes and the disciples raise their terrified faces once again, they find themselves in the presence of “Jesus only.” Vs. 8.

Once again, we hear the echo of Psalm 2 in the words, “This is my beloved Son.” Vs. 5. Though Matthew is obviously intimating that Jesus is, among other things, the messiah and heir to the throne of David, he is saying far more about Jesus than could ever be said of any Israelite king. For Matthew, the Torah of the Hebrew Scriptures and their great figures can shed light on the person and work of Jesus, but none of them can contain him. Here on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the new wine of the kingdom bursts all of the old skins. Our attention is turned to ‘Jesus only.”

This text amplifies what the gospels all teach us repeatedly. Just when you think you know Jesus, you find out that you don’t. There is always more to Jesus than meets the eye and discipleship is as much about unlearning what we think we know about Jesus as it is learning new things about him. Sometimes I think that the church’s biggest problem is that we have ceased to be amazed by Jesus. The Christ we proclaim is too often the predictably nice, inoffensive, upper middle class, slightly left of center, socially responsible but ever white and ever polite protestant gentleman. Without the beard, bathrobe and sandals he would look just like us. As a friend remarked to me years ago, “Fritz Mondale in a Jesus suit.” Nothing against Fritz, but he and the rest of us just aren’t sufficiently interesting to get most people out of bed on a Sunday morning. That is why we need Jesus!

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Sunday, June 26th

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13–25
Luke 9:51–62

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The prophet Elijah has had a rough month. After hiding for three years in the wilderness to escape the wrath of King Ahab who blames him for a devastating drought in the land of Israel, Elijah comes back into the presence of the king at God’s command with a message: “You want an end to the drought? Call the prophets of the gods you have led Israel to worship. I, in turn, will call upon the name of the Lord. We’ll meet at the top of Mt Carmel. Let your prophets build an altar to their gods. I will build an altar to the Lord. The God who answers by fire is God indeed.” (highly paraphrased). You know the rest of the story. The Lord sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice on Elijah’s altar and ended the drought with a rain storm. Ahab’s gods were no shows. That should have settled once and for all the question of who is Lord in Israel.

Except that it didn’t. No sooner did word of Elijah’s victory reach the royal palace than Queen Jezebel, the true power behind the throne, launched a fresh campaign to rid the world of Elijah and the faith he proclaimed. The prophet finds himself right back where he started: a homeless refugee with a price on his head. No wonder Elijah just wanted to curl up at the back of a cave and die. No wonder he was ready to throw in the towel. His work seems to have accomplished nothing. He has not moved the needle of history a single centimeter.

God’s response to Elijah is anything but encouraging. Among other things, God directs Elijah to anoint a successor to carry on his work, the clear implication being that Elijah will not live to see that work completed. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for Elijah. He must soldier on through the darkness putting one foot in front of the other until his dying day. He must become acquainted with the night.

Seems the same is true for disciples of Jesus. Discipleship is not a job for the faint of heart. If the hardships and stigma of homelessness frighten you; if losing the love and support of your family is too great a price to pay; if your life is too dear to lose; then discipleship is not the profession for you. That’s a hard word for mainline churches such as mine that market to the masses. I cannot imagine ours or any other mainline congregation putting out an ad like that of the Marine Corps, namely, that we are looking for a few good people. To the contrary, my own church’s website proclaims with absolute assurance that “there is a place for you here.”

To be fair, I think the intent is to let the world know that we are an inclusive fellowship open to persons of all cultural and racial backgrounds. That is important, of course. Jesus’ ministry was nothing if not inclusive. Jesus shared his meals with religious leaders and outcasts alike. He never turned away anyone who needed his help; never failed to speak a word of grace and forgiveness when it was needed; never judged anyone unworthy of God’s love and attention. But when it came to selecting his disciples, Jesus seems to have been very intentional and more than a little particular. Only after a full night of prayer did he chose the Twelve. He told all who wanted to follow him that they would need to take up the cross. He warned his disciples that they could expect the same treatment he himself received at the hands of a world in rebellion against its Creator. Jesus loves all, forgives all and heals all, but only a select few are chosen as disciples. That is the witness of the gospels in any event.

Though the theology of the cross is deeply imbedded in my church’s Lutheran theology, our American genetic predisposition toward triumphalism often proves dominant. We are a people addicted to happy endings. Too often, our Easter preaching resembles just that. Jesus died, but then he was raised from death. All’s well that ends well. Preached in that simplistic way, the Easter proclamation fits nicely into our Disney mythology of good always triumphing over evil. Yet, in truth, the resurrection only destroys the last excuse we have for avoiding the cross. It is God’s “yes” to the way of the cross. It is God’s promise to bring to fruition in God’s good time (which likely will not be our own) God’s reign of justice and peace. Eternal life is not the promise of some distant future state, but life lived under the reign of God in a world that does not yet know its God. As such, it takes the shape of the cross. Suffering consequential to eternal life is embraced, not because suffering is good or edifying, but because it is the price of living eternally under the transient reign of the powers that be. This life of discipleship is one of profound joy, but it is joy that cannot be known apart from a deep acquaintance with the night.

Jesus’ call to take up the cross is hard to market to the masses. But maybe discipleship was never intended for the masses. Perhaps it was intended only for those ready to become acquainted with the night. Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such an acquaintance.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 255. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21

The legends of Elijah and Elisha probably pre-existed the composition of I and II Kings which was completed after the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E. They reflect a fierce cultural struggle in the Northern Kingdom of Israel between the religion of Ba’al and the covenant faith of Israel in her God, Yahweh. At the beginning of Elijah’s career, Israel was ruled by Ahab, son of Omri. He was a formidable ruler whose exploits are recorded in other non-biblical texts. Ahab entered into a political marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. This union provided much needed military support for Ahab in his ongoing struggle with Syria (sometimes referred to as Aram). It also facilitated trade between the two nations leading to the rise of a wealthy merchant class having significant political clout with the throne. Along with Jezebel came her religion, worship of the Tyrian Ba’al. Though used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “Ba’al” was an honorific title given to a range of deities. According to the scriptural witness, Jezebel was a fierce proponent of her god and an equally fierce enemy of the worshipers of Israel’s God. Ahab seems to have been ambivalent about the Tyrian Ba’al. Though he built a temple to the deity in Israel’s capital Samaria, probably at the insistence of his wife, he seems to have remained a devotee of Yahweh. All three of his sons have names derived from that divine name. Nevertheless, when it came to matters of state religion, it seems that Jezebel was the power behind the throne. During Ahab’s reign, the priesthood of Ba’al under Jezebel’s patronage increased its hold upon the population as the worship of Yahweh declined as a result of neglect and outright persecution.

Elijah first appears in I Kings 17:1 where he announces a drought that will befall Israel as a result of her apostasy and which does in fact occur. Ahab evidently blames Elijah for this natural disaster and seeks to kill him. The Lord directs Elijah to flee from Ahab and Elijah spends the next three years of the drought as a fugitive, taking refuge first in a wadi and then across the border from Israel at the home of an impoverished widow in the land of Sidon. Finally, Elijah is directed to show himself to Ahab and he does. Elijah then challenges Ahab to assemble the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel for what will turn out to be a showdown between Yahweh and Ba’al. Two altars are erected, one to Yahweh and the other to Ba’al. It is agreed that the god who answers the prayers of his devotees by sending down fire from heaven to consume the offerings on his altar shall be deemed God of Israel. Yahweh answers with fire. Ba’al is a no show. Elijah declares victory and proceeds to execute the prophets of Ba’al. He then invokes Yahweh praying for rain to end the devastating drought. Yahweh provides the rain that Ba’al, the rain god, has been unable to produce for the last three years. If Elijah thought the matter was now settled, he was sorely mistaken. When Jezebel learns of Elijah’s doings, she swears that she will do to him what he has done to the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah is again a fugitive.

Broken and discouraged, Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb. According to the traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this mountain was the one on which God revealed the law to Moses. There Elijah complains that his zeal for God has been unrewarded, that he alone is left among the faithful and that he wishes to die. God directs Elijah to “stand before him” on the mountain. At this point, the prophet witnesses a severe earthquake, a mighty wind and a fierce fire. These are the sort of phenomenon one would expect to encounter on the mountain of the Lord, but Elijah does not find a word from God in any of these events. Only in the sound of sheer silence does he hear God speaking. It is here that Elijah receives the instruction to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as his own successor.

This is but a thumbnail sketch of the colorful, entertaining and sometimes shocking tale of Elijah’s career up to this point. It hardly does the story justice. Nevertheless, I felt this cursory telling necessary for placing Sunday’s lesson in its narrative context. There is no substitute for reading the account in its entirety at I Kings 17:1-II Kings 2:18. The wonderful thing about the scriptures is that its characters are all too human. Despite all the miracles attributed to him, Elijah is no superhuman hero. He becomes discouraged, he loses his temper with God, he gives up in despair and throws a childish snit. In short, he acts exactly as we do when we are overworked, underappreciated and unsuccessful in what we see as our life’s calling.

The Elijah story (and that of Elisha which follows) is exceedingly violent. The lectionary people do their best to protect us from all that. I think these folks wish with all their hearts that the Bible had given us a “nice” God. Because it has not, they do their best to deliver one through their relentless butchery of the texts. Try as they may, though, the lectionary folks cannot conceal the obvious: God is not “nice.” God is good, however and loves us too deeply and too passionately to sit up in the heavens ringing his lily white hands over our beastliness while remaining righteously above the fray. God’s hands are soiled with the blood of history within which God is at work turning even our bloodiest deeds toward his own gracious purposes, making room here and there for epiphanies of the new creation. “God so loved the world…” not the ideal world, not the world as we might wish it to be, but the world as it is in all of its cussedness. That is the world God loved enough to get involved with and die for.

Psalm 16

Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.) Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. As we have seen from our lesson in I Kings, this was an ongoing struggle particularly acute in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.

That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.

The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.

It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.

Galatians 5:1, 13–25

Here Paul speaks of freedom. That word “freedom” is problematic because we use it so very differently than does Paul. In our modern context, freedom is all about doing what you want. It means fewer restrictions, more expansive rights and less restraint. Paul would have been altogether mystified by these notions. The greatest tyranny, according to Paul, comes not from governments, laws or moral restraints, but from domination by “the flesh.” Left to do anything we wish, we invariably fall prey to the “desires of the flesh,” namely, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  Vss. 19-21. Such conduct is not freedom, but slavery of the worst kind. It leads to our self destruction and robs us of our inheritance under God’s reign.

“Works of the law” cannot set us free from the flesh. Adherence to the rules only breeds resentment against their restrictions and makes the outlawed conduct all the more alluring and desirable. We all know how fanatical devotion to religious observances can lead to hateful and violent acts. According to Paul, that is inevitable where individuals use religious observances and charitable acts (even acts that are beneficial) in order to win favor with God. This kind of religion makes of God a stern disciplinarian. It also takes the focus off the entire purpose of the law-turning us toward service to our neighbors.

According to Paul, freedom resides in being led by the Spirit of God rather than driven by the flesh. Under such leading, we are thankfully free not to do just anything. Paul makes the remarkable statement that we are to use our freedom to be servants of one another! Vs. 13. Freedom through becoming a servant!!! That sounds strange to our ears, but Paul is absolutely serious. Freedom is never found in libertarian communities of self interested individuals. Freedom is found in covenant communities where each person is responsible for and dependent upon his or her neighbor. In such a community, everybody’s child is everybody’s business. Everybody’s marriage is worthy of protection and support. The security of everybody’s home is the concern of the whole community. The whole law is fulfilled in one saying, says Paul: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Vs. 14. That is the only way to be free.

Note well that this love manifested in the “fruits of the Spirit,” is not a product of adherence to any moral code. It is the heartfelt response of the believer whose sins have been freely forgiven by a God who loves without limit or restraint. It is spontaneous, never coerced. Life in the community of faith governed by the Holy Spirit is where we discover the freedom in which Paul would have us walk.

Luke 9:51–62

This is the pivotal point in the Gospel of Luke. Up to now, Luke has been roughly following the chronology of the Gospel of Mark, the chief source upon which he relies. If you have been reading Luke attentively, then you know something big is destined to take place in Jerusalem. In verses 28-36, Luke relates his version of the transfiguration story in which Jesus is found discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus” he will soon accomplish in Jerusalem. That Jesus should speak of this upcoming event as an occurrence on a par with Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt tells us that we must focus our attention in that direction as well. Now in verse 51 Luke gives us a sentence loaded with nuanced language telling us where the narrative is taking us next.

“When the days drew near” literally translated reads “when the days were fulfilled.” Similar phrases are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to denote the coming of a decisive moment of judgment, salvation or both.See, e.g.Isaiah 2:2Isaiah 9:1Jeremiah 23:5 . Commentators are divided over what is meant by Jesus’ being “received up.” It is highly unlikely that this refers to Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of God following his resurrection. Luke uses a different word to describe this event in both his gospel (Luke 24:51) and in Acts (Acts 1:9). As someone traveling to Jerusalem is said to be “going up” to the city regardless of which direction he is coming from, some commentators suggest that this verb only amplifies Jesus’ intention to journey there. I don’t find that interpretation persuasive. In the first place, it comes before Jesus’ express resolution to go to Jerusalem. Secondly, use of the passive voice to express this thought is syntactically clumsy. I believe that the most likely interpretation is that Jesus is to “be received up” by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who will ultimately deliver him to Pontius Pilate for judgment and execution. Jesus has already told his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” Luke 9:44. Now, we are told, this time is near.

Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Though Jesus is to be betrayed, delivered into the hands of the gentiles, judged and crucified, he is no mere passive victim. Jesus is making a conscious and deliberate choice to confront his enemies in the heart of the holy city. His expression of determination echoes that demanded of the prophets called upon to deliver hard words to the people of Israel. In calling Jeremiah, God declares, “I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” Jeremiah 1:18. So also the prophet Ezekiel was told, “I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads.” Ezekiel 3:8.  Clearly, Luke is letting us know that we are about to follow Jesus into an epic confrontation with the powers of religious oppression, political domination, illness and demonic possession he has been battling from the inception of his ministry. From here on out, everything that transpires in this gospel will take place under the looming shadow of the cross.

Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem has immediate consequences. He is rejected by the Samaritans for that very reason. Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., more than a century before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Though many Israelites were displaced as a result, a substantial number remained in the land. Recall also that at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., only the upper classes in Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried away into exile. Thus, many and perhaps most of the people constituting the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah remained in Palestine and continued to worship there. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These folks claimed to be a remnant of the Northern Kingdom which had its capital in Samaria (hence, the name “Samaritan”). They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. This mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Needless to say, Jesus’ decision to travel to Jerusalem was interpreted by the Samaritans as a rejection of them and their faith. That Jesus does not see it that way is evidenced by his rebuke to James and John who suggested “nuking” the Samaritans.

At this point, discipleship takes on a new urgency. We the readers know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. That is not public knowledge, however. Furthermore, though Jesus has revealed to the disciples his coming suffering and death, we will soon learn that they have no comprehension of this message yet. Thus, the three “would be” disciples of Jesus in verses 57-62 cannot possibly have any idea about what following Jesus actually entails. The first of the three volunteers to follow Jesus. This is highly unusual in the gospel narratives. In virtually every other case, it is Jesus who chooses his disciples. The disciples never take the initiative in choosing Jesus. Clearly, Jesus does not “take all comers.” Unlike the ads of so many churches that offer elaborate programs, air conditioned sanctuaries, good fellowship and free coffee, Jesus is brutally honest about what discipleship entails. He isn’t interested in wooing the masses or growing his following. Jesus is looking for a few good people.

The next candidate is actually called by Jesus and responds affirmatively, but requests a brief reprieve to “bury his father.” Was this fellow’s father already dead and awaiting burial? In that case, the delay would have been a matter of days. It is possible, however, that the man’s father was not dead, but infirm and dependent upon his son. In that case, the man would not be free to follow Jesus until after the death of his father. If that were the situation, the delay would be indefinite. In either case, delay is not an option. The dawn of God’s reign has arrived and will not accommodate our busy schedules. The Kingdom is now and must be proclaimed today.

The third candidate appears to be asking for no more than what Elisha requested of Elijah before following him: an opportunity to say farewell to his family. Elijah granted Elisha’s request, but Jesus will give no quarter to his newly called disciple. There is at least one important distinction. Elisha’s intent to follow through was made clear by his actions. Recall that he slaughtered his plow oxen and used the wood from their yolks to roast them in a farewell feast. In so doing, he destroyed his means of livelihood and so had nothing to which he could look back. This action on Elisha’s part did not delay his prophetic career. To the contrary, it was a powerful testimony to his new identity as God’s prophet and the successor to Elijah. One might say that Elisha’s farewell gesture was his first prophetic sign. That does not appear to be the case for the man Jesus called.

I suspect that with the last two “would be” disciples the problem boils down to just one word: “first.” “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” “first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ call must always come first. That call may or may not preclude the fulfillment of other obligations, but it cannot ever be deemed secondary to them.

 

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Sunday, February 7th

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 34:29–35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
Luke 9:28–36

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Just about the time I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover I don’t. That, more than anything else, gives me hope that I am still Jesus’ disciple. Anyone who thinks s/he has Jesus figured out surely has stopped listening to him. Everyone who pays attention to Jesus understands that the more you get to know Jesus, the more you realize you have to learn. Our gospel lesson for Transfiguration reminds us emphatically that God would have us listen to Jesus, because that is the only way we are ever going to know anything about God, about ourselves, where we are in the grand scheme of things and wither we are going.

Listening to Jesus is a lifelong assignment quite different from learning the rudimentary doctrines of the Christian Faith. Catechetical instruction does not end with our mastering a finite collection of doctrines, teachings and traditions. Though important, doctrine, theology and faith practices merely give us the language we need to grow into our living relationship with the Crucified and Resurrected Lord. They equip us with the language, images and conceptual tools we need to hear the voice of Jesus.

Jesus came to deconstruct all our humanly pre-conceived notions about God. As Mark Twain once remarked, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s so dangerous; it’s what they do know that ain’t so.” There is plenty said by preachers, politicians and pundits these days about who God is, what God wants and how God acts that isn’t so. I don’t have to name any names to make the point that what people are led to believe about God can lead to monstrous images of God. For the sake of gods masquerading as the God of the Bible we have conducted holy wars, executed people for witchcraft, practiced racial segregation, murdered and socially ostracized sexual minorities, subjugated women and abused children.

It is all too easy, I think, for those of us in the mainline protestant traditions, who claim to have moved beyond some of the more blatant manifestations of these sins, to point the finger at the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. who are still breathing words of hate and intolerance in the name of God. We had best be careful with our stone throwing, because our distance from them is more rhetorical than real. As much as we rail against racism, our churches are still the most segregated institutions in America today. Though we have been ordaining women as ministers for decades and can even boast a few women bishops, the glass ceiling is still alive and well throughout the church at large. We may have come a long way in recent years toward welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered people in theory, but in practice our churches still harbor more than a little fear, hostility and bigotry against them. At some level, it seems that we have yet to free ourselves from the angry, intolerant, moralistic monster we have created in our own image and made god.

Or perhaps our struggle is not so much to free ourselves from a false notion of God as it is to believe in the true vision Jesus opens up for us. At the end of our gospel reading, the disciples are left with no bright light, booming voice or all-encompassing cloud. Moses and Elijah have vanished. Jesus alone remains with them-and that is all the God there is. No wonder the disciples kept silent about this event. How can you comfort a frightened child with a God who is only human, who will not invoke protective angelic armies, who will not shield his disciples from the cross he must bear, who warns them that the only glory worth having is in siding with the hungry, the sinful, the outcast, the sick, the condemned criminal and the outsider-the last folks you’re likely to find sitting next to you in the pew on Sunday. How much comfort and security are you going to find with this God who calls you into a way of living that is likely to get you killed? How can you trust a God who is not in control? The god who sits in front of the instrument panel making everything happen on earth is a mirage. He does not exist. The only real God is the one whose heart breaks on the cross, but still keeps loving and forgiving; the God who came to win hearts by the power of his Word rather than to win wars by the might of his armies. This alone is God. Listen to him.

When we listen to Jesus, he helps us re-imagine God-not as the mere projection of our own prejudices and our need for security-but as the one who slowly, patiently and gently draws the universe into reconciliation and invites us to participate in that good work. When we listen to Jesus, we discover, not the god made in our own image, but the God who transforms us into God’s image.

Here’s a poem by Brook Emery about re-imagining God.

Monster [It’s possible I misconstrued you]

It’s possible I misconstrued you,

laid too much emphasis on the uniqueness of a birth,
failed to acknowledge circumstance could corrupt, sustain;
I indulged myself in accusations against an absolute.

I don’t believe what I then believed. You are not responsible

for Leibniz or the Lisbon quake, for the twenty-six-eyed
and sixty-arsed box jellyfish, that the cosmos
is shaped like a soccer ball; or for the dosido
of right and wrong around the garden bed.

You are not the monster I thought you were,

not by definition or necessity the one immutable.
You are a creator caught in a creator’s net, in fact
a creature. Every horror has its own pathology,

the disease infects the flock. Prey present as predators,
the malefactors replicate even as the angels
experiment with cures. Each encounter pulls against reductive story,
says I will not, I am just (an instant, an instance),

and reference skews on maps not drawn to scale.

I know saintliness exists. It’s all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always
helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I’m trying to shoo the gloomy birds away

but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost
when I was drawn from the womb?

By Brook Emery

Source: Uncommon Light, Five Islands Press, 2007 (c. 2007 by Brook Emery). Brook Emery is an Australian poet and high school teacher born in 1949. His poems integrate philosophy, science, and psychology. You can find out more about Emery and his many poetic works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Exodus 34:29–35

Chapter 34 of Exodus forms the climax of a narrative section beginning with Exodus 32 relating the story of idolatry with the golden calf and  Moses’ smashing of the original two tablets of the law. In Exodus 33, Moses intercedes with God and achieves a healing of the breach of covenant occasioned by Israel’s idolatrous conduct. Exodus 34 recounts the restoration of the covenant terms. Notably, Moses himself cuts these tablets and inscribes the law upon them whereas the first tablets were inscribed “by the finger of God.” Exodus 31:18. Professor Childs seems to think that this is simply a distinction without a difference. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) p 611. I am not so sure about that. I suspect that the narrator means to tell us that this episode of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, which later became a paradigm of prophetic preaching in the 8th and 9th Centuries B.C.E., has done some long term, if not permanent damage to the covenant relationship.

Moses has just come down from the top of Mt. Sinai. He has been up there for forty days fasting and writing the terms of the renewed covenant onto the two stone tablets. He is quite unaware that he has been noticeably changed, so much so that the children of Israel are afraid of him. This is a mystery, of course. I doubt we will ever understand exactly what happened to Moses at Sinai, but perhaps there are some analogies in our own experiences that give us a glimpse. I remember the return home of each one of my three children from their first semester at college. They were changed. They had been exposed to new ideas and values different from the ones with which they grew up. They had experienced a measure of independence that had given them a new sense of confidence. They thought about and responded to me in new and often critical ways that often made me just a little uncomfortable. They were still the same kids they were when I left them at the dormitory-but they were also different. I knew that if I was going to continue having a meaningful relationship with them, I had to start relating to them differently. Things between us would be different from now on. Good, but different.

How much more changed a man must be after a face to face encounter with the God of Israel! Moses was returning after having received the Torah, the commandments and ordinances that would assist Israel in living into nationhood as the chosen people of God. He had seen the shape of holiness. That is not the sort of experience you can share in a brief press release. Neither can you undergo such an experience and expect to come back the same person. It will take some time for Moses to unpack everything he brought with him from the top of Mt. Sinai and it will take some time for the people to digest it.

We all have life changing experiences that shape who we are. Some of them shape us for the better. Others can leave us wounded and scarred. Life is such that you cannot control the experiences you are going have. But you can put yourself in a place where you are assured that God’s Word will be a powerful and transformative experience in your life. You can make time with the scriptures a part of every day. You can make prayer a daily practice. You can worship with your sisters and brothers gathered around the preaching of God’s Word and the Eucharistic meal. I cannot promise that you will come away from church with your face glowing; but you can be sure that your heart is being transformed by the working of God’s Spirit.

It should also be noted that St. Paul cites this story in his Second Letter to the church at Corinth. II Corinthians 3:7-18. For Paul, the veil over Moses’ face symbolizes the obstruction to a correct understanding of Moses that can only be removed by faith in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 99

This psalm appears to be constructed in three sections, each ending with the refrain “Holy is he [God].” See vss. 5, 7 & 9. Like psalms 93 and 97, this psalm acclaims God as king over all the earth. The fact that these psalms make no mention of the kings of Israel or Judah suggests that they were composed after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem ending the line of Davidic kings. To a vanquished people in a world filled with unjust and tyrannical kings, this psalm boldly proclaims that the only true King is the Lord. This King is a “lover of justice,” has “established equity” and has “executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” Vs. 4. Naturally, then, the peoples and their unjust rulers tremble when confronted with the reality of God’s kingship. Vs. 1.

The “cherubim” (Vs. 1) were winged bull like creatures with lion heads. Dahlberg, B.T., “Angel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) pp. 131-132. Two of these fabulous beasts were carved at the top of the Ark of the Covenant over which the God of Israel was thought to be enthroned. Exodus 25: 18-20; Exodus 37:6-9; Numbers 7:89; I Samuel 4:4; I Kings 6:23-28; I Kings 8:6-7. If this reference is to the Ark, it is possible that the psalm is of much earlier origin than generally thought, dating back to the early period of the monarchy when the Ark was still in Israel’s possession. But the term “cherubim” is also used to personify storm clouds and thunder storms. Therefore, its use here is not inconsistent with a composition date for this psalm after the Babylonian conquest.

The mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel, prominent men of faith who lived and ministered before the rise of the monarchy in Israel, further suggests that this psalm is post-exilic. Vs. 6. Having seen generations of kings fall short of what righteousness and justice demand, Israel was now convinced that God alone deserved the title “king.” Though their actions had an undeniable political dimension, the chief role of the three figures named in this psalm was priestly and intercessory. Aaron was the founding figure of cultic practice in Israel. Moses’ intercessions frequently came between Israel and God’s wrath at her disobedience. So also Samuel interceded on Israel’s behalf on numerous occasions. Yet while the psalmist affirms the role and legitimacy of Israel’s priestly establishment and the sacrificial worship over which it presides, this worship is only effective because “thou wast a forgiving God to them.” Vs. 8. The sovereignty and power of God, though manifested in storms and earthquakes, is chiefly expressed in God’s zeal for justice and readiness to show mercy.

2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

A few words about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthian church are in order. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing I Corinthians. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote II Corinthians expressing his gratitude to the congregation and to encourage it in its faith.

For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul, chapters 1-9 constituting the earlier letter and chapters 10-13 forming a later message. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentaries, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 41. Some scholars maintain, however, that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a subsequent letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. Ibid p. 37.

Paul is here interpreting the lesson from Exodus discussed above. You will recall that Moses’ face glowed following his descent from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law. This change in Moses frightened the people and so Moses wore a veil when addressing the people. When Moses spoke with God, he removed the veil. Paul compares this veil on Moses’ face to the veil he contends prevents some of his fellow Jews from recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah. The metaphor is difficult because Moses’ veil was not designed to hinder the people from seeing or hearing him, but rather to protect them from the radiance of God’s glory by which they felt threatened.  Moses, not the people, takes cover under the veil. Consequently, we need to focus not so much on the people as on Moses. When Moses turns to speak with the Lord, the veil is removed. The glory of God is allowed to permeate Moses and he is transfigured with light. But when Moses turns away from the Lord, he must put on the veil.

According to Paul, Moses is rightly understood and seen only when he is face to face with God. He is no longer a mediator between God and Israel. Now God has shown directly into the hearts of his people “to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” II Corinthians 4:6. Thus, only in Jesus Christ are the Hebrew Scriptures fully understood. “And we all,” says Paul, “with unveiled face [like Moses], beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed [like Moses] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” II Corinthians 3:18. What could previously be seen only through the veiled face of Moses can now be seen directly in Jesus. The same transformative power that filled Moses with light now shines through Jesus in the church.

Luke 9:28–36

Luke tells the transfiguration story a little differently than do Mark and Matthew who also report this amazing event. In Luke, the disciples are “weighted down” with sleep, but may not have actually fallen asleep. Vs. 32. Luke tells us not only that Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah, but also what they were talking about. They were speaking of the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Vs. 31. It is highly significant that the Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is the same one the Greek Old Testament uses for the title of the second book of the Bible, “Exodus.” The Exodus, of course, is the foundational and most significant saving act of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, Luke wishes to make absolutely clear that God is about to accomplish through Jesus’ suffering and death a new Exodus, a new saving event. The presence of Moses, the giver of the law, along with Elijah, the greatest of all prophets, indicates that this new Exodus to occur in Jerusalem, the City of David, will fulfill the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. So when we arrive at verse 51 in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” we know that a critical turning point in the narrative has arrived. Jesus is now zeroing in on his primary objective.

The cloud enveloping the mountain top cannot help but bring to mind God’s appearance in the cloud over Mt. Sinai-the place from which Moses returned glowing with divine glory. Quite understandably, the disciples are afraid of the overshadowing cloud. So, too, the voice from the cloud is reminiscent of the voice thundering from Sinai so terrifying the people of Israel that they begged Moses to implore God no longer to speak directly to them. Exodus 20:18-20. Of course, it is also possible to see in this event a reflection of Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain in the 19th Chapter of 1 Kings. There, too, the prophet encountered a powerful wind storm, an earthquake and a terrifying fire. In this case, however, God’s word was not found in any of these impressive natural events. Instead, God was heard in a “still small voice” or, as some translators have rendered it, “a sound of sheer silence.” I Kings 19:12.

I am intrigued by the possible link to the Elijah story because it alters my Sunday School impression of that voice from the cloud as deep, commanding and terrifying. Although the disciples are frightened as they enter the cloud, there is no indication that the voice from the cloud had a similar effect. Luke does not have the disciples falling on their faces in fear as do Mark and Matthew. Thus, I wonder whether my image of this event has not been colored more by Cecil B. DeMille than careful reading of the text. How does the voice of God really sound? How did the disciples perceive it? Would we know the voice of God even if we heard it? How does this question shape our perception of Jesus as God’s Son?

The marvelous thing about this story is its incomprehensibility. It raises more questions than it answers and reminds us that however much we may think we know about Jesus, we are not close to knowing him fully yet.

 

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Sunday, November 8th

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The psalm for this coming Sunday makes unmistakably clear God’s preferential love for the widow, the orphan, the alien, the oppressed and the hungry. Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures focuses on the heroic faith of a single mom struggling to keep herself and her son alive during a famine. In the gospel lesson, Jesus raises up the fate of a widow whose last means of support is taken for maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. I have heard criticisms of the lectionary from time to time by people who insist that the Sunday readings were selectively chosen to support a “liberal social agenda.” Anyone who follows my posts can attest that I have often questioned the wisdom of the selection process employed by the lectionary makers. But in all fairness to them, I think they would have been hard pressed to give equal time for passages that encourage individual achievement, self-reliance and libertarian independence. The lectionary makers would have had a difficult time finding texts supporting the right of the wealthy to accumulate and retain for themselves more wealth. More difficult still would be the task of locating passages supporting imprisonment and deportation of aliens, legal or otherwise. Those actions and the ideologies justifying them find support neither in texts from the Hebrew Scriptures nor in those of the New Testament. So if there is a political agenda here, it is God’s. Don’t blame the lectionary.

As I have often said, the United States is not God’s chosen people. The Bible is not addressed to America. Its voice is directed to Israel and the Church. For that reason, it is a mistake to apply biblical norms to the social and political workings of the United States as though the Bible were a book produced for general consumption and its teachings were applicable to everyone. The Bible is normative for disciples of Jesus and for the people of Israel. Apart from these communities formed and shaped by it, the Bible is nothing more than an anthology of ancient literature of no more contemporary relevance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Nonetheless, the Church lives in America. We drive on American roads, rely on American governments to collect our garbage, protect us from fire, regulate commerce and provide us a measure of social security. We cannot be indifferent to all that transpires in the larger society. Even as exiles who “have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14), we find our welfare in the welfare of our city of exile. Jeremiah 29:7. What, then, do we as Church have to contribute to the welfare of the United States?

In the past, I have used the term “counter-cultural” community as a useful synonym for the church’s faithful corporate witness. I am less than enamored with that term now, however. In addition to having become too “trendy,” the term can be construed to mean a community that derives its identity merely from being against the dominant culture. That is not an apt description of the life of the Church in society. In the first place, the dominant culture we call American is not rotten to the core. There is much that is admirable, much that is worth preserving and much with which the church can identify. Moreover, sometimes developments in the surrounding culture alert the church to its own blind spots, prejudices and sinfulness. The culture is not always wrong and the Church is not always right.

More significantly, however, I am uncomfortable with the term counter-culture because the church is not principally about protesting evil and injustice in the world. It is about embodying the mind of Christ and living out that consciousness. To be sure, faithful discipleship will at times bring the Church into conflict with ideologies and practices of the dominant culture. Indeed, the cultural environment might become so hostile to the reign of God that disciples will need to withdraw into their own enclave to live faithfully under that reign. Yet even such withdrawal should constitute a positive witness to the Lord we confess rather than mere revulsion at the condition of society.

The texts for this Sunday challenge us to recognize God’s agenda for creation in Jesus’ life given faithfully and freely to the implementation of that agenda and God’s resurrection of Jesus from death guaranteeing God’s eternal commitment to making that agenda a reality so that God’s will is “done on earth as in heaven.” We are challenged to practice hospitality to aliens, show mercy to those living on the margins of society and seek justice for those who have neither voice nor vote. That brings us into direct conflict with advocates of mass deportation and militarized borders. It puts us at odds with all who feel that nutrition, health care and housing for the poor in our midst is too expensive. Discipleship puts us on a collision course with an economy that elevates profit over people. That’s neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic or Republican. It’s Moses. It’s the prophets. It’s Jesus. Deal with it.

1 Kings 17:8-16

This story is from the beginning of the Elijah/Elisha tales. These tales come into the Bible from the Northern Kingdom of Israel that broke away from the Davidic Monarchy after the death of David’s son, Solomon. This Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E. The stories of Elijah and Elisha were likely brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah shortly after that time by refugees from the north. The stories were then incorporated into the traditions of Judah, which continued to exist under the Davidic monarchy until its conquest by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. During and following the Babylonian captivity the Elijah and Elisha stories were woven into the narrative fabric of Israel’s life in the land of Canaan.

As one commentator points out, “[r]ecent studies…have sought parallels between twentieth and twenty-first century communal traumas and the biblical events of 722 and 587. The past century has witnessed not only numerous cases of devastating war and population displacement but also a good deal of research into these phenomenon, using the tools of the social sciences. If we proceed with appropriate caution, we may assert that there are indeed insights to be gained into our texts. Clearly, the destruction of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and the Babylonian Exile were central events in the life of Israel. In a pivotal article Wright (2009) argues that the Bible as a whole and its notion of a People of Israel owe themselves directly to catastrophic defeats (722 and 587) that resulted in Israel and Judah’s loss of territorial sovereignty. More recently, Carr (2010) has called the Hebrew Bible ‘a Bible for exiles.’ This is manifested in many biblical texts-not only portions of the Early Prophets, but also Lamentations, selected Psalms, passages from the prophets, and possibly Job-that express reactions akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. They reflect the need to constantly relive the trauma, as it were; they focus on blaming the Israelite community for its fate; and they at times give rise to feelings of intense nationalism, amid a glorification of the distant past. The Bible thus represents an Israel, or at least an influential group of Israelites responsible for its composition, trying to come to terms with catastrophe.” Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible: Vol. 2 (c. 2014 by Everett Fox, pub. by Schocken Books) pp. 554-555; citations to Wright, Jacob, “The Commemoration of Defeat and the Formation of a Nation in the Hebrew Bible,” Prooftexts 29. (2009 Gen’l); Carr, David M., An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts for the Hebrew Bible, (c. 2010 by Wiley Blackwell).

While there is obviously danger in over psychologizing the Bible, I agree that the Hebrew Scriptures reached their final form during the nadir of Israel’s existence while she lived as a conquered and exiled people in a land not her own. Israel, or more properly Judah, was coming to grips with the loss of everything that had made her a nation: the land promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs; the temple in Jerusalem; and the line of David that was supposed to last forever. If national prominence, wealth and military power measure the strength of a deity, Israel’s God had surely been bested by the Babylonian pantheon. How could the God of a ruined and enslaved people be God in deed? How could Israel be the people of God while living in servitude? If Israel were not to abandon her faith altogether, she would need to rethink who her God truly is and what it means to be the people of such a God.

We are citizens of what is now the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world. Most of us have been inducted into a Christianity that has dominated Western culture for over a millennium. For this reason, I believe we find it hard to hear the genuine voice of these scriptures. Moreover, that voice has undergone some horrible distortions from having been spoken under the acoustical conditions of wealth and prosperity. For centuries the Bible has been employed as justification for white privilege and western domination of the globe. It has been enlisted to support genocidal wars, heartless political ideologies and ruthless acts of terror. Today, it is being cited in support of racial hate, violence against gays and lesbians and the right to carry concealed weapons.

The scriptures speak from a context that is entirely alien to most of us. The biblical authors and editors have, for the most part, far more in common with the millions of refugees eking out their existences in containment camps with no nation to call home than with middle class American churchgoers who have been raised to believe that theirs is the nation “under God.” While this does not mean that we cannot rightly understand the scriptures, it does mean that we must learn to read them through different lenses and view them from perspectives other than those of power and privilege. The Bible is the book of the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed. That isn’t simply a political statement (though it surly has political import). It is a fact.

On its face, Sunday’s lesson is a touching story about kindness shared between a couple of strangers living on the margins. Some context is helpful here to give the story its full narrative punch. Elijah is a fugitive on the run. King Ahab is out to kill him for his fearless words of judgment against the king’s idolatry and the ruthless oppression of his administration. The woman in is a native of Phoenicia, a gentile outside the scope of Israel’s covenant and not a worshiper of Israel’s God. She is also a single mom living in the depths of poverty in the midst of a famine. As with hurricanes and other natural disasters, famine hits hardest the weak and the vulnerable. A widow with a small child living in a society with no “safety net” is about as weak and vulnerable as weakness and vulnerability get. When Elijah encounters this woman, she is gathering sticks to make a fire and cook a small biscuit from the last bit of wheat and oil she has. She will then split this small morsel with her little boy. After that, they will both starve.

Elijah asks her to bake him a biscuit also from her meager store. That is a mighty big ask. In the first place, this man is a stranger, a foreigner and a criminal. Why help him? What does she owe him? Helping him might get her in trouble with the authorities. We know that King Ahab has enlisted the help of all the neighboring kingdoms in tracking down Elijah. I Kings 18:7-10. Why would a woman with enough troubles of her own want to get involved with an illegal alien that has a bounty on his head? Secondly, there simply isn’t enough. What little this woman has cannot even sustain her and her son for long. Charity begins at home, after all. Could anyone blame her for denying aid to a perfect stranger in order to save the life of her own son?

The story, however, takes a turn that we would not expect. This is no chance meeting. We learn that God sent this prophet Elijah to this particular widow. That changes everything. God is behind all of this. The prophet therefore can promise the widow that her little jar of wheat meal and her flask of oil will see all three of them through the famine. The woman believes Elijah and they are, in fact, sustained. If the widow in this story had been practical and pragmatic, she would have sent Elijah away empty handed and kept for herself and her son the little she had left. Ultimately, she probably would have starved. Instead, she had compassion on Elijah and trusted the promise of his God who was surely unknown to her. In so doing, she discovered what the people of God have had to learn again and again: Our God is a God of generosity and abundance.

So here is the take away: The people of God do not believe in “chance,” We should not be caught uttering nonsense like, “Well what are the chances of our meeting here?” or “I guess we just got lucky.” At least we should not be using these terms when it comes to the people we encounter in our daily lives and the opportunities God gives us to show them compassion and hospitality. We believe that our God is behind every encounter we have with another person. We believe that every encounter is another opportunity to give or to receive God’s tender loving care. Because God stands behind every human encounter, it follows that God is able and willing to provide us with all we need to make such an encounter a saving, redemptive, life-giving event. Because God is generous, we can afford to be generous-always. To put it plainly, there is always enough. To believe less than that is to doubt the existence of the God we claim to worship.

Such bold faith stands in stark contrast to the craven fear of privation pervading our culture. Despite all the talk in Washington these days of belt tightening, deficits and fiscal cliffs and notwithstanding the irrational and racially motivated hatred of immigrants “stealing our country” whipped into a white hot frenzy by some presidential hopefuls, there is no shortage of anything anyone in the world needs to live well. However little we may think we have, when we place it at the service of our God it is always more than enough for ourselves and our neighbors. That is the divine economics of the loaves and the fishes. It is the economy of the people of God.

Psalm 146

This hymn of praise is among a group of psalms called “Hallelujah Psalms” (Psalms 146-150) because they begin and end with the phrase: “O Praise the Lord!” commonly translated “hallelujah.” The fact that this hymn speaks of royalty and the reign of justice solely in terms of God’s sovereignty with nary a mention of the Davidic monarchy suggests to me that it was composed after the Babylonian conquest of Judah when the people had no king or prince of their own. Such kings and princes as there may have been were no friends to this conquered people living in a land not their own. This would explain why the psalmist urges people not to put their “trust in princes.” Vs. 3. Skepticism about human rulers may also reflect Israel’s disappointment in her past rulers whose selfish, shortsighted and destructive actions contributed to the loss of her land and her independence as a people. In either case, the psalmist would have us know that God is the only king worthy of human trust and confidence. God alone has the interests of the widows, the fatherless and the resident aliens at heart. Vss. 7-10. God is able to exercise power without being corrupted by it. These factors and linguistic considerations support an exilic or postexilic date for this psalm. See Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 178.

I have always loved the phrase from the second verse translated by the old RSV as “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Vs. 1. The Hebrew notion of “soul” or “nephesh” is nothing like the contemporary understanding of the soul as an immortal part of the human person that somehow survives death and goes on living somewhere in a disembodied state. In Hebrew thinking, the soul is the life force, the self, the innermost person. This innermost person must be urged, encouraged, prodded to praise the Lord. That is very much the way it is with me. I do not always feel like praying when I first wake up. In fact, more often than not I must discipline myself to make time for prayer. It is not until I am well into praying that I experience the joy that prayer brings. Like the psalmist, I need to encourage myself: “Come on, soul! Get with it! Wake up and look around at all there is for which you ought to be thankful!”

I must also say that I love these psalms of praise above all others. I am convinced that they are transformative. If we let them shape our hearts and minds, they make of us the joyful people God desires for us to be. Happy people are thankful people; people who recognize that all they have received is a gift; people who receive thankfully their daily bread without turning a jealous eye to see what is on everyone else’s plate. They are people who recognize, even in their failures and defeats, the presence of the one who makes each day new and finds new directions where everyone else can see only a dead end. This psalm was in all probability written by one who knew well the realities of oppression, poverty and human cruelty. But these things do not reign in his/her heart. God reigns throughout all generations. To God belongs all praise and trust.

Hebrews 9:24-28

As I have pointed out in previous posts, I believe that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.

This message is difficult for us to get our heads around because we are so far removed from the trauma it is intended to address. Yet, as I have said previously, there are perhaps some parallels in our own experience. We preach, teach and confess that the church is the body of believers in Jesus. Yet we cannot help getting attached to the building in which we worship. The sanctuary is a place where treasured memories coalesce. It is the place where we bring our children for holy baptism. It is the place where we witness their confirmation. It might also be the place where we spoke our marriage vows to our spouses and where we bid our last farewells to dear ones gone to join the church triumphant. When a sanctuary filled with so much meaning and so many memories is taken from us-whether through its destruction, the disbanding of the congregation or through renovations that altar the look and feel of the sanctuary-the result can be a deep sense of loss. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the building, however deeply we may be attached to it, is only a symbol or reflection of the reality which is Christ. As John points out in his gospel, worship of God is not tied down to any location or physical structure. John 4:21-25. The same can be said of particular liturgies, hymns or styles of worship to which we have a tendency to become attached. We can afford to lose them, provided we keep our focus on the person of Jesus to which they point us. As a book written to a church traumatized by loss and change, Hebrews speaks a timely and much needed word of hope and encouragement.

Mark 12:38-44

While the scriptures themselves are the inspired word of God, the same cannot be said of the chapter and verse designations that come with all of our Bibles. The chapter divisions commonly used today were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury in about 1227 C.E. While these divisions make citation of Biblical texts easier, they can also blind us to connections between related portions of scripture that are arbitrarily broken by Langton’s system. I believe this Sunday’s text is a victim of this distortion. I should also say before going any further that I owe this insight to Professor Gerald O. West, a remarkable young theologian who teaches at the University of Theology at Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Professor West was a speaker at the Trinity Institute National Theological Conference which I attended in January of 2011. He is the one that alerted me to the context of this story of the “Widow’s Mite” which I simply failed to see for all of my life because I have always stopped reading this story at the end of Mark chapter 12. Now I invite you to read this story in its full context:

“As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

Mark 12:38-13:2.

We have always used this text as a stewardship lesson. We urge people to be more like the poor widow who gave to the point of impoverishing herself than like the rich people contributing large sums of money representing only the excess of their great wealth. But that might not be the point at all. First of all, notice that Jesus does not commend the woman or her offering. He merely states the obvious. Her little coins are far dearer to her than the excess of the rich. For the rich, their offerings would at most affect the quality of the hotel they choose to stay in while vacationing at Monaco. For this woman, her offering represents her last chance for survival. Does it make sense that Jesus would commend this woman for committing suicide? When Jesus challenged the rich young man to sell everything and follow him, he instructed him to give his money not to the Temple and its commercial enterprises (which Jesus soundly condemned), but to the poor. Moreover, Jesus did not leave the young man without any options other than starvation. He invited the young man to follow him and find his security not in wealth but in the community of faith through which all disciples are blessed. This woman is given no such summons and has no such option.

Perhaps we need to read the story of the widow in connection both with what precedes and what follows. Just prior to this incident, Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the scribes who “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Vs. 40. The widow in our lesson appears to be “Exhibit A” for this very point. She has put into the Temple treasury all that she had to live on. Vs. 44. We have always assumed that this was a voluntary donation and thus an expression of generosity and faith in God. But that isn’t exactly what the text says. The gospel tells us only that Jesus was watching “the multitude putting money into the treasury.” Vs. 41. How do we know that they were doing so voluntarily? Could this have been a sort of tax? We know that there were such taxes imposed for the support of the temple from other biblical sources (See, e.g., Matthew 17:24-27). Taxes, as we all know, fall harder upon the poor and lower classes than on the rich. Again, our lesson is a case in point. If I am right about this, then the first two verses from chapter 13 which are not a part of our lesson, make perfect sense. Jesus leaves the Temple with his disciples who have presumably heard his teaching in Chapter 12. As usual, they are clueless. All they can do is gawk at the Temple like a band of tourists coming to the big city for the first time and yammer about how marvelous it is. But Jesus has been telling them from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that the Temple and the corrupt and exploitive practices it represents are not marvelous in God’s eyes. Instead of glorifying the God who is the guardian of widows and orphans, the Temple and its priesthood, aided by their Roman overlords, are impoverishing and exploiting widows. For this reason, the Temple is doomed. Not one stone of it will remain upon another when God is through with it.

I have to confess that I have been unable to find another single commentator on the Gospel of Mark that agrees with this reading or even considers it. (I have consulted four) But given the context, I must say that I find this interpretation very compelling. How, then, does this text so construed speak to us? I don’t think the church in the United States can fairly be accused of impoverishing anyone. Unlike the Temple authorities in Jesus’ day, we don’t have the power to impose taxes. We ask for financial commitments, but these are voluntary and they are not legally enforceable. Still and all, there is often a tendency in the church to view people from the standpoint of consumers. Very often dialogue about mission degenerates into tiresome discussions in which the dominant question is “How can we get more members?” The trouble here is that we begin to view people not as persons to be served and cared for, but as raw meat to fill our committees and help finance our operations. Naturally, people flee from organizations seeking to exploit them and so we fail both in our purpose as a church and in our objective of bringing on board new members.

The lesson also forces us to face the troublesome fact of economic inequality within the church. If we take seriously what Jesus teaches us about the proper use of wealth and if we take to heart Paul’s understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ whose health depends on the wellbeing of all its members, we must ask ourselves how it is possible that we have disciples of Jesus here in the United States and around the world that lack the basic necessities of living. If we are called to be an outpost for the reign of God in the world, then we ought not to import into the church the same disparities and lack of concern for our neighbor that is distressingly common in our culture today.

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Sunday, August 10th

NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:9–18
Psalm 85:8–13
Romans 10:5–15
Matthew 14:22–33

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. Or, as St. Paul puts it, faith is belief in your heart that God raised Jesus from death. Faith is anchored in hope. Hope is possible when you believe that Jesus’ tomb is empty. That is where good preaching always begins, namely, with faith grounded in Jesus’ resurrection.

Sad to say, much of our preaching is not always so very good (yours truly included). That isn’t because preachers are not well educated, articulate and experienced in public speaking. For the most part, I believe they are. Nor do I believe that preachers are any less dedicated, less committed or less faithful than they have been in the past. The problem is that our preaching (along with our liturgy, pastoral care and social ministry) have become straight jacketed by our love affair with the Enlightenment and our seeming need to accommodate its assumptions about reality. The last few centuries have seen resurrection hope shrink from the bold vision of a new heaven and a new earth to mere metaphors for political reform/revolution, self-actualization, overcoming low self-esteem and “spirituality” (whatever the heck that means). We are embarrassed by the miraculous, uncomfortable with the mysterious and hostile toward the imagination. In our strained efforts to be “relevant” and to avoid appearing “unscientific,” our theology has cut down the bold biblical declaration of resurrection hope to fit neatly within the confines of what little space is left for hope in a predictable universe drained of mystery and governed by rationally discernable “laws.” Consequently, our preaching is just as boring, just as predictable and just as devoid of surprise as the dry, soulless, existence in which it is trapped.

We should have known that our efforts to domesticate the gospel would end in disaster. What is the good news about Jesus Christ other than God’s declaration that humanity’s hope for creation need not be bound by laws of any kind, whether political, religious or “rational?” What is the purpose of the scriptures if not to open up new vistas into reality that transcend all we think we know? What does Jesus’ resurrection mean other than God’s refusal to accept the status quo of hierarchy, violence and oppression? What does the empty tomb mean but that death is not the last word and that the grave need not be the last chapter in anyone’s life story?

I don’t mean to dis the Enlightenment. It gave us some great ideas and new ways of thinking. But if the excesses of the latter half of the 20th Century teach us anything, it is that goodness, truth and beauty cannot be measured in terms of rational, empirical or utilitarian standards. Reality is more than what can be extrapolated objectively from raw data. There is nothing more real than the human imagination where the battle for human destiny is waged. The good news about Jesus Christ addresses a world that has lost its imagination; a world that cannot see a future for itself other than the kind of catastrophic destruction we see over and over again in the cinema. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news to a culture for which being “realistic” means accepting that the way things are is the way they must always be. That is not reality. Reality is the empty tomb.

1 Kings 19:9–18

The most fascinating character in the Book of I Kings is not a king at all, but the prophet Elijah. Elijah first appears during the reign of King Ahab over the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Continuing the policies of his father, Ahab renewed Israel’s Phoenician treaties solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess with a fierce loyalty to her god, Baal. Though Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel, he did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.

Elijah the prophet appears as if out of nowhere announcing to King Ahab a drought that would soon devastate the land of Israel for three years and end only upon the prophet’s word. At the prompting of the Lord, Elijah flees and lives for the next three years as a fugitive. Ahab, knowing that Elijah holds the key to ending the drought, seeks him throughout Israel and asks for extradition privileges from any other kingdom in which the prophet might seek refuge. At the end of the three year period, Elijah reveals himself to the king with a proposition. Let there be a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal. The God of Israel challenges Baal to a duel-high noon at Mr. Carmel. Let two altars be built, one for Baal and one for the Lord. The god who consumes the sacrificial animal on his altar is God indeed. Ahab agrees and the prophets of Baal turn out in force and build their altar. Elijah, too, builds an altar and places his offering upon it. Fire from heaven consumes the offering on Elijah’s altar. Baal is a no show. A rain storm follows breaking the drought. Everyone knows who to thank.

You would think the matter had been settled once and for all. Wrong. Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, issues a death warrant for Elijah. Once again, Elijah is a fugitive. Understandably, he is despondent. Three years of toil, sacrifice and danger with nothing to show for it. Baal still rules the religious roost in Israel, the priests of the Lord are being murdered or driven into exile and Elijah is a homeless fugitive. That is the state in which we find him at the top of Mount Horeb in our lesson for Sunday.

The voice of the Lord is sought in earthquake, wind and fire. But the word of the Lord is not found in any of these dramatic phenomena. Rather, that word is revealed in a “still, small voice,” as the RSV translates it. Vs. 12. The NRSV translates the term as “a sound of sheer silence,” seemingly an oxymoron (or perhaps foreshadowing Simon & Garfunkel?). The Hebrew word is unclear, but perhaps the critical and operative term is “voice” or “sound.” It is through the word that God achieves God’s purposes-not through spectacular shows of force. If fireworks could turn the heart of Israel back to her God, surely the fire from heaven coming down on Mr. Carmel would have been enough to do the trick. But miraculous shows of power alone, like the miracles Jesus performed, are incapable of producing faith. At best, they inspire fear and amazement. They might show that God is powerful, but they do not demonstrate conclusively that God is good.

Elijah gets a word that is not altogether encouraging. Seven thousand people in all Israel remain faithful to the Lord and have not worshiped Baal. Vs. 18. That isn’t very many. Elijah is instructed to anoint a new king for Syria, Israel’s arch enemy. Vs. 15. That cannot be a good sign. He is also instructed to anoint a new king for Israel. This is somewhat hopeful as it indicates God’s determination to bring Ahab’s corrupt line to an end. Finally, Elijah is instructed to anoint his own successor. This can only mean that Elijah will not live to see the work of his ministry completed. He will come to the end of his life with a lot of loose ends still hanging out there.

That might be God’s word to the church in the United States-or at least the protestant part of it. Gone are the days when protestant Christianity was recognized as the de facto religion of the United States. Gone are the days when businesses, sports leagues and civic programs ceased their activities on Sunday morning out of deference to the church. Gone are the days when everyone went to church somewhere (or claimed they did because they knew they were expected to go). The culture we live in today is largely indifferent to traditional, mainline Christianity. We are increasingly discovering that we must make the case for why Jesus is important, why the church matters and what difference all of this makes in one’s day to day life. In other words, we need to start doing what Jesus has been telling us to do for centuries: make disciples. Churches that are finding ways to do that are thriving. Churches that are carrying on with business as usual and simply hoping that people will someday come back are dying. That is the long and short of it.

There is much good news here for those with ears to hear it. The good news is that the reign of God is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom’s coming will be in God’s own time and in God’s own way. We are privileged to take part in that drama. We don’t get to choose our parts or write the script. For a church that has gotten used to being a powerful and respected force within society, becoming a smaller and poorer community speaking from the margins of society is a bitter pill to swallow. But for a church that recognizes in its poverty, decline and weakness the still small voice of God’s word, which is the only thing of value it has ever really had, this ancient scripture opens up new vistas of hope and promise.

Psalm 85:8–13

This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety. If you read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it starts with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.

Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.

Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.

Romans 10:5–15

Paul’s argument here is based on a passage in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Paul begins by reiterating what he has said previously: that if one would justify himself/herself by the law, one must do more than learn it and adhere to the letter. One must live by it. That, as Paul has already pointed out, is impossible while we remain in the flesh. The flesh is forever using the law to justify itself, ingratiate itself to God and elevate itself over others. Rightly understood, the law is a gift given to Israel to protect her freedom. It is the servant of love, never the master. Wrongly understood, the law is something that must be retrieved by “go[ing] up to heaven” or “cross[ing] to the other side of the sea.” In fact, the law has already been given to Israel to assure her blessedness in the promised land. But it does not secure God’s favor. The Book of Deuteronomy from which Paul quotes has already made clear from the outset that it is not because of any greatness or goodness on Israel’s part that God loves her: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. God loves Israel no more when she is obedient and no less when she is disobedient.

So Paul comes back once again to his gospel moorings. The “word” which is near us is the good news about Jesus Christ that inspires confident trust in God’s promises: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Vs. 9. This is wildly important and tragically misunderstood. “Belief” is not mere intellectual assent. Perhaps some of you can recall the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion program purporting to school believers in the art of evangelism. Would be evangelists are instructed to ask those to whom they witness: “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your response?” The problem with this whole approach is that it treats faith as though it were mere intellectual assent to a doctrinal proposition. What you need to get into God’s good graces is information. You have to come up with the correct answer and articulate it correctly.

That is nothing like the heartfelt trust in Jesus that Paul is talking about. Faith is the conviction that God raised Jesus from death. The tomb is empty. If that really is the case, human life should look altogether different than the way we experience it. If God raised the man who fed five thousand with just five loaves, then we ought not to sweat a few thousand children crossing the border into our country. If God raised from the dead the man who would not take up the sword in his own defense, then there is no reason any disciple of Jesus should feel the need to own a fire arm for self-defense. If God raised the preacher that gave us the Sermon on the Mount, there is no reason why any believer in Jesus should not be tithing his or her income. Quite frankly, the problem is that there are more atheists in the church than outside it. Functional atheism confesses Jesus with the lips but does not believe with the heart that God raised him from death. To borrow another phrase from Paul, too many of us are “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. That is why churches fight constantly over budgets. That is why the average percentage of income given yearly by the average Lutheran church member is a whopping 1.9%. That is why Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour in the United States. That is why protestant denominations are turning to highly paid consultants, resorting to capital fund drives and fundraising gimmicks under the false label of “stewardship” to save their institutional souls. All that religious stuff is fine for children and little old church ladies. But we all know that in the real world you have to be practical. So when it comes time to talk money, we politely ask Jesus to leave the room.

Paul would have us know that there are two starkly different claims about what is real and only one of them can be true. Either you believe that Jesus is still dead, that everything he lived for was hopelessly idealistic and impractical, or you believe that God said “yes” to the life Jesus lived by raising him from death. If Jesus is still in the tomb, nothing has changed. If the tomb is empty, everything is changed. Once you get it through your head and into your heart that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive, you don’t listen to practical advice from the worldly wise telling you how impossible it is to walk on the surface of the sea-which brings us right to the gospel for Sunday.

Matthew 14:22–33

The lesson follows directly on last week’s story about the feeding of the five thousand plus. Now that the crowds have been fed, Jesus dismisses them. He “compels” his disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Because Jesus sends them “ahead of him” we can assume that he meant to catch up to them at some point. The disciples are making their way across the sea against a strong headwind when they spot Jesus walking on the surface of the sea. Understandably terrified by what they take to be a ghostly apparition, the disciples cry out in terror. Immediately, Jesus calls out to them and urges them not to be afraid. Peter then replies, “Lord, if it really is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Vs. 28. Interestingly, Peter seeks a command from Jesus. Apparently, he knows that he is incapable of such a feat on his own. When Jesus replies, “come,” Peter steps out of the boat onto the water and comes to Jesus. Vs. 29.

The way Matthew tells it, Peter is not entirely clueless as he is portrayed in Mark’s gospel. He believes that Jesus is both capable of walking on the sea and that he is capable of enabling Peter to do the same. This belief is not merely theoretical as Peter’s first step out of the boat onto the water demonstrates. Moreover, when Peter begins to sink as a result of his doubt, he nevertheless knows to call out to Jesus for salvation. His faith, albeit “little,” is nonetheless genuine. So, too, the disciples confess Jesus as God’s son-a conclusion never reached by any of the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Yet this knowledge, like Peter’s faith, is not fully formed. There is more to Jesus than meets the eye and more yet to be learned and absorbed.

The telling of this story is perhaps shaped by Psalm 107 which narrates the perils faced by pilgrims making their way to the place of worship in Jerusalem and God’s saving intervention on their behalf. Of particular interest are verses 23-32:

Some went down to the sea in ships,  doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord,    his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,  which lifted up the waves of the sea.  They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;  their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards,  and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;  he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

Just as the pilgrims in the psalm recognize the compassion and salvation of God in their escape from the dangers of the sea, so the disciples are compelled to worship Jesus who stills the storm and brings them safely to their destination. The face of Israel’s God shines through the works of his messiah.

Though they recognize Jesus as “God’s Son,” the disciples still must learn what sort of Son Jesus is. Their failure to understand or accept the death Jesus predicts for himself in Jerusalem, their failure to anticipate Jesus’ resurrection and their continued doubt even in the presence of the resurrected Christ show that the disciples’ faith leaves much to be desired and will require continual growth through challenges yet to come. The message, then, for the church from Jesus is this: your faith is genuine; you have what you need to be my disciples; but your faith is still “little” and in need of nourishment, formation and maturity. One never graduates from the school of discipleship.

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Sunday, September 15th

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:7–14
Psalm 51:1–10
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Luke 15:1–10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for forty days receiving from the mouth of the Lord the covenant promises, teachings and practices intended to shape Israel’s life as God’s covenant people. But before the stone tablets of the law have had a chance to cool, God informs Moses that the people of Israel have already built an idol for themselves. How could this possibly have happened? After the Exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, how could Israel so soon turn away from her God?

Let’s try to be a little sympathetic toward Israel here. Forty days is a long time when you are stuck in the midst of a wilderness that cannot long sustain you. It is unnerving when you have no idea where you are and there is no visionary leader in the camp to give you guidance or inspire you with a stirring description of your destination. It is under anxious circumstances like these that the temptation to idolatry so frequently raises its ugly head. When you are lost, vulnerable and directionless you are likely to fall for anyone or anything that promises to make sense out of your chaotic life and lead you out of your predicament.

I often feel as though I am living in the wilderness myself. The cultural landscape that was friendly and supportive of the church has evaporated within my very lifetime. The new cultural environment often seems hostile and forbidding to the life of the church. In the face of alarming membership decline and loss of financial support, it is difficult to be patient, to wait faithfully for God’s guidance and to do the hard work of prayer and discernment. All of that requires confidence we lack and time we think we don’t have. We want something tangible that we can do right now; something we can see and touch; something that will yield measureable results. That is exactly what idols promise to give us. Whether it is a golden calf, a “mission strategy,” a new stewardship program with a catchy name or a top dollar church growth consultant, an idol gives us something we can get a handle on. It gives us a sense of control. But God will not be controlled and God will not be rushed. God will act in God’s own good time. By trying to hurry God, we only hinder our own progress. “Forty days in the wilderness too long for you?” Well then, says the Lord, “How about forty years?” One way or the other, God will teach us patience and trust.

Perhaps, like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, we have arrived at a point in our journey where faith requires that we simply wait. That is a tall order for a “can do” people like us who pride ourselves on setting goals, working hard and getting things done. Waiting is not in our cultural DNA. But if you follow the biblical story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, you will discover that there was a lot of waiting around. Israel could not move until the pillar of cloud did. It was nearly impossible to plan for the journey because Israel never knew which way God would lead her. The way from Egypt to Canaan was anything but direct. It must have been frustrating, but when you are lost, you have little choice other than to follow one who knows the way.

Waiting does not mean “doing nothing.” It involves listening, prayer, discerning conversation and a willingness to confess that we are lost. That takes a great deal of courage. We read in Chapter 32 of Exodus that the people came to Aaron, Moses’ brother, with the demand: “make for us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1. Aaron caved and made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. Again, I can sympathize. While Moses was up in the stratosphere conversing with the Almighty, Aaron was down in the trenches face to face with an anxious congregation and no synodical support in sight. That is a hard place to be. Every week it seems I get some missive from the larger church telling me about some initiative I should be supporting, some program I should be implementing or some ministry that my congregation should be doing. Each month my denominational periodical has inspiring stories about the wonderful things that “growing” congregations are doing-as if saying to me, “and what are you doing to be a ‘missional’ pastor?” Of course, my own congregation is also eager for me to come up with a “plan” a “strategy” for growth. Understandably, they want some answers. Like Aaron, I don’t have any. But I am sorely tempted to fake it, to cobble together some program or strategy in response. I may not believe that it will grow our church anymore than Aaron believed a golden calf could get the people to the Promised Land. But at least it will convince everyone that I am “doing something” about our challenges and get the church off my back long enough for me to figure out which rabbit to pull out of my hat next.

Last month our ELCA elected a new bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eton, over the incumbent, Rev. Mark Hanson. I was not at the national assembly and so I have no sense for what drove the election. But I suspect that the election of Rev. Eaton was, at least in part, a desire for leadership that will take us in a new direction. That is not a bad thing, but it does represent a potential danger. I don’t doubt that the new bishop will be under immense pressure to provide us with a new “vision,” new “missional strategies” and new “programming.” Like the Israelites, I expect that we will soon be clamoring for her to build us a “golden calf” to get us out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land with as little pain, toil and sacrifice as possible. I pray to God that she is made of sterner stuff than Aaron and that she resists the temptation to give us what we crave. I hope that she will resist the temptation to saturate us with stirring rhetoric and flurries of programmatic activity that are only thinly veiled idols designed to disguise our underlying anxiety. I hope she finds the courage to do what Aaron should have done, namely, tell us the truth. “Look folks, I don’t know which way to go from here and I don’t know when or from what direction God’s guidance will come. But come it will. In the mean time, we all need to wait with open, prayerful hearts and minds.” I think the kind of leadership we need is spelled out in a profound article written recently by L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson:

“In his 1990 Harvard Business Review article “What Leaders Really Do,” John Kotter described leadership this way: First, leaders set direction. They look to the future and say, “Here’s where we are going.” Then they set strategies for getting there and prepare people and systems to communicate the new “vision of an alternative future.” Then leaders motivate the people. But in a dark night of the soul, other leadership traits are required. A church may not need a leader who casts a vision, sets a direction and rallies everyone around it. A church that’s in a dark night of the soul needs a spiritual director. A good one. In the dark night the number one temptation is to get out. To flee. We want things back the way they were, and we want out. But if it’s a true dark night, that’s not what we need.”

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“How countercultural it would be for a church in a narrative of decline, with a need for visionary leaders to lead it out of confusion, pain and decline, to have a leader who would be a friend for its soul. That leader would encourage the church to consider what [psychiatrist Gerald] May says might be impossible to believe-that what is really going on is a graceful process of liberation and that instead of fleeing our anxiety we should sit with it and let the process unfold. What kind of leader would that be?” Owens, L. Roger & Robinson, Anthony B., “Dark Night of the Church,” The Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 30.

I pray that our new bishop will be precisely the soul friend we need to see us through the night.

Exodus 32:7–14

This story is strategically placed after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. It prefigures the religious and cultural struggle Israel will encounter in the land of Canaan. The religion of the “Ba’als” was imbedded in the agricultural practices Israel would need to adopt in order to thrive in the Fertile Crescent. In a world where the science of agriculture was inseparably bound up with the religion of fertility, it was not possible for Israel simply to pick up Canaanite techniques while leaving Canaanite religion behind. The struggle between Elijah and the wicked King Ahab reflects the prophetic argument that Israel’s God was as much Lord of agriculture as he clearly was Lord of Israel’s Exodus. See I Kings 17-18.

Indications are that this story reached its final written form in the later stages of the development of the Book of Exodus. The motif of sin and forgiveness runs throughout chapters 32-34  forming the compositional unit for which our lesson is the opening scene. See Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1964,Westminster Press) p. 557-558. Accordingly, this story speaks also in a powerful way to the circumstances of the exiled Jews in Babylon. They, too, found themselves in a wilderness of sorts. Like the Israelites journeying in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the exiles living in Babylon following Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. were a vulnerable minority living in a hostile cultural environment as forbidding as the desert wilderness. The temptation to abandon the faith that seemed to have failed them was strong and the pressure to conform to Babylonian religion and culture considerable. The story of the golden calf served to illustrate for the exiles the nature of this temptation and to lay out for them the consequences of surrendering to it. Not one inch of God’s reign must be surrendered to the gods of Babylon. Like the Israelites of the wilderness wanderings, the exiles were in a posture of waiting upon their God to act. No doubt God’s faithful leading of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai to Canaan provided much of the inspiration for Second Isaiah’s poetic depiction of Israel’s way of return from Babylon to her homeland. See, e.g., Isaiah 43:16-21; Isaiah 48:20-21; Isaiah 49:8-13; Isaiah 51:9-11.

The story of the golden calf is cited twice in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the golden calf story, along with several other wilderness wandering episodes, to make the point that many of the ancient Israelites proved unfaithful in spite of their participation in the baptism of the Exodus and the communal eating of the manna from the hand of God. So also, Paul warns, believers in Jesus, though baptized and actively partaking in the Eucharist must not imagine that their unrighteous conduct is immune from God’s judgment. Like Israel in the wilderness, the church likewise journeys through a hostile environment laden with temptations. Just as God’s judgment and discipline brought Israel back to repentance and faith, so the scriptural accounts of these acts serve as a salutary warning to disciples of Jesus to resist temptation and remain faithful. See I Corinthians 10:1-31.

The second citation occurs in Stephen’s speech before the high priest in Jerusalem. Stephen recounts the story of the golden calf (Acts 7:39-41) as yet another instance of Israel’s stubborn rejection of God’s word and Spirit culminating in the rejection of Jesus. On the whole, the speech is extremely harsh in its condemnation of Israel and it should be used cautiously in preaching for that reason. It is critical to remember, however, that Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts which he also authored were written before the final break between Judaism and the church. Thus, Stephen is not speaking from outside Judaism at the Jews. He is speaking within Judaism as a Jew to fellow Jews. As such, Stephen stands in the shoes of Israel’s prophets whose criticisms of Israel’s faithlessness were no less severe than his. Moreover, Stephen’s ire is focused chiefly upon the Jerusalem temple establishment and not to the Jewish people as a whole. That said, his use of the golden calf story as illustrative of Israel’s (and the church’s) tendency to abandon faith in the true God for idols of one sort or another is quite in keeping with the rest of biblical tradition.

Perhaps most significant is the intercession motif. God declares his intention to destroy Israel and Moses intercedes. We have seen echoes of this motif in Genesis where Abraham intercedes with God for Sodom. Genesis 18:16-23. We see Stephen also interceding for his executioners. Acts 7:59-60. Of course, Jesus also prays that God will forgive his tormentors. Luke 23:33-34. Such prayer, like all prayer, is possible only because of God’s covenant with Israel. Moses does not appeal to high sounding moral principles or “human rights” when pleading for Israel. God is not defined or confined by any human conception of morality. Neither do humans have any rights against God. God, however, has made promises to Abraham to give his descendents the land of Canaan, to make of him a great nation and to bless his descendents and the whole world through them. So Moses holds God to God’s word. It is only because of the covenant with Israel-to which we gentiles can appeal only through our baptism into Jesus Christ-that prayer is not merely a pious wish shot into utter darkness with the faint hope that somebody is listening.

Psalm 51:1–10

Why stop at verse 10? I don’t know. It is one of the many unfathomable decisions made in the smoke filled room where our common lectionary was born. The very idea of severing this psalm is akin to dividing the living child as proposed by King Solomon to the women disputing their right to it. I Kings 3:16-27. Unfortunately for the church, the makers of the lectionary lacked the sensitivity and compassion of the child’s mother and so we have inherited a mutilated psalm. Nonetheless, I shall consider it in its entirety. This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It can be divided into four sections: 1) An invocation raising the theme of forgiveness (1-3); 2) confession of sin (4-6); 3) plea for forgiveness (7-9); and 4) the call for renewal (10-17). As we will see, 18-19 constitute a later addition.

The title associates the psalm with King David, identifying it as a prayer the king uttered after being confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. See II Samuel 11:1-12:24. It should be noted that the titles given to the individual psalms were affixed at a much later date, probably subsequent to the Babylonian Exile that ended around 530 B.C.E. Their purpose appears to have been to legitimate the psalms by tying them to pre-exilic scriptural figures and to officials and musicians in Solomon’s temple. In this way the returning exiles could establish the newly reconstructed temple in Jerusalem and its liturgies as true and genuine over against the rites and places of worship maintained by the Samaritans throughout the exile. Moreover, the Hebrew preposition preceding David’s name (le) can mean “by,” “for” or “to” David. Consequently, the title might say no more than that the psalm was written in honor of or in memory of David. Of course, none of this forecloses the possibility that the psalm might actually go back to David himself. The tradition that David was a musician is well attested. Skeptics point out that the psalm does not mention any of the characters involved with the Bathsheba affair or identify the psalmist’s offense, but that is hardly unusual. The psalms of lament (of which this is one) seldom identify with specificity the individual personal events giving rise to the psalmist’s prayer.

However one might resolve the authorship question, it is clear that the last two verses, 18-19, constitute a post-exilic addition to the psalm. Whereas in verse 16 the psalmist declares that God “has no delight in sacrifice,” verse 19 declares that when the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt, “then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings…” This seeming contradiction is resolved if in the earlier passage the psalmist is understood not to be disparaging sacrifice generally, but merely stating that ritual sacrifice cannot take the place of heartfelt repentance from sin. Nevertheless, these verses shift away from the personal prayer of the psalmist for individual forgiveness to a corporate prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. In so doing, they make this personal plea for forgiveness and restoration suitable as a prayer for national forgiveness and restoration. Whatever its origins and despite its various contextual settings, the psalm has a timeless appeal for all who experience genuine guilt and regret over sin. That accounts for its frequent use in our prayers, hymns and liturgy.

1 Timothy 1:12–17

The two Letters of Paul to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus, constitute the “pastoral epistles.” They are so called because they are addressed by the Apostle Paul to leaders with pastoral oversight. In the last issue of the Voice of Trinity I stated that the near unanimous opinion of New Testament Scholars is that these letters were not written by Paul, but by a disciple or associate of his in his name. This conclusion is based largely on theological differences between the pastorals and those letters indisputably attributed to Paul. (Romans, I &II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians and Philemon) Additionally, it is thought that the high degree of church organization reflected in the pastorals could not have developed during Paul’s life time and ministry. The false teaching against which the pastoral epistles argue is believed to be post-Pauline. Finally, there are substantial differences in style and vocabulary between the pastorals and the letters of uncontested Pauline authorship. As pseudomonas authorship was commonplace in antiquity, it would not have been unusual nor would it have been deemed dishonest or deceptive for a disciple of Paul to write a letter under the name of his master.

While these arguments are formidable, it appears that scholarly consensus against Pauline authorship is not quite as uniform as I thought. My remarks in the Voice were based on the majority view at the time I was in seminary. (For the record, the dinosaurs were long gone by then-though there might have been a wooly mammoth or two still trundling about.) Since then two very prominent scholars have taken issue with that majority view advancing some formidable arguments favoring Pauline authorship for all three of the pastorals. Gordon D. Fee, professor of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia recently published a commentary on the pastorals arguing forcefully for Pauline authorship. Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament at Chandler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia has published a commentary reaching many of the same conclusions. Without digesting their arguments in detail, they maintain that in arguing against newer heretical movements toward the end of his ministry, Paul invoked quotations from other apostolic and doctrinal sources to bolster his positions. That would account for the supposed theological differences between the pastorals and his other works. The advanced state of church hierarchy reflected in the pastorals appears only when one imbues terms such as “bishop,” “elder” and “deacon” with attributes of these offices as they existed much later in the development of the church. From the context of the pastorals alone, one cannot make a convincing case for the existence of any “advanced hierarchy.” It is evident that Paul utilized a recording secretary for his letters, even those unequivocally attributed to him. Perhaps in his later years Paul used a different secretary or gave his secretary more freedom in conveying his message. If so, that could account for the differences in language and vocabulary. In sum, the arguments against Pauline authorship are not as formidable as they appear at first blush.

In support of Pauline authorship, Fee and Johnson point out that with only two exceptions, the early church leaders all assume that the pastorals were written by Paul. Though these folks lived one or two centuries after Paul’s death, they were nevertheless eighteen centuries closer to the New Testament church than we are. More significantly, for all of the differences between the uncontested Pauline letters and the pastorals, the similarities in thinking and expression are also substantial and cannot be dismissed. While I still lean toward pseudomonas authorship, I am definitely taking another look at the issue. In the end, it may well be an argument over degree. Pseudomonas authorship defenders readily admit that there are sections of the epistles that could well have come right from the mouth of Paul. Pauline authorship contenders recognize that, whether through the liberality of his secretary, quotation of other authorities or subsequent editing, there clearly is material in the pastorals that is linguistically, stylistically and theologically different from Paul. In either case, I believe that the pastorals are sufficiently stamped with Paul’s influence for me to refer to them as “Paul’s” without committing myself on the question of authorship.

This week’s brief lesson encapsulates Paul’s self understanding and the significance of his ministry. His appointment by Jesus to the ministry of the gospel is founded in grace. As foremost of sinners, Paul was a prime candidate for apostleship. If his fanatical opposition to Jesus and his church can be forgiven; if even Paul the persecutor can be transformed so as to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ, what limit can there be to God’s mercy and capacity for redeeming sinners?

The formula “the saying is sure,” is characteristic of all three pastorals. See vs. 15. See also, I Timothy 3:1; I Timothy 4:9; II Timothy 2:11; Titus 3.8. It may well be a stylistic preface for introducing creedal material-early statements of church doctrine that are (or should be) recognized as beyond dispute, e.g. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Vs. 15. If this is the case, we may be looking at the earliest strands of DNA for the Apostles Creed in these fragments from the pastorals.

Luke 15:1–10

Once again, the occasion for the parables Jesus speaks here is a meal. Unlike last week, the meal is not taking place in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In fact, we don’t really know where this meal is taking place. Obviously, it must be somewhere public because the Pharisees and the scribes can observe that “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Vs. 1. We know that Jesus must be at a meal because they complain that he not only receives such folks, “but eats with them.” Vs. 2. That was deeply offensive because meals in first century Judaism were not simply about “grabbing a bite” as so often is the case today. They had a deeply spiritual dimension making them acts of worship. The sacrificial rites in ancient Israel were meals for the most part in which reconciliation with God and among the people was effectuated. “Sinners” in this context are not necessarily those whose sinful acts were more notorious than others. They were people cut off from Israel because their profession put them in contact with gentiles, unclean animals, corpses or foreign money. Or they might be excluded for having had a disease rendering them unclean such as leprosy. Then too, they might well be people whose sins were deemed beyond forgiveness. Nonetheless, Jesus welcomes them to his table and that is what gets him into trouble.

The two parables are perplexing-at least the one about the sheep. Jesus asks his hearers, “What man of you, having a hundered sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?” vs. 4. Well, I for one. I may be a city kid, but I know that sheep don’t do well left alone in the wilderness. I expect that this shepherd’s joy at finding his lost sheep would evaporate pretty quickly if upon his return he discovered that the rest of his flock had been attacked and scattered by a pack of wolves. But perhaps that is the point. God will never be satisfied with 99%. Even if the rest of the flock is put in jeopardy, even if rescuing the lost sheep means that the shepherd must now go in search of 99 lost sheep, so be it. The shepherd will keep on searching, keep on gathering and go on herding until he has all 100 safe and accounted for.

By contrast, I think most sensible people would say that getting 99 out of 100 sheep safely through the wilderness is a pretty good day’s work. There is always loss when it comes to shipping goods from point A to point B. So consider it a cost of doing business and write it off on your income tax return. Jesus would have us know, however, that none of his sheep are expendable. What Jesus’ opponents do not understand is that the reign of God cannot come until all the sheep are brought into the fold. By hindering Jesus’ ministry to sinners, they are hindering the coming of the kingdom of God. By shutting sinners out of the community of Israel, they are shutting the door of kingdom in their own faces as well. Perhaps we err in assuming that the tax collectors and sinners are the lost sheep and the lost coin in Jesus’ parables. After all, the sinners are drawing near to Jesus and entering into table fellowship with him. They are not lost. It is only those who turn up their nose at this messianic banquet that are lost.

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